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Where were you, Lord?

Judy Skaggs

April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-44

During the Lenten season, the Gospel lessons have all been from John’s Gospel. And only in John, we get these wonderful stories of encounters Jesus has with individuals. Interestingly, the last time I preached, the passage was about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus about a new birth. Then today, I get the passage about the death of Lazarus. I seem to have the bookends of life and death to deal with.

We can imagine that Jesus had very few people that he could call true friends, but it seems that this family in Bethany – Mary, Martha and Lazarus – were among those whom he could trust. Their home had become a place of respite for Jesus. They loved him and he loved them. So, the sisters sent a message to Jesus that his friend was ill, but curiously Jesus waited two days until he went to Bethany to visit them.

By the time he and his disciples arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Martha came out to meet him and she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She goes on to say that she is sure that whatever he asks of God will happen.

In fact, Martha and Jesus have a very deep theological conversation standing there on the road outside Bethany – a conversation about resurrection. Jesus even declares to Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and asks if she believes this.

Now in the other three gospels, it is the disciple Peter who first declares who Jesus is. Jesus asks the disciples who others say he is, and then he asks, but who do you say that I am? And Peter answers, “You are the Christ, son of the living God.” But here in John, it is Martha who makes that declaration , “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world!”

We might remember the other story we often hear about Martha and her sister Mary. Jesus came for a meal in their home. Martha is in the kitchen very busy cooking the meal and Mary is the spiritual one, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Martha begins to fuss because Mary is not helping her. So we probably get the idea that Martha is a doer! She is the one who always has a stew going, who bakes a cake for neighbors who are sick, who takes homemade pies and soup to anyone who is in need. We know many people who are “Marthas!”

But from this particular conversation, we learn that even though Martha may have been busy in the kitchen, she has developed a deep abiding faith. She has been listening and learning and she knows more about the coming of Christ than we might think.

Mary also comes out to greet Jesus, and amazingly, she says the very same thing that Martha did, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I would like for us to focus on the statement of both sisters for a moment this morning. Both sisters believed that Jesus could have made something different happen.

My guess is that every one of us has at least had a similar thought. Lord, you could have done something to prevent this disease. Lord, why did you not do something to keep that plane from crashing? Lord, where were you when my loved one died?

The sisters bring up an eternal question about how God is going to behave – about how God is going to interact with the creation.

And we are just bold enough to think that we know how God should be acting. Or at least we know how we wish God would act. But the truth is that we don’t have the whole picture. We can see our little piece of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle and we judge how our world should be according to this little bit that we know. But our vision is so limited. How can we know what is best?

We don’t understand why Jesus waited to go to his friends. He says that it is because he wants all those involved to see God’s glory. We don’t understand when God seems to wait, when God seems to be silent. But then again, we don’t know everything that is involved in the circumstance. How can we understand God’s will?

Rev. William Sloan Coffin was the pastor at Riverside Church in NY and a well-known peace-activist. His 24 year old son, Alex, was killed in a car accident. In a sermon he preached just 10 days after Alex’s death, he first of all thanks all his parishioners who had been so supportive. But then he told of one person who came to the house and said that she thought it was God’s will that Alex had died.

Rev. Coffin was infuriated. In his sermon he says, “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is that it is the will of God. Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Perhaps we learn that same thing from our story this morning. For Jesus did come to be with Martha and Mary. And Jesus wept. Jesus entered into their deep sorrow. Jesus was with them completely.

After Jesus called Lazarus forth from the grave, he also invited the community who had come to grieve, to be with the family in a new way. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus told them. The people who witnessed this sign were asked to participate in what was happening in this family.

I want to read part of a poem by Julia Kasdorf because I think it expresses so well how we are to enter into people’s lives at times of loss.

“I learned to press the moist hands of the living, to look in their eyes and offer

sympathy,  as though I understood their loss even then. I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came. I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse. To every house you enter, you must offer healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.”

So from this Gospel story, we learn how completely God in Jesus Christ is with us in every part of our life and our death. But we also learn how Jesus invites us into each other’s lives and times of death.

We began this morning with a passage from Romans. In life and in death we belong to God. We pray that we might trust God completely with both our life and our death. We pray that we can trust in that love of God that never ends and that we can find comfort and peace in that dazzling grace that always is. Amen.