Friday, April 18, 2014

"If You Had Been Here...."

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." (John 11:20-22)

Mary and Martha just knew Jesus would come.

     Their brother didn't have much time, that was certain. They could see the life draining out of him with every labored breath. The doctors had done all they could; time was running out on him. But they knew how much Jesus loved their brother. So they sent word to him: "The one you love is sick." They didn't need to spell out what they wanted; they knew Jesus would hear the plea in those words. All they had to do was wait and implore Lazarus to hang on. Jesus would come.
     They would spend days waiting. If you've sat in a hospital waiting room while doctors worked to save someone you love, you understand what they went through. If you've ever held the hand of a dying loved one and prayed frantically that God would heal her, or spare her further suffering -- or weren't sure what to pray -- you've sat in their seat. If someone you care about has ever been put on a last-ditch course of treatment, you know what it's like to watch helplessly and wait to see whether salvation is coming. They spent days waiting, their eyes flickering between Lazarus and the door. I wonder how many times they got to their feet when a shadow darkened the doorway, only to slump back down in despair when once again it wasn't Jesus. Days -- waiting, hoping, praying, fuming, wondering. "Where is he? Doesn't he care? Don't our pain and grief matter?" 
     And then Lazarus took a ragged breath, exhaled....and that was that.
     And with that exhalation, all the air had whooshed out of Martha's and Mary's lungs too. They spent the next few days in a fog, sleepwalking through the embalming and burial. Prayers were prayed, words were spoken, comfort was given. The hope of a resurrection for the righteous was no doubt invoked. But Lazarus' place in the house was empty, his voice was silent, his laughter would be heard in the little home no more. Martha and Mary were alone. No prayers, no words or deeds of comfort, and no religious dogma could change that.
     It's amazing that they talked to Jesus at all when he finally arrived. They probably wouldn't have if they'd known that he had intentionally delayed his trip to Bethany. Martha rushed to meet him as he entered the town. Her rebuke is veiled, but not too much: "Where have you been? If you'd come when I called you Lazarus would still be alive!" 
     I've been to my share of funerals, and at every one the very same question is on the air. Oh, people aren't always as bold as Martha was in asking it. (If Martha had understood better who Jesus was, I doubt she would have been either...) But the question's always there. It's as much a part of funeral homes as flowers and hearses and caskets. Funeral homes are places where we process our grief. They're places where we perform the last acts of love and respect for our dead that we can. They're places where friends gather to share sorrow and comfort. But there are no answers offered with the deluxe vault. There are only services and atmosphere for sale there; no solutions. Funeral homes are the places where we try to strike a peaceful bargain with death, knowing full well that he doesn't bargain. And that's why the question hangs in the air, unmasked by the fragrance of flowers, roaring above the soft words of comfort. "Where were you, God? Why'd you let her get sick? Why'd you take him away? Why allow him to suffer and then let him die? If you had been here, Lord, the one I love wouldn't have died."
     Martha mistook Jesus' answer to her question, "Your brother will rise again," as just more overused sentiment: "he's in a better place" or "God needed another flower in his garden" or "he looks good". But that's most definitely not what Jesus' answer is. Martha quotes the dogma she's always believed but never trusted and it offers little comfort. A resurrection in the last day has nothing to do with her grief and loneliness on THIS day. But Jesus' words push her out away from the thick branches of dogma and onto the thin limb of hope and conviction.
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."
     Resurrection isn't just a hope for the future. Jesus IS resurrection, and he's more. He's God's answer to that question our elaborate, expensive funeral arrangements can't touch. Where was God? Well, he was here among us. And he struggled with the fear of death. And he attended funerals. Including his own. When he stood in front of Lazarus' tomb he must have thought of the one that would soon hold his own body. And when Lazarus walked out in response to his voice, he must have looked ahead to the day his Father would call him out.
     "You were dead in your transgressions and sins," Paul once wrote to some believers in Ephesus. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...and God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus..." Jesus looked Martha in the eye and promised her that resurrection was more than a pipe dream, more than a comforting lie we tell ourselves. He promised her that he embodies resurrection, and that those who put their faith in him are immediately raised from the dead. "Do you believe this?" he asked her. She must have, because it wasn't long after that she was hugging Lazarus again. 
     But it isn't Lazarus' resurrection that's so important in this story. It's the promise that all who believe share in that resurrection. You're supposed to hear your name on Jesus' lips, see yourself shuffling out of that dark tomb. Not one day. Now. If you're a believer in Jesus you share in his life. And as a part of sharing in his life, you share in his resurrection. It isn't just a hope to believe at a funeral. It's reality to put your faith in right now. If you're in Christ, your life is not ended or even interrupted by death. You are raised with him, today, out of a life rendered futile by death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

     Do you believe this? 

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