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Hope, loss and Lazarus

April 1, 2017

Life doesn’t always give you what you want. That includes the life of faith. I’m sure Mary and Martha would agree with that. They and their brother Lazarus were close to Jesus. Lazarus was like a brother to him and the two women were as his sisters. Still, when they need him most their healer brother stays away as Lazarus fades and dies. It must have felt as though Jesus had abandoned them. I can imagine the hope of those sisters, and its death. They must have known that Jesus would get there in time. Even as Lazarus got weaker and weaker they knew that Jesus would arrive any moment and save the day, but Jesus never came. Now Lazarus was dead and buried, and hope had sailed away.

I too know the power of Jesus to heal and I suspect that I felt emotions very similar to those of Mary and Martha when I prayed for healing with parents of a young child rushed to hospital with meningitis. I too clung to the hope of healing. I too felt bereft and abandoned as the last breath left that small girls body. I felt through to my core Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27.46). That memory is still fresh, and as I read the story of Lazarus’ death I feel right back with those parents as I hear Martha, and then Mary, tell Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I remember standing with those parents when a verse from the NIV translation of the Bible came to mind, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8.28). Those words seemed like a cruel joke. When I got home I screamed at God, demanding to know how the senseless death of this beautiful, intelligent little girl could possibly be him working for the good of those loving Christian parents.

In time I calmed a little. As I calmed, I did what I always do with verses of the Bible that I have trouble with, I studied them more, I lived with them until the Spirit helped me to see what I have been missing. As I studied I found that many Bible scholars are confident that the translators of the NIV had made a small but highly significant mistake when they translated Romans 8.28. A mistake not shared by many other Bible translations, such as the CEV and the NRSV. The words that made all the difference are as tiny as, “the”, “for” and “of”.

NIV: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

NRSV: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.

The first is effectively saying, “Love God and God will make sure that everything in life will work out for your personal good.” The experience of Christians throughout the ages shows that that can’t be true. It wasn’t even true for their author Paul, who suffered terrible persecution before being executed.

The second version is very different. This is saying that everything about the life of those who love God will bring good into this world. This is something that Mary and Martha were to discover.

Mary and Martha loved God, and they loved God’s son Jesus. Even though Jesus had appeared to betray them, even in their bitter pain, they kept on loving. Those sisters loved God and all things (even their brothers death) worked together to bring good into the world. In their case they received their brother back for a few more years in this world, but even greater than that, the world was given proof that Jesus’ love is stronger even than death.

But what of those parents? They were deeply scarred, deep inside. The light went out of their eyes for quite a while. There were no simple answers to the loss of their little girl. I felt helpless but thankfully God was not. When I saw them last, they were smiling. Warmth had returned. There were no trite words exchanged between us, but it was clear that they too had discovered what Mary and Martha had discovered: Jesus’ love is stronger even than death.

 (The Lazarus story is recorded in John 11.1-45)

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