The gospel reading from this coming Sunday comes from the 11th Chapter of the Gospel of John. It recounts the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrived. Particularly striking in the story is the plaintive cry of his sister, Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is a difficult passage to encounter in this time of COVID-19. We all face the reality of brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents getting ill, or even dying. We face that possibility for ourselves as well. No interpretation that fails to address that can stand. If we read this chapter of John and see Jesus saving one man while leaving others to perish, we end up with a God who abides with the fortunate and healthy, abandoning those in need.
That’s why the first key element in reading this story is understanding that while Jesus obviously loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, this was not just about them. It wasn’t about one man coming back to life. If that were the point, Lazarus would still be among us. That’s extremely unlikely. Eventually, he died. So did Mary and Martha. That did not mean God stopped loving them, nor that they were less favored.
We like to create a God who responds to our choices. We like to say, “If you go right, God will favor you, but if you go left, you are doomed.” That puts power and control in our hands. We pretend we can figure out the secret to success, to earning our way into personal immortality. But even the best of us only get to pretend that for 80 or 90 years. Sometimes we get a little more. Some of us get far less.
Fortunately, God does not act like we expect. Our God does not say, “I’ll be with you only when you make the right choices and the best things happen to you.” Our God operates at a level beyond our choices, control, and circumstances. God says to us, “Whether you go right or whether you go left, whether you prosper or suffer, I will be there. I will not let go of you. I will have the final word, and that word is goodness for you.”
People did not witness Lazarus being raised because Lazarus was great, because Jesus loved him more than he loves us, or because Lazarus’ life was the center of the universe. We witness the resurrection of Lazarus that we might know--even in times of hardship, grief, or despair—that God will act on our behalf and that not even death will stop God from doing so. As Paul declares in Romans 14, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Even when the road is scarier than we thought it would be, even if things go as wrong as can be imagined, nothing will take us out of God’s hands.