November 4, 2012 – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
To listen to the recording, click here: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is a very honest book. We might have been raised as children to believe that the characters in the Bible are spiritual superheroes, bigger than life and twice as virtuous, but when you grow up and read the Bible for yourself, you begin to realize that this is a book full of plain old real people just like you. They do and say foolish things, even bad things; they make mistakes – and one of the most helpful things about all that is that they ask the very questions that are in our own minds: those honest and very human questions that we try to push to the back of our minds because they don’t seem like the kind of questions that “People of Faith” ought to ask.
And that is exactly what happens in the story about the raising of Lazarus that we just read today. The Sunday School version of the story is that Jesus comes to the help of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, who are grieving the loss of their brother. Jesus is full of kindness and compassion, and he weeps along with them. And then, telling the people to roll away the stone in front of the grave he cries out in a loud voice and Lazarus comes forth, alive and well. It is a glorious miracle, a little preview of the even more glorious resurrection to eternal life that was approaching. All true. All wonderful. But in the story, two times in the story, in fact, people ask the question that was buzzing around in the back of everyone’s mind like a very annoying mosquito. “Why didn’t Jesus come sooner, and stop Lazarus from dying in the first place?” Martha, Jesus’s good friend, said it herself, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It all makes perfect sense. The crowds had been watching Jesus work. He healed the blind and the deaf; he cast out demons. One woman at least was healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus’s robe! Why on earth didn’t Jesus heal his friend, so that he would not have to suffer the pain of death, so that his sisters and friends would not have suffered so terribly from the grief of losing him? Even Jesus himself wept, grieved at the atrocity that death is, grieved for the pain of his friends. But he could have stopped it all before it happened. If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God then it only follows logically and theologically that we believe that he was capable of that.
Oh, and it even gets worse. If we had read this story in its larger context, starting back at the beginning of chapter 11, we would have found out that Jesus actually got the news of his friend’s illness well before he died, and that he deliberately stayed put for two more days before he began the journey to Bethany. He prolonged his stay, not because he thought he could squeeze in a little more ministry and still have time to get down to his friend and heal him, but because it was his purpose to come too late. He said as much to his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” It is crystal clear that when John wrote down this story, the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire him to sugar-coat all this, or to give God an alibi for his strange behavior.
Two things are very clear. One is that God allows painful things to happen to us. He is the Lord of the Universe, and although he is never, ever the source of evil, no evil thing can happen that he doesn’t know about, and more, that he doesn’t permit. I don’t think you can read the Bible and get around that. But it is also true that when he allows evil to happen, it is not because he isn’t watching, and it is not because he doesn’t care about us – the whole meaning of Jesus’s Incarnation is that he came to share all of our pain and fear and temptation – not just to know about it, but to truly feel it. Jesus didn’t ride in on a white charger and wow the crowds with his raising-the-dead act. Jesus wept. John (who was there in person, remember) says that Jesus was “deeply moved and greatly troubled.” Jesus was shaken to the core by the experience of death, but it was no error or weakness on the part of God that brought him weeping to the grave of his good friend.
And that is why it’s OK, and even right, for the Jews, and for Mary and Martha, and for us, to ask “why?” “If you had been there, Lord, my brother would not have died.” “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind have saved his good friend from death?” Those are good questions, and the Bible honestly and directly invites us to ask them. God is not the author of evil, ever, but he is the Lord of everything, of every event, of every other power on earth and in heaven. Could God have stopped my father from getting lung cancer? Could he have stopped Hurricane Sandy from passing through a city where millions of poor, helpless people lived? Could he have stopped the miscarriage of a friend’s child? It is right for us to ask those questions, and the only answer we can give, if we are children of God, is “Yes.”
I don’t think the Bible allows us any other answer. God could have stopped the death of Lazarus, but I think that the Bible makes a second thing clear. We aren’t just left without an answer to the deeper question of “why?” Jesus told his friends, “For your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” I want to be very cautious here, because I am not claiming to have the answer to “why bad things happen to good people”. In fact, when people try to give reasons for the cruelties of this world it almost always ends very badly. Is there anything worse, anything less comforting, if you are at the funeral of a dear friend or family member, to be told that they’ve gone to a better place, or that God had a better plan for them? Are you ever comforted, if you receive a terrible diagnosis from your doctor, to be told that it’s the will of God for you to have cancer, or to be going blind? The evil of the world is truly evil, and we are right to hate it. We are right to hate death, and pain, and disease, even if we know that God is in control. God hates it himself! That’s what the cross was all about. What you need when you are faced with evil is someone who will weep with you. Jesus wept.
But Jesus is also God, and the evil in this broken world is under his control. Jesus said, “For your sakes I am glad I was not there…” His purpose in all things is always love, and his purpose toward us is always to bring us good. The Father’s purpose in all things is to love his children into eternal life. And what the story of Lazarus lets us get a glimpse of is this: that God is able to use the brokenness of this world against itself, to take the evil of death and sorrow and to transform it into faith and joy. I want to be very clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that God deliberately zaps us with cancer and poverty and grief so that he can get hold of us in our weakness and force us to believe in him. God hates all those things even more than we can possibly hate them, and that is saying a lot. What I am saying is that the way God has chosen to bring healing to his beloved creation is to work from within, being a real part of it as a true human being, and suffering along with it, and then using the ugliness and horror of sin and death against itself, bringing to birth the good fruits of faith and hope and joy and kindness.
If we read the story of Lazarus in an even bigger context in the gospel of John, over to chapter 12, we find out that Lazarus’s revival from death caused a huge problem for the chief priests who were plotting Jesus’s death. The raising of Lazarus was a work that no one had been able to hush up; crowds were flocking not only to see Jesus, but to see the man he had raised from the dead. It got so bad that they began to make plans to kill Lazarus as well; that was the power of this event. From pain and grief came strong faith for huge numbers of people. God brought light from darkness – as the creator he does that kind of thing. We can see it all around us: the kindnesses people show one another in hard times, the unselfishness we can see in events like the hurricane, the closeness we experience with God in our darkest moments. God is never the author of evil, but he is the creator who can always transform the darkness into light. That is the “big picture” in the history of redemption, the final game plan when all darkness will be subsumed in the ineffable joy and light of his love. By faith, with courage, we can see the “small picture” victories of God’s love all around us. We can be a part of them, allowing the light of Christ to transform the darkness of our own life, and the life of the people around us. Without fear, and without shame we can face all the difficulties and evils of our life and ask Jesus “why?” Because he has given us his answer, as he wept at the grave of Lazarus, and as he hung on the cross: it is for your sakes. It is for love.