The Persistent If
The First United Presbyterian Church
“The Persistent If”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 4, 2018
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Jesus had been in Jerusalem, stirring up all kinds of controversy, to the point where people were ready to stone him to death. He and his disciples make a narrow escape across the Jordan river. Then news comes to him that his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, is deathly ill. Now, Jesus has just healed a blind man back in Jerusalem, so you would expect Jesus to immediately go to his friend and heal him – no problem. But there are two issues. One, Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem, and there are plenty of people around there who are out to get Jesus. But that’s not the reason Jesus decides not to go to his friend. No, Jesus stays put for a few days because he knows that this illness will not lead to death and that, in fact, God’s glory will be revealed through this illness.
Lazarus does, in fact, die. Only then does Jesus finally decide to head to Bethany, and he is met on the road by Lazarus’s sister, Martha who says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We pick up the story in the 32nd verse of the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, where Martha’s sister, Mary, echoes her accusation of Jesus.
32 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."
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
35 Jesus began to weep.
36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
39 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."
40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.
42 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."
43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
44 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."
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Jesus is told that his friend is ill. And instead of coming to his aid, instead of healing him – as he has healed so many before – he waits. Jesus has healed masses of complete strangers, and now, when the life of one he loves is on the line – he waits.
Now, his disciples assume Jesus is interested in saving his own skin. None of them want to head back toward Jerusalem after they have just narrowly escaped death by stoning.
But then, after Lazarus is dead and in the grave, Jesus decides it’s time to go. He has no qualms about going toward Jerusalem. He knows that is his final destination. He just didn’t want to arrive in Bethany before Lazarus had died.
And maybe all of us can look at this story through the objectivity of the page and the privilege of time and think, “all of these people – Mary, Martha, their friends and family – they expected too little of Jesus. They should have known he would come through.” Or perhaps we think they were blessed to not just have their brother healed but to have him resurrected.
But Mary and Martha didn’t feel blessed. They didn’t expect too little of Jesus.
They felt betrayed. They expected Jesus to do exactly what he had been doing. They, quite reasonably, anticipated that their friend would do for them what he had done for so many others.
But instead, he had waited. Sat around on the other side of the river doing God-knows-what, waiting for their brother to die.
Can you blame Martha and Mary, then, for their accusatory statements? “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is the persistent “if” that all of us, at some point in our faith journey, must use. Because the persistent “if” demonstrates that we know the character of God – that God is all-powerful, loving, desiring abundant life for all. And it shows that we trust in God to be God, to act in a way that is consistent with God’s character. So much so that, when something happens that seems to be out of character, that seems inconsistent with who we know God to be, we must protest. We must use the persistent “if.”
When children die of cruel diseases, when natural disasters kill thousands of people in a matter of minutes, when God’s children are slain in their place of worship, or while grocery shopping or doing yoga, we must use the persistent “if.” When a friend or loved one receives a devastating diagnosis, when our lives are devoured by addiction, depression, or chronic pain, we must use the persistent “if.” If God can stop these things from happening, what is God waiting for? If you were here, God, these things would not happen.
We, like Mary and Martha and their whole community, mourn the death and loss we have experienced as a nation this week, and the personal losses we have experienced through the last year at the death of loved ones. We lament. And we cry out to God with that persistent “if.” If you had been here, God, if you had been here.
The only answer to the persistent “if” is a question. We might expect that question to be “why?” “Why did Jesus stay away until Lazarus had died?” “Why would God allow people to be slaughtered in their sacred place of worship?” “Why must our loved one suffer through pain and torment?”
Believing that “why?” is the appropriate response to the persistent “if,” Christian theologians have proposed a number of answers to that question over the millennia.
Some people blame individual sin or a lack of faith. But clearly that is not the case in the Lazarus story. Lazarus and his sisters loved Jesus and followed him as well as anybody. Even after Lazarus dies, even in her feeling of despair and betrayal, Martha is able to proclaim, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." It is surely not for lack of faith that Lazarus has died.
This answer is unsatisfactory in our lives as well. Horrific violence was inflicted upon a community faithfully worshipping God. It was not for lack of faith that this happened to them. I have heard the desperate, fervent, faithful prayers of people begging God to spare their loved ones from death, from pain, from destruction. It was not for lack of faith, it was not by the stain of sin that they suffered.
Around the rise of the industrial age, many people came to believe that God was like a watchmaker who got the world spinning and then just let it run its course, totally uninvolved in day-to-day operations, perhaps occasionally popping in to fix a broken part here and there. But again, scripture seems to disagree. We are told that Jesus, God incarnate, loved Lazarus. Jesus weeps at the pain he encounters in this story. This is not the image of a distant and unfeeling God.
We could let God off the hook for the pain and suffering we and those we love experience by deciding God in not involved in the day to day operations of the world. We live in a fallen creation, and God may be working behind the scenes to repair it, but that won’t affect life and death, pain and tragedy, love and hate.
But I don’t believe that satisfies our persistent “if.” It only magnifies it. “If you had been here, God,” instead of far away in some immutable heavenly realm. Our cry of accusation would continue to grow louder until it reached God in such a place. God cannot escape the persistent “if” by retreating into the heavens.
Other Christians would exempt God from responsibility by excusing God from omnipotence and simply blaming the free will of humanity. Our total depravity is to blame for all the evil in the world. And though God is working on the problem, there’s still a long way to go before we see any improvement. In the meantime, we can expect things to be awful and for God not to do a darn thing about it.
But this answer gives too much power, in my opinion, to sin and darkness, and does not expect God to be God. If our situation is indeed hopeless without God, and God can’t quite get the job done, then we are left at the mercy of all that is opposed to the will of God in this world. We’re on our own to battle the hate and bigotry, the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racism. We’d best figure out if we should blame only the shooter, or the hate-filled online forums he corresponded with, or the media outlets that mainstream anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, or the rhetoric of certain politicians. Yes, we’d best figure out who to blame so that we can fight fire with fire, combat this evil on our own because clearly God is not coming to the rescue any time soon.
And that is the reason that “why?” is not the question we should be asking if we ever hope to satisfy the persistent “if.” We don’t really want to know why terrible and tragic things happen. That doesn’t ease our pain or change these horrific realities.
The only question that satisfies the persistent “if” is “THEN what?” The persistent “if” is an accusation that God is not doing what God is supposed to do. And so we want to know what God is going to do about the mess we’re in.
We know what God did in the Lazarus event. Resurrection. Not just a final resurrection, but bodily resurrection in the here and now. Though we know Lazarus does eventually die, we are given a glimpse of the final resurrection through this momentary, temporary experience of life coming out of death.
And so we hope, and believe, that in every instance of pain and tragedy, in every encounter with death and darkness, that what God will do is resurrection. Not just some final, end-times resurrection. But life out of death in the here and now. It may not come in the form of a four-day-old corpse walking out of the grave, but it may come in the form of resurrecting love and compassion, of new life for truth and hope. Perhaps God will resurrect creative ways of addressing gun violence in our nation or civil public discourse. Perhaps God will resurrect those who are dead in their hatred of others.
But the persistent “if” doesn’t just want to know what God is going to do. It needs to know what we are supposed to do as well. Not so that we can do God’s job if we feel like God’s response is lagging. But so we can participate in what God is doing in the world, so we can witness the resurrection, be a party to it, tell others about it.
We’ll begin that process today by writing notes to the survivors of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Materials have been provided in the fellowship hall by our centering prayer group, and our notes will be collected and mailed to the synagogue this week.
But this is only a beginning. If we want to truly satisfy our persistent “ifs,” we must vigilantly watch for signs of resurrection, we must place ourselves at the mouth of the tombs, in hopeful expectation, and be ready to unwrap the dead so they can live again. That means that we will hear and respond to those experiencing hatred and oppression, not just when they are violently attacked, but when they are wrongly accused or unjustly stereotyped, when they are ridiculed and when they experience inequality.
But resurrection is dangerous business. You should be warned. When Jesus performs this “sign,” as the gospel of John calls it, he is setting in motion the events that will ultimately lead to his own death. While many come to trust and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, others are scandalized and terrified. They begin to plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too. It turns out that resurrection can get you killed.
Plenty of people will be scandalized and terrified when they witness a resurrection of hope, of love, of peace, of truth. Those who think they can maintain power or privilege by blaming, hating, hurting, or killing someone of a different religion, race, gender, political persuasion or homeland, will be sorely disappointed when they witness the resurrection that is coming. And I wouldn’t expect them to roll over and be converted to the ways of love preached and lived by Jesus Christ.
No, participating in resurrection is dangerous business. It can get you killed.
But the apostle Paul affirms that “If we have been united with [Jesus] in a death like his,” a death precipitated by participating in resurrection, THEN “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Every “if” requires a THEN. And our persistent “if” requires an especially persistent THEN. If we are with Jesus, then we will participate in resurrection, we will die for it, and we will be resurrected with him. Participating in resurrection, we will die to our privilege, we will die to our worship of power, we will die to our idolatry of success. Participating in resurrection, we will die to hatred and lies, to systemic oppression and injustice and apathy. We will die to all this, and yes, who knows, it may cost us our friends, our jobs, even our lives. This is not outside the realm of possibility. Eleven people died worshipping God, our God. An act of worship is an act of resurrection, too.
But THEN is just as persistent as “if.” John’s Revelation describes the persistent “THEN,” in vivid detail, a new heaven and a new earth where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Later in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks directly into the persistent “if” and persistent “THEN” telling his disciples "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, [THEN] would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, [THEN] I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
The persistent THEN is not just a future hope, a potential reality. It is something that has already begun and continues to unfold. Martha got it right. Jesus is the one “coming into the world.” God’s work is not complete; it is ongoing. It is an historical event, taking place every day in our midst. Among the atrocities and suffering, the injustice and the heartache, there is a resurrection taking place, and there is a resurrection yet to come.
And that is what we witness to every time we come to this table. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Resurrection got Jesus killed. Resurrection brought him back to life. Resurrection is dangerous business. It is happening now and will continue to happen. And we are invited to participate in it, with all its risks and rewards.
So bring to this table your persistent “ifs” and hear once again that persistent THEN that echoes through time and space, uniting us with all believers, living and dead: he will come again, and take us to himself. He will come again, to make all things new. He will come again.