Scripture: John 11:1–6, 17–44
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Abraham replayed the words over and over again in his head. Step by step, the memory felt more and more surreal. “Can I trust my hearing?” he asked himself. “Can I trust my understanding of the message? More importantly, can I trust a God who would ask me to go through this agony?”
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love….”
“So the sisters (Mary and Martha) sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”
When Jesus saw (Mary) weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Judeans said, “See how he loved him!”
Scholars Robert Williamson and Amy Robertson see a clear thread of connection between these two stories. Abraham asked to sacrifice his son whom he loved. And here in John 11, Lazarus is not literally Jesus’ son, but we can see how deeply he loved him. Like a friend. Like a brother. Even like a son.
But Jesus wasn’t asked to sacrifice Lazarus, right? The passage makes it abundantly clear—goes out of its way, in fact, to explain—that Jesus could have left earlier and made it to Lazarus’s side before he died; he pauses multiple days even after he knows the situation. And the text and the whole Gospel makes it abundantly clear that he had the power to save him…Mary says it, Martha says it, all of the Judean mourners say it in once voice.
But he does not. Jesus does not rush to his side and save him before he dies. And thus, perhaps it is not inaccurate to go as far as to say that Jesus chose to sacrifice Lazarus, the one whom he loved. In a way, it feels like Jesus is the new Abraham here, with a story just as poignant and emotional. And the mourners, weeping at the tomb, seem to ask Jesus this same question that must have troubled Abraham: Can we trust a God who would ask us to go through this?
It is the question that they each ask. Martha, and then Mary, and then the rest of the mourners: If only you had been here. Why didn’t you come sooner? If you could open the eyes of the blind man, couldn’t you save your friend, the one whom you loved?
“Why didn’t you?”
Is this not one of the most fundamental, universal human questions?
Why didn’t you save my husband from the ravages of ALS?
Why didn’t you allow my stillborn child to live?
Why didn’t you give me just a few more happy years with the one whom I loved, before the stroke changed our lives forever?
“Why didn’t you?”
Of course, this question has its corollaries: “Why me?” “Why not me?” Why do I have to suffer like this in this life, and why don’t I get the types of healing or transformation that I see that others receive, in the Bible or elsewhere?
When Jesus gets confronted on this question—three times —I think there is a part of all of us that wants to pile on: “yeah, Jesus, why didn’t you? Why didn’t you then, and why don’t you now?” At the heart of the pain and suffering of the human experience, lies this question. We are Martha. We are Mary. We are the mourners at the tomb.
“Can we trust a God who would put us through this? Why didn’t you?”
Part of me wants to end the sermon right here. “Cue the organ! Grab your communion!”
Because after all, nothing I say theologically or pastorally will take away the grief and anger and helpless mourning of this life. I wish I had complete and satisfactory answers to this and all of life’s deep questions, but I know that whatever I say will not be enough. There is a reason these are the questions that are most fundamental and profound to the human experience. They are the reasons that many choose to leave the Church, because the answers they get are not good enough. Part of me wants to acknowledge, “my answers will not be good enough either. I wish they were. They will not take away all of the pain. I wish they could.”
And yet, it feels like there is something real and true and even hopeful in these texts. And if you’ll allow me a few more minutes, I’d offer a word.
When we explored the emotional Genesis passage a few months ago, perhaps you remember that I suggested that this was a key moment in the relationship of God with God’s people. In the context of ways of the surrounding world, who chose violence and even child sacrifice, the God of Israel was not an absolutist God of arbitrary death, but the God of life. God provided a better way. Likewise, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has been at work trying to change the terms of life and death. Still, the world had a pretty absolutist, black and white view of life and of death. There is life, and then there is death. End of story. But Jesus has set out to change that view.
He has been trying to explain that you can be technically alive, without being really alive. There is a version of how we live life that is empty, blind, thirsty, confused, and stumbling in the dark (to cobble together all of his metaphors). But then there is a version of life that is “to the full,” abundant, born from above, quenched by living water, fed by the bread of life, tipsy from bathtubs of the best wine you have ever tasted. We have a choice which life we will live.
Similarly now, Jesus has another message about death. You can be technically dead, and in that time and place the technical definition of death happened on day four, which is why John includes that timeline. Lazarus was technically and officially and physically dead. But that was not the end of the story. God provides a better way.
I love the line from Williamson to sum up this message from John: “death is not permanent, and life is not impermanent.” In this moment, Jesus proclaims that death is a temporary thing. Now, that does not make it any less painful. That does not mean that it is taken away or taken out of this world. That does not mean that the hard questions of the touch of death in our world suddenly become easy to answer. But it does mean that God is not the God of a permanent and arbitrary death, indifferent to our suffering. It means God in human form, tenting with us, tabernacling with us, grieving with us, hurting with us, staying with us in the midst of the pain, understands the depth of what it means to be human.
Jesus told the first disciples “come and see” what God would look like on this earth.
The woman at the well told the people who had rejected her “come and see” the Messiah.
The people at the tomb of Lazarus tell Jesus “come and see” where we have laid him.
And he comes. They invite him into the depths of their grief and pain, and he comes with them. Among them. Beside them.
And from that place, in the midst of their pain, God in Christ transforms life into this eternal and abundant new thing, and God in Christ transforms death into this impermanent and incomplete new thing. The pain of human life continues, but it is transformed in this moment so that there is an unbinding—a physical unbinding of Lazarus, and a spiritual unbinding for the rest of us. Pain and death are not the end.
“Death is not permanent, and life is not impermanent.”
And what does that mean for us? When the injury keeps us from playing the sport we love. When the diagnosis feels like a punch in the gut. When our prayers for healing seemingly go unanswered. When the universal pain of “why didn’t you?” seeks to overwhelm us.
I believe that the answer to our question of Abraham and Mary and Martha is “yes.”
Can we trust a God who would ask us to go through this? Yes.
Why? Because our God does not ask us to go through this…alone. Our God—the God of Creation, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Torah, the God of justice and righteousness, the God of prophecy and monarchy, the God of new life to dry bones, the God of new life squirming in a manger, the God of overturned tables and overturned expectations, the God of women left alone by the side of the well and men left alone by the side of the pool. That God, the God of Scripture, is the God of the better way. The God of “Come and See” has come and still sees us. Weeps with us at the funeral. Heals our broken hearts and broken bodies. And laughs with us as we trip over our burial cloths on the way out of our tombs. And when those physical bodies are gone and empty, our God invites us to an eternal abundance that we can only begin to glimpse on this earth.
Can we trust our God in this world of pain and death? You bet your life!
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