The raising of Lazarus
When did you last say “If only” ? I guess it’s something we all say from time to time, usually when something hasn’t happened in the way which we would have liked. Or perhaps, more seriously, when we’re faced with real regrets and grief about something which has saddened us :
If only I’d left ten minutes earlier
If only he’d worked a bit harder for his exams.
If only I’d told her how much I really loved her.
If only she hadn’t stepped out in front of the car.
It’s very human to have regrets like this and to wish that we could somehow go back in time in order to do things, or arrange things, differently; in such a way that the present needn’t be so sad.
And all of this sadness and regret is expressed by Martha in our Gospel reading today. “If only you’d been here”, she said, “then you could have cured my brother”. “If only you hadn’t taken those extra two days to get here, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been dead, and you could have made him well again”
But this story about Lazarus is also about Jesus, and Jesus had a particular place in his heart for the sick and the poor. Bethany means literally, “the house of the poor”, and there is evidence that it was the kind of place where the poor and the sick were cared for; a kind of hospice village, if you like, and certainly a place for which Jesus had a special affection.
And so, perhaps we’re entitled to ask, if Bethany and Lazarus meant so much to Jesus, why did he wait? Why did he allow Martha and Mary to suffer so much grief?
But Jesus often surprises us and overturns our expectations. And this is just what he does here. He didn’t go to Bethany when the sisters asked him. But he didn’t fail to show his continuing care for those in need; especially for the poor, the sick and those for whom the world would really rather ignore.
When he answered Martha, Jesus invited her to stop looking at the past , to stop dreaming about what might have been, and instead , to look to the future. He told her that Lazarus would rise again.
In her reply Martha told Jesus that she knew this, but quite frankly it didn’t give her much comfort. And isn’t it easy to understand exactly where she’s coming from? If you’ve ever said to a grieving widow, that her husband will rise again, you’ll know that although this belief may be comforting, it does very little to stop the awful, aching pain of the separation which death brings.
But then Jesus said something amazing. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
He said he was the future for which she was waiting. The future, when people would rise from the dead, had burst into her present. God’s new creation had come forward from the end of time into the middle of time. Jesus was saying to Martha, that resurrection wasn’t just a teaching, a distant fact. It was a person who’d come bursting from God’s future into the mess and muddle of the world which we know. And that person was standing in front of her, inviting her to make a huge jump of trust and hope.
He was challenging her to say not “If only”, but “If Jesus”
If Jesus is The Messiah; if Jesus is the one in whom God is totally present; if Jesus is the resurrection and the life, what might be possible? And Martha gave her assent. She went to bring Mary, her sister, and as Jesus asked them where the body of Lazarus had been laid, he wept. The Word made flesh, wept at the grave side of his friend. The God who we worship, shared then, and continues to share today, human tears and human sorrows. This is somehow, at the very centre of what it means to be God. His power doesn’t separate him from the broken-ness and the sadness which have taken such a grip on his creation. No, his power is made present through taking the broken-ness upon himself in the person of Jesus his Son, in whom he is mysteriously present.
Jesus asked the sisters where they’d laid the body of their brother, and then he commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Because Martha and Mary had taken the step of faith, however tentatively, from “If only” to “If Jesus” they saw the glory and the power of God working through Our Lord in a way which exceeded all that they had ever dreamed of. And Jesus made this possible for them through their grief.
And do you remember what they said in answer to the question of Jesus about the whereabouts of the grave? They made the simple reply “Come and see”. They invited Jesus to come with them to the place of their sorrow, and in that place, with his presence, all was made well.
You know, this simple request is very close to the heart of our Christian faith. We too, can say to Jesus “Come and see” as we lead him, in tears with us, to the place of our deepest grief and sorrow. And he will reply, “Come and see” as, in turn, he leads us through the sorrow to the place of resurrection glory, where he now lives in light and love.
The new day is dawning. It may be very dark where we live just now. The tears may be very bitter; but Jesus longs to take us to the place nearby, where light and joy and peace are waiting our arrival. He did this for Martha and Mary, two thousand years ago ; and he’ll do it for us too today, if we ask him.