If You Had Been Here

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, April 6, 2014
John 11 1-45
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn


Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were close friends of Jesus.  Mary and Martha are two very different characters.  Martha is the type A one, probably the older sister, the one who takes care of details and hospitality and organizing.  Martha has about 800 friends on facebook.  Mary is the quiet one, the contemplative, the introvert, and she doesn’t even have a facebook account. But both of them, when they see Jesus after their beloved brother Lazarus dies, have a very similar response.  What comes up out of their guts is a raw expression of pain: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Martha softens this by following it up with a statement of general respect and maybe some kind of veiled hope: “even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  But Mary is blunt. She is grieving too hard to say anything but what is on her mind: why didn’t you come? You say that you love us.  How could you let this happen?

Why indeed? Jesus had advance notice. He knew what was going on.  He alone had the power to prevent something like that from happening, as he had done for other people.  Wouldn’t those close to Jesus get first dibs on his services?  Hadn’t he healed Peter’s mother in law when she was very sick with a fever? Why did he delay? Why wasn’t he there?

God doesn’t always prevent bad things from happening. We already know this just by reading the news.  But sometimes it comes home to us in a way that is far too close for comfort.  We lose people.  We experience grief and loss.  The text doesn’t say how old Lazarus is, but it doesn’t seem like he’s at a ripe old age. Maybe he’s Tobin’s age, over there, or Phil’s age.  He’s far too young to die.  The name Lazarus is related to the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means God is my help.  Or more precisely, God is the only one who can help me.  Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 

Lazarus isn’t the only one who has needed God’s help.  A month or two ago during one of those brutally cold snaps, I was at Youthlink and I noticed a young woman holding a baby.  The baby was fussing and the young woman was crying, too, so I walked over to see what I could do to help.  The woman was trying to stuff the baby’s feet into shoes that were too small for it, and both she and the baby were upset so it really wasn’t working.  I found the baby different shoes and put them on and rocked the baby to sleep, while I asked the woman what was wrong.  She was about twenty years old and she was crying because she was homeless, her aunt had kicked her out of the house, and had said that her aunt would keep her baby, but wouldn’t let her live there any more.  So this young woman was having to go drop her own baby off, to leave him, to give him up, not knowing if or when she would get the chance to get him back.  This young woman was obese and did not have a coat, because she couldn’t find one large enough to fit her.  So before I could think of what to do or say, she picked up her baby and walked out into the subzero temperature without a coat.

Like the premature death of Lazarus, this is a situation that should not be allowed to happen.  Where is God in this scenario?   

I think we all feel moved, and even angry, when we encounter situations like this, and Jesus is no different from us in that regard. The text says that he is deeply moved – but the Greek word is closer to meaning angry. It literally means his nostrils flared; he snorted; he was angry.  The text doesn’t tell us why, exactly, but we can imagine. Maybe Jesus was angry on behalf of all those who have ever died too young, angry for the same reason that all of us are angry when something like that happens. What kind of a world do we live in, that young people die and young families are homeless?

Martha tries to engage Jesus in a theological conversation about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, but Jesus will have none of it. He just says that he IS the resurrection and the life, right here, right now.  So Jesus goes to the tomb, makes them open the door, and he bellows.  He demands that Lazarus come out. And the dead man hears him and obeys.   

And you know what? In John’s gospel, it is this act that finally tips the authorities over the edge and that leads directly to Jesus’ own arrest and death.  This is the last straw, the last miracle of Jesus in John’s gospel, before his arrest and crucifixion. And I think Jesus knew this would happen ---the authorities had already been ready to stone him after the last miracle, after he healed the blind man on the sabbath.  Jesus knew that if he broke this unbreakable barrier between death and life, between hopelessness and hope, it would push the authorities over the edge and make them do anything they could to stop him.  Which is exactly what happens.

And what I want you to realize is that Jesus, by raising Lazarus from the dead, is saying this: I AM with you.  I am willing to join you in your suffering.  When Mary and Martha say Lord, if you had been here,” Jesus’ response is to say, I AM WITH YOU.  When Jesus is arrested he is joining with all who have ever suffered, and saying, I AM WITH YOU.  When Jesus breathes his last and cries out and dies, what he is saying to all those who have ever said “Lord if you had been here,” is I AM WITH YOU.  Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, joins us not by preventing death, but by dying with us and for us.  And then he begins the remaking of all creation by rising from the dead.  And that resurrection is not something reserved only for the afterlife. It begins now.  It affects this earth, this reality.  Now is the time for new life to begin. The kingdom of heaven comes to earth, not vice versa.

There are thousands of ways that God gives us life where no hope has existed before.  One hundred and fifty years ago there was an Episcopal deacon named Annette Relf who saw homeless children like the baby I encountered at Youthlink last month, God used her to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth—she started an orphanage for those kids.  God didn’t prevent them from becoming orphans, but God gave them someone to care for them. Then the polio epidemic hit and the orphanage was turned into a hospital for polio victims.  God didn’t prevent polio but God did move the church to care for polio victims.  Today that hospital has become a foundation called Sheltering Arms foundation, of which two St. Matthews women are board members – Ann Nerland and Laura Bathke—and that foundation continues to care for a huge number of children in need in the Twin Cities. 

God meets us where we actually are in our actual lives and provides actual companionship, life, and hope for us now, and the promise of resurrection on the last day, too, even though we can’t imagine what that might mean or look like.

So tonight I want to invite you to think about some situation you are familiar with—maybe in your personal life, maybe in the world around you—where death and hopelessness are the predominate reality.  It might be a personal issue, or something in your family, or something in the broader culture.   Something where you might say to yourself, Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened.   What about this situation is most painful or troublesome for you?

I want to invite you to take this week to think, and even pray, and write, about this situation.  How is God with you in this situation?  What does it mean to you that Jesus says that he IS the resurrection and the life—in this situation?  How does God offer you resurrection and life?  As we approach Holy Week, and the resurrection of Easter, I invite you to allow your story and the Great Story to powerfully intersect with each other.  Keep these questions alive in your consciousness as you move forward, knowing that Jesus is God-With-Us, Emmanuel.  Amen.