Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, which is the start of Holy Week, but Holy Week isn’t a season. All of Holy Week, up until Easter Sunday, takes place within the season of Lent. Let me say that again. Almost the entirety of the holiest week on the Christian calendar takes place within the season of Lent, which should tell us something significant about the Christian life. On this side of Easter, arguably our holiest moments are our most Lenten. They are the moments when we give something up, when we embrace the wilderness, when we embrace the cross.
We are undoubtedly doing church in the wilderness. There’s no one here to sing. There’s no one here to ask me difficult questions during the Gospel Project. There are no children smiling and playing. There’s no one to laugh at my bad jokes, except for Fr. Luis. All the people, all the conversation, all the sharing of our stories and our lives – these are part of what makes it so great to gather together on Sunday as the people of God, and those things are all gone right now. We’ve had to give them up for our own health and for the health of our neighbors, and that is the right thing to do. But I keep going back to the question that I asked last week: if the Lord is our shepherd, how did we end up here? And I have been repeatedly struck over this past week by the very simple and obvious fact that the majority of Holy Week takes place in the season of Lent. We are, as Christians, at our very best when embrace the cross by giving up the things that makes us comfortable because of our love for God and our love for our neighbors. So, I am confident of the fact that not only will our Shepherd see us through this valley, but we will one day look back upon this moment in our life together and see the value and importance of this time in this wilderness, in this valley.
But being confident that one day, whether in this life or the next, we will look back and understand what God was working in us during this time apart doesn’t mean that we all still don’t have questions. We can be certain and confident in what God is doing and his power to set all things to rights and still have questions or concerns that we want to bring before him, just like Martha and Mary in this morning’s Gospel reading. Every time I hear what they say to Jesus after their brother has died, I’m always a bit surprised. By themselves, their words might sound like they are casting blame, except Mary says them as she weeps and falls at Jesus’ feet. She isn’t blaming him. She’s not even doubting him. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha adds, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” They are both confident in who Jesus is, and they are confident that he had it within him to heal their brother and to stop this tragedy from happening. They aren’t doubting. They’re wondering where he was and why he didn’t come sooner. They’re saying implicitly, “Where were you? Why weren’t you here? We needed you. You could have fixed all of this, but you didn’t. You weren’t here.” I don’t think they are alone in that sentiment, especially not these days.
Sometimes I hear the Christian faith expressed in ways that really puzzle me. Some people speak about our faith as if what God promises to his children in Christ is nothing but happiness, health, and prosperity. God does promise us those things, but not on this side of Easter. If there’s any doubt about this, ask Paul about his imprisonments or Jesus about his cross. Ask Jesus why he told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Ask Paul why he said in Romans 8 that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). Be wary of those leaders who align themselves too closely with secular power. Be wary of those leaders who promise you your best life now. Be wary of anyone who promises you now in the name of Christ anything other than a cross. The New Testament could not be clearer or any less ambiguous. Cross now. Glory later. That’s how it works. Anything other than that is a lie, and if we forget that, we might miss what is going on here in the raising of Lazarus.
If you get a chance today, go back and read the beginning of John 11 so that you get the full story. When Lazarus gets sick, Mary and Martha send for Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3), and Jesus responds, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Two things are worth pointing out about Jesus’ response. First, in some sense, according to a strict, literal interpretation of what Jesus says, he’s wrong. He says Lazarus isn’t going to die, and then he does. We understand that Jesus means more here than it might appear, but on the surface, at least, he says Lazarus’s sickness won’t kill him, and then it does. Second, Jesus, even though he knows that his beloved friend is sick, doesn’t do anything at first. He stays right where is he is for two days. He can heal Lazarus before he dies. He’s close enough to get to him before it happens, but he stays put and instead says something incredible to his disciples. He says after two days of waiting around, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (John 11:14-15). It’s not often that you hear Jesus say that he’s glad someone has died.
Now I want you to think about Mary and Martha. It’s clear that Jesus has a plan here, but they aren’t privy to it. Think of their heartbreak. Think of their pain. Think of their confusion. Jesus has been healing people all over, and now they need him. They need him to act. They need him to do what they know he can do, and he doesn’t do it. He stalls. He waits. He doesn’t come. Imagine how that must have felt. Of course, we know now, with the gift of hindsight, what Jesus was doing. He wanted to raise Lazarus from the dead to show his power over death so that his disciples, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all those who were watching would believe in him. But that doesn’t erase the pain and confusion that Mary and Martha must have felt over those three days. It doesn’t eliminate the questions and the hurt. For three days they were left wondering, “Where is he? Why didn’t he act?”
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever wondered why is it that the God who made heaven and earth wasn’t stepping into this or that situation to make it right, to fix the brokenness of our lives, and to heal you and your loved one? I know I have. I’ve spent many nights awake late at night wondering why God let X or Y happen. Mary and Martha only had to wait a few days. Some of us have questions that have lingered far longer. We want God to act now, but sometimes it feels like he’s taking his time, like he’s staying put for two days instead of coming to help us.
What I take from this account is a truth that cannot be understood apart from faith. This is the essence of Christianity. It is the thing for which we hope. It is the truth upon which we base our entire lives. Cross now, glory later. It is not God’s plan to fix everything now. It is God’s plan to fix everything at the end. You see, God has a plan to fix and renew the world. God has a plan to fix all that has gone wrong in creation and in the lives of his children. God has a plan to undo all that has gone wrong since Adam sinned in the Garden, but that plan does not happen according to our timetable but according to his. We want Jesus to come now. He’s taking his time. We want Jesus to fix things now, but he’s staying put for a couple of days, and that’s ok, because he’s Lord, and we’re not, and what he promises us now is the same path that he walked. He promises us a cross, a wilderness, and a valley, and we shouldn’t want any other path, because that is the only path that leads to glory. It is the only path that leads to resurrection.
But what I want to be clear about, and what I want to be certain that you hear me say, is this. Believing that Jesus is who he says he is, believing that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and believing that he can and will on the last day set all things to rights does not and should not obliterate the pain that we feel as we wait. That pain is reasonable. That pain is understandable. That pain is part of what it means to be in the wilderness and in the valley. It’s part of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t scold Mary or Martha. In fact, when Jesus sees them weeping, he is moved and greatly troubled, so it’s ok in difficult times to bring your concerns to Jesus. It’s ok to wonder why he’s not coming to help. It’s ok to bring our hurt and our pain to him. He welcomes it. He is moved by our tears. But never doubt that he has a plan. Never doubt that he is who he says he is. Never doubt that he will one day sets all things right. And never feel as though you cannot bring your hurt, your pain, your concerns, and your confusion, and with tears, lay them at his feet. He invites you today to do so.
The Lord is our shepherd. He knows that the path now is hard, but he knows the plan, and we do not. Fall down at his feet, believe that he is who he says he is, open your heart to him, and he will listen, and on the last day, he will raise you up.