The Lord had an existing relationship with the family. He loved them. He cared about Lazarus in his illness, the suffering he was enduring. (v. 5) We should keep this in mind, first of all, as we see what He does.
Because of this love, he stayed two days longer, to the point at which Lazarus died, and two more days passed. Jesus wasn’t at his deathbed, and didn’t arrive until Lazarus had been dead four days. This is unthinkable. It hurts Martha and Mary that Jesus wasn’t there. Martha breaks out in anger mixed with sorrow, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 21) How could the Lord appear so heartless as to not offer the common human comfort in their grief? In their time of need, the Lord was separated from them.
Separation is hard for us, as we well know right now. Those bonds that we have are built on being together: good times around a meal, trips we take together, sharing celebrations, and being there in times of sadness and fear.
This separation though, isn’t as hard as it could be. It has the promise of ending in the near future. We can still call the people we miss on the phone, video chat with them. But, we often have to reassure each other and ourselves, “This is only for a time. I can make it a few more weeks, a month or two… I’m looking forward to when we can be together again.”
Even the President hopes it will be over by Easter. It probably won’t be, and that will make it the most memorable Easter celebration in any of our lives. Separated on a major holiday, unable to gather together for all the regular festivities—breakfast, egg hunts, church, dinner with family.
But death is separation of a much greater degree. No phone calls, no Skype, not even a letter. No hope of it coming to an end in a matter of months or even years. They won’t be coming back for their things, so you’re left to pack up boxes for Goodwill.
And that’s what hurt Martha and Mary so badly. So why, if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, would the Lord allow him to die? “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Jesus is glad that He was not there so that they may believe. He loved them as friends, close friends, and because He loved them, He wanted them to believe in Him not just as a devoted peer, but as their God and Savior. This begs the question, What’s the real evil in Lazarus’ illness and death? Being separated by death, or not believing? And what’s this about “Let us go to him”?
Jesus arrives at Bethany in the midst of their grieving. He is hurting too, because death has robbed His friends, torn a brother from two sisters. This is a painful time for the Lord, and it really isn’t realistic to see Him as above it all, just because He knows the end of the story.
He is like us in every way—mortal and bound to time—and yet He is also God in the flesh, come to deliver us from the power of death.
And here at Bethany, our Lord Jesus teaches us how to face separation and lament it, but to face it with confidence and hope. He weeps and His tears sting. He is deeply moved and His heart aches inside His chest. He does not talk in euphemisms, or gloss over the very present pain. He acknowledges it, and doesn’t try tricks to make it easier to bear.
That’s something we see a bit of happening during this separation, trying so hard to make it not as bad as it is. Don’t worry about the fact you’re unemployed, because now you’re free to binge watch on Netflix. It’s no big deal that we can’t be with our family; we can just spend more time on webcam. No need to be sad about longing for the house of God, you can just set up a substitute in your living room.
As well-intentioned as these attempts are to “always look on the bright side of death” (Monty Python), they don’t allow the pain to be felt. Losing someone to death is wretched. The upheaval this time has caused in people’s lives is immense. This has done enormous damage to our country, and it’s going to take a long time—if ever—to pay back $2 trillion. There is no substitute for being able to gather in the actual house of God in the flesh with fellow members of Christ. To deny the graveness of our situation shows how little we believe God is able to do. It betrays our unwillingness to fully commit ourselves into His keeping.
The lesson from our Lord here is to not shy away from calling a thing what it is: death is a curse, grief can’t be sidestepped. We pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4) because there isn’t another way around, and it may be a shadow, but the darkness is felt.
The other lesson our Lord teaches us is how to face dismalness with hope intact. I said earlier that the Lord does not talk in euphemisms, and you may think He was sugar-coating death when He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” (v. 11). No, what He’s expressing is what death has become for the people of God. Being separated even by death is an easy thing for God, and the Lord shows them it is so.
On many a funeral bulletin, these words have reminded us of that: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (vv. 25-26) It’s beyond all current human experience to acknowledge that as true. But the Lord shows Mary and Martha that in the flesh by going to Lazarus’ four-day-old tomb, praying to His Father (the Maker of heaven and earth), and calling Lazarus out from the tomb. “Nothing is impossible with God,” Gabriel told the young virgin who would conceive by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:37) When Jesus said, “Let us go to him,” as simply as, “I go to awaken him.” He was speaking as plain as the nose on your face.
It sounds simple for God, but it was not. It cost Him everything to say those words to call Lazarus from the tomb, because it would mean Him going into it. It would take His
innocent suffering and death, His being forsaken and made sin for us all. God in no way diminished how serious our sin is, but He is also the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
The griefs we now bear, can and will be turned around with a Word from the Lord. We go into tragedy and calamity unwillingly, not knowing what the outcome will be. Nevertheless, we go in believing in our God and we know with confidence that He will hold onto us in body and soul. He will keep us, so that “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2) Whatever may come, the Holy Spirit convinces us of what He has spoken: that He will never leave nor forsake us (Josh. 1:9), that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from His love in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39). Temporal sufferings of living without our spouse, having our celebrations and plans fall to pieces, of loneliness—we bear not because they’re in any way enjoyable, but because we, like Martha and Mary, have come to believe the great things which our God can do.
That’s because He almighty and He loves us, too. Let us pray:
Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.(LSB, p. 311)