If only you had been here…

Where is God when bad things happen? It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot of times, and one we may be asking more right now. Couldn’t God have prevented this horrible tragedy, this death, this natural disaster? It’s a question that both Mary and Martha ask Jesus when their brother Lazarus dies.

Although, they don’t really ask it as a question, they state it: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” It’s as much a statement of belief in Jesus’ power as an implicit question about why he hadn’t come sooner. It’s natural to wonder where God is when we’re in the midst of suffering. But the Gospel of John reminds us that we will always find God right by our sides, grieving with us.

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s said twice in this gospel reading, by both Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus was gravely ill, and they sent word to Jesus, hoping he would come and heal him. But Jesus tarries, waiting several days before heading to Bethany to see the sisters. It seems he arrives too late. Lazarus has been dead for four days. In the ancient understanding, the soul only leaves the body after it’s been dead for three days, so by including this detail, we’re being told: Lazarus is really dead.

And both sisters weep at the lost chance. If only Jesus had been there sooner. If only he hadn’t delayed. If only he could have prevented this horrible thing from happening. Martha and Mary’s question is one we ask ourselves when bad things happen, when we’re in the midst of grief and pain. “Why weren’t you there, God?” “Where were you when this terrible thing was happening?” “Why didn’t you stop this, God?”

Where is God when we suffer? Where is God when our loved ones are dying, when hurricanes and tornadoes, and yes, pandemics, strike? Why can’t God prevent these things from happening? We feel it at a personal level, when we, like Mary and Martha experience losses in our own family, and we feel it on a corporate level, when it feels like God is absent from all the tragedy going on in the world.

Despair and grief is palpable in the air right now. We have lost connections, although we do our best to keep them going digitally. We have lost a sense of safety, we have lost a sense of security. In some sense, we are like those people of ancient Israel who cried out to the Lord, “We are cut off, our bones are dried up!” Those people had lost their country, their home. They felt abandoned by God in the exile and could not see any way forward in hope.

Ezekiel is granted this vision of the valley of dry bones that symbolizes the people. “Mortal,” asks God, “can these bones live?” You know, Lord, is the response from the prophet. You know. Even in the middle of that place of grieving, the dusty valley where all is devastation, surrounded by the shards of ruined nation, the prophet Ezekiel grants God the potential for life. “You know, God, whether life can emerge from these ashes.”

Mary and Martha, although they both grieve and express their disappointment that Jesus did not come sooner, continue to place their trust in him. They don’t demand a fix but continue to look to Jesus as the source of their hope. Sometimes grief and faith coexist. They bump up against each other in this miasma of feeling, seeking answers, seeking hope, seeking new life.

Where is God when bad things happen? God is there with us, standing amidst the dry bones of our disappointed hopes. Where is God in the midst of grief? God is there with us, weeping at the grave. God is not stoic or removed in the face of our pain and loss, our confusion and anxiety. God is there with us, sharing our pain and grief, lamenting with us at the losses we feel.

But the God who stands at the grave and weeps is also the God who brings about new life and resurrection. The God who walks with us through the valley of dry bones is the God that breathes new life and possibility into the world. We serve a God who calls us out of death into life.

So yes, we mourn right now. We mourn those who have died, we mourn lost futures, we mourn a world that is never going to be the same. But we mourn in hope. Because our journey is not to the grave, but through it. Our journey does not end with death, but with resurrection.

When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus calls on his family and friends and neighbors to unbind him. To let him loose from the wrappings of death. We mourn with God, but we also get to be participants with God in the act of resurrection. In the act of restoring life.

“Lord, if only you had been here.” God is here, brothers and sisters. God is here in our grief and pain, and God is here in our response. God is here in the care we show one another, in our acts of connection and kindness, in our doing everything we can to limit the spread of this disease. God is here. God is here weeping with us, and God is here bringing new life and hope even in the middle of despair. God is here. Amen.

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