Theme: When God doesn’t perform as we think he ought to
Key quote: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Point: We often want a reversal or resuscitation; Christ promises a resurrection.
(1-6) Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.
(17-27) When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been dead in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “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.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
(28-37) When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
(38-44) Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his faced wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Outline (Power Point):
The cry of the heart: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Slide #2 (and following)
The Text (John 11:1-6, 17-44
1. We can show emotion because Jesus showed it.
2. We can in good conscience ask for the longings of our heart.
3. If we demand and expect miracles, we’ll never get enough of them.
4. What we really want and need is something more than a miracle.
I begin with what I consider the one line, repeated twice in the text, which gets at the heart of a problem all of us have had or will have in the Christian faith. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In the passage we will look at this morning, Martha uses exactly those words in addressing Jesus, and so does Mary. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The statement is true, isn’t it? If Jesus showed up more often and behaved worthily—that is, divinely—then our lives would look very different. In the case of the story, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, would not have died. We could apply the same principle to our circumstances, too, changing only a few words of the line Mary and Martha used.
It could apply to weighty issues. “Lord, if you had been here, my mother would not have gotten so sick.” Or: “The accident would not have occurred.” Or: “I would have gotten a job.” Or: “I would have gotten married or had children.” Or: “My husband would not have left me.” Or: “I wouldn’t have had to struggle for so long with loneliness or loneliness or anxiety or sleeplessness or other such ailments of the soul.”
It could also apply to lighter issues. “Lord, if you had been here, I would not have been given such brats in my third grade classroom; instead, they would have been assigned to the other teacher, who deserves them anyway.” Or: “I would have hit that last shot that would have won the game.” Or: “I would have won the lottery.” If I roamed around this room, functioning as a kind of talk show host, I would get a huge variety of statements; most of you would be able to tell some tale of disappointment. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I want you to keep this one line in your mind. It really exposes a big problem Christians have. People who don’t believe in God surely feel the same kind of pain and anguish as Christians do in the face of disappointment and suffering; they have just as many questions, too. But they are actually spared one problem that Christians do face. It is the “God problem.” In the wake of some huge disappointment, Christians are bound to ask, sooner or later, “Where was God in all of this?” “Why didn’t God show up?” “I thought God was supposed to take care of this sort of problem.” God has plenty of power; he is good, too, or so Christians believe. Then why doesn’t God come through: get us a job or heal a sick friend or restore a broken marriage or win back a wayward child or relieve us from emotional trauma? Or for that matter: stop the Genocide in the Congo? God can: Christians believe that. But God doesn’t. Not every time. That is the rub. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
READ THE TEXT: John 11:1-7, 17-44
This story tells the final miracle of seven “miracle stories” in the Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels written. Matthew, Mark, and Luke love to tell miracle stories; those stories roll off their pens like stats from the lips of a good baseball announcer. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus seems to work miracles all the time, though of course we know that was not always the case. But John is more careful and strategic in the stories he tells. Only seven. He calls them “signs,” too, something the other Gospel writers don’t do. As you know, signs point beyond themselves to some other and greater reality. So turning water into wine becomes a sign for something else. Dividing loaves of bread a sign for something else. The same with the healing a blind man. All are signs. So we should probably ask, “Signs for what?” “What is John trying to say here?”
It is a profoundly personal story, too. Jesus knew this family well, so well, in fact, that the two sisters, Mary and Martha, use the family relationship to pressure Jesus to rush to their home and heal Lazarus, who is very ill. “Lord, the one whom you love is ill,” which is an odd way to make a request. But it is intentional. In effect, they are saying, “You are our friend; you have known us for a long time; we share a great deal of love and affection for one another. So make your way here as quickly as you can. It is the least that a close friend would do.” Strangely, it is love that keeps Jesus away, too. When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, he lingers where he is for two more days. He tells his disciples that it is love that motivates him to delay. The sickness is not unto death, he says, which is odd because Lazarus in fact dies. So what is going on? We will see why in a minute.
I want to make four points as we look at this story.
The first is the obvious display of emotion in the story. The New Testament never tells us that Jesus laughed, though we can be certain, human as he was, that he did in fact laugh. But on at least three occasions he the Gospels tell us that he wept: when praying over Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and here, in this story. Mary shows emotion, too, which is not surprising, considering her emotive character. Her sister Martha is organized, controlled, buttoned up; Mary is not. The mourners visiting their home express emotion, too. Death in the Jewish world provided the occasion for a large gathering of people, some of them more like professional mourners. So there are tears flowing throughout this story.
But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, showing emotion? That is another matter altogether.
It is stranger than you might think. Such emotion would be unthinkable and even offensive in some religions. These religions teach that God is thought to be above all emotion. He is impassable and impervious and impenetrable. The goal of these religions is to do the same for us. That is what some forms of Gnosticism taught. In several Gnostic stories Jesus laughs, even when hanging on the cross, not out of joy but out of derision, as if to say, “Don’t you get it? Are you that stupid? Can’t you see that I am completely unaffected by pain and suffering? That death to me is pure liberation?” Buddhism teaches us that all suffering is the result of human desire; master desire, therefore, and you will never experience suffering. The eight-fold path teaches Buddhists how to master those desires.
But here we find a story of Jesus expressing human emotion. He is up to his neck in the human experience of pain and anguish. Knowledge of the Greek actually underscores this truth. The first word, agitated, means to snort with indignation; the second, troubled, to shake with emotion; the third, weep, speaks for itself. Here is the Son of God, snorting with anger, shaking with distress, and weeping with sorrow. How strange this is. Why these emotions? Because Jesus sees the impact of the fall on people whom he knows and loves. He is disturbed and distressed by it. So he bursts into tears and groans with pain. Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, weeps in the face of human pain, misery, and loss. Amazing.
I like to read the Church Fathers. Here is a quote from Potamius of Lisbon: “God wept, because human nature had fallen to such an extent that, after being expelled from eternity, it had come to love the lower world. God wept, because those who could be immortal, the devil made mortal. God wept, because those whom he had rewarded with every benefit and had placed under his power, those whom he had set in paradise, among flowers and lilies with out any hardship, the devil, by teaching them to sin, exiled from almost every delight. God wept, because those whom he had created innocent, the devil through his wickedness, caused to be found guilty.”
The great Augustine wondered why this strange detail—Jesus weeping—would be recorded in the story. He speculates: “Why did Christ weep except to teach us to weep?” In short, Jesus felt as we feel. He sweat, cried, struggled, doubted. Consider his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was angry, too.
This means that we should never be afraid of human emotion. It is not unspiritual to feel. God has created us as emotional beings. God himself has emotion and expresses it, as we see in the case of Jesus. The book of Psalms is filled with emotion, too. There is unspeakable joy and delight; there is anguish and doubt and anger and despair. It is all there, as if the Psalms was a kind of handbook of emotion. But notice what the Psalms do: they turn all emotion into a prayer and direct it toward God. The Psalms show us how to pray joy and gratitude and peacefulness; they show us how to pray anger and disappointment and confusion and deep sorrow. God welcomes our emotion. Better to express it to God than to turn it toward a child or spouse or stranger. It is not that we have emotion that causes the problem; it is how we express it.
Second, the desire for a miracle of right and good. Martha and Mary are not wrong. Jesus never rebukes them. We are free, in fact, to tell God what we long for in our heart. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is true, isn’t it? Jesus never silences Mary and Martha; he never laments their lack of faith or earthly desires. It seems right, then, for us to tell God that we want to be married or to have children or to get a good job or to see a marriage restored or to beat cancer. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
On occasion God does in fact do what we ask, too. He performs the miracle; he answers our prayers. Some of you have witnessed firsthand; others have heard stories. Here is one: I had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever when I was 28 years old and came as close to death without actually dying that a person can probably get. My family prayed fervently. And here I am. I am not sure they actually knew what they were getting themselves into and have probably reconsidered the wisdom of those prayers. Here is another: many years ago a friend of mine, single at the time and working for a non-profit, had lunch with two associates, one of whom was, like herself, single. She had this sense right then and there that she would someday marry this man, for she longed for marriage and children. She waited five years before he showed any interest whatsoever. He know him, too, and I must admit he is really clueless. But in due time they were in fact married.
This is exactly what happened in the case of Mary and Martha. Jesus performs a really, really big miracle. I can’t imagine something more impressive. He goes to the tomb—a cave with a rock rolled in front of it. He tells the crowd to push the rock aside. Martha, the one who originally asked Jesus for the healing, has doubts. Always the practical one, she announces to Jesus the obvious: there is going to be a very unpleasant odor. He has been dead for four days, she adds. That little detail is important because the ancients believed that the soul of a dead person could linger around or above the body for three or four days after death. But at four days the person was not just dead; they were REALLY dead, dead beyond any hope of restoration, dead as a doornail. Then Jesus prays, not so much because he has to talk his Father in heaven into anything but to inform the crowd that it was in fact God’s power that would accomplish the miracle. Then he commands Lazarus to come forth, which Lazarus does. Dead as ever, he comes back to life. John includes one other little detail. Lazarus is still bound in the grave cloths. John is being intentional here. A few chapters later another tomb will become empty; in this case the grave cloths are left lying in the tomb. This is John’s way of saying that what happened to Lazarus and what happened to Jesus are two VERY different things. Lazarus was in fact resuscitated. He came back to life; but it was the life he had had before. It was a REVERSAL of death; it was not a conquest of death. Sooner or later Lazarus went through the same experience all over again, which, when you think about it, is quite unpleasant. He had to die twice.
So Mary and Martha get what they want. Lazarus is resuscitated. He rejoins the family. He is given life. But is it really what they want? This introduces us to the problem of miracles. They are like a big victory in an athletic contest. A week later there is another game, and you might lose it! Miracles, in short, are temporary. Nice to have. A big boost. Impressive experience. A great story to tell. But not permanent. Don’t solve the real problem. Sooner or later we’ll find ourselves in a bad way once again and want another one. In the end, enough will never be enough. You know, birdie one hole and we want a second one. Hit four three-pointers in a row and we expect five next time around. Always something more.
Social psychologists have coined the term “poor talk” to describe people who always define themselves as poor, even if their income rises significantly, because they tend to measure their wealth relative to those who make more than they do. So their standard for “normal” keeps changing; it rises as their income does. Rich used to be $50,000, until they reach that level, and then rich becomes $100,000. That applies in other areas of life, too. Old used to be 60; not any more. Now it is the new middle-aged.
I am not suggesting we shouldn’t ask God for miracles. Jesus commands us to. We are right to ask, boldly and shamelessly. But miracles do not provide permanent solutions to our problems. Think about it. Lazarus eventually died again. The Gospel of John does not tell us how. Who knows, it might have been something horrible, like a rare form of cancer. Perhaps Martha and Mary prayed for another miracle, which they did not receive. If we want true and lasting answers, we have to look elsewhere.
So go on asking. God will perform miracles some of the time, though not all of the time. Miracles are temporary solutions to problems; but in the end we will discover that they are never enough. Our longings plunge deeper. Miracles are like the spiritual counterpart to cotton candy. However tasty, empty calories all the same.
Which leads to a third point. The worst thing that could ever happen to you would be to experience one miracle after another. Isn’t it strange that in the biblical story miracles never really satisfied people, nor changed them into better people. Take the people of Israel. God worked one miracle after another during the period of the Exodus: ten plagues, parting of the Red Sea, food from heaven, water from a rock. You get the picture. That’s a high level of performance there. If we were judges, we would score it at a ten! But what happened to the people of Israel? They kept whining and doubting and asking for more; they became a bottomless pit of complaint and need. As I already mentioned, enough was never enough. Take the people who knew Jesus. I mean, this is Jesus, God in human flesh. God simply can’t do any better than that. Jesus performed miracle after miracle. But you know what most people said: “We want more.”
What is going on here?
Here is what I think it is. We want God to perform on cue; we want him to do whatever we ask; we want to boss him around. Which is a way of saying, we want to be God instead letting God be God. That is why we keep complaining when God doesn’t do what we ask. I know, we say to ourselves, “Just this once.” But the history of civilization tells me that if God did it “just this once,” there would have to be a second time. And then a third. Always one more. Because we want to be in charge. We want to be the boss. We want God on our terms, and we get mad at God when he doesn’t do what we expect or want or demand.
We are really more pagan in our religious philosophy than Christian. I say “pagan” because that is the environment into which Christianity entered two thousand years ago. People didn’t actually believe in religion; instead, they used it. They visited shrines and offered sacrifices and attended various festivals and cared for household gods in an effort to make life work for them. They were syncretistic to the core. Whatever worked for them. But Christianity is different, and always has been. It promises far more. But it demands one thing that is very hard to deliver. We must submit ourselves to God and let God be God.
The Great Divorce comes to mind as a good illustration of the difference. It tells the journey of a busload of people from hell who visit the outskirts of heaven. Surprisingly, they are all given a chance to leave hell behind and enter heaven, the biggest second chance a person could ever hope to have. Can you imagine it! They have to meet only one small condition, too; they have to acknowledge that there is a Being in the universe who is infinitely superior to themselves. Which means that they must give up the ONE THING that holds them back. For one it is vanity; she can’t stand the thought of being stripped naked, exposed for the frail and fragile creature she is. For another it is fairness; he can’t stand the thought that someone is in heaven who is less worthy than he is. For yet another it is religion; he values religion for its insight and morality but recoils from the idea that ONE religion might actually be true and authoritative. Not one visitor from hell can do it! They can’t admit the fact that God is God and they are not! So they all choose to return to hell, to a shadowy existence in which “nothingness” becomes the primary characteristic of their existence. They do in fact get what they want: they become gods of their own worlds. But a lonely and empty world, too.
Here is a good question: what would happen if we always got our way? If God always performed on cue? It is a chilling question. How long before we abused that power? We would start out asking God for good things. But sooner or later we would demand more and more for ourselves. We would use God to become God ourselves. It is the worst thing God could do for us.
My brother-in-law put me on to this many years ago. In 1991 I lost my wife, a daughter, and my mother in an accident. That was a very bad day. Many months later I had a long conversation with him about miracles. I wanted to know why God hadn’t worked a miracle; for example, why hadn’t God made me sneeze at a stop sign or forced us to switch seats in the van or had one of my kids say he or she had to go to the bathroom, anything to change the time sequence for a few seconds. That is all we would have needed. A few seconds. He said to me, “Okay, let’s concede you that little miracle. Hence no accident. So you have your family back again. What if Lynda had gotten breast cancer five years later? Would you have wanted to reverse that, too? Or Diana Jane had become wayward? Or you had faced serious marital difficulties? Or you would have lost your job? ” I admitted I would have wanted to reverse those things, too. In fact, I would have kept reversing all the bad things that might have occurred because the truth is, I want a perfect life. I want to be in control. I want things my way. In short, I want to be God.
God is not going to let that happen!
But here’s the fourth point, and the best by far. The real miracle of the story is NOT the resuscitation of Lazarus, however impressive and important that is. Martha and Mary wanted a miracle, and they got their miracle. Their request was granted, their prayer answer. But John tells us it is a sign. And signs point beyond themselves to something else, something more important and real.
This is John’s point throughout the gospel. Jesus feeds 5,000, which is the sign; but he is the true bread, and if we feed on him we will never get hungry again. Jesus gives sight to a blind man; but he is the light of the world. Jesus resuscitates Lazarus, the last and best sign; but Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
That is what we really want and need, too. Miracles are nice; but they don’t solve our deepest problem. Yes, on balance I would rather have a nice life than a miserable one; I would rather live a normal life than a tumultuous one. But in the end none of us will have as much control as we would like. We will suffer losses; our children will experience pain and disappointment; our lives will not go as planned. Life will not turn out as we had imagined, expected, and hoped for.
Jesus Christ offers something more and better. Not a nice life but a new one. He is the real miracle of the story; he is the final and ultimate answer to prayer. He is the resurrection and the life. Not resuscitation but resurrection. Not reversal but renewal. Jesus defeated sin and death and hell. If we believe in him—John’s point throughout the story—then we will have life, real, permanent, abundant, substantial, eternal life. If we die, we will still experience that life. But even now we can experience that life because it is bigger than both the life that we know and the death that we dread. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus adds, “Do you believe this?”
Which is a good question to ask.