Our Lord Jesus seems to be hiding, especially during these perplexing days. It feels like He is not hearing our prayers or coming quickly to our aid. Rather He is letting this pandemic continue, and not ending the sickness, the suffering, the death. So it appears as if He is uncaring, as if He is letting the innocent suffer and die through no fault of their own.
These same feelings and anxieties came into the minds of Jesus’ incredulous detractors, and Mary and Martha, and even his own disciples. They thought that His delay in coming to Lazarus’ aid was callous, uncaring, and heartless; that He just let Lazarus die to prove a point. For when the sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, behold he whom you love is sick,” He did not rush off to heal Lazarus. Instead, Our Lord arrived after Lazarus had died. And so many questioned Jesus: “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”
And could not this loving, kind Jesus, who speaks truth to power back in the day—can He not sweep away this virus, and end this pestilence?
Of course, He can. But perhaps we’re not even approaching the Lord. Perhaps we’re so caught up in making sure others wear masks and keep their distance and follow the rules; perhaps we’re so wrapped up in our fears; perhaps we’re so caught up in looking out that we’re not looking up; and so our prayers are half-hearted. Even more likely, perhaps we don’t see any spiritual connection with this virus; perhaps we’re so materialistic and scientific minded that we don’t see how this is a prayer thing at all, but only see it as something we can fix with the right technique, the right government response, and the right vaccine. And so our prayers only beg God to keep us and others safe, instead of saying what we should always say: “Lord, have mercy.”
“Lord have mercy” because we are unable to help ourselves.
“Lord have mercy” because our frailty and vulnerability is showing.
“Lord have mercy” because we don’t have all the answers.
“Lord have mercy” because, in some way, we might have done this to ourselves.
Those are hard words to hear. For immediately they bring into our mind that God is unfair, unkind, and not nice. But what they should bring to mind is that Our Lord God, in His love which is as hard to understand as it is mysterious—this Lord God is drawing us to Him—if we only will be drawn. He draws near to us, and invites us to draw near to Him.
God drawing near—that is the subtext in today’s Gospel. On the surface, it is a rabbinical argument, a theological disputation, about whether Jesus is God; and whether the Father is on His side. But the larger, more important point, is missed—both by the disputants and by us; namely, that Jesus is standing there. That He’s talking with them. That He’s not backing down—but He’s also not walking away. That, in this frustrating quarrel, He is drawing near to them; and allowing His critics and cynics and enemies to draw near to Him. And His aim is not to push them away, but to win them over to His love.
Back to the story of Lazarus: that’s precisely why Jesus delayed and waited until after His beloved friend died. For this, He says, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Have you considered that? That this sickness is not about a body count; not about fixing blame; not about being prepared; not about who cares and who is callous? Rather, it is so that we might look beyond ourselves; that we might spend more time drawing near to God; that we might spend less time spinning our wheels, and more time with our relationships—especially our relationship with our heavenly Father.
Perhaps this pestilence, like all pestilences, is permitted so that we might see that, in the midst of our helplessness, Our Lord Jesus is the Help of the helpless and the Hope of the hopeless. And so perhaps this should be our prayer: “Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.”
The disputants who are challenging Jesus in today’s Gospel miss what is so plain in the light of day: namely, that they are not listening, but blaming; and that they are not drawing near but are fixated on their own fixes. And so Jesus persistently, yet gently and clearly, keeps pointing out that His Father is their long-term help; and that His mercy is not only available but is really all that they need.
And then He hides. For the Gospel reading ends with these words: “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” But Our Lord hides not out of fear, or to distance Himself, or to turn away from those who refused to hear Him. Jesus hides because it is time for Him to step back, so that those who love Him might step forward. It is time for them to seek Him while He may be found.
We hide our crosses and icons and statues to remind us that, too often, we are like those who clashed with Jesus in today’s Gospel. Too often we are so caught up in our fears and anxieties, and in making sure that everyone plays by the rules, that we lose sight of Our Lord, and the unending mercy that He constantly extends to us.
Yet hiding Jesus, as we cover the icons and crosses, means that we now get to spend more time seeking Him and His righteousness. That we get to spend more time with perfect love Himself who knows no fear. And that we get to spend more time drawing near to Him, so that He may draw closer to us.
To this Lord Jesus Christ, our one true Reliance and Help, together with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.