It’s not fair. Life that is. Life is not fair.
So, where is God in that?
I’ve had plenty of reason to think just those thoughts. Maybe you have, too. Let me share a vivid memory with you from my childhood.
I was the new kid in the first grade class at Louisville Academy, just starting to feel like I might actually fit in. Louisville sits in the midst of south Georgia farmland. Fewer than two thousand people live there.
Not many people move into Louisville. They are not practiced at making strangers feel at home. Add to that that I was burdened with a profound speech impediment, and you’ll understand why I struggled to belong.
One day we had a substitute teacher. The only activity I remember from that class session is an art activity. I traced a squirrel and then colored in the picture. All of us crowded around to tell the substitute about our drawing.
With all my classmates peering over my shoulder, the teacher asked me, “What is that?”
“A squirrel,” I said
“Go sit down and come back when you learn to talk.”
I can still feel the blood rush to my face and the eyes of all my classmates staring at me. Lacking a soft palate, I was physically incapable of making the “s” sound. All the breath passed through my nose and a sound emerged something like, “Hwhwquirl.” The teacher’s words reminded me (and announced to my classmates) that where I came from and how I was made meant that I did not belong.
Where was God when I was born with a cleft palate, when my parents couldn’t afford to get it fixed, when that church-going lady told a deformed, vulnerable little boy to sit down and shut up because she couldn’t understand his distorted speech?
If you insist that God can be God only if he prevents suffering and heartache, injustice and oppression, cruelty and indifference, then you are going to have a very difficult time finding God in this world.
But as it turns out, God does his very best work in the midst of the worst that this world throws at us. That’s one of the lessons we learn from the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus arrives in Bethany after Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. His sisters Mary and Martha had sent for him while Lazarus was ill, but Jesus delayed in coming.
Martha and Mary each greet Jesus with the same words. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21; 32)
Maybe they simply meant, “If only you could have gotten here on time you could have healed Lazarus.”
Or maybe they were more accusatory in their grief, “What kept you?! You should have been here. You could have saved him!”
In any event, Mary and Martha looked to Jesus to prevent a heart-rending catastrophe. This is perfectly understandable. Mary and Martha loved their brother. As his health declined and his life seemed to be slipping away, they turned to God for help.
Like them, and like you, I’ve done precisely the same thing. I pray for a long list of people every day, many of whom are suffering from an intractable disease, facing surgery, or undergoing treatment.
I believe that God loves us, and that God’s love is more than just an emotion. It’s a practice, a habitual way of acting toward the ones he loves. To say that God loves us, to say that God loves me, is to say that God wants the very best for me and is working actively to bring that good about all the time.
Some of us experience suffering and untimely death, disappointment and hardship, as a betrayal by God. For instance, I once had a student in one of my philosophy classes who grew angry and verbally abusive when we were discussing how to reconcile our concept of a good God with suffering in the world.
When I asked him where his anger was coming from, he initially told me that he is a bishop’s son. Well, that explained a lot. Then he told me that his best friend had died in a car crash. His friend had suffered terribly before succumbing to his injuries.
My student said, “He didn’t have to die. God didn’t have to let him die. And even if he did, God didn’t have to let him die like that. If God was really all that good he could have let him just go to sleep. To drift on up to heaven without all that blood and pain.”
And if God’s love for us means that God will prevent bad things from happening to us and to the ones we love, then let’s face it. We can’t say that God loves us.
The story of Lazarus gives us a vastly different perspective on God’s love for us. Sometimes God does prevent suffering. Sometimes God relieves suffering. But most fundamentally, God’s love transforms suffering and even death. If we look for God merely to prevent suffering in our lives, we’re expecting entirely too little from God.
Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. God does not stand at a safe distance from the chances and the changes, the emotional bruises and the physical misery of this life. In Jesus, God jumps in with both feet.
While God’s presence is comforting, Jesus enters our life to do more than go down with us on our sinking ship. We may expect Jesus to wave a magic wand and make it all go away, but that’s not how it works either.
Jesus transforms our suffering, our sorrow, and even our death from the inside out. From heartbreak Jesus creates a compassionate heart. From suffering Jesus inspires hands that heal. And most crucially—definitive of who God is and what God is making of our lives—from death itself God brings a new kind of life.
A life that has passed through suffering and death by the power of God. A life that is forever beyond want and agony and shame and loneliness and death itself.
God is about more than comfort and safety and entertainment and fun. God is about resurrection. Endless, boundless joy and tranquility and belonging. God imparts a new kind of life in Jesus. And God is doing that already. Right now. Our relationship with God is transforming us.
Jesus delayed in coming to Bethany precisely because he loves Lazarus and Mary and Martha. Preventing Lazarus’ death would have been only a temporary measure. After all, he would have died eventually in any event. God wants more for Lazarus than a few extra years. He wants eternal life. And he wants it right now, not just after Lazarus’ biological life is over.
Jesus stood before the tomb and called Lazarus out of death into life. It is true that Lazarus would die again. But by raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus showed everybody present that day—he shows you and me—that he is already imparting the eternal life that we will inhabit fully some day. Jesus is gradually speaking new life, a new kind of life, into his friends.
As we grow into this new life, Jesus draws us into his mission of bringing new life from suffering and death. Remember, when Lazarus stumbles from the tomb, he is wrapped in death cloths from head to toe. Jesus tells his followers to unbind him.
Jesus gives new life. But it takes some getting used to. We need help from those around us. Somebody has to help us get rid of old death clothes that no longer suit us. And we can do that for others.
Whether those clothes are emotional habits like old resentments and bitterness, or they are social injustices like payday loans or unjust wages, Jesus sends you and me into the world to unbind the friends he has already called from the tomb.
Let me return to that first-grade episode for just a moment. I returned to my seat lonely and aching. Little could I have known that Jesus was already working in me what I could not do for myself.
Instead of letting me shrink into a tomb of my own making, Jesus stirred up a courage in me that I cannot account for. I actually started speaking up more in class and on the playground. Being told to shut up, I discovered that I have something to say.
Jesus instilled a love of writing in me. And he placed people in my life who nurtured that love and sharpened my skills. Sister Charlene Klister and Ms. Margee McKenna in high school. Professors Kent Linville, Rudi Makkreel, and Tom Flynn. Each in their own way encouraged and pushed me to say what I had to say with my pen (and eventually my laptop).
And then one day, Dr. Hutson Carspecken corrected my cleft palate. I could say with my lips what I had learned to say with the written word. And people could understand me.
Life is not fair. And fair is not good enough for Jesus.
God wants for us more than a life anesthetized by comfort and decorated with material possessions, more than a life measured by our fleeting achievements, our moral rectitude, and presumed spiritual superiority.
God wants for us a life transformed by his presence in its very midst. A life overflowing with his love. And that is just what Jesus is giving us right now.
This sermon was preached at St. James in Shreveport, Louisiana.