A Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent (29/03/20): If you had been here

If you had been here
John 11:1-44

Both Martha and Mary say the same thing to Jesus when he arrives in Bethany a few days after their brother’s death:
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Their response is a natural human one in the face of tragedy and heartache. Perhaps their response could be identified as the first of the stages of grief that we now sometimes acknowledge: denial. The initial shock of loss is so heavy that the first response is to ignore and deny that anything has happened. The pain is too difficult to bear, so anyone would want to go on as if nothing has happened.
“No, it can’t be so, it can’t be!”
Of course reality bites. The reality of loss cannot be avoided for very long. The funeral is arranged. The curtains close. Our loved ones are laid to rest. Mary and Martha have seen the stone rolled over the entrance of the tomb with their brother Lazarus inside. So in addition to their denial there is perhaps two others of the stages of grief now also present:
“If you had been here.”
In their first words to Jesus there is both a hint of “anger” and of “bargaining.” Martha and Mary still both want things to be different from the way they are. There is still denial. They want their brother alive and not dead. Perhaps there is just a hint of anger in “If”.
“It might have been so different, but you weren’t here. . . like you should have been.”
But also they are still trying to imagine a reality which is different from the one they are experiencing. They imagine a different sequence of events in which Jesus is already in Bethany when their brother becomes poorly and Jesus’ presence allows him to recover. And by imagining it they tried to bargain with reality that it might actually be so.

Of course in all this both the sisters demonstrate something else. Their faith in Jesus. No he hadn’t been there. But if he had. . .
What is very clear is that both Martha and Mary believe that Jesus makes a difference. That his presence is an answer to sickness in the world. And if he is an answer to sickness then he is an answer to evil, that in their world-view, lies behind sickness. And they are, of course, right! And we share with them the same belief. Jesus makes a difference. That our lives, the world, reality, the universe, are all better because of Jesus’ presence in them and because of our trust in him. Things, we trust, will turn out for the best because of Jesus.

But there is a limit to Mary and Martha’s hopefulness. A limit to possibility. A limit to our hope. That limit is death. “Where’s there’s life there’s hope” they say.  And death seems to bring that hope to an end. Lazarus is dead, so all hope and possibility is, for him, gone. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said of death: “the ultimate possible possibility will not be outdone.” Which is typical of a philosopher to say something essentially simple in a complex way. He means, “we all die.” Or more precisely, “the last thing that could possibly happen to us, death, will definitely happen to us.” And the finality of death, for many, renders all that went before in life meaningless, absurd. All that effort, all that striving, just for it in the end to dissolve in death. With that thought in mind perhaps Mary and Martha are sliding toward the next stage of their grief: depression. From Mary and Martha’s perspective what seems especially true of the brother now, all the possibilities for him, other than this one, being dead, have been exhausted. They believe in Jesus. But even they cannot see how he can reverse the finality of death. So they can only cling to their counterfactual, their denial, anger and bargaining and depression:
“Lord if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.”

But Jesus says to Martha:
“Your brother will rise again”
Which to me sounds like the conventional reassurance that one gives to a friend or an acquaintance in their grief. At first sight what Jesus appears to offer the kind thought that any Jewish believer who trusted in God’s promises for the last day might offer. Perhaps we wouldn’t put it quite like that. Maybe we would say something like: “He’s gone to a better place” It is the sort of thing you say, in the face of tragedy, when words seem altogether inadequate; but this is the best that we can do. It is a kindly meant thought. And we sense that it is true, even if we can’t explain how. Though I’m not altogether convinced that it necessarily helps.It is at best a bit of a cold comfort. Martha replies:
“I know that he will rise again on the last day.”
Perhaps Martha likes and respects Jesus too much. Maybe she accepts the kindness that Jesus’ words intend. So she doesn’t finish that sentence out loud:
“I know that he will rise again on the last day, but what good is that to me now!
“I know that he has gone to a better place, but I don’t want him in a better place. I want him here with me!”
Maybe that she doesn’t finish the sentence out loud suggests that she has already reached the last of those stages of grief: acceptance.

The thing that troubles us the most about this story, I think, is the delay. At the beginning of the story Jesus receives the news that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. So ill indeed that he looks like he’s going to die. Mary and Martha’s words take on a certain sharpness:
“. . . if only. . .”
Because we know that Jesus delays for two days before setting off for Bethany. The explanation that is most often given. Is that Jesus delays to make sure that Lazarus would be dead by the time he got there. To make his intervention all the more dramatic. A resurrection rather than a healing. Which makes Jesus look guilty of a particularly callous sort of showmanship. He makes Lazarus suffer death and his sisters’ loss and grief, just to make a point. Yes the pain was greater and so the joy and relief at the end was greater still. But really?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wondered, “Why does Christianity have to make people feel bad before it can make them feel good?” And actually we know Jesus isn’t a callous showman.
I don’t know why, but I don’t think that before now I had ever done the simple arithmetic in relation to Jesus’ delay. Jesus delays two days. When he gets to Bethany Lazarus has been dead already for four days. Jesus could have only arrived two days earlier than he did. Therefore he would still have been two days too late. Indeed it’s quite probable that Lazarus was already dead by the time Jesus heard the news of his illness. The delay makes no difference. But it does demonstrate one thing. Jesus’ trust in God is greater than that of Mary and Martha and probably ours. Jesus knows he has no need to rush.
God’s love and God’s action are such that God never needs to rush. In our impatience, hemmed in by death, we tend to want to get everything done now. And it is our impatience that most often undoes our best intentions and creates so much of the mess we find ourselves in. God has no such constraint. God is not limited in that way. God’s ability to act, unlike ours, extends beyond death. Perhaps one of the things that our belief in God sometimes overlooks is that God is the God of time. God always has time. God will always be able to work good for those who trust him. That was dramatically so for Lazarus and his sisters. And remains so for us.

Martha replies to Jesus:
“I know that he will rise again on the last day.”
And Jesus almost replies:
“No, not on the last day, when I say he will rise again, I mean right here, right now.”
Dying, on this occasion, was not for Lazarus, the ultimate possible possibility. It was not the last thing that was going to happen to him. Jesus assures Martha:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die will live and everyone who believes in me will never die.”
Of course very few experienced that in the way that Lazarus experiences it.  We have only heard about the widow of Nain’s son and Jairus’ daughter. Maybe there are a few others. But the difference Jesus’ presence makes is far more profound than Mary and Martha at first believed. The presence of Jesus provides a fundamental change in the meaning of life and death. For those who trust in him the ultimate possible possibility is outdone. Dying is not simply the last thing that will happen to us that undoes everything that went before. Resurrection, or eternal life, are not indefinitely postponed to the last day. They become a quality of living in the present. That, at the very least, shares the quality of trust and patience which Jesus displays. That recognises that death does not end the good that God can do for us. And so death need not be a constraint, a limitation on how we act here and now. The hope which that brings allows us to act with the love and trust that God wants us to act with. It allows us to escape our harmful impatience. And allows us to know that none of it will be lost because of our trust in Jesus. Beyond Mary and Martha’s grief there is the joy of resurrection. We share with Martha her confession of him:
Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world
Amen.

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