“Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”
Words like these expressed by two early followers of Jesus have been on the minds of many during this global COVID-19 pandemic. With diagnoses on every continent, thousands of deaths and the lives of billions disrupted, this sentiment is relevant more than ever.
Where is Jesus in this horrific crisis? How do we seek Jesus and His followers with churches closed and the loss of fellowship? Jesus’ engagement with these two early followers reveals three responses to the crisis we are facing.
Martha and Mary, two of the most devout followers of Jesus, urgently requested the miracle worker’s presence and intervention on behalf of their dying brother, Lazarus. This seemed to be such a reasonable request. The women had hosted Jesus in their home and supported His ministry. Lazarus was not only their brother, but a close friend to Jesus. Jesus was nearby and yet, he waited and stayed silent until Lazarus’ death.
Like many of us today, Martha and Mary were desperate for their loved one to be healed and were bewildered why Jesus seemed to fall out of sight. Their grief was overwhelming, and this tragedy seemed unexplainable. What they did next is instructive for us.
Lament the Loss of Life
The sense of grief we read in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John is palpable. We read of Mary, Martha, their family and friends, all emotionally devastated over the loss of Lazarus. Their grief was revealed in their lament: “Lord if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” A lament is a “passionate expression of grief and sorrow” that is welcomed throughout the Scriptures. In Psalms 13:1, David, as he does in many places, cries out “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
I recently traveled to Argentina and five other countries to film the docuseries IN PURSUIT OF JESUS which explores how people see and encounter faith through their personal and cultural experiences. In Argentina, I discovered the national tragedy that occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s when there was a seized power government take over.
More than 30,000 Argentines were kidnapped, tortured and assassinated. Those lost are known as the “disappeareds”. We know of their plight because their courageous mothers and grandmothers publicly lamented on their behalf, despite fears of the possible deadly consequences. Their lament was not just an emotional release, but a call to change the crisis.
We are called to use the awareness of lamenting to defeat this current crisis. This has always been what lament entails. Martha, Mary, and the mourners were following a long tradition of lamenting, not only to each other but to the God they believed in, but often failed to understand. So, they confronted Jesus with their lament: “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Did you know that Jesus welcomes us approaching him with such statements? If you find yourself asking “How long will this last?” “Why are you allowing this?” “How can this be in your plan?” you are being very biblical in your process of lament.
Like the mourners with the bereaved Martha and Mary, everyone is to “weep with those who weep.” Jesus did not chastise them or rebuke them for their lament, in fact he joined them. Jesus saw Mary and the mourners weeping, and John 11:35 simply records “Jesus wept.” Each time we see new data regarding the number of fatalities, let us remember that these are not simply numbers, but people with names, and families and friends who mourn them. To seek Jesus, we must lament this tragic and inexplicable loss of life.
Keep Talking to and about Jesus
Ever heard the saying, “prayer changes things”? I’ve found there’s a greater revelation. Sometimes praying does not change circumstances, but it changes us. This reminds me of the profound lyrics from gospel legend Mahalia Jackson in which she sings: “Lord, don’t move that mountain, but give me strength to climb it. Lord don’t move that stumbling block but lead me safely around it.” This song reveals a level of faith I have yet to achieve. But it’s a truth that offers comfort in the uncertain times in which we live. “Lord, change ME. Help ME to trust you come what may.”
I experienced this type of faith when I talked to South Africans while filming about the state of their nation 26 years after the end of horrific racial, social and economic segregation known as apartheid. Everyone expressed disappointment and desire to be further along, but there was also great hope for change. Why? I was told on camera: “We still pray and believe that through our prayers and efforts Jesus will bring change.”
Astoundingly, even in their grief and disorientation, Mary and Martha kept talking to Jesus. After confronting him with their brother’s death, which they believed Jesus could have prevented, they continued talking to him. The sisters offered their lament and hope to Jesus, and he was brought near during their suffering. Not only did their dialogue with Jesus bring comfort, but it inspired others as well.
Social distancing has revealed our need for community more than ever. It’s also shown our need for hope in tough times. We must lift-up our neighbors and our loved ones, and fight for hope so we’re not overcome by despair. Jesus told his followers: “You will find trouble in the world, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
When mourners saw Jesus weep on behalf of his friends, they said to each other, “See how he loved him!” Jesus was no longer simply a gifted teacher, or even a miracle worker but a compassionate friend. In times of crisis, talking to Jesus draws us closer to Him, and talking to others about Jesus can remind us of His goodness. There is value in being reminded that He loves us and cares for us. Even if we don’t know what the future holds, we can know who holds the future.
Pursue Life in Jesus
Martha and Mary pursued Jesus even after Lazarus’ death, because they believed that hope and life was still able to be found in Him. Think about that. Lazarus had been dead for four days, and the sisters still believed there was more to this situation than death.
There’s more to our current situation than the struggle around it. I am writing this from New York City, the newest center of the coronavirus epidemic. I haven’t left the house in days. I pastor a church that hasn’t met physically in weeks. We started a financial assistance fund for those who have lost their jobs and sources of income. But, like Martha and Mary, I am reminded by followers of Jesus that there’s more to the story than what we’re all going through.
I met a blind Palestinian woman named Sabha during my IN PURSUIT OF JESUS journey in Bethlehem. She described an existence that was no stranger to struggle. She was considered an outcast for her disability, poverty and faith in Jesus. Yet, she described herself as blessed because she had found life in Jesus. I was moved to tears hearing the audacious hope she described in a peace that could break down the walls of Jew and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian, Muslim and Christian. In all her suffering, she had still found life.
It was a story I heard throughout the Holy Land. A Jewish pastor named Meno joyously showed me around the Old City of Jerusalem where millions of pilgrims made their way to look for life in Jesus in the city where he lived, died and resurrected. It’s unlikely that many will be able to make such a trip this Easter, the height of when most arrive. It’s one more reminder of how this global pandemic has changed life as we know it. But Jesus responds to us, as he did to Martha’s lament: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus offers a truth and an invitation. He offers the life that we are looking for not simply in quantity, but in quality. It’s a life that neither suffering, nor sickness … nor even death can take away. He offers life that offers peace in a pandemic and solace in the storm. Sometimes, that eternal life bursts into our physical world with miraculous bodily healing. We are invited to ask Jesus for that. At other times, this life softly settles onto our souls, reminding us of the deeper truth that the spiritual reality is even more real. We can comfort the mourning and heal the sick by pursuing Jesus, because he first pursued us.
When we lament with others, talk to Jesus and pursue him with others, we can not only believe this mountain can be moved, but find the strength to climb it. There is hope all around, we just need to seek it and we shall find.