Read: John 11:1-44
When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, he was at least five days too late. Anyway, that was the consensus opinion of everyone who had gathered at the home of Mary and Martha. Jesus had been a frequent visitor to this home. There was a special bond between him and these two sisters, and their brother. So, when Lazarus became sick, Jesus was probably the first person they sent for. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (v. 3) They were confident that he would drop everything immediately and run all the way there.
But Jesus decided to stay where he was two full days longer. Lazarus was already dead before he even started. (v.14) As he approached the village, someone, no doubt, had gone to inform the sisters. Martha jumped up immediately and ran to meet him on the road, just outside the city limits. But Mary stayed behind. Did she not get the message? This was the same Mary who had always loved to sit at the Master’s feet, listening to every word. (Luke 10:38-42) Did Mary feel that Jesus had betrayed her? Was her disappointment so intense that she refused to leave the house? Did she expect him to come to her to apologize?
Others also met him as he approached, wasting no time informing him that Lazarus had already been dead four days. Martha spilled out her heartbreak as soon as she saw him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To her credit, she added hopefully, “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” (v. 21-22) Martha is showing a greater depth here than most people have given her credit for.
After a brief discussion, she returned to the house to bring her sister. When Mary arrived, she poured out her own pain at Jesus’ feet. Once again, he was confronted by the same implied accusation. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 32) Then the people who had followed Mary from the house began to whisper among themselves, wondering why this man who had healed so many others couldn’t manage to show up in time to heal his friend. (v. 37)
The accumulated effect of all this pain and disappointment was enough to drive Jesus to tears. (v. 35) Their words continued to accuse him. “If you had been here . . .” They just couldn’t understand. I’m guessing that each of us, at one time or another have taken our own place within that accusing chorus. “Lord, where were you when I needed you? Why did you let this thing happen?”
Jesus still weeps to this day beside each of us. He doesn’t weep out of frustrated weakness. He weeps because he shares the pain of our own weakness. (Hebrews 4:15-16) He comes to us with compassion. Literally, this word means to suffer alongside someone else. In a way we can’t fully understand, Jesus lifts part of the pain upon himself. He feels it. He carries it. We don’t carry the full load alone. (Isaiah 53:4)
But, as important as compassion is, Jesus comes into our broken places with more than just that. He comes with a plan. As soon as he received the word about Lazarus’ illness, he related the entire experience to a higher purpose. A kingdom purpose. He told his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death (ultimately). It is for the glory of God.” (v.4) He did not tell them, however, that the entire family would have to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, before coming out the other side into resurrection sunlight.
None of us want to walk through that valley. The sisters’ request for Jesus to come (quickly) to them was really a request for a healing so they could avoid that valley. I can’t blame them for that. I’ve been there myself. But Jesus had a different purpose—this time.
I believe it was out of a sense of compassion for them that he deliberately delayed his arrival until after Lazarus had died. It would have been too difficult for everyone if he had arrived and did nothing. He had a purpose, but that required a sense of proper timing. In this case, Lazarus had to die first. No one would have been able to watch him just standing there, apparently doing nothing. So, he waited in Galilee.
When the time came, he told his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (v. 14-15) That must have sounded strange at the time. First, why would Jesus be glad he wasn’t there when his friend needed him most? Second, how can this deliberately unanswered prayer possibly help increase anyone’s faith? And finally, why must they go to him after it’s already too late?
But think about it. If Jesus had gone immediately to Bethany as soon as he received the request, Lazarus could have easily been healed; but we would never have read his story. His name would have been lost among the nameless crowds being healed every day. He would never have become a demonstration of the resurrection hope of every believer. This was the only time on record when Jesus called out someone who had been lying in a tomb for days. Today, as we reflect upon his story, we can take comfort in the hope that one day he will call each of us to come forth from our graves, and meet him in the air.
Lazarus had a story like no one else of his day. His story became so well known, that many people from the surrounding region began going to see him and to hear him share his experience. As a result, many more people came to believe in the Lord. (12:9-11)
Suppose we could have talked to Lazarus before any of this ever happened. If we had known what Jesus knew all along, we might have said, “Lazarus, your life can go one of two ways. You can live your life in relative comfort, or you can have a powerful testimony that will inspire millions of people for as long as the world stands. Which will you choose?” I’m confident that Lazarus would have chosen to walk through this dark valley so he could come out the other side with a story to tell. He would have chosen to live his life with a kingdom purpose.
Each of us must face the same question. Will we continue to simply try to avoid pain and increase our pleasure, or will we trust the Lord to accomplish his purpose through us? Are we willing to invest our lives for a higher purpose? A kingdom purpose?
Know this. Jesus has been on a mission since the beginning of time, and his plans include each of us. He views everything from that eternal perspective. If we could share his perspective, we could share his peace. His confidence. Even his joy in the most unlikely places. But we don’t have his perspective, so we weep when the hurt begins to overwhelm us. And he weeps with us still. Through our tears, we cry, “Lord, if you had been here” and he cries, “If you could only see what I see. If you knew what I know. If you could only trust me. . .” In the final analysis, that’s what this story is about. It’s a story about trusting Jesus through our tears.
We can trust because he shares our grief. We can trust because we believe he has a higher purpose that even includes those dark times we all experience. We believe and we declare that all things work together for good for everyone who loves God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) And we earnestly pray, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
And we trust because, as we see in this story, Jesus has the final word. Don’t miss that fact. Sickness is not the final word for you. Not even death. It wasn’t for Lazarus. It won’t be for you. Someone has said, “If you are a believer, your worst day can never be your last day.”
Listen to the final word, as spoken by the Lord himself. “I Am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (v. 25) Listen as he stands before the tomb. “Lazarus come forth.” (v. 43) Know that one day, he’ll shout this command before every believer’s tomb. And listen as the apostle Paul applies this truth to every one of us. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:11, 35, 37)
Ever since our infant granddaughter had been diagnosed with a terminal disease six months earlier, our family had been walking through the Valley of Death. Of course, we prayed. Our whole church prayed. But shortly after her first birthday, the angels came to lift Serena into the arms of our Savior. That was a Wednesday evening. I managed to get through the next few days, numbly moving through the funeral preparation, and the funeral itself, and the burial. By the following Tuesday, I was ready to go back to teach my class. Mostly just putting one foot in front of the other. But as I put my hand on the knob of my office door that morning, something within my spirit rose up forcefully. I felt like I was speaking directly to all hell.
“So,” I began. “You’ve done everything you can do. You have nothing left. You’re out of bullets. Well, I just want you to know that we’re still standing! We’re still believing God! And get this, Satan. WE WILL WIN THIS THING!” It was my personal declaration of war against the Kingdom of Darkness. We’re still at war. We’re still standing. And we will win.
That’s the final word.