“If you had been here…” An All Saints’ Day Sermon
Below is the sermon I preached at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Toledo today, November 4, 2018; at the very end is the Gospel text from John, upon which the sermon is based.
This link will take you to the YouTube video upload of the service: the Gospel text begins at 5:25 into the broadcast.
For all the saints…
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The only thing that dead people can do is to be dead.
They cannot eat, walk, believe, trust, repent, confess, hope, or raise themselves.
The only verb they’ve got the power in them to do is this: be dead.
They cannot act, in short.
They can only be acted upon.
That, of course, is exactly what we see with the story of Lazarus: a man being distinctly and unquestionably dead, and this same man raised up.
And to be clear, this was a man dead four days, we are told. Not three, before which the people of the day believed there might be a fighting chance that the life force was still hanging around. Nope. Not three days, but four days dead.
No Princess Bride-ian “almost dead” about it, no Monty Python plague-infested man protesting, “I feel better!” to be heard.
In fact, I learned as I prepped for this sermon that the King James Version says, “He stinketh.”
I love that.
Lazarus. Was. Dead.
Lazarus was dead, and his sisters were not happy about it, not one little bit.
They were not only grieving his death, you see, but they were angry.
They were furious at Jesus, a man who was no mere acquaintance, but rather was a dear friend of the family.
I have joked that it has been a real bonus that in my close friendship circle I have therapists and a nurse! One-stop shopping for all sorts of issues, all solved over a glass or two of wine.
But Mary and Martha, they were able to claim the Messiah as their friend. So when their beloved brother—and also, it appears, as the ‘man of the house,’ the one on whom they were dependent for their livelihood—fell sick, they called up an old friend for a favor.
“Hey,” they said, “Jesus, dear friend, our brother Lazarus, whom you love, is ill. We need you to come heal him.”
Recall that they knew of Jesus’ knack for miracles. They knew precisely what Jesus was able to do and that this time, they needed Jesus to do it not for some stranger, but for someone whom he loved like his own brother.
And what did the man do?
He lingered where he was, until finally he somehow got the message that the time to heal had passed, and the time to resuscitate had come.
So he sallies up, and Martha and Mary, independent of one another, both say the same thing: If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.
We trusted you.
You were not here.
And therefore, our brother died.
At this point we need to stop for both two key clarifications and a key connection:
First, the clarification, all the more critical to make just a week beyond the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
The reference to the Jews which surfaces, time and again, in this text is better understood as “the Judeans.”
Who were the Judeans?
The powerful elite, the ones who were threatened by Jesus’ authority, and the ones who conspired with the Romans for Jesus’ death.
These were not “the Jews” en masse.
These were the people bent on offing Jesus to protect themselves.
Jesus and the disciples were on to these Judeans; this is why the disciples were utterly baffled about Jesus’ desire to go directly to Judea, intentionally touching his hand straight on that hot stove.
And Jesus’ response was that the safest time to do that was in the day, when the “light of the world” (see what he did there?) was shining, for he knew that the authorities would come for him in the night.
And this is why Martha privately told Mary that Jesus had arrived: apparently, you see, Mary and Martha and Lazarus came from a family with some influence, which is why the elite Judeans had gathered for the funeral. Martha wanted to protect Jesus from her own guests.
With painful irony, it was Mary—Mary, the one who had anointed Jesus with nard, effectively anointing him king, and preparing him for burial, and the one who loved him—it was this Mary who, in her haste to see Jesus, inadvertently led the Judeans to Jesus anyway, for they saw her rushing to Lazarus’ grave.
So, the first two key clarifications: the Judeans, the ones who conspired with Rome to have Jesus killed, are in play. Not the Jews, whose numbers, let’s be clear, included Mary, Martha, Lazarus, the disciples, and Jesus.
And, particularly with Mary in play, this is all going down precisely before Jesus’ own death.
That is, death is at hand, and not just Lazarus’.
The third key piece is this: for any one who has suffered a death, or suffered profound grief, this text can hurt more than help.
I count myself among them.
We in fact have even ourselves, perhaps, called out: Jesus, if you had been here, our [insert the name of your beloved] would not have died!
The confession of faith that Martha offers is one that almost feels extracted, or is one that maybe we ourselves have been able to offer but not right away when in the throes of grief and disbelief and anger: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
And then Mary, the one with whom Jesus was perhaps closest, not only cried out the same accusation—which cut Jesus all the more because it was true—but then she wept.
Some of us (most of us?) know that kind of weeping.
The gut-wrenching, soul-searing, gasping-for-breath sobbing.
We don’t even need to have experienced an actual death of a person, here, either.
The death of a dream, a relationship, health, a job, a hope; a death do to a profoundly regrettable choice, an addiction, a mistake, a sin: one does not need to be six-foot-under to feel dead.
To be dead.
To be capable of no other verb than simply being dead.
To not be able to act at all, but only be able to be acted upon.
What is mighty in this passage is that Jesus enters into her weeping too.
The text says that “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The word, here, in Greek that we translate as “greatly disturbed in spirit” is enebrimesato, and the root is the same as the word in Greek used for a horse snorting, and even in anger.
We know that sound of weeping, hardly mild and mere weeping, in fact, but instead lamenting to the point of snorts of grief and anger.
We know it and we have done it.
And, it turns out, so has Jesus.
So has Jesus.
Even so, even knowing that the Lord knows our pain, feels our pain, for those of us who do know this deep grief, who have wept these abundant tears, the blessing and the bane of this text is that Lazarus didn’t stay dead.
Jesus resuscitated him.
Lazarus was unbound, and walked free from the grave.
And while we can all be glad for Lazarus, and glad for Mary and Martha and Jesus, some of us are still able, not least of all on this All Saints’ Day, some of us are still able to cry out with grief and anger, “Lord, if you had been here, my [fill-in-the-blank-beloved] would not have died!
And what are we to do with that?
How are we to make sense of the fact that some die, and some live?
At this point, I’m tempted to point out that my flight leaves a lot earlier than I might want it to, and I probably should get a move on so that I don’t miss it, and so…Amen.
But that won’t cut it.
And, in fact, in the depth of grief, I’m not sure that anything can ‘cut it.’
The loss just cuts.
Every breath just cuts.
And we seek madly for some relief, some hope that the pain we are feeling, the death that has occurred, can be taken away.
That our loved one too, or our own spirits too, can be resuscitated.
What we are talking about, here, is hope.
Hope is a powerful thing.
It can also, I’ve decided, be a toxic thing.
And hope is a different bird than optimism.
In fact, a theologian named Anthony Kelly says this about hope:
“Optimism is no bad thing in itself. It is a kind of implicit confidence that things are going well in the present situation…Optimism is happy enough with the system. In contrast, genuine hope is always ‘against hope.’ It begins where optimism reaches the end of its tether. Hope stirs when the secure system shows signs of breaking down. Hope is at home in the world of the unpredictable where no human logic or expectation is in control…In this respect, it is never far from humility, for it acknowledges that in birth and in death…human existence is never a realm of total control. We are not the center of the universe that has brought us forth, and the ultimate.”
“Hope begins where optimism reaches the end of its tether.”
Mary and Martha were optimistic that Jesus would come.
But they were hopeful that Jesus would raise Lazarus.
We Christians, you see, we live in the world of Hope.
I call this Holy Saturday living, and, as I said yesterday, the most honest day of the Church.
It is the day of the already and not yet, the day when we are not mired in the bleakness and the shocking despair of Good Friday, nor are we thrown into the blinding sunlight of consummate hope found in the empty tomb. We live where both are real.
If we look to this passage as a source of hope that, on this side of our graves, we too will see the Saints whom we are remembering and grieving today alive again, springing from their tombs, or the relationships lost which we want so much to be restored, or the possibility of bad news to be reeled in reeled back reeled away, we will have been imbibing in toxic hope.
The dead are dead.
And we will also miss that immediately after this passage, Jesus is arrested and dies his own death, a death which he too lamented and wanted to avoid: “Father, let this cup pass from me!”
Death, that is, happens.
Even to Jesus.
It’s simply and often tragically true.
So the intent of this passage is not to make false promises or crush our spirits with hope for impossible resuscitations in our own worlds and lives.
But one of the intents of this passage is to reveal what God’s agenda is: it is not death.
It is not despair.
It is not sobs that sound like the snorts of a team of horses.
Instead, it is life -out- of death.
It is something that stirs outside the system, it is a proclaimed promise that occurs when optimism has reached the end of its tether, it is the good news, the gospel, that Jesus died but did not stay dead.
He rose from the dead.
He rose from death.
Death, that is, is real, so very real, but life is real-er.
Grief is real, horribly real, but tears that are wiped away are real-er.
We Christians are not optimistic people.
We are hopeful people.
We are people who know of death, despite our faith, and the faith of Martha.
But we also know of faith, a faith which says to the dead, for those who cannot act but can only be acted upon: Rise up. Rise up.
Your death is real, your grief is real, your loss is real.
Hope, life, resurrection is, ultimately, real-er.
Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope, Orbis Press, 2013. P. 5.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.