A Case of the "If Onlys"
This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on April 2, 2017. The scripture for the day was John 11:1-45
I was really in a bad mood the other day and I couldn’t figure out why. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I thought it through. Everybody’s healthy. Work’s fine. Things are generally ok. So why I am so cranky?
I realized had come down with a case of the “if onlys…” You know, “if only this one thing was different in my past, then everything in my present would be magically SO much better”. It’s a contagious illness, spread often - but not always - by social media. The symptoms are a kind of grief and regret mixed with a deep need to review moments of your past that could have turned out differently.
This particular week what triggered my “if onlys” was a post on facebook. I’ve talked before about how I spent some years training and working as an actor in LA. I still have acquaintances who live down there and work in the industry, and occasionally a post about someone’s success will come across my feed. The one that got me was a former classmate of mine who worked with our teacher to write and perform in a film. It got into a film festival and got some awards. I felt happy for my classmate and teacher (ok, maybe not too happy), but the if onlys snuck up on me. If only I had hung in there a little longer and not quit. If only that one audition had been better. If only I had written my own material. If only….well, you get it.
The “if onlys” can sneak up on you and revive old hurts and grief.
My feelings are not the same kind of hurt and grief that Martha and Mary experience over losing their brother Lazarus (in the reading from John) but reflecting on my own feelings helps me understand some of their reaction to Jesus.
Martha and Mary, when Lazarus gets ill, send notice to their beloved Teacher Jesus, who is known for his miracle healings. They love Jesus, and believe that he loves them. They expect that Jesus will come right away when he hears Lazarus is ill.
So, they send word. And then they wait. I imagine them scanning the distance for signs of Jesus’ familiar figure. They wait for several days. Lazarus dies. Heartbroken, and grieving, they bury Lazarus in the tomb.
Then, Martha sees him first, the figure they’ve been hoping would appear on the horizon for days and days. I picture her, in the middle of her grief, running out of the house and up the dusty pathways leading out of the village to find Jesus, her leather sandals slapping the hard packed earth. When she gets face to face with Jesus, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It’s a totally bold thing to say to Jesus, she’s almost accusing Jesus of letting Lazarus die, but it’s also perfectly reasonable. Martha, Mary, Lazarus, the whole family has a close relationship with Jesus, and they expect he will come when he hears Lazarus is ill. Jesus stays away from Martha and Mary during a very painful time for them. So the loss is almost a double loss, Jesus was away and now Lazarus is gone.
If only Jesus had been there - something - everything - would have worked out differently.
The Gospel of John, including this account of Lazarus, was probably written down in the late part of the first century, at a time when people may have been saying the same thing to themselves: “If only Jesus were here, things would be working out differently.”
You see, these early Christians did not have an easy time of it. Tradition locates the gospel of John as coming out of a group of Christians living in Ephesus (a city that’s now in Turkey, but then was part of the Roman Empire). These early Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities. There were also intra-religious conflicts between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians, and inter-religious conflicts between the Christian community and the Jewish community. Basically, the early Christians were being persecuted from the outside and also fighting on the inside amongst themselves. In the face of this painful persecution and infighting, the earliest Christians believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. They were waiting for him to hurry up and come back and set things right for them.
But Jesus wasn’t there - at least not physically - just as he wasn’t there at first for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. So, the early Christians may have looked to the story of Lazarus to give themselves hope.
If we divide the story of Lazarus into two parts, first part - where Jesus doesn’t come and Lazarus dies - isn’t very hopeful. But, it reminds us and the earliest Christians that absence and loss is a part of life, even for the most faithful among us. We are assured that Jesus’ absence is part of his plan. Jesus stays away on purpose, even though he loves Lazarus and knows he will die, because Jesus is waiting on the will of God.
For those of us hearing about Lazarus today, the themes of the gospel tale remain the same. Like Martha and Mary, and the early Christians, loss is a part of our own lives. We have loss on a personal level, and on a global scale. There are heartbreaking stories on nearly every page of the newspaper. Like Mary and Martha, we can quite reasonably look at the circumstances of life sometimes and say, “Lord, if you were here with us, then wouldn’t life be better?”
That’s when we need to remember, that the “if only” part of the story is just the first half. The second part of the story is where things get good. When Jesus does arrive, he shares in the sisters’ grief. This reassures us that Jesus’ love is not conditioned on him physically being present.
Next, Jesus goes to the tomb, calls on God, and raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is unbound and set free from death (for the moment) and his resurrection helps a larger number of people believe that Jesus was sent from God to bring them life (vv 25-27; 41-42). Ultimately, it’s not just Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who are blessed by Jesus, but everyone who witnessed the event, all the way down to those of us sharing the story today. (I like to remember that if my own “if onlys” had worked according to my plan - and not to God’s - I wouldn’t here sharing this time with you. Don’t let the if onlys get you!)
There is good news in the gospel. When we wait in faith, like Martha, like Mary, even like Lazarus we remember that Jesus’ love is not absent from us, even when we feel like God is far away. The gospel for us is the same today as it always has been: the ultimate promise - the promise that Easter does come after Good Friday - the promise that we will be reunited with God in the end, unbound and free. If only we have the courage to live faithfully, while we wait for Jesus to come up over the horizon once more.