Today Jesus asks: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
What does it mean to see God’s glory in the time of Coronavirus? What does the story of the raising of Lazarus suggest about God’s presence with us now?
Think about a time when you found out that someone you loved died. What was it like for you to find out? It can be tough, right? At such a moment, we can be “in a state” – overcome with emotion, wracked by grief, perhaps even inconsolable. We might feel “not ourselves” – bereft – it can be as if the ground has suddenly shifted under our feet. In many cases, we wonder where God is. We may feel as if God has let us down or even abandoned us. We might ask how a good God take away someone we love so much?
The pain of losing a beloved can be so intense that it often colors and shapes the way we see death; the way we think about death, going forward, especially if we lost a parent or sibling when we were young. The emotions surrounding the death of a loved one can be so great, that just the thought of our own death can be too much for us to even consider. This may be why the threat of death, from something like the Coronavirus, deeply frightens many of us. When it comes to how we look at death, we often view it based on our own painful experiences of loss through an emotional lens.
In the story we heard today from the Gospel of John, everyone is emotional; everyone is upset. In anger, Martha seems to blame Jesus for her brother’s death, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Have you noticed how sometimes people blame God for the death of a loved one? Perhaps even lose faith over it?
Mary echoes her sister, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How often in the face of death, do we look back and say things like, “If only he hadn’t smoked… if only she had gone to the doctor’s earlier… if only the doctor would have tried another treatment…” In the days that follow the death of a loved one, it is common to torment ourselves with “If only…” It’s as if we need to assign blame so that we can understand, get our heads around, what has happened.
Not only are Martha and Mary upset because their brother has died, their friends are upset. Jesus, too, we are told “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And as is natural when a loved one has died – when there is no longer anything anyone can do other than to see the person who has died perhaps lying in their bed or at the funeral home or at the graveside- Jesus asks to see where Lazarus has been laid. Once at the tomb, his friend’s death becomes real for him. Jesus weeps.
John explains that a “Greatly disturbed” Jesus commands “Take away the stone.” In response, to bring home the physical reality of her brother’s death, Martha says “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Next the whole narrative shifts as Jesus asks “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Pausing from the intense emotion of the moment (and this is an important point, so I am going to say it again) Pausing from the intense emotion of the moment, Jesus turns to God in confident prayer, “”Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me.” The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus looks upward. In other words, Jesus shifts his consciousness from the intensity of grief and the physical reality of death to the spirit of God.
At this point in the story we know that Jesus is fully sharing in the grief of Martha, Mary, and their friends. His prayer demonstrates something incredibly important – that their grief is NOT the whole story; that in the midst of their heartbreak and distress, God’s ever-present love and life-giving Spirit is at work.
At the beginning of this sermon, you remembered a time when someone you loved dearly had died. Now, remember when you could see that as sad as the death was, there was somehow a gift in it, that you could see or feel God’s grace. Viewed not only with an emotional lens, but with a spiritual lens, we can often recognize the glory of God present as people draw close to death, die, and are remembered.
One of the greatest gifts for people near death or at other important moments is the experience of having loved ones gather. Notice what Jesus does in today’s Gospel – he hears that Lazarus is ill and he decides to go to him. Having loved ones visit when death is near, especially if they have been distant or estranged in the past, can be a powerful grace. (Which is why the way many people will die physically distant from loved ones during this crisis is especially tragic.) Being there for others in distress, showing our love by going where people are suffering or facing death, this is the glory of God at work! In a time of public health crisis, showing up, being present for others in whatever way you can reveals the glory of God.
Once with Martha and Mary, Jesus is not only present to them, he doesn’t merely observe them, but he allows his own heart to be open enough to weep with them. He allows everyone to see how much he loved Lazarus. He doesn’t hold back his feelings to “be strong.” Instead, he reveals that in being vulnerable, the glory of God is present. Heartfelt expressions of love are another vehicle for the presence of grace.
When I used to train new Hospice volunteers and staff, they sometimes would worry about whether or not it was OK to cry in front of a person who was dying. I would reassure them that in my experience the dying person was often deeply moved, even consoled, that others would care enough about them to cry because of the sadness they were feeling. Perhaps this is why St. Paul exhorts us in the Book of Romans to “weep with those who weep.” When we show our love for one another, when we are present with open hearts to someone else who is suffering or in pain, we reveal the glory of God.
And it’s at this moment that Jesus does something that changes everything – that shifts the whole story from the very human emotion and physical realities to the spiritual reality. Jesus prays. His utter confidence in God’s presence and power is without measure: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me.” This prayer draws the attention of those who are with him beyond their emotional pain, beyond the physical realities of Lazarus’ four days in the tomb, to a greater vision, a spiritual vision.
By following the example of Jesus, by simply pausing to pray when we are in the midst of distress, we invite God’s transforming spirit into those situations that feel too much to bear. Think of those times when you were with a loved one who was dying or in distress and you paused to pray. Maybe the chaplain or pastor or church friend came for a visit. Maybe you sat by the bedside and read scripture or spoke words of love from your heart. Think about how the whole energy in the room and the energy within each person shifts when you join in prayer. Could there be a more powerful way to bring the spirit of God, the glory of God, into a challenging time? To help us be open to the ways God can transform you and I and even the world so that we come out of this crisis more loving, more united?
These are just a few ways that God’s grace and glory can be present at the most challenging times. Expressions of forgiveness, a sense that life has been lived with meaning and purpose, a peace that surpasses understanding are just a few others of the many ways that even in the midst of the most heartbreaking times, grace is present.
Standing with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and their friends could never have expected what was going to happen next. Today we have no idea what is going to happen next, either. Our challenge as Christians is to look realistically at what is happening, to be compassionate and patient with our emotions and other’s emotions as they arise. We are called to believe, to be in hopeful expectation that God can bring something good out of this time, even as many people will lose their lives.
In facing difficult situations, the glory of God, the grace that is present, does not necessarily mean that we are rescued; it does not mean that we escape pain or suffering or death. But in and through the glory of God, we can sense that God is with us, sharing our pain, helping us grow in our sense of connection to God and others. We can know ourselves as deeply loved and cared for in ways that transform our understanding of who we are and who God is. We can come to know that God’s love holds us in life and embraces us in death.
And when others need us, we can follow the example of Jesus who ministered to Martha and Mary by showing up, being present, attentive, and compassionate, weeping with those who weep, remembering the power of prayer, watching for God to bring life out of death.
In the time of Coronavirus, may we look for the grace that is present. May we be open to how Jesus can raise us to new life. By our witness, may the world see the glory of God. Amen.