Note from CM: I was asked to preach at a local Presbyterian church this morning. Their pastor is doing a topical series about our disappointments with God, and he asked if I would focus on John 11, the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus. The emphasis of the message is on Jesus’ delay in coming to help Lazarus and his family, and the question they asked Jesus, which we too so often ask: “Lord, why weren’t you here to help? If only you had come when we needed you!”
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Today we come to the end of the sermon series your pastor designed about the times in our lives when God doesn’t seem to act like we think God should. We believe in a God who is loving, who cares for us personally, who is active in our lives, and who has our best interests in mind. But sometimes, God seems inattentive, like he can’t hear us, like he’s not listening, like he doesn’t care. At other times, God seems uncooperative. We think our plans and our ideas are good and right, but God doesn’t seem to bless them or help us. He says “No” to our requests. At times it seems he is actually fighting against us and making it impossible for us to do what we think he is calling us to do.
This morning, we want to look at the issue of God’s timing. What about those times in life when we pray and ask God to help us, but that help doesn’t seem to arrive on time? What about when God is late?
John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus and three of his friends: Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. From the other Gospels, we know that Lazarus and his family lived in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, and that Jesus ate in their home and stayed there as a guest. We get the sense that they were close friends, and that this family was devoted to Jesus, believing him to be the Messiah. They may have seen him do signs and wonders; they certainly heard stories about that.
There came a time when this family had a need. Lazarus was sick. He was so sick, in fact, that his sisters sent messengers to Jesus and asked him to come right away to help Lazarus. Lazarus was dying. It is at this point that we have one of the most puzzling texts in the Bible:
Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed where he was, to begin with, for two days.
- John 11:5-6 (KNT)
What a curious statement — Jesus loved them, so he decided NOT to go help them right away. What would you think of a friend, a family member, or a pastor who did that? Imagine that you were deathly ill in the hospital and your family called the church and asked the pastor to visit you and pray for you. Now imagine how you would feel if you found out that the minister intentionally decided not to go, but to wait a few days. Furthermore, think how your family would feel if you died in the meantime and no one had showed up!
That is what happened with Lazarus and his family, except it wasn’t just a pastor coming to pray. They sent for Jesus, the One they knew could heal and restore their brother. But Jesus said no, let’s wait. And then Lazarus died.
When Jesus finally did arrive, both Martha and Mary confronted him. “Lord, if only you had been here! You could have saved our brother!” What they were saying was, “Jesus, why did you delay? Why didn’t you come on time? Why are you late? Why didn’t you come when you could have done something to save our family member?” Even some of the folks from the village who were gathered around Lazarus’ grave said the same thing: Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
As a hospice chaplain, I meet people with questions like this all the time. Just the other day I was in a hospital room, meeting with a family. The patient was an older woman. Her husband, children and grandchildren, and other family members were at her bedside and she was dying. They were sad, but they did not question God about her situation. It is never easy to lose someone, of course, but she had lived a good, long life and people were coming to terms with saying goodbye. They asked me to pray, so we gathered around the bedside and I prayed for comfort and peace and strength for them. Just as I finished, the patient’s husband began to sob. With a broken voice, he cried out, “Can we say a prayer for Johnny?”
Johnny was their son. He had died a tragic death three years earlier. Johnny was a young man with a bright future and the apple of his parents’ eye. Now, this dad could wrap his mind around losing his wife at her age and in her condition, but grief still overwhelmed him at the thought that their son had perished. The timing wasn’t right. God hadn’t shown up to save Johnny in the prime of his life, and this father still couldn’t understand that.
“If only you had been here!”
First, when Jesus first heard the news that Lazarus was sick, he told his disciples, “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.” He knew that something was going to happen that would reveal God’s glory and bring honor to Jesus his Son.
Second, when Jesus and the disciples finally did set out to go to Bethany, he said to the disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Jesus told them that what was about to take place would give them further reason to believe in him.
At the time, the disciples found this puzzling; they didn’t grasp what Jesus was saying: Lazarus’ illness would not end with his death, but rather with a display of God’s glory? Hmm. The whole situation would lead them to believe more fully in Jesus? I wonder how? Don’t worry, Jesus said. God will get the glory. You will get a stronger faith.
Let’s pause here. Isn’t it hard to think like that when we are in pain and struggling and longing for God to act? Yet many well-meaning Christians come up and try to comfort us like this all the time. “Oh don’t worry, God will be glorified through this situation.” “It’ll be alright; God’s just testing your faith and he wants you to come out stronger in the end.”
Take it from me, even though Jesus said such things here, I don’t think we should. This was a special situation in Jesus’ ministry and it came at a key point on his way to the cross. He said what he did to his disciples and to Mary and Martha and those who were gathered at Lazarus’ tomb because he knew what was going to happen. He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead!
I, on the other hand, have never officiated a funeral service in which I knew I was going to raise a dead person back to life! Have you ever been to one? Do any of us know what is going to happen in the future? Do we know what God is going to do? Can we guarantee that the hurting person we are trying to console is going to see God manifest his glory? Can we confidently expect that God is always going to give us a visible sign that will strengthen our faith?
I baptized a husband and wife in their home last week. The man is a hospice patient and he told me of his faith and his desire to receive baptism as a sign and seal of his salvation. They also told me about their family. They had five children. Several years ago, their daughter, a vibrant, caring person, found out her husband had been cheating on her habitually. As their marriage fell apart, she fell into despair and committed suicide. Her family couldn’t believe it. They would never have imagined this would happen to someone like her. They were devastated.
Now what if I had been their pastor at that time and had come to them saying, “Now don’t fear. God will be glorified in this. God will strengthen your faith through this. God will do something miraculous in your life through this that will amaze you and reassure you of his love.”?
If I had said that, this family would not have been prepared for what happened next. A couple of years later, their youngest son’s life also fell apart. He too had been a friendly, talented, and positive young man until his life’s circumstances became unbearable. He also took his own life. Then, just a few weeks ago, their oldest daughter died. Strike three. And now the father is a hospice patient, and we all know his life will end soon. I am so grateful they have faith, but it certainly isn’t because they have seen anything in recent years to indicate God has come to help them in times of great need. They haven’t been given tangible signs of God’s glory.
What can we say to people who go through things like this? They don’t want platitudes, I can tell you that. Christian cliches won’t help. None of us knows the future and what will happen. We can’t guarantee what God is going to do or how or when he’s going to do it. Jesus could say those things because he knew. We don’t.
There is one thing Jesus did in this story that can serve as an example to us. The fact is that he came to his friends, he was with them when they were hurting, and he wept with them. And then, let’s not forget that he pointed them to the ultimate hope that we must all cling to even when there’s not one thing in our life that makes sense, when he said: “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.”
Now on this occasion Jesus also gave a tangible sign that his promise is true when he raised Lazarus from the dead. That was indeed evidence of the glory of God and it did lead people to believe.
However, it’s actually more complicated than that. You see, when Jesus raised Lazarus it turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Christ’s opponents. From that moment on, they looked for every opportunity to put Jesus to death. In other words, this glorious act of resurrection made it certain that Jesus would go to the cross! In the big picture, raising Lazarus actually made things worse, not better. It led to Jesus’ suffering. It didn’t answer all the questions, it raised even more questions, such as when people mocked Jesus on the cross and said, “Where is God now? Why doesn’t he come to deliver him?” And when Jesus himself cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is comforting to know that Jesus faced the same questions you and I faced, and that he shared in our sufferings, our darkness and our pain.
Like it or not, these questions about why God seems absent, uncaring, or tardy are inevitable questions in our lives. I am encouraged that your pastor loves you enough to address them, for they are a very real part of the life of faith. We cannot escape them or avoid them. We see them played out again and again in our lives and in the lives of those around us. As followers of Jesus, it is our calling to rejoice with those who rejoice in the stable and happy times of life and to weep with those who weep in seasons of pain and distress. We may never experience a “Lazarus” moment when everything becomes clear, when God reveals his glory in spectacular fashion, when we can’t help but believe in the love and power of God to overcome sin and death and sadness. Nevertheless, even when he seems absent, Jesus will be with us, weeping with us, speaking the word of ultimate hope.
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister who writes profound and memorable books. He has also experienced these kinds of questions in his own life. His father committed suicide when Frederick was a young boy, a loss that has haunted him his entire life. His own daughter was seriously ill with anorexia nervosa. Fred Buechner knows what it means to hurt, to question, to doubt, to feel that God is absent, uncaring, or late with help when we need it. But he also knows God’s grace and God’s promises, and here is how he put it:
Here is the world [God says to us]. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
May the Lord bless us and keep us. Amen.