Lent 5 April 6, 2014
Roy W. Howard
“If only …”is one of the most anguished statements we can utter. It begins “if only”and ends with some presumed consequence that follow from what we didn’t do. “If only”I had not texted her …she would not have driven off the road. “If only”I had listened better and really heard the clues, then he would still be alive. “If only”I had left ten minutes earlier, I would have been there when I was needed the most. “If only”is a tragic feeling that in some cases can haunt you for a very long time. It was August and I was away on vacation when a friend and pastoral colleague came to see. Of course, I was away, so he left a note for my to read when I returned. I did read the note but my friend was already dead. “If only”was the only thing I could say for years and it still haunts me.
Martha is in that terribly anguished state – a mix of anger, despair and sorrow – when she confronts Jesus who has strangely arrived later than she expected. After all Lazarus is Jesus dear friend. He is the one whom Jesus dearly loved. The word here is precise – phileo – the deep human love that close friends have for one another. Jesus not only loved Lazarus but he also loved Martha and her sister Mary, who demonstrated her own deep love for Jesus by washing his feet with perfume and drying them with her hair. You cannot overestimate the depth of love that these four had for each other. So as soon as Lazarus became sick unto death, the sisters called upon Jesus. It’s not at all clear why he delayed his coming and it’s useless to speculate. What we know is what the text tells us about our Lord Jesus: he loved Lazarus and he did not intend his death to be the end of the story; and that’s enough.
Only it’s not enough for Martha and we understand. Her brother has died and she is in despair. She is caught up in the “If only”pain sequence. “If only”you had arrived on time! You can hear Martha screaming through her veil of tears: Jesus! If only you had come on time, my brother would not have died. It’s a natural response to the pain of loss. Doctors have heard the same cry when they arrive too late for the baby’s birth, or the patients cardiac arrest. It’s despair wailing out loud. The volume and the pitch are determined by the depth of love. One can hardly blame Martha and Mary for screaming at Jesus. He is the one in whom they have rightly placed all their hope for life. I believe is what Martha said when Jesus asked whether she believed he is the resurrection and the life.
Martha and Jesus come face to face with death and life. Grief and hope. It is the vulnerable place where many of us have been too many times and where many live at this very moment. Jesus is present, where grief teeters on the edge of hope, where we are most vulnerable with every raw nerve exposed. He is not present like a polite funeral director is present for a family choosing a casket. Jesus is fully present and fully vulnerable. Martha’s tears are met by Jesus’tears. Jesus began to cry: One could say that the heart of the Christian proclamation about God is found in this moment. The implication of the incarnation – God-with-us – is most visible here.
Jesus wept is not only the shortest verse in the bible, it expresses more succinctly than any other the vulnerable God who comes to us filled with grace and truth. We have heard that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and here is where we encounter that love most viscerally: Jesus joining his tears with the grieving. The response of those Jews sharing in this moment of grief matches our own: “see how he loved him.”In this encounter we have the clearest vision of our vulnerable God in the very human Jesus who loves us and shares our sorrows.
At the moment of our grief each of us wants to know at least two things even if we can’t quite express anything beyond our sorrow. You want to know you are not alone in this dreadful sorrow and you want to know that death is not the last word. This is true for Martha and Mary and it is true for you and me and the whole company of the grieving.
Jesus loves us, Jesus weeps with us and Jesus shows us that death is not the final word. Death is a terribly painful word, a wound that pierces the soul and casts darkness over everything. The death of the young is the most grievous of all. Yet, our gospel teaches us that death is not the last word. The last word is life – eternal life. The resuscitation of Lazurus is a foretaste of what is to come in the one who has power over life and death. And Jesus’demonstration of God’s power over life and death is precisely what led to his own death. The victory remains tattooed on our hearts in that spine tingling cry of Jesus’at the grave of his dearest friend: “Lazurus come out! Unbind him, and let him go.”
The vulnerable Jesus who love us is the vulnerable Jesus who weeps with us and in this Jesus we know that death is not the final word.