In darkness, suffering, and grief, we are able to see that God is with us, and that’s all we need to know.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
All Saints Sunday, year B
Texts: John 11:32-44 (also read vv. 17, 20-31); Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.
It’s a damning indictment these sisters lay on Jesus. Our beloved brother, your beloved friend, died. And you weren’t here to stop it. You abandoned us to this terrible grief.
They had reason to believe Jesus could stop this. As some of their mourning friends said, “he’s healed blind people, surely he could have healed Lazarus.” They’d seen him heal others, and knew he could’ve prevented this heart-wrenching pain.
But they counted on more than Jesus’ ability. Jesus was their friend. He’d eaten at their home, they loved him and he loved them. They trusted that friendship, that love. So when Lazarus grew sick, of course they called on this relationship. If you’re friends with the Son of God, who heals even strangers, why wouldn’t you expect such a favor?
We understand Mary and Martha and their friends.
If God really loves you, you should be safe from suffering, shouldn’t you?
We’re dismissive of Christians who preach a prosperity Gospel, who claim that if you just believe in God, you’ll become wealthy, you’ll have all you want. That God wants you to be a success in all areas of your life. We find such theology distasteful, dishonest, and unscriptural.
But a friend of mine recently reminded me that we’re not so far from this when we expect God’s protection from harm, an escape from suffering. When we ask, where were you God, when this terrible thing happened? Whether it’s an enraged killing of unsuspecting people at worship whom we don’t know, or a cancerous blow on the one closest to us, or the pain of our loneliness: if you’d have shown up, God, we say, this wouldn’t have happened.
Martha and Mary still believe in Jesus. But they can’t understand why he lets them suffer such unnecessary pain.
Martha believes her brother will live in the resurrection on the last day. She believes the promise of Isaiah we heard today, that in those days on the mountain of God, death will be swallowed up and all tears wiped away. She believes in the promise of John’s Revelation we heard today, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and no more death, no more crying, no more pain.
But I’m in grief right now, Martha says. Mary doesn’t have to say it. She can barely speak for her weeping. If you’d been here, Jesus, we wouldn’t feel this way.
And Jesus says to Martha: I’m here now, and I am life. Is that enough for you? He says to Mary: I’m here now, and I share your tears. Is that enough for you?
We think we want, maybe even deserve, freedom from suffering in this life.
Now, if we know someone who has suffered greatly in ways that we haven’t, we know we don’t believe God loves us more. When we’re rational, we know suffering happens to all sorts of people and there’s never a rational explanation. But like Mary and Martha, we don’t always think clearly in our grief and pain. All we want is for it to go away.
But what we really need – since we know suffering happens to anyone and everyone – is to know we aren’t alone in it. To know that our struggles, and the struggles of so many, aren’t something we or they endure all alone, with no one to care. What we really need is God-with-us. Emmanuel.
And that’s what happens in Bethany. Jesus stands in the face of Martha’s anger and loves her. He kneels alongside Mary’s tears and weeps with her.
Don’t be distracted by the joyful ending of this story. We know that such things almost never happen in this life. And the critical moment for the sisters is what happens before.
When Jesus is with them. When the Son of God comes to be with them in the darkness of their tears and grief. That’s his answer. No defense of his delay, no explanation why Lazarus died when others were healed. He comes, and holds them in their pain. He is willing to roll back the stone of their grief and look into the worst of their darkness, smell the stench of death, and hold it with them.
Christian theologian James Finley has said that “the absolute love of God . . . protects us from nothing, even as it sustains us in all things.” That’s what Jesus does at Bethany.
We actually meet God most clearly in our darkness, in our tears.
That’s the wonder we learn at the cross. The God of the universe bears all our pain and grief and suffering in the body and blood of God’s Son. Even within the Trinity, the Son feels abandoned by the Father, wondering “have you forsaken me?” That’s how far God goes to be with us: even sharing our confusion at God’s apparent absence.
This is the deep grace of the Incarnation: God comes to bear our lives with us. Our joys and happiness, yes. But also, and most importantly, our suffering and sorrow and pain.
It is this absolute love of God that never promises to protect us but always, always sustains and strengthens us, in which we live most deeply today. We bring George to the waters of baptism, unsure of his or the world’s future, wishing that he and all children would be protected from every possible harm. But we wash him in God’s healing waters and join him to Christ’s death and resurrection, claiming him as a child of God. Claiming that even though his life to come is mystery, we know this: God is with him. The crucified and risen Emmanuel embraces George.
We carry our brother Ken the last steps to his resting place, aware that even as people of faith we are filled with grief and pain in the face of death. But we place our brother next to his beloved Ellie trusting that their baptism is completed, and they are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, claiming they are children of God. Claiming that even though death is mystery, we know this: God is with them. The crucified and risen Emmanuel embraces them.
“I am here with you. I will always, always, sustain you in my love.”
That’s Jesus’ answer when we cry out, “If you’d been here . . .” This is the absolute love of God on which we ground our lives. Not that we expect special treatment, avoiding suffering because we believe in God. Not that we claim any answers for why suffering happens or why God sometimes seems to prevent it, but not always.
You are grounded in the absolute love of the Triune God who enters the depth of darkness and fear and pain with you and holds you by the hand. Who weeps with you, sits with you in silence, holds your anger, grieves with you, even while breathing in and out in a rhythm of love that calms your heart.
God is with you. Always. And you never need to be afraid. But when you are, you will not be alone. And God’s love will speak to your fear, hold your sorrow, and sustain your life.
Until all things are made new, and the reign of God Isaiah and John promise is finally brought to fullness, and the whole creation sings for joy in God’s new world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
 James Finley, from an audio presentation, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013, audio CD)