Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1–14 | Psalm 130 | Romans 8:6–11 | John 11:1–45
“Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’” (John 11:14-15)
Where is God to be found when our world has fallen apart?
When we come face to face with tragedy… with bitter and unanswerable questions… when our prayers ascend, not with praise, but with accusations… and even anger?
Have you ever been angry with God?
Are you angry with Him right now?
I remember one evening, while I was in seminary, riding the subway home in Toronto. That night, I was very angry with God. Not because of something that had happened to me… but to things that had just happened to some fellow Christians I knew… good, honest, God-loving families, who were suddenly going through heartbreaking tragedies.
One family, after years of longing for a child, had gone through the long and arduous process of adoption. After much prayer, and hope, and joy, they had finally been able to bring a new baby home… but then the birth-mother suddenly changed her mind, and they had to give the beloved child back. All of the hopes and joys of this wonderful couple fell crashing to the floor. From where I stood, it seemed so wrong… so cruel a twist of circumstances for those who had longed only to share love. It just seemed so unfair.
The second family faced an even more devastating tragedy. A classmate of mine was driving on a trip with his wife and new baby, but their car ended up in a fatal crash. Thankfully the mother and child survived, but the father was killed on the scene. So suddenly, one life was taken, and two others would never be the same. Again, it all seemed so unfair. Why would God allow this kind of thing to happen to people who truly loved Him, and longed to help others share in His love? It made no sense!
On that subway ride home, I felt quite overwhelmed by what seemed like the unfairness… maybe even the uncaringness of God, and all the theology… all the answers I thought I knew just seemed to fall flat, offering no comfort at all.
I was angry. Angry with God. Angry that God had not done something to protect these people who loved Him from having their worlds fall apart.
Where was God? And why didn’t He do something?
We know, of course, there are lots of stories like this… where people have come face to face with sudden tragedy, and outright evil, and where we can do little but raise our cries of anguish to God.
But thankfully, the Living God can handle our honest, angry prayers.
We know this because the Bible does not shy away from these kinds of stories. Quite the opposite! The Holy Scriptures invite us, again and again, into truly heartbreaking narratives… not to crush our spirits, but to help us trust God in the midst of tragedy. To believe, not that everything will work out in ways that seem fair to us… but to believe that He is the one who brings true life, even out of the darkness of death.
Our reading today from John’s Gospel dives straight into this mess… inviting us to see both where God is amid the deeply personal suffering of our world, and what He is doing about it... pointing us directly to the face of Jesus.
This story is one of the most well known miracles of Jesus: raising his friend Lazarus from the grave, after being dead for four days. It is an amazing display of Jesus’ life-giving power… revealing His unique connection to God the Father, the Source of all life.
But as John takes pains to point out, Jesus is absent at the time of Lazarus’ death. In fact, instead of rushing to the village of Bethany to prevent His friend from dying, Jesus delays coming… He chooses to be absent. To not stop the tragedy ahead of time… but to face it head-on.
This is the big question the story raises for us… the tension that makes it all so poignant: Jesus invites us all to ask Him ‘where were You? Why did You let all this happen?’ Not only in this story, but in all our tragedies, and times of darkness as well.
And the answer He gives us is not a rational argument… or a theological treatise… His answer is His action. What He does in this story is His response.
So, what does Jesus do?
First of all, Jesus shows us He knows. He is not oblivious to what is happening, or too the greater tragedy ahead. When word reaches Him that Lazarus His friend is sick, He knows how the whole story will play out.
Likewise, Jesus knows all about our tragedies too. He sees our struggles, and understands all that we have had to face. There’s some comfort to be found in the fact that our Lord takes notice of us. But that is not all that He does.
This story shows us that Jesus knows… and that He cares.
That He cares enough to meet us right there in our pain, and confusion, and anger… to let us be real with Him, which is essential if we’re ever going to believe in Him.
John 11:20-22, “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”
Martha brings her pain and frustration to Jesus, and though she doesn’t yet understand, she still clings to her faith in Him… and Jesus responds to her faith by offering hope:
John 11:23-27, “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”
Jesus doesn’t just leave Martha in the dark. He knows all about her grief. He cares for her, and offers her hope through faith in Him, even if she doesn’t really understand. And likewise, Jesus invites us all to come to Him and cling to Him in faith, even when we don’t understand.
But that’s not the only way we know He cares.
John 11:32-37, “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.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’”
Disturbed. Deeply moved. Weeping. This is how John describes the Son of God. Not stoically standing by, unaffected by the grief that surrounded Him, but sharing in it. Taking it to heart. Taking it up into His own life.
Jesus weeps with Mary. And He weeps with us. God weeps with us! He knows, He cares… and He shares in all our human suffering.
The Church Father, Cyril of Alexandria, says this about the tears that Christ shed that day: “The Jews thought that Jesus wept on account of the death of Lazarus, but in fact he wept out of compassion for all humanity, not mourning Lazarus alone, but all of humanity which is subject to death, having justly fallen under so great a penalty.”
It's not as though Jesus was only moved to tears by the death of a close friend… or the grief of those close to Him. His compassion encompasses us all. Jesus weeps with us too.
But we know He does more than share in our suffering. Jesus has come to save. To offer us life… usually in ways that go far beyond our expectations… bringing life even out of death, and hope where there had been no hope at all.
John 11:38-45, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
Far beyond what anyone else expected that day, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. A sign of His life-giving power, at work even today in surprising ways. Reminding us that nothing is impossible for our Saviour.
But as reassuring as this miracle itself can be for us, John didn’t include this story only to offer us comfort in the midst of our pain and tragedy… but to show us the depths of the Good News of God’s saving love… and just how far Jesus goes to come to our rescue… to put His whole beloved world back together again.
The story keeps going beyond our reading today, to reveal that though many believed in Him because of this miracle, the road ahead for Jesus was to be one of fierce resistance.
John 11:45-48, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
To be fair, they had good reason to be afraid. This was a very real threat! The Romans did not put up with disturbances of the peace, and were prone to put down perceived threats to their power viciously. The chief priests and Pharisees were legitimately afraid that they would lose everything… that if Jesus kept on doing all these miracles, Rome would destroy their whole world. Who cares if one man was raised from the dead, if the whole nation will soon be wiped out!
Their solution? John 11:49-53, “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
With their minds blinded by fear, they saw the only way forward for their people would be to kill Jesus. But in the depths of love that none of us can really wrap our heads around, the Living God had known all along that the only way forward for His whole world would be to face death for us Himself. To take on our fragile human life… to face our rejection… and betrayal. To experience injustice… agony… and humiliation at our hand… to taste death for us. Alongside us. Instead of us at the cross.
And this is what God does for us. This is what Jesus’ life was all about: not giving us easy answers, or arguments to make sense of all the evil and suffering in our world, or in our lives… but to take all of it on Himself, and to break it’s power over us, once and for all.
This is where we find God in the face of suffering: we find Him in the face of Jesus on the cross.
This is where we see that He knows… that He cares… that He refuses to shy away even from the horror of death.
And this is where we see Him bring the new life of God to us and our world. In His death, and in His resurrection, as the firstborn from the grave… offering us all a share in His eternal life through His Holy Spirit:
As St. Paul says in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
Lazarus was raised back to his old life for a time, but one day he would have to face death again.
But Jesus, the Risen One, has passed through death never to die again. The start of a brand New Creation. A new beginning, one that will never come to an end. Not just for Himself, but for all who place their faith in Him. All who receive His gift of life. For as Jesus was raised by the power of God, we too will be raised by His Spirit alive in us, so that Jesus’ eternal life and victory over death will be ours.
N.T. Wight puts it this way: “what God did for Jesus he will do for all creation, liberating it from its present slavery to corruption. Those whose bodies are heading for death, but who are indwelt by God’s Spirit, are assured that what God did for Jesus as an individual he will do for all the Messiah’s people.”
We don’t know ahead of time all of the details of what this will look like, for us or for our world, but we do know that as we face evil… and injustice, and suffering… and whatever comes our way… we can look to Jesus and find God’s resurrection life at work. We know that He knows… we know that He cares… and we know that He will lead us into life.
That night in Toronto, riding the subway with all of my questions, frustrations, and anger… I found myself praying: “God, hold onto me. I don’t understand… this is so unfair… I am so angry… but please don’t let me go. Hold onto me.” And He did. That’s what He did for me in that moment: He held me in His arms, as confused, and upset, and angry with Him as I was, He did not let me go. And He has never let me go… despite all the ups and downs I have faced since… despite all my struggles and doubts, He keeps on inviting me, again and again, to trust Him to bring His New Life, even when it seems impossible.
In time, that first family was actually able to adopt the same child they had first welcomed into their lives, and have been able to share God’s love with them each day.
In time, the young widow and child became part of a new and loving family… not erasing the past, but given a new chance to share in God’s grace, and peace together.
We know that no two stories are the same. And I’m not saying that every tragedy will turn to joy in this life. What I am saying, and what the Gospel says to us is that even in the midst of the worst moments imaginable, God is with us and will not let us go. In Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, we can turn to God and truly trust Him… trust Him with all our anguish… with all our questions… with our anger… and know that He is still with us.
To know that He knows… that He cares… that He shares in all of our struggles and sorrows… and that He is not nearly done bringing about God’s new and everlasting life. Amen.
 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on the Gospel of St. John 7.1. in Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle A (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 94.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001), 48.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School