Topical Scripture: John 11:1-45
I hate to fly. I don’t just dislike flying, with all the security hassles, long waits, and cramped seats. I actually don’t mind all of that so much. The part of flying I hate is flying–that moment when the bus packed like sardines and weighing a gazillion tons leaves the ground. I sit on the aisle, as though four feet from the fuselage will help. I read a book, as though not thinking about my plight will make it disappear. And I stay in denial until the wheels touch the ground again.
You see, I don’t really understand heavier-than-air flight. If I had been one of the Wright brothers, we’d all be grounded today. I don’t see how something that weighs more than this building can fly when I can’t. When I was a young boy I wanted nothing more than to be Superman, flying up there in clouds. So one day I tried. I cut out some cardboard wings, strapped them to my arms, climbed to the roof our house, and jumped. With predictable results. I haven’t liked flying since.
The hardest part for me is turbulence. When the airplane starts to shake, I grip the armrests instinctively. I don’t have any idea why. I know that my armrests will not help much if we plummet 30,000 feet to the ground. But I can’t help it.
The only thing that helps me is hearing the pilot in his soothing voice telling me I have nothing to worry about. If he’s on the same plane and he’s not worried, I am less worried. Or so I tell myself.
Where has your airplane encountered turbulence today? Where is there unresolved guilt in your past or fear for your future? Who needs your forgiveness? Whose forgiveness do you need? What pain in your marriage or family or relationships is hurting your heart this morning? You can grip your pew hard, but it won’t help much. Trusting your captain is the only way to make it through the flight. But it’s hard to do that when he’s the one who flew your plane into this storm.
Let’s talk about that issue today. If Jesus could raise Lazarus, there’s nothing he cannot do. But he didn’t do what you want and need him to do. He didn’t answer your prayer the way you wanted. He has flown your airplane directly into a storm. In such turbulence, how can you trust your pilot today?
Believe that God has a plan (vs. 1-16)
Apart from the crucifixion accounts, this is the longest continuous narrative in all the gospels. The story comes just days before Jesus’ last Passover and his crucifixion. He has returned to Judea, where his enemies tried earlier to take his life (John 10:39). His actions will lead to the authorities’ plot to kill him (John 11:45-53). Mary and Martha have no way to know that Jesus’ timing regarding their brother’s illness will directly affect his atoning mission. There is always more to God’s plan than we can see.
Our story begins: “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11.1). “Lazarus” means “God is my help.” His name would be fulfilled in this remarkable miracle.
His hometown was located about two miles east of Jerusalem, situated on the southeastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was Jesus’ home whenever he traveled to Jerusalem or Judea, and became his headquarters for the last week of his life.
Jesus had no closer friends on earth than Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. So the sisters sent word about their brother to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (v. 3). They did not ask him to come–they assumed that he would. As he had turned water into wine, healed a nobleman’s son, fed 5,000 families and opened blind eyes, surely he would heal his man whose family had been his family.
But he did not. His reply was strange indeed: “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it'” (v. 4).
Jesus’ timing was not theirs. He saw Lazarus’ sickness as an opportunity to glorify the Father. He sees every storm we encounter in the same way–as a chance to bring glory to the Lord. And so, even though he loved Lazarus and his sisters (v. 5), “when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v. 6).
It seems that Jesus received the news that Lazarus was sick, had time to travel to Bethany to heal him, but chose not to do so. But this is not true. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days (v. 39). Jesus was in Perea, a day’s travel from Bethany. The messenger left when Lazarus was alive and traveled a day. Jesus waited two days; then he traveled a day to find Lazarus dead for four days. Doing the math, we can determine that Lazarus died when the messenger was on his way. If Jesus had left immediately, he would have found his friend dead for two days already.
But why wait the additional two days? Because people in the ancient world believed that the soul hovers around its body for three days, hoping to be reunited with its flesh. And so they mourned for those three days with the loudest and most emotional tears and cries, in case the soul of the deceased was watching their grief. This is the reason Jesus delayed his return for two days: by the time he came to Lazarus, his friend was “really” dead. There was no possibility of his resuscitation. No one could claim that the man had been merely comatose, or pretending his death. Four days without food or water, wrapped in air-tight burial clothing, would have resulted in anyone’s death.
So Jesus waited the right amount of time to do the greatest miracle, to do what was to Lazarus’s greatest good, God’s greatest glory, and our greatest spiritual growth. He always does. Even though we sometimes don’t know it.
Where in your life are you frustrated or confused about God’s timing? What prayer has he not yet answered? What need has apparently gone unmet? Where is he in Perea and not in Bethany? Believe that God has a plan. Rest in the fact that the will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain. Trust his plan and purpose and timing, and one day you will know that you were right.
Trust what you cannot see (vs. 17-41)
Upon his arrival, Jesus found a family and friends still in agonizing grief. During the first seven days after death, mourners were forbidden to wear shoes, engage in any kind of study or business, or even wash their bodies. All the chairs and couches in the house were reversed, and the mourners sat on the ground on a low stool.
Word preceded Jesus’ arrival. Martha left her crowded home to meet him (v. 20). And so she heard one of the most significant statements in human history: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (vs. 25-26a, emphasis added).
Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right now. Not just at the end of history, but in this moment of time. He “is” the resurrection and the life–apart from him there is neither. When we believe in him we will “never die.” His promise can be translated literally, “every single one of the ones living and believing in me not never shall he die unto the age.”
Jesus would soon explain that his Father’s house contains many “rooms” (John 14.2, translated “mansions” in the KJV). This word originally meant the destination at the end of a journey. The picture is clear: our lives are but a pilgrimage, a destination. Our bodies are the “vehicles” for that journey. One day we arrive home. We step out of the car and go into the house. Others on the road see the vehicle left behind. They cannot see into the house. But we are nonetheless home. We never die. The person who is alive spiritually will never die spiritually. We are immortal.
But death has not become life just yet. Jesus saw these sisters’ grief, and that of those who mourned with them, and was “deeply moved in spirit” (v. 33). In stark contrast to the gods of the world’s religions, who stood apathetic and distant from human emotion, God incarnate felt every pain we endure, every sorrow we grieve (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). No deity in any other religion across human history has ever cried. But Jesus did: when he saw the place of his friend’s burial, “Jesus wept” (v. 35). This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but the most powerful two words in all of literature.
Now Jesus enacted all he has been preparing across these four days. “Once more deeply moved,” he came to Lazarus’ tomb (v. 38).
There was an entrance, followed by a chamber which was six feet long, nine feet wide, and ten feet high. There were eight shelves cut in the rock—three on each side and two on the wall facing the entrance. The bodies were placed on these. The tomb had no door–in front of the opening ran a groove in which was set a large stone. This stone was rolled across the entrance to seal the tomb and keep wild beasts out. I’ve seen the tomb which is shown to tourists as “Lazarus’ grave,” but no one is certain if it is the authentic location of this miracle.
Here eternity lay in the balance. If Jesus failed with what he did next, his every claim to be the Messiah would be hopelessly discredited and his movement would end. If he succeeded, the rulers would become so threatened by that movement that they would kill him. By ending this man’s death, he would ensure his own.
Our Lord never hesitated: “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!'” (v. 43). His words literally shouted, “Lazarus! Here! Outside!” And the dead man obeyed (v. 44a), as we all will one day (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52; John 5:28-29).
As a result, many Jews “put their faith in him” (v. 45). But others went to the Pharisees with the story. The Sanhedrin met (v. 47), and “from that day on they plotted to take his life” (v. 53). One day soon they would succeed.
Our story forces us to confront the issue most of us face in suffering and grief: why? Why did God allow this? Why did Jesus not answer my prayers, or heal my brother, or solve my problem? If he could raise Lazarus, there’s nothing he cannot do. But he didn’t do it for you. Why?
The answer is that his plan is seldom ours. His timing is beyond our understanding. Had Jesus healed Lazarus before he died, we would never know that he can heal us after we die. Had Lazarus not gone to his grave, we would never know that Jesus will come to our grave. Had his sisters not walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we would never know that life waits on the other side.
Aren’t you grateful that Jesus dealt with Lazarus as he did? Who will be grateful that Jesus dealt with you as he does?
Either God is Lord or he is not. Either he has a plan in the midst of our pain, a way to use our turbulence, or he does not. Either he will redeem all that he permits or causes, or he will not. In ways we can see, and most often in ways we cannot. Not yet.
It’s human nature to reject those who reject us. If you let me down, it’s hard for me to trust you again. If Jesus didn’t come when I call or heal my brother before he died, why should I believe his plan and trust his help now?
God is redeeming all he permits or causes. We can share in that redemption and providential purpose, or we can miss it. We can choose to believe that God has a plan, and we can choose to trust what we cannot see. You can choose to allow him to use and redeem your pain for your greatest good, his greatest glory, and our greatest growth. Or you can miss all the ways his weeping compassion wants to encourage you and his resurrecting power wants to help you. When he comes to visit you in your grief you can turn to him, or not. The choice is always yours.
We are living between Lazarus’s death and his resurrection. Your child is dead; your marriage ended years ago; your job is done; your future is hard. Jesus has not yet called your pain from its tomb to be transformed into life and glory and joy. But he will. One day he will.
In the meanwhile, as the songwriter says, “God is too wise to be mistaken; God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand–when you don’t see his plan–when you can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.”
The harder that is to do, the more we need to do it. Let’s ask Jesus to raise Lazarus again, right now.