Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Martha, grieving her brother,
says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Actually, I’m pretty certain she didn’t say it the perfectly calm tone of a church lector
reading the Scriptures on a Sunday morning.
Rather, I think she would have said it a bit more emphatically, sadly, angrily, emotionally:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
If you had been here …
This isn’t just Martha’s comment, question, plea, either.
We share this sentiment with her.
We cry out with her and with others who cry out, suffering pain and loss:
Lord, if you had been here, that plane wouldn’t crashed into the Pentagon.
Lord, if you had been here, that sniper wouldn’t have killed those people.
Lord, if you had been here, my little brother wouldn’t have run into the street and been killed.
Lord, if you had been here, my father wouldn’t have abused me.
Lord, if you had been here …
We all have these cries. We all can finish the sentence: Lord, if you had been here …
These words are words of faith – Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Martha knows that Jesus has the power to heal,
and she knows that Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death.
Martha here is confident in the power of Jesus to cure and to heal.
These words are words of deep faith.
But clearly, these are also words of lament.
Not only does Martha express with these words confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal,
but she also expresses regret that he was not there to perform the healing.
“You could have done this, Jesus,” she says, “but you didn’t, because you weren’t there.”
“Lord, if you had been here …”
That’s the big critique of Christianity, isn’t it,
and the big struggle even we believers have, isn’t it?
Bad stuff happening, no God seemingly there to keep it from happening?
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Understandably, we try to explain these things,
but our explanations are half-measures that only make things worse.
Some might say that “God has a plan.”
Really? God has a plan that involves mass murder, tragic accidents, torture,
and painful, debilitating diseases?
That sounds pretty darn cruel and twisted, if you ask me.
Related, we might say that “everything happens for a reason.”
No. God has no plan that involves such pain and suffering,
and there is no reason for pain and suffering.
This ain’t the work of the God I know.
Well, “God wanted a new angel in heaven,” some might say.
Again, really? Is that the case?
Is God so selfish that he’ll cause all kinds of pain and suffering in this world
just so he can have an angel by his side in heaven?
Not the God I know.
The problem with pain and suffering and tragedy is that it defies
all what we think we know about God –
that God has the power to heal and create, and that God is all-loving and merciful …
And yet, there are times, too many times, when the two fail to come together.
We’ll experience God’s love at times, and God’s power at other times …
but there are plenty of times when we don’t feel either of these.
No power. No love. Just absence.
Lord, if you had been here.
It’s like the scene in Superman II, the 1980 sequel to the classic first Superman movie,
after Superman travels to the North Pole to his Fortress of Solitude
and relinquishes his power so that he can live a normal life,
and draw closer to Lois Lane, his love.
The people of Metropolis cried out for Superman to save them from their troubles,
but Clark Kent, now rid of his powers, is unable to do anything.
Superman ain’t there.
General Zod and his sidekicks, a superhuman criminal gang that escaped their imprisonment,
begin their takeover of the Earth … and Superman is nowhere to be found.
The President of the United States, captured by these Supervillans,
goes on a national television broadcast to abdicate all power to the Supervillans,
and he cries out:
“Superman! Can you hear me? Superman, where are you?”
Superman, where are you? The world is being taken over by superhuman criminals,
and people are dying.
Superman, if you were here …
Lord, if you had been here …
Of course, faith in Christ is not a superhero fantasy lifted from the pages of a comic book
or the screen a movie.
Faith is much more real and, unfortunately for we who suffer and cry out,
not as predictable and universally-happy-ending as superhero tales.
We have faith in a God who deigns to take on our experience and walk with us,
who came to us and promises to keep coming to us,
a God who in one blink of the divine eye is there, in the Beginning,
making heaven and earth,
and in the next is there, in what for his disciples seemed like the End,
dying a horrible death on a cross.
This is a God who, in flesh and blood,
performed amazing signs, yes … and in today’s reading he does that, too.
Christ sees the grief that Mary and Martha are both suffering, and he joins them in weeping.
And then, defying all the laws of nature, he brings Lazarus back to life.
Lord, if you had been here, Martha had cried, my brother would not have died.
Lord, you are here, and my brother lives.
As wonderful and special and miraculous as this miracle is,
it’s not about Lazarus.
Yes, Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha,
and I believe that he was truly moved by his love for them.
But in the Bible miracles don’t serve as a sort of catch-all universal fix-it mechanism,
a cure-all for every ill.
Rather, miracles in the Gospel narratives tell us, the readers, about two things:
who our Lord Jesus is, and the future he promises.
These stories are not meant to cultivate in us faith in miracles,
but faith in Christ.
These miracle stories are like signs and windows:
they are like neon signs with big blinking arrows that tell us clearly that Jesus is the Son of God;
and they are like windows that show us the future Jesus promises to bring.
That is, these miracles stories are not about the one who is healed,
and they are not even about the miraculous healing.
Instead, they are about the one who heals,
about the one defies all logic and nature and propriety
to reach out in love and restore the dead to life.
And that whole restoring the dead to life is great stuff, truly great …
unless you’re a modern-day Martha, wanting your miracle, crying out,
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died …”
It's great stuff,
unless you're trying to make sense of all the suffering and pain and angst in the world –
which you can’t, because there is no sense to it.
Indeed, in less than two weeks we will be gathered here on a dark evening,
recalling Jesus’ agony and death on the cross, and his cry:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Why have you forsaken me, God? Why weren’t you here, God?”
And Jesus, the Son of God, wept with Mary and Martha.
And Jesus, God in flesh, died on the cross.
Where were you, God?”
Actually, it seems that God was there all along,
that God is there after all … in the suffering.
Crying and dying along with us.
This is our God. A God who is with us. A God who empties himself in love for us.
A God who weeps and suffers and dies with us,
promising that when we weep and suffer and die,
we are not alone.
The stories continues, of course …
Lazarus is raised from the dead; and,
a few days after his death on the cross,
Jesus too is raised from the dead; and,
in the promised future, all who have died will be raised.
Suffering will be gone, and joy will reign in our hearts and in all the world.
But let’s not go there yet. The church maintains the blessed season of Lent for a reason.
Let’s not rush to the glorious triumph of love and life over death.
Let’s stay there with Mary and Martha, weeping and grieving.
Let’s stay there at the foot of the cross,
looking up and seeing Jesus suffer and die.
Let’s stay there because, if we’re honest with ourselves,
it’s where we are, it’s where we live, it is our reality.
Pain and struggle and grief and death … it’s part of who we are …
and it is part of who God is, too.