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The God Who Waits and Weeps

November 5, 2015

“The God Who Waits and Weeps” John 11:1-7, 17-37 © 11.1.15 All Saints’ Day by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

You hang up the phone and sit for a moment, stunned. Then as your senses return, a wave of horror and disbelief washes over you. A life-long friend in another town has been seriously injured in a car accident and is not expected to live. The family is asking for you to come and be with your friend and them in their time of need. Somehow your very presence may provide strength and reassurance. You know, as the blogger Tim Lawrence wrote recently, that the most powerful thing you can do is to acknowledge another’s pain, to say the words “I am here with you.” It will be your presence, simply your presence, in which you stand with, suffer with, listen to, that will help your friend’s family enter into healing (http://www.timjlawrence.com/blog/2015/10/19/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason).

So, after throwing a few necessities in a bag, you’re on the road, canceling appointments, making arrangements on your cell as you go. Nothing else at this moment is more important that the desperate plea of your friend’s family for you to be there.

Who of us would not respond just so to an urgent request to be at the side of a dying friend? So why then did Jesus—the model of compassion and source of all comfort—why then did he wait two days before even starting out to Bethany? And what can the gospel writer possibly mean with his explicit statement that Jesus’ reason for the delay was his love for this family? Some translations are uncomfortable with the puzzling use of “so” or “therefore” in the Greek text, but it’s there. “Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, so he stayed two days longer….”

This text leads us to doubt the common assumption that when God is absent or at least when we don’t feel God’s presence, that we are somehow being punished, that God has withdrawn his love or is trying to teach us a hard lesson. This way of thinking is so common that writer Barbara Brown Taylor can give it a name. She calls it “full solar spirituality,” in which everything is always sunny and bright and cheerful, and any experience other than that is a failure on our part. But in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, she reintroduces us to a neglected classic way of being faithful, which she terms “lunar spirituality.” In that approach to being Christian, our sense of God may wax and wane like the phases of the moon. We may experience what St. John of the Cross labeled “the dark night of the soul.” But God has not forsaken us. Rather, as this gospel text reminds us, absence may in fact be an expression of God’s care.

That’s all well and good, we say, but we understand the sisters’ complaint. Bad things happen when Jesus is not there, things he could have prevented. Like their brother dying. The gospel writer doesn’t pretend people don’t hurt or that they accept what God does without question. He’s not afraid of voices raised in dispute with the way God handles things, the ones that say: “I could care less about the glory of God or some esoteric notion of spirituality. Where was God, where was Jesus when I needed him?” “Lord, if you had been here, my loved one would not have gotten so sick, wouldn’t have had an accident or been a victim of crime, wouldn’t have died.” “Lord, if you had been here, my life would not have turned out this way.” “Lord, if you were only here in the world, there would not be so much violence and war and hatred.” “Lord, if only….”

I believe that our covenant with God gives us every right to hold God accountable for God’s actions. This relationship with our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer is not one way. It is not only we who can be put on the hot seat for our action or inaction. If the covenant is really about mutuality, then we can get in God’s face and say: “You promised! Now what about it?” Far from being an evidence of a lack of piety, I think our bold insistence means we take this relationship very seriously indeed.

Jesus never says what I want him to say. When Martha and/or Mary accost him with their grief, couldn’t he have offered an apology? An explanation? Instead, we have the paradox of love expressed by and through absence, through letting people experience grief and sorrow that it is within the power of God to prevent, because if we are going to heal, we need to grieve. This kind of strange grace teaches our hearts to fear. In other words, it leads us to a place of undeniable and unexplainable mystery. Impossible and cruel it is, but sometimes the only way to new life is to walk through the dark valley with merely the memory of God as rod and staff and comfort. The way to building the new begins with the demolition of the old. Upheaval may be God’s loving work in our lives. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “the world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God.” The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once described us as “…we who do need…great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth.” Impossible and cruel it is, hard and hellish, but once you experience this kind of fierce and lonely grace, you know why Jesus stayed away.

Such questions about the absence of Jesus are important, but we can leave them now for the rest of what this text offers us. We’re invited to join Martha in hearing words from Jesus that go beyond our greatest expectations. Maybe, as a colleague of mine once put it, Martha’s statements were actually leading questions, pleas for something more. “Even now I know God will give you whatever you ask him” equals “so will you ask him?” “He will rise on the last day” becomes the hope that he could rise this day, a hope against hoping that Jesus would do it for Martha or if not for her, then Mary and/or Lazarus. Or if they didn’t matter enough in some great scheme and plan, then for the glory of God, so people looking on would believe.

The answer Martha got was more than she could’ve imagined. It was a promise for today and tomorrow. “I am—right now, this moment, in your need—I am the resurrection and the life.” In and for all our loss and grief. In and for those terrible moments when we are assaulted by death-dealing forces that seem to be ever more in control in this world. For the times when life says “no,” and we turn away, beaten and discouraged. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even in death, there is life. And such assurance opens the door into a new reality beyond wonder where death is no more.

But there is even more good news. Those gathered with Mary and Martha expected Jesus to do something. Now that he was finally here, they could forgive his lateness is he just did something. How much of a stretch was it from healing the blind to raising the dead?

We know that Jesus did end up raising Lazarus. But before that climactic event, he offered another kind of comfort and help. It’s discounted by some, but I believe there are times when this sort of aid from our Savior is just as important as a spectacular miracle.

Jesus wept.

Grief brings with it a whole complex of emotions that are strong and scary. And with his weeping, Jesus validates them all, shows us we need not be ashamed of or avoid them. The translations typically gloss over the strength and sort of Jesus’ feelings on the way to his friend’s tomb. He felt compassion. He was deeply troubled. Sad. But he was also angry and agitated. Just like we are sometimes in loss. You know what I mean. Mad at the people who crowd around us when all we want is a quiet moment. Sick of the pious platitudes offered by would-be “comforters,” like “it was God’s will” or “God needed him or her more than you did” or “everything happens for a reason.” Angry at the one who died for dying. Raging at death itself for being so cruel and for touching human life far too often.

I remember with a great deal of resentment a middle school coach, who by his attitude forever gave me a bad taste about sports. In physical education class, we ran and ran and ran around the football field at Merry Acres School. “How long do we have to run, Coach?” someone would ask. “Till I git tired,” came the sarcastic, sadistic reply.

By contrast, God does not stand aloof as an iron-fisted authority figure imposing his will on us. Jesus stands with us in our pain, goes with us on these tear-soaked and footsore journeys we take. The God we know in Christ runs with us and knows our exhaustion, our ache, our deepest hurt. Some say it isn’t true. The Westminster Confession tells us that God is without passion or pain. But can we believe in a god like that? Is that the God of the Bible, the One we meet in Jesus?

Graham Greene’s Novel A Burnt-out Case is set in a hospital for lepers in the African jungle. At the end of the book, a doctor and a priest are standing outside the doors of the clinic. It’s morning, and the crowd is beginning to arrive for treatment. They are a pitiful lot, mutilated and scarred. Their souls are as empty of hope as their bodies are diseased. The doctor, an atheist, turns to the priest, and says, “Your God must feel disappointment in this world of his.” To which the priest replies: “God does not feel disappointment or pain.” The doctor has this come-back: “Perhaps that is why I do not care to believe in him” (cited in Sanford Hull, “The Suffering One,” Presbyterians Today, March 1996: 24).

The priest, of course, was wrong. And so is Westminster. The Gospel of John is anchored by two texts: “the Word became flesh” and “Jesus wept.” Our Lord shows us a God who becomes one of us, one with us, walking the path of joy and sorrow. He feels what we feel. Jesus reveals a God who weeps, a God with a body, a God of passion.

But passion will not open tombs. There was once an indie rock tune in which the singer screams over and over: “despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage.” Powerless. Trapped. Insignificant. Subject to the whims of the jailer. Jesus weeps and rages at death. But he is neither trapped by nor powerless over it. At his word, Lazarus comes forth. At his word, the dead man is unbound. At his word, Lazarus is free.

And so are we loosed from our bondage to whatever it is that enslaves us. So are we brought out of the tombs that have enclosed us so we know again the light of life.

The irony of this story is in its aftermath. The raising of Lazarus will bring about the death of Jesus. Our Lord gives life to another only to have his own taken away.

Or was it taken? Did he not say that he laid down his life willingly for the sheep? His sacrifice of himself was the ultimate gift to us, so that when we stand weeping in sorrow, we may find in him resurrection and life once again.

Do you believe this?

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