When Jesus Arrives too Late

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’” John 11:21-22.

“But even now…” Those are perhaps the three most profound words in our gospel reading. It seems clear to me that Martha is deeply disappointed in Jesus. I don’t know whether she knew that Jesus deliberately delayed two days before answering hers and Mary’s call for him to come, knowing full well about Lazarus’ critical illness. But she is convinced that Jesus could have saved Lazarus if only he had been present. Now, of course, he is present- but too late.

Martha’s expression of disappointment with Jesus might not comport with our protestant traditions of piety, but it is quite consistent with the prayer traditions of Israel as we find them in the Psalms. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” Psalm 13:1-2. “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.” Psalm 88:14-15. Sometimes the psalmists were near ready to be done with God altogether, pleading “turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” Psalm 39:13. Though the psalmists frequently acknowledged Israel’s failures under its covenant with its Lord, they were not shy about letting God know in no uncertain terms when they felt God was being less than faithful to that covenant.

Remarkably, the psalmists-and Martha-continue to persevere in their covenant faith, even when it seems to them that God has failed to hold up God’s end of it. Even the psalms most critical of God’s lack of responsiveness testify to robust faith simply by virtue of the fact that they are addressed to this seemingly unresponsive God! However fierce the argument, God and God’s people are still on speaking terms. “But even now,” says Martha, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” What did Martha mean by that? Obviously, she had no expectation that Jesus would revive Lazarus. When Jesus told her that her brother would rise again, she probably took it as a comforting platitude, the kind we often hear at the funeral of a loved one. A well meaning friend says to you, “She’s in a better place-” that sort of thing. But although Jesus had arrived long after he might have prevented Lazarus from dying and although Martha cannot imagine how Jesus can make a difference at this juncture, she can’t help but remain open to the possibility that Jesus might have in store something beyond her ability to imagine. That is the shape of Martha’s faith.

That is finally the shape all genuine faith takes in the end. It is hard to imagine myself being “inwardly renewed,” to use St. Paul’s term, when my “outer nature is wasting away,” a fact about which I am reminded every time my mind suggests a good long jog in the crisp winter air and my body informs me that I will be doing no such thing. II Corinthians 4:16. How can one possibly imagine life beyond the grave, that ultimate dead end for us all? Paul knew full well the limits of our imaginative capacities. That is why he reminds us that we “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7. It is the only way to walk through troubling and uncertain times where there is no sign of God’s salvation on the horizon and, in any event, the hurt already done seems beyond even God’s ability to heal.

Here is a poem by Amy Gerstler with a lyric description of the dark landscapes we often seem to inhabit. Yet can you sense in the poet’s “once in a blue moon” scent of “the future’s purgatorial breath” the shadow of Martha’s faith?

Doomsday

The dark that’s gathering strength
these days is submissive,
kinky, silken, willing;
stretched taut as a trampoline.
World events rattle by like circus
trains we wave at occasionally,
as striped, homed and spotted
heads poke out their windows.
Feels like I’m wearing a corset,
though I haven’t a stitch on.
Burn the place setting I ate from,
OK? and destroy the easy chair
I languished in. Let birds
unravel my lingerie
for nesting materials.
Fingers poised on the piano keys,
I can’t think what to play.
A dirge, a fugue?
What, exactly, are crimes
against nature? How many
calories are consumed while
lolling in this dimness,
mentally lamenting the lack
of anything to indicate
some faint mirage of right-
mindedness has been sighted
on the horizon? The world
is full of morbid thinkers,
miserable workers and compulsive
doodlers. Darling, my mother
used to croon, you were a happy
accident, like the discovery
of penicillin. When I sense
the zillions of cells in my body
laboring together, such grand
fatigue sweeps over me.
Once in a blue moon I smell
the future’s breath,
that purgatorial whiff
shot through with the scent
of burnt hair, like when sailors
have been drifting at sea
for a long time and suddenly
they see gulls circling
and the ripe composty odor
of land unfurls in the air,
but they’ve no idea whether
an oasis of breadfruit
and pineapple awaits them
or an enclave of cannibals.

Source: Nerve Storm, Gerstler, Amy (c. 1993 by Amy Gerstler, pub. by Penguin Books). Amy Gerstler (b. 1956) is a graduate of Pitzer College. She holds an M.F.A. from Bennington College and is currently a professor of writing at the University of California, Irvine. Previously, she taught in the Bennington Writing Seminars program, at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing Program. Gerstler has authored over a dozen poetry collections and two works of fiction. She has also produced numerous articles, reviews, and collaborations with visual artists. You can read more about Amy Gerstler and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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