Welcome to All Saint’s Day, one of the most hopeful days of the year. I love this day because it sneaks in without any of the commercial trappings and anxieties of Christmas or Easter, but still packs a powerful theological punch. It is a day when the sea of troubles, ending in the annihilation of death gives way to another reality.
As our collect says, the last word will not be sorrow, but “those ineffable joys” that God has prepared for us in heaven. When we die, we will be in God’s presence, where, in the words of our reading from Revelation, “God himself will be with (us), and will wipe every tear from (our) eyes.”
The gospel text this morning, however, begins not with God’s presence, but God’s absence. Mary says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus is absent when Lazarus dies. Mary assumes that if Jesus had been there, this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened. Mary’s comment – accusation, really – is an honest starting point for people who live in a world where terrible things happen. That would be all of us. Most of us do not always feel the presence of God around us. Most of us have moments of assailing doubt and even despair.
When a terrible thing happens, like the death of someone close to us –as in the scripture reading today, or any of the little “d” deaths that happen in life, then God can seem absent. By little “d” deaths, I mean a break up, a job failure, the discovery of some painful fact about yourself or someone close to you. Where is God in all this? If He had been here, then the little “d” and big “D” deaths would not have died.
The more nihilistically inclined of us tend to agree with overall sentiment in King Lear, a chilling, basically hopeless play in which nearly all the principal characters die. Set 900 years before Jesus actually appears on the earth, it is a play in which God is conspicuously absent, and even the presence of love does not redeem anybody or anything.
Literary critic Harold Bloom, the giant in the Shakespeare field, says, “we don’t want to come away from a performance of King Lear murmuring to ourselves that (all) domestic (life) is necessarily a tragedy, but that may be the ultimate nihilism of this play.” Ouch. My experience is that even the best of families have plenty of moments when Lear’s message rings painfully true, and we wonder why God seems absent.
In fact, so terrible are the unfolding events in King Lear that Gloucester concludes that the gods are not just absent, but malicious. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” In other words, the gods play around with us as cruelly as schoolboys pull wings off of flies. But your life doesn’t have to be as tragic as Lear’s, nor do you have to be as despairing as Gloucester for you to identify with Mary’s accusation: If You had been here, this wouldn’t have happened. But, You were not, and it did.
The great religious mystics talk about experiencing God in His absence, otherwise known as the via negativa. Sounds all well and good for St John the Divine, but, to be honest, I would much rather experience God’s presence through his presence, rather than his absence.
I really can’t stand the phrase “step up!” Sports commentators use it all the time. Somebody on the defense needs to step up and make a play. It’s time for that guy to step up. Everybody says it all the time. Step up? Tell me something less obvious, more original and halfway intelligent! You know, I know, the players know, and everybody in the stands know that somebody has got to step up.
Having said that, there are times in life when I really want to say, “Step up, Jesus! We’re dying over here. It’s about time for you to step up!” Mary and her sister, Martha, apparently felt the same way. And finally, Jesus did step up, but He was late in the game. Lazarus, his friend, their brother, died 4 days earlier. If Jesus had stepped up earlier, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, at least according to Mary.
Well, here’s the thing. Jesus knew what He was doing. He didn’t step up because it wasn’t time for Him to step up. In His mind, and for His purpose He stepped up at the exact right moment. When He hears that Lazarus is sick, He deliberately stays away for a few days. Why? Because Jesus has not come to the world to make good people better. Jesus has come to the world to raise dead people to life.
We like to say what Robert Capon says best. “For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”
Nowhere in Scripture is that clearer than in this story about Lazarus. Lazarus was worth more dead than alive. For Jesus steps up to the tomb, rank with 4 days of death, despair, decay, and doubt, and cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And what must have been a moment of supreme drama, we are told that “the dead man came out,” his hands, face and feet bound with cloth. Jesus simply says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The news this All Saint’s Day is not that your little “d” deaths and your Big “D” deaths will not happen. Nor is the news that you are always guaranteed to feel God’s presence. The news is way, way better than that. It is that your little “d” and Big “D” deaths are right up God’s alley – the very places He steps up and into. He goes into the tombs of your lives.
Jesus should know. He went to His own tomb. Metaphorically, His wings were torn off by the cruelty of the crucifixion. But His stone was rolled away and He was raised. He does not simply make better, He makes new. He does not just resuscitate, He resurrects. And He will go on stepping up in this life until this life passes and death is no more, when there finally “breaks a yet more glorious day…and the King of Glory passes on His way.” Amen.