Lazarus was dead. Of that sad fact everyone was now absolutely sure.
He had been barely breathing when Mary and Martha, his sisters, had sent the
urgent message to Jesus to beg the Lord to return to help the desperate friends.
They needed Jesus badly, and quickly. Yesterday, if possible, and it wasn’t possible. Even for the Lord. But the odd truth is that after he’d received the message from these dearly loved friends, Jesus had not hurried.
When he finally arrives back near Bethany, the funeral wreath, so to speak, is on the door. The “sign-in” register for friends and family who come to pay their respects is on its little stand just inside the front door of the house. And death has very effectively wrapped the whole household in its icy grip.
As is often the case at a time of grief, along with the mourners is arriving also a sad troop of dreary thoughts I’ll just call the “if only’s.” Those thoughts are popping into everybody’s heads and springing out of some lips.
Martha greets Jesus first, and she does so with tears and an “if only”:
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Then Martha goes to get Mary to come out and see Jesus, and what are the first words from Mary’s lips? “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Even when others nearby, seeing Jesus’ tears, are moved to say, “Behold how he loved him!” some of them say, basically, “He opened the eyes of a blind man! If only he had been here, could he not have kept this man from dying?”
Notice that another statement logically follows these “if only’s.” It is this: “But it’s too late now, of course.” If only Jesus had been here, there could have been a healing, a celebration, and a feast, but it’s too late now, of course. Now there’s only a trip to the cemetery and a sad viewing of the grave.
We understand the thinking.
“Ah, Lord, if only you’d been here,” we’re tempted to say, “when in my life this terrible thing happened, when I failed so completely, when I was hurt so terribly, when . . . If you’d only been here, but it’s too late now, of course.”
Now I’ve already fallen into sin, betrayed my friend, stumbled into addiction, blundered into bitterness, embraced resentment, or embarrassed my Lord. It’s too late now that ______ has happened. (Fill in the blank with any failure, sin, or tragedy.)
“No,” God says, “it is never too late.” If death can be swallowed up in victory by the power of the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” nothing else in all creation can separate us from his love, his power, and the genuine hope that points to new life, new joy, new laughter.
Lazarus was “dead as a doornail,” but that wasn’t the end of the story, and it’s not the end of your story or mine.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at