Today’s gospel reading is again a very long reading but at the heart of message is the question or statement made by both Mary and Martha and also the crowd to Jesus. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And some of the crowd who saw Jesus weeping said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
No doubt it is among the questions that many people ask when the reality of death confronts them. Or when any tragic circumstance happens aren’t we tempted to look to God and ask “why”? Why did you let this happen? Why didn’t you stop this from happening? Why does God allow the terrorist acts to occur. Why does God allow tragic circumstances to happen to anyone, let alone Christians?
Is it wrong to think like that? Not if we look at the examples in the Bible. So many of the Psalms are written inspired by this desire to know why life goes against us at times. Psalm 130 has the Psalm writer crying out to God – Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord. Job wondered why he was suffering even though he was so faithful to God but wondered – Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? (Job 21:7) So too, Jeremiah struggled: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? (Jeremiah 12:1) It is a difficult understanding why an all-powerful, all loving God allows or at least doesn’t prevent evil to succeed. But, sadly, that is the world we not only live in but a world we asked upon ourselves by our disobedience in the beginning when the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil was allowed to enter into our existence. God’s good creation was interrupted by evil when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to see and experience the existence of evil. And part of that evil was the introduction of death, as God warned Adam: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16, 17)
But what Jesus does here in John’s Gospel is show that death, which came by the knowledge of good and evil, was not going to be the final word. Jesus says to Martha: “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. So Jesus doesn’t deny that death is part of the human life now, but he says – even though they die, they will live. John’s Gospel sees Jesus as the coming of a new creation where the darkness of evil is overcome by Jesus’ light. That’s why John’s Gospel begins the same as Genesis: “In the beginning”. Genesis reads: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John’s Gospel reads: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same Word that created the world – let there be light – now becomes the word that became flesh and dwelt among us as God’s light in darkness – and the darkness could not overcome the light of Christ. So God deals with death and evil not by removing them but by not allowing them the final word.
Because of our free will God had to allow Good and Evil to coincide, including death, but God immediately set in plan a redemption – a saviour – who would crush the head of death and evil that was snapping at our heels and overcome it. (Genesis 3:15). It’s interesting that while Genesis Chapter 3 outlines the fall of Adam and Eve – John Chapter 3 overcomes it with the Gospel that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
The world is filled with experiences where we can ask – where is God in this. If Jesus were here this wouldn’t have happened. That simply isn’t true otherwise there would be no need for heaven. The reality is that in this world we’re going to experience the consequences of the knowledge of Good and Evil. The difference is that these will not be the final word for those who believe in Jesus’ Christ – the resurrection and the life.. Jesus speaks the last word just as he spoke to the tomb that had held Lazarus when he said; “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus shows that not even death has the final word which to many is just that. Without Jesus, death is death. Without Jesus death is the final word. The raising of Lazarus is the last sign or miracle that Jesus does in John’s gospel. Everything has been leading up to this last miracle because it is the one that affects us all. We won’t all experience some of the conditions that Jesus healed – blindness, leprosy, hunger – but all of us must face the reality of death. And here Jesus shows that death must submit to his authority even though it would appear that death has the final word. Jesus doesn’t remove death from our lives but he ensures us that death is not the end. Jesus is the resurrection and the life and whoever believes in him, even though they die, they shall live. So Mary and Martha weren’t correct in their statement. Even if Jesus had been there Lazarus still would have died – perhaps not on that occasion but certainly later at the end of life, as the book of Hebrews says in Chapter 9, verse 27: “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”.
Jesus didn’t linger before going because of a lack of compassion. It was widely believed in Jesus’ culture that the spirit of the person would hover for 3 days. Allowing for 4 days in the tomb assured people that Lazarus was well and truly dead.
Death had done its worse to Lazarus and Jesus overrode it. So it’s not that Jesus’ presence would have prevented Lazarus death but his presence assures Lazarus and all of us of eternal life after death. It doesn’t deny the pain of death when someone we love dies. Even Jesus’ himself who is the resurrection and the life cannot hold back his emotion and weeps at the death of his dear friend.
So this is not downplaying death but reassuring us that the one who has defeated death also has compassion for us in the midst of death as we have our high priest who sympathises with us having experienced death himself and the death of a loved one. So it is to Jesus and only Jesus that we look to in death and suffering as only Jesus can offer that hope that death is not the final word but the one who is the Word of God is the final word.