God shares our suffering, brings life in the midst of death, even if we think we’re abandoned by God: is that enough for you?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
All Saints Sunday, year B
Texts: John 11:32-44 (adding vv. 17, 20-31 as well); Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You know what our real problem with this Gospel story is, right?
The problem we have with this Gospel, the one we don’t talk about, the neighbors in Bethany name openly. They see Jesus weeping and say, “look how much he loved him! But how come if he healed that blind person we heard about, he didn’t keep this person he loved from dying?”
The problem we have with this Gospel, the one we don’t talk about, Martha and Mary both name openly. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
The problem we have with this Gospel, the one we don’t talk about, is that secretly in our hearts, we agree with them all.
But somewhere along the line someone taught Christians never to criticize God.
I’ve worked as a pastor for over 30 years, and it is deep-rooted in us. Our first instinct might be to agree with Martha and Mary and their neighbors. But we can’t say that the Son of God blew it.
So we make theological excuses for Jesus’ behavior here. We try to explain away why he delayed coming.
And we keep quiet about what’s really on our heart when we see the suffering of our neighbors, or the death and dying of loved ones, or our own suffering and pain. We’re afraid to say out loud that if God really cared, God would do something, afraid to suggest God dropped the ball, or worse, doesn’t care.
But the folks in this story have a legitimate complaint. And you know it.
Three times in chapter 11, Jesus’ love for this family is named. The sisters sent Jesus a note that said “Lord, the one whom you love is sick.” Then John says, “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer.” Last, the neighbors see Jesus weep and say, “He really loved him.”
But Jesus delayed coming for two days. This family he loved asked for help – a healing he’d done dozens of times to people he barely knew – and he declined. Whatever his reasons, none absolve him from this charge: if he loved Lazarus so much, why didn’t he prevent this death?
And we have the same, legitimate question when we see a suffering world, with persistent evil, or pray for healing that doesn’t seem to come, or long for God to intervene in whatever way. If “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is true, and if God loves you, or our neighbors, or those who are poor, or those who are oppressed, or whomever, so much, why doesn’t God do something to prevent this pain and suffering?
But you’ve been sold a lie if you think you can’t criticize God. Just read your Bible.
God’s people regularly complain about God’s apparent indifference to their pain or suffering, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even heroes of the faith do.
But look no further than today’s Gospel for permission. Martha hears Jesus is near and runs out to meet him in all her frustration and anger and fully lets him have it. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she rails at this one who supposedly loves her.
Mary isn’t Martha. Martha’s grief is seen in anger, Mary’s in overwhelming sadness. When Jesus finally gets to her, Mary chokes through her tears her feeling of being abandoned by this one who supposedly loves her: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Look at these sisters whom Jesus loved. They say to you, “Bring it to God if you have to. Your disappointment. Your sadness. Your anger. Your criticism.” Neither of them worried Jesus might be upset. They spoke truth to God-with-us, their Lord, the One who loved them and whom they trusted for life.
If you still doubt them, look how Jesus responds.
Jesus lets Martha rant, and responds the only way she wants: he engages her arguments. She wants nothing to do with his first try – don’t talk to me about my brother living again at the end, she says. What about right now? What about getting here on time to stop this?
Then Jesus – still not offended – offers himself to Martha. He says, “You know, I am resurrection and life for you right now. No matter what happens. I am your life and hope, and in that life you never have to feel death’s grip on your heart like you do right now.”
Then Jesus apparently asks, “how’s Mary?” He knows he owes both sisters. Martha gets Mary, and because Mary is not Martha, he’s different with her. He sees them all weeping and is deeply moved himself. Begins to weep himself. He shares her tears, feels her pain. Because he loves her. He loves Martha. He loves Lazarus. Why wouldn’t he weep with them?
So, is what Jesus does enough for you?
Take away the miracle at the end. It’s beautiful and all, but you and I and this whole world live on this side of the closed tomb, the side of death and suffering, where it stinks. Where people die and stay dead. Where people are oppressed, the powers that oppress seem unlimited, and suffering continues unabated.
If we live our lives on this side with Mary and Martha, before the miracle, is Jesus’ response enough?
It seems to be for Martha. She proclaims a beautiful statement of her trust in Jesus for life right now (because she’s clearly not expecting Jesus to do what he does at the tomb.) Mary’s the quiet one, it’s hard to tell if Jesus sharing her tears is enough.
But is it enough for you? To know that God weeps with you? That the Triune God’s face we see in Jesus shows a God whose love for you is real, and who shares your pain, the world’s pain? That even in the worst of circumstances God somehow offers you Jesus’ promise to Martha of being life in you?
And maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to stop before the end of this story.
True, none of us have ever been at a graveside where this happened. None of us expects that all of the systemic things that ail our world are suddenly going to go away and all God’s children are going to be singing Kumbaya together in the center of Minneapolis. But there are things you can rely on as certain:
First, God loves you enough to be with you wherever you need God to be. Not always acting as you necessarily want or hope, but with you. Listening to your anger with love and answering with a promise of life in the Spirit that can sustain you in a world of death. Embracing your tears and weeping alongside you.
And second, God does do miracles even now. The Triune God brings life in the midst of death in this world. Watch for it – in our world, in your life. God works through and in you and me, and God’s resurrection life in Christ will not be denied. Even if it takes years to raise our world to life out of the death it’s in. Or years for God to heal your heart and show you how loved you are.
And lastly there’s this hope, too, that we remember deeply today: there is life to come after we die. A life where, as Isaiah and John say today, God wipes away all tears and ends all dying and weeping forever. That is real and true and it is promised you and all creation by God-with-us, Jesus the Christ.
See how much God loves you? Loves the world? Can you trust it can be enough?
In the name of Jesus. Amen