John 11:1-6, 17-44
I once was in a hospital room where someone had just died as a result of some sort of brain trauma. I don't remember exactly what had happened anymore but it might have been a stroke or an aneurysm that burst. I do recall that the woman's daughter was in the room and that she was distraught beyond the usual grief. While I was there the doctor came in to offer condolences and she told her the same story that she had been telling everyone else.
She had been staying with her mother but needed to go out of the house for a few minutes to get some groceries. When she returned, she found her mother on the floor. She called an ambulance, which carried her mother to the hospital, and she had not left her side since then. She had slept in the room and would not even go down to the snack bar to get a sandwich.
The doctor looked at her and saw how tired she was, and said to her, "I hope you realize that even if you had been standing right there in the room with your mother four days ago there would have been nothing you could have done to prevent this."
Now, that doctor knew what she was doing. It is totally normal and natural for someone, especially someone who is a caretaker, to feel that there is always something that can be done for somebody who is sick, or even dying. It is totally normal and natural, but it is not true.
That seems to have been in the mind of Martha of Bethany when her brother Lazarus was sick. The Gospels describe her as one of his two sisters, whose personalities had sharp distinctions. Martha was always somewhere getting things done, even while her sister Mary would just sort of hang out. At one point we read of Martha complaining to Jesus about Mary because she was spending too much time with him instead of helping her in the kitchen. Given all of that, I can imagine what sort of nurse she must have been when Lazarus fell ill. Just picture Martha tending to him, trying to break his fever, pulling the blanket up and down, trying to make him drink a little soup. That’s why it’s so easy to hear her after Lazarus died: “if only”.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [John 11:12]
Jesus had delayed too long when he had been called. She had done her part. Why had he not done his? It wasn’t just Martha that had that thought, either.
“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” [John 11:32]
There were other people there, too, and
“some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” [John 11:37]
No wonder Jesus wept, not just for Lazarus. There he was, with his friend just buried, and he’s being blamed for it because he was somewhere else when it happened.
Those words: “if only”. Let's put the blame somewhere when someone dies. Let's blame the doctor who was there. Let's blame the doctor who was not there. Let's blame the nurse, let's blame the patient. Let’s blame ourselves, or let's even blame God.
Let's be clear, though. All human beings die, sooner or later. It's what happens. We are no different from any other part of nature in that respect. We like to think that we can put it off and avoid it. Just look at how much money is spent on hair dye every year so that people can deny that they are aging. Just look at commercials where 70-year-olds are shown bike riding and playing tennis all the time. That's not to say they don't or can't. But the suggestion is that if you buy enough Centrum Silver or eat enough Grape Nuts you will stay young forever. It isn’t so.
There is, however, one “if” that does make a difference, and Mary and Martha were not far from recognizing this. The presence of Jesus in our lives does not exempt us from death but does carry us through physical death into life beyond death. Again, Jesus does not save us from our physical death. He did not spare himself from that experience either. But what he did and what he does is offer life beyond that.
“Jesus said to [Martha], ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]
What we do here this morning in just a minute is to proclaim our faith in that hope.
On All Saints’ Day, we remember people with whom we have walked through that experience of their dying. In some cases we may have been just like Martha. Nevertheless, like her, we find ourselves in the end answering the question of whether we can trust our loved ones into God’s hands with the word “yes”.
Could all of this of been avoided? Perhaps. Perhaps not. There is a certain mystery involved in the beginning and the end of life. What we do know is what God has revealed to us rather than what we can figure out with our own brains. In the long run, that is what matters. That is where we can find real comfort and hope.