If Only…

If Only…

Grace United Methodist Church

April 10, 2011

John 11: 1-45 (NIV)

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”…

… 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


A few years ago when I was living in Washington, DC, and working part-time at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, I did a ride-along with an Alexandria police officer on an early morning shift one Saturday. Most of the morning was uneventful. We drove through the parking lots at the cheap hotels while he ran license plate numbers looking for stolen or missing vehicles. We did the same thing sitting near a busy traffic light in North Alexandria, just across the river from DC. We went to a busy back road, where the cop sat with his radar gun, checking for speeders coming around an especially tight corner. But soon after lunch, things changed. As we sat at that busy corner with the radar gun, a call came through that a baby in an apartment complex just across the street was not breathing. The cop rushed me back into the car, and we drove into the complex. He invited me to follow him as we rushed up the stairs to a second floor apartment. As we made our way up, we passed the paramedics on their way down, a baby in their arms.

We went into the apartment and found stunned, confused children and a hysteric father. The mother had gone to work early in the morning, the father had woken up, fed the baby a bottle of formula, then he put the baby in his seat next to the couch as he sat himself down on the couch to watch cartoons with the children. The father fell asleep, and when we woke up, he discovered the baby was not responsive, and not breathing.

We waited a long time with the family as the police officer tried to find out what had happened and I tried to keep the children distracted. After a while, the officer got a call over the radio — the baby had not made it. At that point, he sent me away with another cop for the remainder of the shift, while he finished up the questioning and investigation that needed to be done at the apartment. I found out when I got back to the police station that the doctors believed the baby had somehow choked on the formula, which had probably been too thick. I don’t think I have to tell you how sad I was; and I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t still haunt me today. And there are so many questions: we wonder why? How could this have happened? Why would a little baby die? Perhaps the situations are a bit different, but at times we all ask such questions.

And then we begin to think: “If only…” If only the formula hadn’t been mixed too thick. If only the father hadn’t fallen asleep. If only the baby had somehow cried when it was in distress. If only the other children had noticed that something wasn’t right.

When was the last time you said, “If only…” If only he hadn’t stepped out in front of that car…If only she had worked a bit harder and not failed the exam…If only a different politician had been elected last time round…If only we hadn’t decided to go on vacation that very week…And whatever it is, we then start thinking to ourselves, “If only the clock could be turned back.” That, of course, is a wistful dream. It’s a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had just been a little different.

Yet, that is precisely what is on the minds of Lazarus’ family. All that and more is here in Martha’s “if only” to Jesus as he arrives in Bethany. “‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'” She knows that if Jesus had been there he would have cured Lazarus. And she probably knows, too, that it had taken Jesus at least two days longer to get there than she had hoped. Lazarus has already been dead for a few days, but perhaps…he might just have made it…if only…

But Jesus’ reply to Martha invites her to a different sort of thought, a different sort of “if only.” Instead of dwelling on the past and dreaming about what might have been, Jesus invites Martha to look into the future. Martha does that, she knows that her brother will be raised in the resurrection on the last day. But now Jesus asks her to imagine that this future is suddenly brought forward into the present.

Martha, like other Jews of her time, believed that there was to be some future resurrection. They believed that the heavens and the earth would be made new, in which God would enhance all the beauty of the present world and abolish all the pain, ugliness, and grief. Within that new world, they believed, all God’s people from ancient times to present would be given new bodies, to share and relish this resurrection life in the new creation.

Martha believes all this, and she believes that her brother Lazarus will be a part of it, but her conversation with Jesus indicates that it’s not a very comforting thought in that moment. And she certainly isn’t prepared for Jesus’ response. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus says. He’s telling her that the future has burst into the present; that the new creation and with it the resurrection has come into the “now” and it is present in him! “I am the resurrection and the life!”

Jesus is challenging Martha. He’s urging her to change her “if only…” for an “if Jesus…” If Jesus is who she is coming to believe he is…If Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was promised by the prophets, the one who was come into the world…If Jesus is God’s own son, the one in whom the living God is strangely and newly present…If he is resurrection-in-person, life-come-to-life…

Can you see the difference? Can you feel the pain and doubt lifted? As Martha stood in the road that day and watched Jesus approach, she was stuck in the past. All she could think about was, “If only…” It’s easy to linger in that place, to stay on the road with Martha, and let our anger boil. But being angry doesn’t remove the hurt or the pain or the grief. Wondering, “if only…” doesn’t change what has already happened. Even though it’s a hard thing to acknowledge, we know that truth deep down inside us. So I invite you today, if you’re feeling like that, and if you have an “if only” in your heart or mind right now, to put yourself in Martha’s shoes. Run off to meet Jesus. Tell him the problem. You can even ask him why he didn’t come sooner if you need to, why he allowed that awful thing to happen.

And then be prepared for a surprising response, be prepared to move to a new place. There’s no way to predict what that response might be, for Christ always works in unexpected ways. But the good news of this passage is that Jesus will respond. Jesus will meet your problem with some new part of God’s future that can and will burst into your present time, into the mess and grief, with good news, with hope, and with new possibilities that are greater than you could even imagine.

The key to it all, now as then, is faith. We have to believe in Jesus, we have to trust that he really is God’s Messiah, the one coming into the world, into our world, into our pain and sorrow and death. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the Bible tells us that he wept. He cried along with Martha and Mary, and all who had been mourning Lazarus’ death for days.

A little girl was late coming home from school one day. Her mother paced the floor until she finally arrived—15 minutes late. “How many times have I told you—You are to come directly home from school! I was worried sick! Don’t you ever make me worry like that again!”
“No mommy,” said the little girl, “You don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?” asked the mother.

“Well, today was show and tell and Jamie brought a China Doll her grandmother gave her…”

“I don’t care how nice a doll Jamie had,” the mother interrupted, “You don’t stay to play. You come straight home!”

“No, no mommy. You don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” the mother asked.

“When we were walking home some boys were mean to us. Jamie dropped the doll and it broke on the sidewalk…And I stayed to help Jamie…”

“Oh, honey,” the mother said, “That is so sweet that you stayed behind to help Jamie fix her doll—but you still need to come straight home…”
“No, no, no mommy! It was broken so bad we couldn’t fix it! I stayed to help Jamie cry.”

Christ meets us in our pain and grief. Christ struggles with the mess and the chaos of our lives. Christ even cries with us. But he doesn’t leave us there, just as he didn’t leave Martha wondering “if only…” on the road, or Lazarus dead in the tomb. And when we have faith enough to run with Martha and meet Jesus in the road with all that burdens us, he will help us move to a new place. He will show us resurrection and life, hope, and grace, and love. “If only…” we will go to him. If Jesus…

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