By Pastor Monica McDougal
Scripture: John 11: 17-44
As you are likely aware, our theme for Lent this year is the five stages of grief as first identified by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Today, we have reached the stage of bargaining.
Now, when I go to write a sermon, I spend time with the scripture text and I like to think of words, images, songs, movies, etc. that come to mind as entry points into writing. This is just a way to kind of jumpstart my creativity. For my sermon today, as I was thinking about bargaining as a stage of grief and this story from the Gospel of John where Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus, one image refused to leave my mind. That image is the Etch-a-Sketch. The Etch-a-Sketch is a children’s toy that first hit the shelves in 1960 and is one of the most famous toys in history. I’m sure most of you know how these work but essentially you use these little knobs and you draw a picture. Then, when you’re done, you can just give it a shake and the picture disappears, ready for you to begin drawing again.
So, yes, the etch-a-sketch was an image that just kept coming to my mind as I thought about bargaining, but for weeks I couldn’t figure out why. It’s not an obvious connection by any means. The grief stage of bargaining involves trying to broker a deal with God, the universe, one’s self. We often think of it in terms of someone experiencing a loss speaking to God and saying, “If you keep my loved one alive, I’ll start going back to church OR I’ll start volunteering OR I’ll never say a bad thing about anyone else again.” So, what does that have to do with an Etch-a-Sketch? Well, all of a sudden, one day it hit me: the movie Juno.
Juno is a 2007 American coming-of-age comedy film directed by Jason Reitman which stars Elliot Page as the titular character Juno, a 16-year old girl. Near the beginning of the film, Juno walks into a convenience store and is greeted by the quirky cashier who jokes about how Juno is back to purchase her third pregnancy test of the day. After taking the pregnancy test, Juno is standing in front of the cash register waiting for the results. When she gets yet another positive result, she starts shaking the test like you would when trying to clear an Etch-a-Sketch. The cashier, who is witnessing this entire ordeal, then responds, “That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet."
While this is an absurd quote from a comedy film, I think it gets to the root of why we try to bargain in the midst of grief. We so desperately want to be able to control the uncontrollable.
Trying to control the uncontrollable is a very human quality. We see it time and time again in our Bible, a testament to the fact that humans have been wrestling with loss and grief since the beginning of time. In our passage today, we read the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. This story is rare in that it only appears in one of our Gospels, the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel was likely the last of the four gospels to be written and is known for its unique approach to telling the story of Jesus’s ministry. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke are like Patsy Cline, then John is like Dolly Parton. The Gospel of John is dramatic and theatrical. It reads like it should be performed more than recited. The raising of Lazarus is the entirety of the 11th chapter, and while it is unique to John’s gospel there are stories of Jesus raising the dead in all four gospels. However, this story is significant to John as Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus is the last major act of Jesus’s public ministry before his entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the “hour” of his death.
Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany and one of Jesus’s closest loved ones. When Lazarus becomes ill and it looks as if his life is in danger, Mary and Martha send for Jesus likely because 1) they know he has the ability to heal the sick and 2) because he’s as much a member of the family as anyone else. But, Jesus, when he learns of Lazarus’s condition, delays his travel. Verses 4-6 of John 11, which comes before what I read for today says, “But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is dead. Jesus is immediately greeted by a very upset sister, Martha. Martha has been sitting with the unbearable loss of her brother for four days at this point. That pain and grief is raw and ferocious and she is understandably angry at Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I think most of us can understand Martha’s anger. I mean, how many people in the world know a miracle worker personally? Not many. But she does. She’s on a first name basis with Jesus, a man who can renew sight to the blind, a man who can walk on water, a man who can cure disease and illness in an instant. She knows someone who can save her brother, and when she called for him, he didn’t show. Her anger is obviously inextricably linked with her grief, her anguish over the loss of someone she loved. She’s furious and she has every right to feel that way. Feelings, after all, demand to be felt.
After speaking with Martha, Jesus calls for her sister, Mary. When Mary comes out and finds Jesus, the text tells us that she kneels at Jesus’s feet, but the Greek word “piptō” which is translated to “kneel” in most translations is actually more literally translated to “falls,” or “collapses.” So, Mary collapses at Jesus’s feet and weeps, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The same words as her sister. The image of Mary collapsing at Jesus’s feet communicates to us that Mary’s reaction is less one of anger, like Martha who storms out to meet Jesus immediately, but is more one of deep despair. As Mary weeps, we are told that the Jews who accompanied her, likely family, friends, and neighbors who had been sitting with the family in their time of grief, began weeping too. Jesus, verse 33 tells us, is “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The original Greek here translates more accurately to Jesus feeling angry, agitated, or indignant at Mary and the Jews as they weep. Translators have intentionally softened Jesus’s response, likely because we tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being angry. However, just as Martha and Mary have every right to feel what they are feeling after losing their loved one, so does Jesus. Jesus is, yes, fully divine, but he is also fully human.
Why is Jesus angry? Perhaps his anger and frustration is a projection of guilt. He failed to show up in time to spare these two sisters their pain. He clearly made the decision to arrive after Lazarus’s death for a reason, but Martha & Mary don’t know that. So, they’re bringing all of their anger, despair, and grief and they are putting it all on Jesus. They are trying, desperately, to come up with some way that this loss could have been avoided. They want to shake the metaphorical Etch-a-Sketch and undo what has been done, but they can’t. They know that they can’t. They also know that the one person who could wasn’t there when they needed him.
Or perhaps, and more likely, Jesus is angry and frustrated because in their grief and in their desperation, they have forgotten who Jesus is and what Jesus can do. In their minds, what’s done is done. The tomb is sealed. The future is set in stone. Lazarus is never coming back. Death won.
Loss is a near universal human experience. You can experience the loss of a loved one due to death or estrangement. You can experience the loss of a marriage or a relationship. You can experience the loss of your job or career through termination or retirement. You can experience the loss of bodily or mental function due to illness or disability. You can experience the loss of community through moving. There are so many different forms of loss, sometimes occurring in tandem. When we think about loss in these terms, it’s clear that loss is messy and complicated. The feelings that come along with loss is what we know as grief.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first identified the five stages of grief. Now, it’s important to note that these five stages were never meant to be an exhaustive list. Some people probably experience more than these five stages. Some people may experience fewer than five. The stages are not linear and people can enter the cycle at any point. Some people may start out at acceptance and end up at anger. And the cycle can repeat itself time and time again. Grief, afterall, is a lifelong process.
The stage of bargaining is probably the stage that is the most difficult to grasp. When you think of the words “denial,” “anger,” or “depression,” clear images or experiences likely come to mind. Bargaining is, at least in my experience, the stage people have the hardest time defining or identifying. Bargaining may be better understood as the “What If?” or the “If only...” stage of grief. What if I had gotten there sooner? If only I would’ve fought harder. What if I promise to be a better person? If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.
In her book On Grief and Grieving, co-authored by David Kessler, Kubler-Ross says of bargaining, “Guilt is often bargaining's companion. The 'if onlys' cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we 'think' we could have done differently.” Bargaining is the mourner's attempt to pinpoint where they went wrong, where the situation got all messy. When everything feels like it's spiraling out of our control, we search for a way to control it again.
In late-2020, my best friend and her spouse separated and eventually divorced. Watching my friend navigate and process the end of her marriage has been painful at times. To see someone you love twisting themselves in knots of guilt and shame is heartbreaking. No matter how much I and the rest of her loved ones tried to assure her that she did all that she could, that she fought so hard, that she put in the work, she kept searching for where she went wrong. “What if I had just been willing to sacrifice more? If only I had been more patient. What if I had tried another marriage counselor? If only I had been less sensitive.” This self-interrogation led my friend to create false narratives about what actually caused her marriage to end. She started losing trust in her own instincts. She started losing confidence in her own self-worth.
When we would talk during this period of time, my friend would often express fears that the anguish and shame she was feeling would never go away. She would say, “Monica, I just don’t know if this will ever not hurt like this. I can’t see how this will ever get better.” The death of her marriage felt like the death of her. But her story didn’t end when her marriage did just like the Gospel of John doesn’t end when Lazarus dies. That’s not the end of the story.
The 11th chapter of John begins as a story of lament, despair, and death, but it ends as a story of hope, resurrection, and life. You may have noticed when the scripture passage was read that Martha and Mary do not say exactly the same thing to Jesus. Mary’s sentence to Jesus is, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Martha’s sentence is followed immediately by another. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Even now. Even though Martha is devastated, shattered, even though it feels like it will never not hurt, that it will never get better, Martha still believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Mary and her companions in grief aren’t there yet. The hurt is too fresh. The pain is too deep. It’s all they can see. It’s all they can feel.
I’ve heard people interpret this passage and be really critical of Martha and Mary, particularly of Mary. They criticize Mary’s perceived lack of faith and act as if it should have always been clear and obvious to her, just as it was for Martha, that Jesus would, in fact, save her brother. However, I don’t think that’s particularly fair. For one thing, lamenting, being angry at God, wrestling with doubt is an important part of Jewish tradition, one that Jesus Christ himself engages in. But also, grief can be all consuming. After a loss, simply getting out of bed and getting to work on time can take every ounce of your physical and mental strength. So, yeah, holding on to hope and finding faith can feel impossible. But Jesus provides a powerful example for us about meeting mourners with presence and compassion. Jesus doesn’t scold Mary. He doesn’t lecture her. He doesn’t say, “To hell with it,” and walk away. Sure, Jesus might be frustrated by her. He might be angry. I mean, he’s also lost someone he’s loved and everyone’s mad at him. But Jesus doesn’t walk away. Jesus asks to be taken to Lazarus’s tomb and there it is Jesus’s turn to weep.
Jesus wept. It’s the shortest sentence in the entire Bible and it might be the most human moment we see of Jesus. And while he’s weeping, he’s still being questioned. And look, it would be so much easier for Jesus and for the mourners if Jesus just said, “Everybody calm down. I’m obviously going to resurrect Lazarus from the dead. It’s all going to be fine.” If he just would have explained why he was late, why he didn’t stop Lazarus’s death in the first place, why he’s acting so weird, then it would all be better. But Jesus doesn’t explain himself. And while Jesus does not answer all of the questions that Mary and Martha might be desperate for him to answer, he still joins them in their mourning. He lets himself be moved by his grief and anger and all of the other complicated feelings associated with loss. And then, he does what he came there to do and Lazarus walks out of the tomb and back into his sisters’ lives.
The resurrection of Lazarus prepares us for the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. In both the message is clear: when all feels lost, when all feels hopeless, when it feels like death has conquered everything and everyone we love, that’s not the end of the story. We can’t control death. No matter how much we want to. No matter how many deals we try to broker with ourselves, with others, with the universe, or with God. Some days it feels like death is all around. We look around us and all we see is tomb after tomb, literally and figuratively. We witness deaths of loved ones, relationships, plans, and dreams. In those moments, we might find ourselves like Mary, collapsed at the feet of God, weeping for all that feels irreversibly lost. Or maybe we find ourselves like Martha, completely shattered but still clinging on to that last shred of hope. And sometimes, we’re not the mourner at all. Sometimes we’re witnesses to other people’s tragedies. In those moments, we must model the ministry of Jesus, a ministry of vulnerability and presence, of weeping alongside those who weep, of sitting with people in their suffering. Sometimes that requires us to have hope for those who just can’t find it for themselves.
In Jesus, death doesn’t get the last word. Death doesn’t get to be the end of the story. Relationships end, but new love can be found. Families fall apart, but new families can be chosen. Careers end, but new passions can be discovered. Greed corrupts but hearts and minds can be changed. Wars destroy but peace can be created. People die but the hope of Easter morning is the empty tomb. It's the knowledge that death can be defeated. Not by us and our feeble attempts to control that which we cannot and will not ever be able to control, but death can be and has been defeated by Jesus Christ. Jesus who IS the resurrection AND the life. Amen.
Sermon videos are currently available on our homepage.
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
10 Minute Sermons