March 26, 2023

"If Only”

Rev. Scott Landis

John 11: 28-37

The story of Jesus raising his good friend Lazarus from the dead is an important one for many reasons not the least of which is the fact that it gives us a glimpse into the humanity of our Savior in a manner rarely seen. We have witnessed his rage when he turned over the tables in the Temple. We have seen him indignant when his mother demanded that he turn water into wine. We have been warmed by his compassion as he welcomed the children to “come unto him.” And we have noticed his patience as he fielded many questions from his disciples. But in THIS story we see his deep sense of grief as he wept at the tomb of his friend. 

We enter the scene when Jesus received a message that Lazarus was deathly ill. For whatever reason Jesus did not make haste to return to Bethany in Judah to offer his healing powers. He took his time and used the situation to teach his disciples about the importance of being fully present to the moment – not to rush things nor to fear impending danger. 

By the time he got to Bethany Jesus discovered not only was Lazarus dead, but he had been entombed for four days. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were deeply grieving the loss of their brother. 

When Martha heard that Jesus was nearby, she left her sister in order to greet Jesus and give him the news firsthand. Skipping the formalities, Martha confronted Jesus by saying, “If only you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus initially deflected her anger by launching into a theological discussion about resurrection and life and living even though we die. But I doubt Martha heard any of that. Grief has a funny way of shutting down our ability to hear. 

Soon afterward Martha returned to her sister and told Mary that Jesus had arrived. She also went to see him and similarly confronted him, “If only you had been here Jesus, my brother would not have died.” If only – if only. I wonder how Jesus received those words. How many of US have heard those words or asked them of ourselves in the silence of our innermost thoughts when experiencing loss in any form? “If only I had …” A self-accusation that does us no good, but the guilt those thoughts suggest can be overwhelming. 

Jesus then went to the tomb of Lazarus and wept to the point where others remarked, “See how he loved him?” But others countered, “Heck, he could open the eyes of a blind man, could he not have kept this many from dying?” If only. [Pause]

Death, loss, and grief – they can really do a number on us. It has been said that grief is the price we pay for loving. Most of us know how painful it can be, and so paralyzing. Having just experienced the death of my father, all of this is very fresh in my mind. I’d like us to reflect, for a few moments, on loss or on a series of losses in your life and how they affected and continue to affect you today. [Pause]

Our responses to loss are myriad. Researchers like Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross have tracked the typical grieving process involving shock, denial, anger, and bargaining, before we finally come to some level of acceptance. She didn’t suggest that we go through those various stages in that exact order but she did say that a significant loss would quite naturally encompass all of those internal “conversations of the heart.” 

I am well aware that there are losses of all sorts that we may experience in our lives including broken relationships, job terminations, loss of physical abilities due to disease or the natural aging process, but I want to concentrate on the loss we feel when we experience the death of a loved one – a loss that manifests itself in grief – that deep pain in our heart when all seems hopeless and we wonder if life will ever feel good again. I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

Depending on the circumstances such a loss typically begins as a shock to our system. Even when a death is somewhat expected, when it finally occurs or when the call comes our heart may seem to skip a beat. Suddenly the world seems to stop. We may feel like we are in a liminal space of unreality. This is where Jesus found Mary and Martha when he initially spoke to them. It’s a necessary experience that may take us a while to emerge from, but it’s only after we do – that we can begin the hard work of grieving. 

And grief IS hard work. That’s why there is a tremendous temptation to avoid it altogether. We may try to do that by throwing ourselves into the details of planning a memorial or closing an estate. Or we may choose a more destructive path of excessive drinking, overeating, or even endless physical exercise. There are many forms of denial that may work for a time but the painful feelings of loss that accompany our grief will not be thwarted. They will eventually reemerge and will not be forgotten. [Pause]

I think it might be helpful for us to rethink grief – not as a process to be avoided in our desire to assuage our pain – but rather as an invitation to fully experience all that we feel as a pathway to eventual healing. It’s a process that cannot be rushed and it is one that eludes any kind of formula. In fact, it is different for each one of us, AND it is different for every situation.  Moreover no one else can do the work it demands of us. In many ways, it is a road we must walk alone as we face the accompanying pain. Yet while it may involve a whole lot of dark nights and loneliness, we should not hesitate to reach out to someone who will listen to our despair. That choice is critical. It should be one who will offer a non-judgmental heart and the ability to attentively listen to our pain with little need to offer any advice. All that is needed is their acceptance, compassion, and time. 

I refer to this as an invitation because it is something we CAN refuse – for a while – but we do so at our peril. As difficult as it can be, to walk into grief, to allow yourself to feel whatever you feel – without guilt or shame – it is ESSENTIAL for the healing of your broken heart. To harbor anger, to avoid or try to run from the hurt, will only eat you alive. But if we open ourselves to the pain, if we lean into the harsh reality of the loss we experience, we move that much closer to healing and allow ourselves to encounter the sacred in unexpected ways. Angels of mercy are always present to ease the pain. We simply need to avail ourselves to them – and notice the gift of grace they are willing to offer. [Pause]

Remember what Jesus did upon being accused of missing the opportunity to heal his friend. He didn’t lash back. Oh, at first he seemed to try and talk his way out of it – but then he listened to the deep hurt being expressed.  And then he went to the tomb himself and wept. Rather than running from the pain he walked toward it – he embraced the accusation – the “if only,” AND the reality that his friend was no longer alive. He had his own grief to face, and he felt it profoundly – an experience, I believe, that is a source of deep healing for any one of us facing similar loss.

Friends in Christ, the point of this story is the deep truth that we worship a God who understands. Who, in his incarnation, demonstrated the vulnerability to weep openly when confronted with the death of a friend. Our God is not some ethereal entity that judges our feelings based on the depth of our faith. Ours is a God who willingly weeps with us and understands our despair – A God present to us in ALL circumstances. 

Such Presence may not appear obvious at first. But when we honestly face our reality — we begin to recognize God’s Holy Presence.  Then we may be able to understand those profound words of Jesus – also offered in this scene. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Everyone who believes in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 

This doesn’t take away the pain of loss – fully, but it reminds us that death is not the final enemy as we are comforted by the boundless gift of eternity. 

In our humanity we will experience deep and painful loss – again and again.  We simply cannot avoid it. And yet, as the children of God we are promised not only a God who understands, but the God who stands under all of our grief and supports us as we walk toward healing light. 

That, my friends, is the Grace of God. 

Thanks be to God.


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