Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
As I write this morning, the winds are whipping outside my window and my light has flickered a few times. Here in Northeastern Ohio, we are under a weather alert and a high wind warning that calls for winds 25 to 35 miles, with gusts up to 60 miles per hour. As of now, we are safe, but the weather service is warning that we could experience downed trees and power lines, and possible power outages. I say all this to advise you that given these weather conditions, I am feeling a bit of added tension.
Frightening as our situation may be, I ask that you lift up in prayer this morning the people of Alabama, who have endured severe storms and damaging tornadoes that have killed at least five people, not to mention the vast destruction of property.
The assigned readings for today put the contrasting images of death and hope front and center.
Two familiar verses jumped out at me. First, was Martha’s desperate appeal to Jesus, which is featured above. But in Jeremiah’s letter from God to the exiles of Jerusalem, we hear the well-known words of comfort from the Lord: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” [Jer. 29:11]
But I was initially drawn to the story of the raising of Lazarus in our Gospel. This is another one of those two-parters, like Jesus restoring sight to a man born blind that we read a few days ago. However, most, if not all of us, know how the story ends. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, so there’s no need here for a spoiler alert.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In Martha’s statement, we hear echoes of the question many have been asking for the past year. Where is God in all this suffering and dying that our world is experiencing as a result of this Coronavirus pandemic?
We are puzzled, much like those who were with Jesus wondered why he would wait two days to go to Bethany. And like those who waited on him, we ask the question, “Where is Jesus?”
We are confused, because Jesus seemed completely at ease with his decision to stay two days longer in the place where he was. He had his reasons, although they were not obvious to either his disciples or Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha.
But Jesus says to his disciples, “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.”
We heard similar words in the narrative of Jesus healing the blind man: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
We also cannot overlook the fact that traveling to Jerusalem puts Jesus one step closer to his own death. Despite the dangers, despite the risks, despite his disciples’ objection, he walks to Judea to fulfill his mission so the Glory of God may be revealed through him.
Death is a very powerful force in our world and in our lives. When it strikes close to us, it is dreadful. Death’s power is felt to the very core of our being. As I’ve written before, we live daily in the shadow of death, whether because of a pandemic, mass shootings such as we’ve witnessed in the past two weeks, or natural disasters like the tornadoes in Alabama.
Yet in the midst of all this death and destruction we hear the words of Jesus, as he told Martha, and by extension, to us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Jesus knew people would continue to die. He taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is what we as Christians believe, and it is why even at the time of tragedy Christians can and do praise God.
As we approach Holy Week and the suffering and death of Jesus, we also remember that on the other side of that death there is new life. No matter how distressed, forlorn, hopeless, despairing, discouraged, despondent a people may be, the promise of Jesus – the promise of resurrection and life – gives us the hope that can change any situation, granting us the courage and confidence to see things through.
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