Jesus, where were you?

“Jesus, where are you?” It’s a familiar question which we almost always ask in the wake of tragedy, and it’s a question countless people across our nation and around our world are asking after last week’s horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. It’s a good question. In fact, it’s a better question than a lot of the platitudes that various sources will offer. It deserves more than the standard. It demands more than the cute. Because the tragedies which prompt us to ask are nowhere near cute or standard. We ask because our souls are grappling with universal crises like Sandy Hook, 9/11, or the Holocaust, or deeply personal things like the loss of a job, a terrible disease, or the death of a loved one. Big things. Profound things. Earth-shaking, life-altering things. Some would have us believe that there are no real answers to the question, that we can never truly know if God – let alone where God – was in these moments. But they are wrong. And I wanted to take a moment today to offer a little insight I’ve been gaining in the last several weeks as I’ve worked on my series of Advent messages in general, and particularly as I’ve reflected on the implications of the Incarnation of Christ on the situation which has transfixed our attention the last several days.

Before I begin, though, I have to tell you that I have two children who are exactly the age of the kids who were killed in Connecticut. My daughter is in first grade. My son is in kindergarten. When news of the shooting in Newtown broke, I was volunteering on the playground of their elementary school, hanging out with nearly 500 kids their age in a setting eerily similar to that of Sandy Hook. And I have developed relationships with several of the people who work there, from the secretaries to the administrators to the teachers and more. I could not help but imagine how devastating it would have been if this had happened in my town, to my friends and kids.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, God reminded me that the Christmas account – the story of how God became man and dwelled among us – is just as real and relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Indeed, in Matthew 1, the angel proclaimed to Joseph that Jesus would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” And in Matthew 28 (the passage we’ll be looking at this Sunday), Jesus announced, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” So God is with us. He’s at our side, going through this whole mess called life right beside us. He was there with the victims of Sandy Hook and 9/11 and the Holocaust. And He’ll continue to be there until Jesus returns and sets all things right once again.

But that generic promise seems somehow inadequate in light of horrific tragedy, particularly when the victims are small children. So while we may affirm in our heads the notion that Jesus is God with us, our hearts continue to cry out, “Where were you, God?”

I suppose that this should really come as no surprise. In fact, as I have continued to contemplate the whole situation, I have been reminded that people – even godly people – have been asking the same question in tragic circumstances – and sometimes even in normal circumstances – since the beginning of time. Take, for instance, Moses. When God called him to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt, Moses asked in Exodus 3:11, “Who am I, that I should go?” God responded in vs 12, “I will be with you.” And Moses came back not with a statement of faith, but by demanding to know God’s name and actual proof that God was indeed with him. Or consider Joshua. In Joshua 7:7, after the Israelites were defeated at Ai, Joshua threw himself down on the ground and demanded, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?” Translate that: “God, why weren’t you at Ai?” How many times did the various psalmists ask when God would finally show up? And who can forget Job? God allowed Satan to test this poor man because He was so proud of Job’s righteousness, and in Job 23:3, Job lamented, “If only I knew where to find [God]; if only I could go to his dwelling!”

What strikes me is that the Bible and God never offer platitudes in response to this question. In Moses’ case, God revealed His name and then offered a series of wonders as proof. With Joshua, God responded bluntly, essentially, “Me? Oh no, this wasn’t my fault! It was yours!” With the psalmists, the questions are sometimes answered, but often allowed to simply hang forlornly in the air. And with Job, eventually, God responds in dramatic fashion from the storm to say, basically, that Job didn’t have the credentials to question Him or the perspective to grasp all that was going on.

To be honest, though, I think John 11 may contain the most poignant response to this question in all of Scripture. The chapter opens with a sick man from Bethany named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha and a dear friend of Jesus. In fact, in vs 5, after Jesus received word that Lazarus was deathly ill, John revealed, “Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.” And yet, in vs 6, our Lord, knowing full well that Lazarus was on very ill, “stayed two more days in the place where He was” before suggesting to His disciples that they return to Judea and Bethany. When they arrived, Lazarus was dead. In fact, he had been in the tomb already for four days. (Not coincidentally, it would have taken the messenger a day to get to Jesus, He stayed where He was for two days, and it would have taken Him a day to get to Bethany. So Lazarus died while the messenger was en route to Jesus.) And we read in vs 20 that “as soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him,” and in vs 21, she demanded, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

In other words, “Jesus, where were you?”

The account of John 11, though, is not poignant just because of how Jesus responds to this situation. As I have contemplated it the last several days, I am convinced that there is a great deal going on here which sheds invaluable light on what Jesus is up to all through crises and tragedies.

The first thing which jumps out at me is that Jesus loved Martha and Mary – the survivors – as well as Lazarus. John was explicit about that, and if anyone should know, it would probably be the disciple who referred to himself consistently as “the disciple Jesus loved.” In moments of crisis and tragedy, it is imperative to remember that God’s love never falters or wanes, regardless of what’s going on around us.

The second thing that strikes me is that Jesus stayed two more days where He was after hearing that Lazarus was ill. What He was doing there, we don’t really know. John 10:40-42 simply say He was ministering on the far side of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist had been baptizing, and leading many to faith. But we receive no details about how that all happened other than that “He remained there” (10:40) and “He stayed two more days” (11:5). In other words, even when Jesus knew that Lazarus was on his deathbed, Jesus didn’t start toward Bethany. Now, we can speculate as to Jesus’ reasonings for doing this, but in the end, it is not particularly relevant. You see, in Matthew 8, Jesus healed the centurion’s servant without ever going to him. So Jesus did not go to Lazarus to heal him, but He could have effected the healing from afar. But He did not do that, either. In other words, Jesus allowed Lazarus’s illness to continue. In fact, Jesus allowed Lazarus to die.

Of course, the response to that is that Jesus could not have known how serious Lazarus’ condition really was. So maybe He did not really allow it after all: He just did not know. Except that the third thing that grabs my attention back in John 11 is verse 14. The messenger has come, told Jesus that Lazarus was ill, and left. In verse 11, Jesus tells His disciples that they are returning to Bethany despite the risk of the Jews because “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Knowing no better, the disciples say in vs 12, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will get well.” The logic was sound: they knew their friend was ill, and sleep helped sick people get better. But in vs 14, without ever receiving a second messenger, Jesus declares, “Lazarus has died.” Jesus knew. And while it stings a bit to think that He knew how bad Lazarus’ situation was and still did not act to heal His friend, it is still a little comforting to know that He knows what we are going through.

And then comes vs 15. Immediately on the heels of declaring that Lazarus is, in fact, dead, Jesus declares, “I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe.” It was a hint that, even in the midst of this crisis, Jesus was up to something. He had His eye on the bigger picture and was about to do something amazing. What was that amazing thing? Well, some would skip straight to vs 38, where Jesus ordered the stone removed from the entrance of Lazarus’ tomb, and 43-44, where He called Lazarus to come out, and the dead man did. In fact, I had a professor in Bible college who explained that the main thrust of the account was to show that Jesus had power over death – even after three days – so that His disciples would believe Him when He predicted His own death and resurrection. Certainly, that is at least an ancillary objective here, but the fourth thing that jumps out at me is that there is a lot of stuff between verses 15 and 38.

As I told our congregation this past Sunday, John 1:14 reveals that the Word – God – became flesh – man – and tabernacled with us. The term, rendered in most modern translations as “dwelt,” “made his home,” or “took up residence,” could just as well be translated “roughed it.” “Roughing it” – the form of camping in which you sleep in a tent (if that) without any of the amenities or facilities of modern living – is a very messy proposition. Without the facility of running water or the amenity of a shower, you get dirty. In fact, you get all dirty.

In John 11:16-37, Jesus got dirty.

We find, first, that Thomas was not keen on the idea of going to Bethany to dare the Jews. I love Thomas. If I had been one of Jesus’ apostles, I would have been him. But that’s another story. Jesus got Thomas’ cynicism on His shoes.

Then came Martha. In vs 20, we read, “As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him.” And in vs 21, the first words out of her mouth are, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Now, the text does not say this, but I imagine that Jesus placed His hands on Martha’s shoulder even as He pressed on toward their home. Jesus got Martha’s hurt all over His hands.

And then came Mary. Mary had a special place in Jesus’ life. No, I am not a proponent of the theory that she was His wife, but I must observe that she plays a recurring role in His earthly ministry and becomes the first person to see Him after His resurrection. And so, in vs 32, it must have especially stung when she finally emerged from the house with a face contorted. John says “she fell at His feet and told Him,” but I imagine what she really was doing was crying. In hurt and pain, yes. But I sense rage in her voice, too. She accused, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!” Jesus got Mary’s rage all over His feet.

And He reacted. In verse 33, we read, “When Jesus saw [Mary] crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved.”

You see, Jesus was no happier about this situation than Mary or Martha. And to punctuate that revelation, moments later, we have the single shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (35).

You know, it is fascinating, the difference punctuation makes. It is the difference between eating, Grandpa, and eating Grandpa. And it is the difference between Jesus merely being in proximity to tragedy and Jesus being with us in tragedy.

In the wake of His friend Lazarus’ death, Jesus wept. In the light of Martha’s pain, Jesus wept. In the mess of Mary’s wrath, Jesus wept.

And in that seemingly simple statement, we have a profound revelation. Yes, Jesus may have bigger fish to fry, some grander purpose in mind as He allows us to endure crisis and tragedy and loss and pain.

But He still weeps with us.

In the days and weeks, months and years to come, the news media will eventually tire of covering and endlessly analyzing the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Life in Newtown, CT, will return to some semblance of normalcy (in fact, as I write this, kids in Newtown have returned to school today). Of course, we will learn (and hopefully apply) lessons. Some of the questions which have been asked – the how’s and why’s of the investigation – will be finally answered. Bodies will be laid to rest. And life will go on. Until, that is, the next tragedy compels us to ask, again, “Jesus, where are you?”

And it will be in that moment, when that question lingers once again in the air, that Jesus will be right here, with us, weeping.

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