John 11: Jenga

Sometimes I think that my faith is like a game of Jenga. A piece disappears, and I wonder, “Is that one going to make it all come crashing down?”

We spend a lot of time covering for God. I don’t think He needs it, and I think we do more harm than good in trying to make excuses on God’s behalf.

John 11 is another one of those chapters that makes me roll my eyes at the author, because it’s kind of a mess, from a literary perspective. This is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, which is a pretty famous one and a really big deal for John. While the other gospels pin Jesus trashing the temple’s shopping mall as the last straw that focuses the religious leaders on killing Jesus, in John’s gospel, it’s the fact that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead that makes the leaders start actively plotting Jesus’ death. But, as a story, it’s a bit of a train wreck.

In Luke 10, Mary and Martha live near Samaria and Galilee, but John has them living in Bethany, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. And nobody else has Lazarus in their gospel; if he was a brother to these two, you’d think Luke would have mentioned it. In John 11:2, John goes out of his way to say that this Mary is the one who anointed Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, which is OK except that that’s a story that he hasn’t even told yet. And there’s this thing where Martha goes and tells Jesus that if he had been a little quicker, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, and then they go get Mary and she does the exact same thing, and it just seems awkward. Plus, he raises Lazarus from the dead, and then the scene cuts away and we never hear from Lazarus again. I mean, if you raise a guy from the dead, isn’t he at least going to write a book or do the talk show circuit or something?

All this is annoyance, though. It’s an author pulling oral history together and trying to knit stories into a coherent whole. I get it.

What I don’t buy about this story is this: Jesus loves Lazarus. He’s told that Lazarus is dying. And he hangs out intentionally for a whole two extra days before he goes to pay a visit, because he says it’ll make more of a splash if he raises Lazarus from the dead than if he just heals him.

He’s right, of course. As I just said, it’s the raising of Lazarus that sparks so much buzz about Jesus that the leaders decide they need to take him out.

But if Martha says “Jesus, if you’d shown up on time, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” and Mary says, “Jesus, if you’d shown up on time, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” what do you think Lazarus would have said (once he got unwrapped from the tomb)?


I think the “Jesus MEANT to wait the extra days” line of reasoning is how we cover for God. Bad stuff happens. Even after you boil out the bad stuff that happens because we have the free will to be awful to each other (or even unintentionally destructive through our free choices), there is still bad stuff that can’t be accounted for. Like Lazarus dying before Jesus gets there.

The little-o orthodox Christian position is to cover for God here. To say that God has a master plan that is so beautiful that the stuff we think of as bad is really just the backside of beauty, like how the underside of a beautiful needlepoint can look like a jumbled mess. (If you like that analogy, it isn’t mine; either Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar deserve the credit. I forget which one.) 

But tell that to Lazarus (who, spoiler alert, presumably died again).

One of the Jenga blocks that I lost a while ago was the one that said that everything has to be part of a master plan, because God is, above all, in control.

There are a couple of songs I was listening to recently that really moved me – like sobbing-while-driving-on-the-turnpike-moved-me – in their message that God will work everything out. I’m still sorting out why those hit me so hard, but I think the tears came from recognizing that many people believe in that so strongly and that I really do not. 

I know I’ve said this before, but when you look at crucifixes on a regular basis, it’s easier to recognize that things do NOT always work out neatly. That so many Christians can look at the cross and see only the Resurrection, not only on the back wall of a church but in the chaos and crime scenes of life, is overwhelming to me. I just can’t see it. I sit in the pit with those who think that a God who could stop such pain but chooses not to because of a master plan is not the most loving of gods.

What keeps my little tower of blocks together, though, is that the God-with-a-plan isn’t the one I need. I need – and know – the God-who-suffers-with, the one who weeps at Lazarus’ tomb, and at the cross, and at every loss before and since. That God, a God who says that holiness isn’t found in a master plan, but in an unreserved choice of love-with-pain over the only alternative, which is nothingness? That’s the God I know. 

Actually, I am oddly comforted by the notion of a God who doesn’t have it all figured out, but only knows that He’s along with us for the whole ride. The tower built of the blocks it takes to believe in that God is really spare, and looks so frail. But it can stand up to life’s hurricanes, I can tell you.

(I was going to use “I can name that tune in X notes” as my analogy, but, honestly, that game show was more my parents’ era than mine, so I wasn’t sure people here knew it.)

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