Mar. 19, 2023
“‘Lord, If You Had Been Here’” Chan Willis – F.P.C.-L.C./Welsh
John 11:1-45 March 26, 2023 – 5th Sun. Lent
So, here we are at the long-awaited conclusion of the season of Lent. Those lengthy 40 days of penitence and preparation, of sacrifice and study that culminate in the roller-coaster ride of Christian faith known as Holy Week. As we, most fittingly, just heard the longest passage of the Lenten season (year!), we could ask the same question we could ask at the earliest stages of Christian faith, or of the study of the ‘manual of operations,’ God’s Holy Word: “Where do we start!” For there are certainly a LOT of ‘moving parts’ to this story. The ‘all-star’ sisters, Martha and Mary; the soon-to-be deceased brother Lazarus (NOT to be confused with ‘poor man Lazarus, sick and disabled’ in Luke 16 (you know… to whom the rich man cried out, ‘stick your finger in the water, let me cool my tongue [‘POP’], for I’m tormented by the flame.’); of course, JESUS, and his disciples; and a host of townspeople who will be joined by visitors from Jerusalem to witness just how this ‘international man of mystery’ would respond to this dire situation. The only group conspicuously missing are the Pharisees… tho’ they were probably lurking around somewhere in the indigenous palm trees ready to be plucked next week for the big ‘coming-IN’ parade…
But as I sought to ‘distill’ this great harvest of grain into a more focused and ‘potent’ message from which we might ‘drink,’ God directed my attention to a smaller grouping of verses more toward the center of this voluminous passage.
It picked up at verse 20 where Martha goes out to meet Jesus as He approaches their hometown of Bethany. She greets him with the very same statement that her sister Mary will later say to him: “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11:21) Now, while Martha, unlike Mary, would then express her personal assurance that God the Father could yet give whatever the Son asked… exactly what she had in mind we can’t say, since rising from the dead was a pretty bold option… for me there was yet an undercurrent of question in her voice. ‘IF you had been here. And why WEREN’T you? Especially for the one you supposedly ‘love?!’ Was there perhaps some DOUBT in her mind that maybe this all-powerful,
All-knowing Messiah that she trusted was NOT so ‘powerful’ and ‘knowing?’
Jesus addresses her concerns quickly and directly: “Your brother will rise again.” (Jn. 11:23). How can he make such a bold statement? Because, “I am the resurrection and the life. … Everyone who lives and believes in me will NEVER die.” (Jn. 11:25-26) With this definitive, powerful, life-changing proclamation of the ‘Gospel TRUTH’ of Jesus’ identity… ‘make no mistake about it,’ He says, ‘through ME comes resurrected, eternal life’… Jesus then challenges Martha with another very direct and to-the-point statement: “Do you believe this?” (Jn. 11:26)
To which Martha replies, without hesitation, “Yes, Lord, I believe… that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (Jn. 11:27) ‘You ARE the One promised through generations of faithful followers before me… The One whom I am called to RESPOND to in FAITH to love and serve.’
What I see in this fairly brief exchange in the middle of this long passage is, both figuratively and literally, the CORE of this Christian faith we profess. In life we come before God with DOUBT… God meets our doubts with His TRUTH… to which we are to RESPOND in FAITH. We are born in sin… saved from that sin… in order to go forth to minister to other sinners.
Today’s story reminds us first that we all can experience DOUBT in our daily lives. Doubt of our family, doubt of our friends, doubt in our finances, doubt of the future… doubt of the One who in truth HOLDS that future. Even when we desperately WANT to believe in a power greater than our own… even when we do believe deep in our hearts that ‘God will give whatever is asked of him’… there can still be that lingering doubt in ‘what we cannot see.’ You know: the ‘substance’ of faith… things ‘hoped for’ and yet ‘unseen.’ Doubt that even beloved friends of Jesus like Martha and Mary struggled with…
And while we’re on the subject of those TWO sisters, ‘a brief commercial word from our Sponsor.’ Let’s give some props to Martha! You know, the one who so often gets a ‘bad rap’ as being the ‘less-spiritual’ one who was working back in the kitchen while ‘sweet little Mary’ was all gaga-eyed at Jesus’ feet, being all ‘spiritual’ in front of all the houseguests. Think about it: the one who is so well-known as the devoted sibling whom Jesus recognized as having ‘chosen the better part’… didn’t say anything of a possible, more faith-filled resolution to the loss of her brother. Simply, ‘Lord, if ONLY you had been here…’
Whereas Martha, she of the ‘all work and no pray’ reputation, showed herself to be a person of such great faith that Jesus bestowed upon her arguably the greatest statement of his identity in Scripture: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) See, all you ‘Martha’s’ out there… just because you’re known for a good ‘work ethic’ doesn’t mean you can’t also have a strong ‘worship’ ethic as well. What we DO must be always informed by what we BELIEVE.
In response to the DOUBTS that Mary may have had… that WE can have… We are to be seekers of the TRUTH. What is it that will replace the hopelessness we fragile human beings can harbor in our heart with HOPE? How can we deal with the pain and suffering… and death… that those whom we love must inevitably pass through? The timeless truth of Jesus’ assurance to Martha, and to us: “‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (Jn. 11:25-26)
As I read this powerful statement for the umpteenth time, for some reason it occurred to me, ‘Why does Jesus say two phrases back-to-back that seem quite similar. Are they a bit ‘redundant?’ Heck, I will agonize over choices of synonyms in sermons so that I will NOT use the same word too repetitively. And then that small, not-so-still voice answered me, ‘BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT, STUPID!’ That when something is of such vital, central importance in any lesson we learn, it needs to be repeated… and repeated… and… When we consider just what it means to be a ‘Christian,’ we start with ‘CHRIST’. Who He is and why he came to earth. Go back a few chapters from here to be reminded: “For GOD so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
That ‘imperishable’ nature of Christ, that He offers to us, is NOT simply something to be waited on for some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ future. It is available to us NOW. “Whoever LIVES and BELIEVES in me (NOW!) shall never die.” (Jn. 11:26) Beginning TODAY! Our spirits are not to wait for the END of our earthly lives to be resurrected to eternal life. We must be living out the Joyous consummation of these bodily lives in the HERE AND NOW! With every breath that our loving God gives us here on earth. I loved the way that one commentary put it: “Through him and in him dead souls can and do rise up out of the sleep of death, become alive, grow sensitive, active, purposeful, endowed with powers they did not have before.” (Interpreter’s Bible) As you and I live DAILY in the resurrection HOPE of our Lord Christ, we too can ‘rise up’… become more alive… be more sensitive, more active, with a greater sense of purpose and power that we did not have before. BUT… we must be prepared to answer the question that Jesus asked of Martha immediately following his landmark statement of faith: “Do you believe this?” (Jn. 11:26)
WHAT WILL WE ANSWER? How will we ‘RESPOND in FAITH? Will we be like Mary, who, in spite of the love she had for her Lord, stopped short of proclaiming her unequivocal trust in the promise of the resurrection? Or will we be more like Martha, who even in the depth of her struggle and loss, could yet answer bravely as she did? That in Christ, her dreams were not merely dreams, but audacious prophecies of what one day would truly be! A joy-filled confidence that moves us to act more ‘audaciously’ for the God who saves us.
When you and I consider just what it is that leads us to faith in, and action for, God, it is no doubt a combination of factors. God’s Word Incarnate (Jesus). God’s Word Written (Bible) The testimony of countless faithful ones who have influenced our lives throughout the generations. That small still voice that speaks to us from the most heartbreaking times to the most exhilarating. But perhaps another moving reason ‘to believe’ might come in the actions of Jesus in response to the anguish and sorrow expressed by the family and friends of Lazarus. What was the reason for that ‘not-so-trivial’ answer of the Bible’s shortest verse… “Jesus wept”? (Jn. 11:35) Did He get so emotional because He was afraid of failure, of not being able to fulfill his promise that Lazarus would rise from the dead? Absolutely NOT! I believe that he cried not because of fear of a failed supernatural ability, but because of the anguish of his natural heart. He hurt because his fellow men and women hurt. Affirming the full humanity of Jesus is critical to our Christian faith. The One who was tested in every way, just as we are.
For Christ is the express image of God’s person, the perfect showing forth in human form of the very character of God. A God that could understand, that could suffer, that could anguish, feeling the agony of bereavement… submitting even to the brutal hopeless torture of an innocent Son. This is the extraordinary conception of the Godhead to which we have risen. In this life and in the life to come. We can love, and be raised to eternal life, because Jesus was first raised, and first loved us.
As we traverse the journey of faith that takes us from DOUBT, to the TRUTH, to the RESPONSE of FAITH, may we find that it is no longer necessary to cry to Jesus, “Lord, if you had only been here.” Because we will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our weeping, wonderful Savior has, in truth, ALWAYS been there. Promising that we who live and believe in Him will NEVER die. That we can say without hesitation, borrowing from the people’s observation of Jesus with the loved ones of Lazarus… ‘See how He loves ME’… A love that will take him to a place to show His love for you and me…THIS MUCH…[Hold hands outstretched]…
CHARGE/BLESSING: May the words of Ezekiel and Jesus be our own:
Arise, dry bones, and live!
Come out, Lazarus, and give glory to God!
May the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life,
bless and keep you in this life and in the life to come.
Questions for Reflection: Why did Jesus weep in John 11:35? Was it out of compassion for Mary and Martha? Out of love for his friend Lazarus? Out of frustration with the people’s lack of understanding or faith? Think about someone in your life who is grieving. Find a way to extend to that person the grace and peace of Christ.
Feb. 26, 2023 (PDF)
Mar. 5, 2023 (PDF)
Mar. 12, 2023 (PDF)
Mar. 19, 2023 (PDF)
Mar. 26, 2023 (PDF)
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