The Divine Dance of Hope and Suffering

The tag line for this blog is “a theology of hope and suffering,” a constant tension that we find weaving its way through scripture, in every episode of hurt and healing, challenge and triumph, death and resurrection. One of these episodes, where we see Jesus stand firmly in this divine tension, is the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus, of Mary and Martha, of Thomas and the disciples, is one that highlights for us an inescapable tension of our current situation.  The tension between hope and suffering.  The tension between the promise of new life and the pain of death.  Both the possibilities and the ends of things.  In this story from today’s gospel we meet Jesus in the middle of his ministry, having been to Jerusalem early on in that ministry, and now feeling called to return so that he can be with the grieving sisters of his friend Lazarus.  His disciples are skeptical.  It doesn’t take a miraculous revelation from God to predict that it would be dangerous to return to the region around Jerusalem, which is where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary reside in the town of Bethany, just down the hill from Jerusalem itself.  The disciples would prefer not to die, and thus not to return.  Jesus seems undeterred.

As the story unfolds, we hear Jesus communicate the hope and possibility that he sees in the suffering and death of Lazarus.  Like he said about the blindness of the man he healed in last week’s gospel, suffering exists so that God’s work can be revealed in it.  It is the canvas on which God paints with the colors of new life, hope, growth, transformation, and possibility.  Suffering, even death, to Jesus is not an end, but the cracking open of the universe for new things to emerge.  The soil that can be cultivated to grow new life.  From afar, Jesus can see the possibilities of God’ s presence in the suffering of Lazarus and his two sisters.  And so he tells his disciples, in the face of their own possible suffering, that they must go, they must respond to the suffering, not by curing it, not by erasing it, but by drawing nearer and nearer to it until, as Martha will warn later, they will be so close that they can even pick up its scent. 

And so they set out towards the place of suffering, into the heart of the unknown, the uncertain, where there exists the potential for both life and death.  In the courageous and faithful words of Thomas, who would later in John’s gospel receive the unearned epithet doubting Thomas, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Filled with hope and the possibilities of how God might be working in this suffering, Jesus approaches the town of Bethany with his disciples.  He sees the crowd gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.  He sees Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha weeping over the death of their brother.  And so, as Jesus draws closer in proximity to this pain and grief, without losing his hope, he enters into the suffering that is right in front of him.  Jesus weeps.  Jesus sheds the tears of sadness that Mary and Martha shed, seemingly while still knowing what is possible for God to do in this situation.  Likely knowing that Lazarus would be raised.  Jesus shows us here, that the possibility of new life in the midst of suffering does not take away its reality, its pain, its existence. 

The one who would raise Lazarus to new life in mere moments still takes the time to weep with those who are grieving over the loss of the very life that Jesus would return to them so soon.  Or maybe Jesus knows that there is something to grieve.  That there is something that has ceased to exist and will never be again.  Maybe he knows that the life into which he will raise Lazarus is not the same life he had before.  Maybe the life that Lazarus left behind in death is gone forever, and Jesus’ grief is real.  Grief over what has been and never will be again, even in the face of what new things may be emerging from the tomb right before everyone’s eyes.  Jesus shows us that hope and suffering are not opposites on a spectrum, but dance partners in the ever evolving wedding banquet that is the kingdom of heaven among us.

And there Jesus stands, weeping, grieving, hoping, physically standing in the tension between life and death, something ending and something new being born, between suffering and hope. Jesus stands in much the same place as his ancestor Ezekiel stood hundreds of years before as chronicled in our reading from Hebrew scripture this morning.  Much like Jesus standing at the tomb, Ezekiel was a prophet among a people who had been destroyed, let down, left to suffer.  They found themselves in a season of their communal life when nothing seemed certain.  They had been displaced from their home. From their place of common worship, driven out of Jerusalem into an exile in Babylon with no promise of return in sight, Where all the vibrancy of life had dried up.  And in that moment God revealed to Ezekiel a vision of the future, maybe the same vision that Jesus held with him on the way to Bethany that day, of a valley full of dry bones.  Bones that had had every bit of their vibrancy and life taken away.  Bones that were as dead as they could get.  They were beyond hope, beyond new life, beyond possibility.  But then God says to Ezekiel,

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,”

We find ourselves today, in this moment, with Jesus and Ezekiel.  We stand at the mouth of this gaping cave, smelling the overwhelming stink of death and decay. We look out on a valley filled with dry dry bones, devoid of all hope, vacant of all signs of life.  There is no end in sight, there is no reason for hope, and yet God asks us to prophecy to these dry bones about the hope that is still present in the middle of this desolation.  Jesus asks us to not look away, but to walk toward the suffering.  And both remind us that we do not get to choose between one or the other, but are required to hold one in each hand, living in the tension between both, where new life grows.  

We know that something has died.  Something has ended.  We may return to what we remember as normal.  We may all go back to work.  We may go back to school.  We may return to the schedules we had as of two months ago, but we will never be the same after this.  The grief is real, as is the hope.  Hope that we might find new ways of being the church, hope that when we are brought to the ends of ourselves we will find God there waiting to usher us even deeper than we have ever asked for or imagined we could go, hope that we may find our faith in a new way, learn how to share it with our children and families and friends in new ways, create out of this void something that has never been before communally, liturgically, theologically, culturally.

  And yet, all that hope we feel when we stand at a distance from the suffering must be held next to the truth that things are ending.  People are dying, schools are closing, business are collapsing, people are losing their jobs.  The hope is real, the suffering is real, and there is no way to pull them apart, nor are we called to try.  Instead, we are being called to stand with Jesus outside the tomb, weep with him, hope with him, and as something both old and new emerges slowly into the light from the gaping mouth of the abyss, may we ask ourselves gently and compassionately, what ending am I grieving today? And what newness might be slowly emerging from the darkness of that grief?

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