In the quiet of the middle of the week, I am sitting at my desk pondering the words of this Sunday’s Gospel:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11.17-44 ESV)
It is a well known passage because at least in part, people hear it all the time at funerals. I cannot tell you how many times over the last 25 years I have heard this chapter read in churches, chapels and funeral homes and utter those same words in funeral services. But I find myself asking a simple question, “Do we in our culture, understand what they actually mean?”
In the nearly 25 years that I have been in ministry, I have done a lot of funerals; to the point where I have lost track of how many funerals I have done. I can understand what Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been year my brother would not of died, but even now, I know God will give you whatever you ask.” It is one of the stages we all go through when we are dealing with a loss. We try whatever we can to make it better; to make it right. We want and look for some semblance of hope and the possibility that we will not be separated for very long. I see it all the time in people: friends and family, strangers and parishioners. We try anger, denial, bargaining and avoidance before we find some peace and resolution.
I have spent lots of time (late nights and long days) with people and their families in the hospital waiting for the moment when death occurs. There are things to talk about, things to share, and moments to be held on to. For instance, I remember sitting with a young man about my age and who was also a father. He was dying of brain cancer. The doctors had told the family to expect an awful death because of the disease and what they understood was going to happen. In the moments before his death, I gathered the family including this man’s children around the hospital bed and we prayed. We read Scripture. And a t a particular moment, I prayed a prayer that goes like this,
“Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
in the name of God the Father almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.”
For me, they are familiar words, that I have spoken over many people at various times, including family. What catches my eye though in this passage, is the person of Jesus himself; the way that John writes says a lot about what Jesus was personally going through. Is he upset at the death of his friend? Yes, he is. But to let it there and not acknowledge the things that are also evident, like he is very near to Jerusalem now and to his own death – it carries more and more weight. Jesus sees the people that are around him and how they are dealing with grief, sorrow, mourning and death and I would propose that Jesus (as the Gospel points out) is sickened and disturbed more than once by how people where handling not only death but also life.
I think of this moment in John’s Gospel as an “Isaiah moment” for Jesus. First we look at the Father, which Jesus must have done, and see who the Father is and then see ourselves and then look at that state of the people and the land around us and see how far we have moved away from God. Isaiah went through this and then chose to respond to the call of God to speak to the people with the all familiar, “Here I am, send me.”
And let’s be clear: when one says that you can see God, it means that you are learning to trust him for everything and all things. Case and point, in the Garden the night before his own death Jesus asks the Father to let the cup pass from him. But if it is not to happen, then not his own will, but the Father’s will be done in his life.
The basic tenant of the faith is that Jesus died. Jesus is risen. Jesus will come again. Jesus did not died to give you a clean death. He died that you might live. Forever. With him, in the Spirit, to be loved by the Father. The Scriptures reminds us that love is the opposite of fear and that perfect love drives out fear (1st John 4.8). What we are called to do is to come, to participate and to trust God that he knows what he is doing. It isn’t always easy. It isn’t always the nicest place to be in. It isn’t what we would do or have planned but keep something in mind: We are beloved of God and we are not abandoned. We are never alone. We are not alone in life and we are not alone in death. Some of the greatest things that God has and will bring to pass take time to come to their fruition. What perhaps matters most is what is in our hearts when hardships and tragedies of different kinds come to pass. Hardships show the contents of our hearts.
So if there is a piece of advice I would offer in dealing with loss and death, it would be the words of Psalmist who wrote:
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.
(Psalm 37.4-6 ESV)