The mystery of Malaysia Flight 370 has been making headlines for weeks. On CNN, the coverage is virtually non-stop, every angle of the story over-analyzed: When will the black box stop working? What’s the ocean like where the plane might have gone down? Profiles of the pilots. Promising lead becoming dead end. More debris seen on satellite only to find an empty ocean.
We can’t really imagine what it must be like for the families of the passengers, though we have been given a front seat into their grief as well. The young lover who had purchased a ring to propose when his girlfriend came home. The two little boys now orphaned because their parents never returned from a beach holiday. The parents, who having been allowed only one child, have now lost that child. And what a heart wrenching ride their grief has been. Hoping at first that the plane might have landed somewhere in secret – hoping that it had “only” been hijacked or stolen. Then learning how unlikely that was. The search moving here, then there, then over there, and always returning with nothing. Waiting on every painstaking tidbit, caught in the limbo of this mystery in the most excruciating way.
And then to live with the “if onlys.” I know them well myself and I have heard them expressed by many of you. If only he had left a little later…. If only we hadn’t argued…. If only he had gone to the doctor sooner…. If only she had taken another flight…. If only…. If only…. It’s the “if only” that haunts us most when a twist of fate rips a hole of grief into us. If only… it had been different.
In our gospel this morning, we hear one of those “if only” moments.
Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is ill. He is the brother of those feuding sisters: Martha, who worked busily in the kitchen, angry that her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening to him. They get word to Jesus to come, but he doesn’t come right away. By the time he arrives, Lazarus, we learn, has been in the tomb for four days. Martha approaches him, never shy about speaking her mind, and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
And eventually, Martha gets word to Mary, who also goes to Jesus, weeping at his feet, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus, seeing how everyone is grieving, for Lazarus was much loved, begins to weep himself. And people whisper among themselves: “See how he loved him.” And a few others begin to level blame. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
If only Jesus had done differently, Lazarus might still live.
It is human nature, as we know, to want to find something or someone to blame. To solve the mystery. To have an answer upon which we might lay our grief. Our brains do not like ambiguity. We don’t enjoy uncertainty.
And yet, learning to live with grief is about learning to find a measure of certainty in the ambiguity. To know that it is okay to wonder “if only,” while coming to accept that there will be no answer. To know that closure is really just a word we like to use to make ourselves feel better, especially when we are witnesses to grief. But grief itself never closes up and goes away. It just becomes something else. Eventually, that something else is new life.
In a way, our gospel gives us an easy way out – a secret door to dodge the journey upon which all people who grieve must travel. Jesus steps in and brings Lazarus back to life. “Lazarus, come out!” he calls. And we are told that the “dead man comes out, his face wrapped in cloth.” And Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.”
Now there is great space in this gospel for our own understanding to fit – and for us to find a comfort in there as we wish. But the line that leaps out at me, as someone who has grieved deeply, are those final words that Jesus says: “Unbind him and let him go.”
“Unbind him and let him go.”
For such a sad story – where a man has died, and his sisters and friends are inconsolable – those are peaceful words. They do not choke off the grief as frivolous, as if the friends and family of Lazarus did not believe enough that they should be dancing at his tomb, because he was now with God. Jesus himself, after all, shared in their sadness. They do not discard the “if onlys.” Jesus never addresses them – he only urges the sisters to have faith, and to trust that eventually it will be okay. And in the end, at the tomb, he tells them to “let Lazarus go,” to untether him from the constraints of their grieving.
That is the certainty that Jesus places into the ambiguity of their sorrow, in the midst of all those “if onlys.” The certainty that releases them from finding someone to blame. That allows them to tell the story in a way that helps them heal. The certainty that eventually it will be okay and new life will be found, even as the grief itself never ends.
I know this certainty to be true. I have seen it in my own family, whose loved one lies in the belly of the ocean. I have seen it in many of your lives through the grief and loss that you have had to work through. The ‘if only’ moments were plentiful. The ambiguity of grief was real. And yet new life was found. The greatest gift of faith is this certainty that Jesus places into the ambiguity of our grief.
The gospel is full of wisdom and truth and certainties. This story of Lazarus is one of those precious stories that are often watered down into paper pop-up diagrams for children proving the miraculous power of Jesus. Do not overlook the ‘if only’ moments and the ambiguity in this story. Because if we do, we will never know the true miracle of honest certainty that Jesus has to offer. Amen.