You may listen to Mother Takacs's sermon here.
She was too much of a good girl to leave it at that first statement. If ever there were a good girl in the Gospels, it would be Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. She was the one who took care of everyone, who set aside her own needs time after time, who always put herself second or third. Scripture does not tell us about the birth order of these siblings, but surely, surely, Martha was the eldest; she was the big sister, the responsible one, the good girl.
And so when her baby brother died suddenly, and too young, she was the one who bathed the body. She was the one who wrapped him in his shroud, who arranged for the burial, and who set out dates and grapes and bread and wine for the neighbors who came to share in her family’s mourning. And when she heard that Jesus had come – finally – she was the one who rose from up from her sackcloth and ashes and went outside first to meet him.
But when she saw him, on the road, away from her house of mourning, away from her sad-eyed guests, away from her sister with her river of tears, she knew that she just had to say something, and before she could stop herself, she, the good girl, blurted it out. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She heard the words slice through the air and watched as they pierced Jesus’ already broken heart. And as good as it felt to get them off her own aching chest, she was too much of a good girl to leave it at that. And so she went on: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She knew as she said this what she was doing. Perhaps she did hope against hope that Jesus could actually do something for her brother or for her pain, but mostly she felt herself doing her old Martha thing – caring for others, refusing to wound with her words, not letting her own pain overwhelm anyone else.
And so it was easy to let herself be drawn into this deep but slightly abstract theological conversation. Your brother will rise again. Well, I know; he will rise again on the last day. I am the resurrection, I am the life, and those who believe in me will never die. Well, yes, Lord, she said, I do believe this. But even as she said it, she wondered if this was just one of those things that people say, like – Your brother is finally at peace now, he’s in a better place, God just needed a new angel, Lazarus was too good for this world. I believe in eternal life. It didn’t make her feel better, with the pain of her first statement still throbbing in her body. If you had been here, Jesus, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and that I believe with all my heart.
If you had been here, Jesus…and why weren’t you? It’s the question that has been circling in our own minds, filling our hearts with a prickling unease, a disquiet made worse by the fact that, unlike Martha, we have heard the beginning of the story. We know for sure that Jesus did get the report that Lazarus was sick – he knew, and he did nothing. He sat on his heels, reassuring his disciples that all of this would lead to God’s glory. He knew and yet he waited, two long days, before setting off towards Bethany. This seems callous and cold, a kind of stunt to show off for God. But surely that was not Jesus’ intent? Lord, we want to say, where were you? If you had been here, her brother would not have died. What do you have to say to that?!
Now Jesus doesn’t have much to say that, but John does. Jesus is far away, John tells us, beyond the Jordan, when word comes to him about Lazarus. He waits two days, then takes at least one more to travel all the way past Jerusalem to Bethany, only to find out that Lazarus has been dead for four days, dead, in all likelihood, before Jesus first heard that he was ill. Clearly, Jesus could not have gotten there in time to heal him; he may have multiplied loaves and fishes and walked on water but as far as we know the Gospels hold no record of his teleporting himself, at least, not until after the resurrection. So these two days of waiting are not about missing an opportunity to raise Lazarus from his sick bed; they are about being sure of the opportunity to raise Lazarus from the tomb. Four days was enough in ancient times to be certain that someone was really and truly dead, dead enough that to be brought back to life would be a true miracle.
But this grand miracle moment was not about Jesus’ showing off. He did say that this event was for God’s glory, but remember, “glory” is a loaded word in John. This glory does not look like Jesus standing before the tomb with the wind whipping his hair, crying, “Lazarus come forth” while the timpani rolls and Lazarus leaps out and men gasp and women swoon and Jesus is mobbed by an adoring crowd. That’s not glory in John. Glory in John looks like this. This is what this event leads to. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is the straw that breaks the Sanhedrin’s back, that finally pushes the Jewish leadership to actually sit down and make plans to have him killed. This is the glory of which Jesus speaks, the only glory that he will accept.
But as reassuring as these truths are, Martha’s statement is still out there, ringing in our ears. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Couldn’t you have sensed that he was sick; couldn’t you have healed him from afar? Lord, if you had been here…it is a challenge that lingers, heavy in the air like smog, a challenge that resonates in the hearts of all of those others who were looking for their own miracle and didn’t find it. It is the challenge of the man in Capernaum whose son wasn’t healed from his fever from far away. It is the challenge of the other invalids who had to remain at the edges of the bubbling pool by the Sheep Gate. It is the challenge of the blind man’s friend who had been deaf from birth, of the sailors whose boat was swamped in the same storm that the disciples survived, of the other women caught in adultery, the other men possessed by demons, the other sisters of dead men. Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.
And it is a challenge that echoes through the centuries into the chambers of our own broken hearts. Lord, if you had been here, my father would not have had a stroke. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have first tried heroin. Lord, if you had been here, my student would not have been killed by that drunk driver, my nephew would not have come home safe from Afghanistan only to shoot himself, my mother would not have died from cancer at 45. Lord, if you had been here, none of this would have happened.
When Martha has finished her conversation with Jesus, she dutifully fetches her sister Mary. She pulls her aside and tells her, Mary, my beloved, the teacher is outside and wants to see you. And Mary, impulsive, runs from the house, runs up to Jesus on the road and then lets the words run right out of her mouth. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And she, unlike her sister, lets this challenge just hang there with all of its withering implications. You could have changed this. Where were you?
And Jesus, remarkably, has no answer. He says not one word. He doesn’t equivocate, or explain. He doesn’t offer platitudes or prophecies. Because he knows that ultimately there is no satisfying response to this challenge. He knows better than anyone that he has not healed everyone. There are still sick people in Galilee, still possessed people in Tyre and Sidon, still dying people in Jerusalem. He knows that he cannot, he will not, he does not choose to take all of the suffering out of this world. He never did, and he never will. He knows that sometimes the blind do not see, the lame do not walk, the dead are not raised. He knows that sometimes people’s minds are so broken that they start shooting their colleagues on a military base; he knows that sometimes babies die from SIDS, which means for absolutely no reason at all. He knows that sometimes the chemo doesn’t work, that the recovery doesn’t stick, that the heart just gives out. He knows that sometimes dry bones are just dry bones.
He also knows that he is the resurrection and the life and that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. He knows that there is a balm in Gilead, that there is a kingdom where sorrow and sighing flee away, where God reigns. He knows that he will raise this friend, this brother, this disciple from the dead. He knows that what he will do in a few short weeks on the cross will change the world. But he also knows that none of this – none of this – makes suffering go away. It just doesn’t. And so he does the only thing he can. He stands with Mary and Martha, with the mourners and the neighbors, and weeps. See how he loved him, the crowds say. See how much he loved; how God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to live and die as one of us, to walk with us, to stand with you and with me and with all the world and sometimes, to weep with us. To stay with us and weep. And perhaps that is miracle enough.