You can’t get any poorer than dead. — Flannery O’Conner
“If only you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.” That is a sentence spoken often in many forms. In the 18th century (Leibniz) it became the seed question for theories of theodicy. Why are bad things happen to good people? Where is God? Why is God not . . ?
In its own way it must also have been a vexing question for the early church: “Why did Jesus ascend? Why did he not stay with us and alleviate our misery here below?” “Who will come to believe in Jesus the Messiah if Jesus the Messiah is not here with us and if we, his disciples, are being hounded by evil? Is not Messiah the one to bring and end to just that evil?” The answer in John seems to be that there are Jews who believe Jesus because of the miracles and there are Jews who are threatened by Jesus because of the miracles, and there are Jews who are fascinated by Jesus and believe in him, but those are called disciples.
Martha and Mary are asking the ever difficult question: “Lord, if only you had been here . . “ Did I say question? Well, it is not in question form but it is begging the question, “Why weren’t you there for us?” It is a strange in between type of way to ask a question. It says, in effect: “Yes I have faith. I know that you could have prevented the ill that has befallen us. But you did not.” In Martha’s case the reason was obvious: He was not there. John goes on to tell us though, that he was not there on purpose. What a schmutz! She had send word to him. She had asked (prayed) him to come to her and his aid. He did not come. Why? He seems to have waited until Lazarus died before he got on his way to Bethany. He was trying to make a point by allowing death to find Lazarus and to raise him to life again. He was trying to make a point!? Really? What a dreck!
Lazarus in the tomb is a strange analogy for discipleship. He knows Jesus, at least I am assuming they have met, since Jesus is said to have loved him to tears. Those tears (11:35) are not trivial. The fate and suffering of Lazarus, the pain of Martha and Mary, are not trivial to Jesus it would seem. He takes them into himself and expresses them in tears. The death of His beloved children is not a matter of indifference to the Father in heaven in obedience to whom Jesus has been given power over death and eternal life. (5:21, 10:28) Lazarus is one of Jesus’ “sheep,” one who knows his voice and who is said to come out when the Good Shepherd calls him. (10:3) He is the one who by his quiet waiting in the tomb clearly shows: Apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5) After all, dead people are too poor to get anything accomplished. Blessed are the poor, indeed. (Yes, I know it’s Matthew but the Beatitudes are prayed in Lent during the hours and we are praying them in our confession in Worship on Sunday in my congregation) But, at the call of the Shepherd, the Lord, you can do all things, even rise back to life. If Lazarus can be unbound, you can be. If Lazarus can be freed from his bonds, you can be as well even if those tethers are sin and death. In that way, the glory of God is revealed in him.
Therefore, disciple, as life in this world so in love with its own dark thoughts — and is not death a dark thought and place — comes your way quickly, harshly, and mercilessly, would you, could you say to yourself: “I embrace this because the glory of God will be revealed in this?” Even if that might mean dying twice?
If Lazarus is an analogy for discipleship then maybe so is Martha. Only in her case, it is from the perspective of observing faith not knowing the outcome and really not being able to fathom the possibilities. She has asked him to come and prevent Lazarus’ death but he has not. He has come, but he has come late — wait, that’s not right. No, he has come in his own time and according to his own purpose. (11:4) All is now lost. — wait that is not right, but we don’t quite know that. Who knows what might be next. After all, Jesus is at work, maybe Lazarus will live again, maybe he will not. Either way, who would know best if he should or should not? Martha or Jesus? (cue the Jeopardy music) In the conversation between the two Martha comes to the words that every disciple might need to remember in times of poverty even poverty unto death: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
All the joy over all the answered prayers in the world really equal not even a single moment of “Faith.” Faith can say: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” even if none of its prayers have been answered. Faith awaits, quietly as if stilled in the sleep of the grave for the Lord’s glory to be revealed in however the story will twist and turn right around then. When the good shepherd (10) is leading, Faith follows. It keeps its eyes on the back of the Good Shepherd’s head and hums the 23rd.