If Only

Scripture:  John 11:1-44
Title: “If Only”
Preached:  Pioneer/FPC – 4/2/17

  1. Intro

Have you ever wished something had turned out differently? When was the last time that you asked “if only”?  How many times was that question asked by those who lost loved ones during 9/11?  If only my husband had stayed home sick that day.  If only my daughter hadn’t got onto that flight.  If only I had told her that I loved her one last time.  Life is filled with many such regrets in the face of tragedy.

These sorts of regrets are often the result of pain or trial.  How many times after a car accident have we run through the events leading up to the accident?  If only I would have left fifteen minutes earlier.  If only that car wasn’t in such a rush.  If only the road wasn’t so slippery.

When I was eighteen I remember passing by a traffic accident involving a car and a motorcycle.  The fire trucks, ambulance and police were on the scene.  The motorcyclist was in bad shape and placed in an ambulance.  I remember seeing the young man who had been driving the car sitting on the curb with his head in his hands and a responder trying to console him.  I didn’t witness the accident and I am not sure who was at fault, but I am sure that young man wondered “if only.”  That image left a mark on me.  I realized how everything in your life can change in just a blink of an eye.

Some say that life is too short for regrets.  This allusion of living a life without regrets is epitomized in Frank Sinatra’s song, “I Did It My Way!”, but in the end Frank Sinatra is dead and are those the words that he will stand upon when he stands before God.  I am not sure that I would want to mimic Frank Sinatra’s life and when we stand before God, don’t we want to say, “We did it Your way, Lord.”     but I am not sure that it is possible to live a life without regrets.  In life there will always be regrets.  Sometimes those regrets are caused by our own actions and sometimes they are caused by the actions of others.  Did Jesus regret calling Judas as one of his disciples?  I would have to believe he was deeply saddened by Judas’ actions although he knew that it was for God’s greater purposes.  Sometimes regret is caused by forces outside of our control as in a natural disaster.  To live life as a compassionate individual means to experience regret.  To not experience any regret means to be in total control of our situation and environment and that kind of control doesn’t exist;

In the story of Lazarus’ death and miraculous return from death, we find sisters Martha and Mary wondering “if only.” At seeing Jesus, they respond with identical statements, “Master! If only you’d been here! Then my brother wouldn’t have died![1]” We can hear within their statement their great grief over losing their brother.  Many of us have experienced similar loss and understand the desire to have their loved one with them.  There is also a certain amount of inquiry in their statement as if asking, “Lord, why didn’t you come when we summoned you?  Why didn’t you come and save him?”  We would find it inexcusable if a doctor delayed his appearance two days and as a result our loved one died.  The situation begs the question, “Why did Jesus delay?” Did he not care about Lazarus, Mary, or Martha?

The scriptures show that he cared deeply for them.  This is not our first encounter with this family.  We are told that Mary was the woman with the alabaster jar who lavishly poured perfume upon Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.  We also remember the story of hard working Martha angry at her sister for lounging at Jesus feet and Jesus lovingly reminding Martha to focus on more important things in life.  And when Jesus is summoned to help the dying Lazarus, Lazarus is described as a man that Jesus loved.  Furthermore, when he sees the great grief of Mary, Jesus weeps.  It is obvious that Jesus cared very deeply for this family.  So why did he wait?

Immediately previous to this account, the Pharisees and Jewish authorities attempted to stone and arrest Jesus.  By the power of God, Jesus narrowly escaped.  Jesus then retreated across the Jordan River.  Bethany where Lazarus lived was only two miles from Jerusalem.  If Jesus had returned immediately back to Jerusalem, there would have been a good chance that he would have been arrested on the spot.  It is made clear that although Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha very deeply.  He knew that God was orchestrating something special.  Two days later, when Jesus does inform the disciples that he is returning back to see Lazarus, the disciples couldn’t believe their ears.  Why would he be returning back into the hornets’ nest?  ‘Teacher,’ replied the disciples, ‘the Judaeans were trying to stone you just now! Surely you don’t want to go back there!’[2]

Jesus replied, “ Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”[3]  Jesus understood a greater purpose behind the events taking place.  And so with his return to Bethany, although others were unaware, Jesus began his fateful trek to his own rejection, crucifixion, and death.

When Martha heard that Jesus had come, she went out to meet Jesus. Martha is often portrayed as the less faithful of the two sisters worried about earthly matters.  However, we see here the incredible faith of Martha.  She was in fact the first to rise and go to Jesus.  Mary did not go.  And although there must have been some wonder in her mind why Jesus hadn’t come when summoned still her reply stands out as uniquely faithful, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Peter confessing Jesus as the Christ.  In the gospel of John, it is Martha, a woman of great faith confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  I can’t emphasized enough how incredible this statement is and points to the veracity of the event.  In a male dominated society such as Judea during the time of Jesus, one would never make up a story where a woman would have made such an important pronouncement, yet here it is.  It is Martha, instead of Peter, who confesses Jesus as the Christ.

In response to Martha’s regret over the loss of her brother, Jesus calls Martha to put her faith in him.  ‘Martha, I am the resurrection and the life.’  Life has regrets. We cannot wish away the past.  However, we can do something about our future.  Jesus doesn’t promise us a perfect life free of pain, grief, and tragedy.  We will go through trials and tribulations in our lifetime just as Martha.  What Jesus promises to Martha, and to each of us, is so much greater than our trials and tribulations.  He promises himself.  Jesus promises to be with us in the midst of our pain and grief.  He promises that through him, we will know God; and because of his resurrection, we too will experience new life in this life and the life to come.  This is the good news that Jesus promises to those who put faith in him.

Friends, Jesus is with us in the midst of our regrets, but fortunately he doesn’t leave us there.  Next time you find yourself thinking “if only”, and wanting to change your past, ask yourself, “How would my life be if only Jesus hadn’t decided to return back to Jerusalem…If only Jesus hadn’t been betrayed…if only Jesus hadn’t suffered humiliation, suffering, and death on a cross for me?”  I am not minimizing the pain and suffering we endure in life.  Life is hard, but through Christ, we no longer have to be lost in our past.  In Christ, our past has been rewritten. And so too, Christ calls us out the tomb of despair into new life.  Lazarus wasn’t the only one who arose that day.  Martha was given back her brother, but she was given even so much, much more.  She was given Christ.  This is the true gift offered to each of us.  Let us hope that we too can answer Christ’s call into faith just as Martha did.

“And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” All praise glory and honor be to Jesus Christ, the one who calls us from regret to new life.  Amen.

[1] Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (p. 5). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[2] Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (p. 1). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 11:14–15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.