“Israel, put your hope in the Lord,– Psalm 130: 7-8
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.”
In the gospel reading from this past week Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, but waits until his friend has died before traveling to see him. As he approaches the village of Bethany, Martha and then Mary come out to meet him. Some of the people who were with them started asking, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” In Augustine’s tractates on the gospel of John he says something similar about Martha and Mary’s response to their brother’s illness, “They did not say, Come and heal; they dared not say, Speak the word there, and it shall be done here; but only, Behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick. As if to say, It is enough that Thou know it, Thou art not one to love and then to desert whom Thou lovest.” They believed it was enough for Jesus to simply know their brother was suffering, but it wasn’t.
In a recent article for Time magazine N.T. Wright shares his thoughts about why God has allowed us to suffer. I agree with some of his feelings about the current crisis our nation is facing; I agree that we should lament, that God laments with us, and that God is not cold or distant. But I don’t agree that “Christianity offers no answers about the Coronavirus.” In the story of Lazarus and in the story of the blind man’s healing Jesus says that their suffering has occurred so that the glory of God might be revealed. This statement can be extremely difficult, and even offensive, for those who are experiencing tremendous pain. That is why Jesus only says this to his disciples rather than those who are experiencing the suffering themselves, and if we look deeper there is something powerful in his words.
I think that part of something else Wright says can help point us in the right direction. He warns people not to listen to the “usual silly suspects” who will try to explain why the world is suffering by pointing out who God is punishing. We hear something similar in the scriptures. Before healing the blind man, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replies that, “neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Jesus says this to help his followers stop focusing on the Gordian Knot that is the complex causal chain of sin that leads us to our current circumstances. Jesus’ response that this man’s blindness and Lazarus’ death is for the glory of God, might at first sound trite, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we will see, it is through the endurance of suffering that God is reconciling the world to himself, and that is his glory!
We can see a glimpse of this message and glory in the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel chapter thirty-seven. After describing his vision of national resurrection in the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel shares another, lesser known, prophecy. God commands him to take two sticks and to write on one the name of Judah and all the tribes associated with Judah, and on the other the name Joseph and all the tribes associated with Joseph. God tells Ezekiel to hold the two sticks before the eyes of the people and they will become one in your hand. When asked, Ezekiel is supposed to explain that when God brings his people out of their graves and into the promised land, he will unite them so that never again will they be two people.
This type of unity can only come about in one of two ways. Either the two groups attack each other and one is totally destroyed resulting in a unity of attrition, or one of the groups lays down their weapons in the middle of the fight and, as we have seen throughout history, their willingness to endure suffering without retaliation has the power to create unity through love. This is the type of unity Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about when he said, “Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” This is the glory of God. The ability to experience suffering at the hands of his own creation and never stop loving them. But this glory is also an invitation, one that Lazarus had surely already accepted before his death. An invitation for humanity to join God in this radical acceptance of suffering. So as the Psalmist writes, “more than Watchmen wait for the morning,” we wait for the glory of the Lord to be revealed in the midst of this tragedy.
[This post was a summary of a sermon I preached at North Terre Haute Christian Church this past Sunday. If you’d like to hear the message it was recorded through facebook live here.]