Sermon notes 03-29-20 Waiting and Believing
John 11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved[e] in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.
I am sure that many of you like me are greatly enjoying weather like we are having today. I think we can finally say spring is here, with no turning back. I don’t know about you, but it seems like every winter I have moments of doubting the arrival of spring. Even though I know in my head that spring will certainly come, there are moments when it feels like the cold might never end and the dormant, dead-looking plants might never put on new growth. Yet in spite of my doubts, those plants are now bursting with new life and spring has arrived in all its glory. The waiting is finally over, and I can say that the wait is well worth it.
Waiting is not something that we humans do very well, especially when we are in the midst of an unpleasant season or situation in our lives, like, for example, the present situation we are all experiencing. When we are experiencing suffering of any kind, whether it is physical or emotional or spiritual, we all want the experience of suffering to end immediately. Sometimes we are unable to see beyond our present season of suffering and we fail to believe that better days are coming. We lose hope, and losing hope puts us in a very dark place.
Waiting for our suffering to end can even cause us to doubt in God’s goodness, or God’s power, or God’s existence. Sometimes we feel like we are waiting and waiting on God to remove us from a situation, or to remove a situation from us, or to fix our problems, or to put an end to our suffering, yet it seems that God is absent or oblivious to us. The longer the situation goes on, the harder it is to maintain our faith that God is willing and able to act on our behalf. Sometimes waiting makes it hard for us to believe, but our story today illustrates that God sometimes waits in order to increase belief. We don’t always know why God waits to act—we don’t even often know why God waits to act—but at least in this story we know that the waiting is for the purpose of increasing belief. It is through waiting that a great number of people come to a more complete belief in Jesus.
In this “Jesus Encounter” story from John’s Gospel, Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is sick. John tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but rather than hurry to the bedside of Lazarus as we would expect him to do when summoned by the sisters, Jesus waits for two days. He intentionally waits long enough for Lazarus to die, and the reason Jesus does so is that more people would come to believe in him. Jesus knows it is time for him to be glorified, which means fulfilling the purpose for which God sent him: to suffer and die for the sins of all humanity and to secure eternal life for all who would believe in him. Whereas in the previous miracles Jesus performs, he often tells the one being healed to keep quiet about it, Jesus knows his time has now come, so he arranges for this miracle to bring many to belief in him. Jesus knows that if many come to believe in him, that will be more than the ruling religious authorities will be able to stand, so the raising of Lazarus will set in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ suffering and death and ultimately his resurrection.
The Gospel writer John emphasizes the importance of belief over and over in this story; in fact a form of the word “believe” appears eight times in the passage. Jesus tells the disciples in verse 14, “Lazarus had died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there (to heal Lazarus before he died), so that you may believe.” Then in verse 26 Jesus tells Martha that whoever lives and believes in him shall never die, and then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” She responds by saying, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Later when Martha tries to warn Jesus not to open the tomb due to the odor of the dead body, Jesus says to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” And then, when he prays to the Father in front of the open tomb, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
Jesus knows that in order for many to believe through this miracle, it will need to be very clear that Lazarus is indeed dead. So we see that another recurring emphasis in this story is the certainty that Lazarus was dead. Jesus waits those two days before going to Bethany so that he does not get there before Lazarus has had plenty of time to die. When Jesus finally arrives, he finds that Lazarus has indeed been in the tomb for four days, which is a significant period of time, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that there was a Jewish belief that a person’s soul hovered over the body for three days, hoping to reenter it, but after three days the soul gave up and departed. So by the fourth day, there would have been no hope for Lazarus’s body to house a soul.
We know also from a medical standpoint, that a person will usually not live for more than three days without water, so even apart from any other illness, Lazarus would likely have died of thirst after four days in the tomb.
John further emphasizes that Lazarus was thoroughly dead when he tells us in verse 39 that Jesus orders the stone to be taken away, to which Martha responds by saying, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” John makes it clear that Lazarus is not only dead; he is rotting and stinking dead (or, as the munchkin coroner would have put it, he’s not only merely dead; he’s really, most sincerely dead). John’s final emphasis of the fact that Lazarus was truly dead is in verse 44, when Jesus calls him out of the tomb. John does not tell us simply that Lazarus came out, he tells us, “The man who had died came out.” Once again John makes sure that there can be no question that Jesus performed an amazing miracle by raising a sincerely dead man back to life.
Jesus could just as easily have healed Lazarus before he died, but he waited until Lazarus was dead so that many would come to believe in him. Think with me for a moment about who would have been there to witness this miracle.
There were Jesus’ disciples as witnesses, there were Mary and Martha and we might even include Lazarus himself as a witness, there were all the Jews who had come to console Mary and Martha, and. given that we read elsewhere in the Scriptures that great crowds followed Jesus everywhere he went, there could have been many more people there as well. We don’t know how many, but we do know there were many. Verse 45 tells us, “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” That’s the final verse in our passage, with a final emphasis on belief. Jesus waited … for the sake of belief.
I said earlier that Jesus was aware that the raising of Lazarus would set in motion the events leading to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. We would need to read only eight more verses to confirm that Jesus was of course right about that. In verse 53 John writes regarding the response of the Jewish leadership to the raising of Lazarus, “From that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
So what can we learn from this passage? The first thing I hope we all learn is that while we will all experience times of suffering in this life, those times do not last forever. As surely as the spring unfailingly follows even the longest of winters, so times of joy will surely follow times of suffering and sorrow. This is affirmed over and over in the Scriptures, such as in Psalm 30 verse 5 that says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” One of the tragedies of our time is the increase in the rate of suicides, especially among teens, but also among members of the military and in the general population as well. I believe that suicide becomes an option when people in the midst of pain or guilt or shame or various other forms of suffering think that their season of suffering is not just a season, but that it will never end. Friends, I pray that no one will believe that lie. No matter how desperate the situation seems, no matter how hopeless, we have a God who has shown us not just in this passage but over and over and over again that he is capable of bringing life out of profound death.
Our Lord created everything there is out of nothing, and he will surely make a way for us to move beyond our seasons of suffering—including this current season of the COVID-19 pandemic—if we will only trust the Lord enough to wait on him.
Waiting is hard for us humans, and I will admit to you that there is one area in particular in which I often find myself questioning God regarding his reasons for waiting. We Christians believe that Jesus is coming again to fully establish his kingdom and to make all things right. In the meantime, we see too much suffering in the world, too much disease, too much tragedy, too much evil. Mary and Martha each say the identical words to the Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. I find myself saying, Lord, if you would come, this evil, this tragedy, this suffering would not be happening. The question that I often ask of God is, What are you waiting for?
But then sometimes I think back on a period of time in my life when the last thing in the world I wanted was for Jesus to come again, because I knew I had repeatedly rejected him and I could not in any way claim that he was my Savior. Selfishly, when I finally surrendered my life to the Lord, then I was ready for him to come right away. But in the same way that the Lord waited for me to come to belief in him, he is still waiting for many others to come to belief.
Our Lord has his reasons for waiting. There is no shortage of suffering in this life, and none of us will be spared of suffering. But we can be assured that our Lord is with us in our suffering, and he is not oblivious to it. In fact, in the same way that Jesus wept with those mourning the death of Lazarus even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead, I believe our Lord weeps with us in our times of sorrow, even though he knows that some day he will bring all our suffering to an end. Our God knows all about suffering. God sent his only Son to suffer death on the cross so that we might have the promise of eternal life.
In the same way that our Lord brought Lazarus back from the dead, so he will bring joy out of the midst of our sorrows and give new life where there seems to be nothing but dead ends for us. He rose from the grave himself and is even now interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. As Romans 8:28 affirms, God is even now working all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purposes. That is the promise we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.
One day our waiting will come to an end, as will all suffering, all illness and disease, all sorrow and all death. So as we wait for an end to the alarming changes in our lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need not be fearful, or doubtful, or discouraged. I pray that we will rather, to borrow a line from David Bowie, turn and face the strange changes before us with confidence, with courage, and with complete trust that our Lord is with us, he goes before us, and he will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. We may not know why God waits to bring an end to suffering, but we have the assurance that in the end, our belief will be fully justified and it will be unspeakably worth the wait.
Thanks be to God. Amen.