“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” That’s what Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha said to him on separate encounters after their brother Lazarus had expired in Bethany where Jesus was nowhere to be found. The story is recounted in John 11:1-45, the lectionary text for Sunday, April 2, 2017. I try not to rehash lectionary texts in this column, but the words, “Lord, if you had been here,” require us to confront the absence of God, a haunting, perhaps inescapable, element of scripture, faith and religious experience.
Jesus was absent when Lazarus died. When Jesus finally shows up at the graveside in Bethany, heart-broken Martha meets him on the road, her words both a declaration and accusation of faith: “Lord, if you had been here …” That gut-wrenching assertion provokes a theological exchange in which Jesus claims Lazarus will “rise again” while Martha dutifully agrees that it will happen, “the last day.” Jesus responds with his own Great Confession: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Great words, but Lazarus remains in the tomb.
Martha tells sister Mary that Jesus is nearby and asking for her. So Mary “got up quickly and went to him,” repeating Martha’s half regretful, half reproachful indictment of the Word made flesh: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Unlike Martha, Mary won’t engage in theological discourse, she’s sobbing her heart out; a grief so unquenchable that Jesus himself is brought to tears. Jesus wept with Mary on the way to her brother’s grave. So before we start quoting Bible verses to grieving people, we’d best be able to help bear their griefs and carry their sorrows, taking their pain seriously.
“Lord, if you had been here …” (fill in the blanks). When in our lives or the lives of our loved ones have we heard ourselves saying that, out loud or deep inside? Are there times when life is so horrendous that we can’t discern God’s elusive presence? Underneath it all is our fear that the promises of scripture and sermon, prayer and faith made by, for and with us won’t hold. Jesus knew such moments, calling out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Those words introduce Psalm 22, a plaintive lament that plumbs the depths of God’s absence, declaring: “Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. I am poured out like water. And all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me.” If the Psalmist and Jesus could talk like that, feel that kind of abandonment, we don’t need to feel guilty when such fears overtake us. Such moments are not a lack of faith, but an experience of the unpredictable realities of life. They smack of what mystics call the Dark Night of the Soul.
The Imitation of Christ, that 15th-century devotional classic, contains a section entitled, “That the Lovers of the Cross of Jesus are Few.” It reads:
Jesus hath now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross.
He hath many desirous of consolation, but few of tribulation.
Many follow Jesus unto the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his suffering.
Many love Jesus so long as no adversities befall them.
Many praise and bless him so long as they receive any consolation from him.
But if Jesus Hide Himself, and leave them but a little while, they fall either into complaining, or into too much dejection of mind.
But they who love Jesus for his own sake, and not for some special comfort which they receive, bless him in all tribulation and anguish of heart, as well as in the state of highest comfort.
When we sign on with Jesus we sign onto the cross; Lent and Holy Week are profound reminders of that commitment. We dare not rush quickly to the empty tomb until we wait with Jesus in Gethsemane; walk with him as he carries the cross; and tarry with the women as he hangs between heaven and earth. With him, we receive God’s grace in life’s high moments, while clinging to it in moments of abandonment that often accompany disease, tragedy and death — life’s inevitable dangers.
And so we need the church, that communion of sinner-saints who can believe for us, believe with us, believe in us, should “Jesus Hide Himself,” and our own faith seems a long way away. Yet sometimes like Lazarus (and Jesus) “we have to walk that lonesome valley; we have to walk it by ourselves,” waiting on God and the grace of resurrection. The Presbyterians, I’m told, took that old spiritual out of their most recent hymnal, insisting we’re never really alone. Perhaps they should put it back. Just in case.