and the life.
—Jesus of Nazareth
From all appearances, Jesus arrived too late. Far too late. And not fashionably, stylishly late, but wrongfully, neglectfully late.
His friend Lazarus had been sick—critical condition—and Jesus waited. He didn’t rush to Bethany, like a real friend would’ve done. He didn’t come right away, like a good physician would’ve done. He just stayed where he was.
It gets worse:
When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (John 11:6).
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Who does this? Who, having the power to stop a bad thing from happening to a good friend, purposely stays away?
Back up a verse and it gets even worse:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (John 11:5-6).
Wait. Not only does Jesus know Lazarus is sick and still delays, but Jesus waits because of his great love for this family?
In what world do love and neglect marry and bear beautiful children? In whose mind do affection and avoidance dance together in symmetry? How, in the mind of God and the life of Jesus, can you fit a love for Lazarus with letting him die?
When my son was a little boy, I took him into the woods behind our house one winter night to gather sticks. We were only thirty yards from the house, with all its windows lit. So I decided to test him. I hid behind a tree while he kept working in the moonlit snow. It took him a minute, but suddenly he realized I wasn’t around.
My plan was to see if he’d push through the panic, gather himself, and head for the house. I wanted him to learn a valuable lesson. But I couldn’t handle it. Within a few seconds I stepped out from behind the tree.
“It’s OK buddy, I’m right here. I’m right here.”
But for the mourners in Bethany, the hours and days keep ticking by. No Jesus; no healer; no Great Physician. Yet he loves Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus—doesn’t he?
But the Hero doesn’t show up. He doesn’t stop the sickness. He doesn’t plug up the skies. He doesn’t hold back the flood.
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It didn’t have to be this way. Everything could’ve been different.
They had seen the miracles—the healings, the exorcisms, the signs and wonders. We’re in John 11, not John 1. Jesus has already done a lot. He’s showed his cards.
Martha knew it:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21).
Mary knew it:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32).
Bystanders knew it:
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37)
They were both men. Men in need. He made the blind man see—John 9. He could’ve made the sick man well—John 11. But he hadn’t.
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He could’ve come. He could’ve done something. He could’ve stood in front of death’s onrushing train, and pushed it back up the tracks for another day and another time. He could’ve kept the warm sun of Lazarus’s life from falling below death’s cold horizon. He could’ve stopped this whole thing. “If you had been here…”
Now, this complaint sounds quite worshipful, in its own way. “Jesus, we know you could’ve kept death away! You’re so powerful!”
But is pushing back Lazarus’s death all Jesus could’ve done? Is his power merely preventative?
Listen to their words. And listen to how the grammar of their words betrays their perspective:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Martha, v. 21).
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Mary, v. 32).
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (Jews, v. 37)
They believed that Jesus could heal the sick. They’d seen him do it. They believed that Jesus could cure the blind. They’d watched it happen. They believed Jesus could cast out demons. They’d seen the evidence. They knew Jesus could do miraculous things here and now, slowing our march toward death.
But did they believe Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead?
When Jesus first arrived, Martha was hopeful: “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (v. 22). But her hope for an immediate miracle seems to fade quickly as Jesus makes no explicit promise.
So when he tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23), she responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 24). Her faith looks far into the future, where she knows God has a happy ending planned.
But Martha doesn’t quite know how Jesus fits in. She knows that God in heaven is the one who raises the dead, but that kind of thing only happens in distant chapters of the story. So Martha doesn’t hear the layers beneath what Jesus is saying.
But Jesus is saying far more than she’s hearing. He’s saying far more about himself, and far more about what he’s about to do—not just with Lazarus, already rotting in Bethany’s tomb, but with his own body, which will soon be buried outside Jerusalem. And not just with his own body, which God will soon raise from the dead, but with the bodies of all who trust in him for the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus is saying a lot more than they’re hearing.
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Of course, we need to be careful here. We shouldn’t critique Martha and Mary and the Jewish onlookers without examining our own hearts.
We shouldn’t just take the helicopter view of this story. We need to walk it, hike it, sweat it out, make it part of our own lives. We need to have our own lack of faith exposed, our own boxes exploded.
We need to become Martha, and Mary, and the bystanders, and even Lazarus himself. We need to read into the story our trials, and our doubts, and the limitations and misinterpretations we ourselves place on Jesus of Nazareth.
We too need to see Jesus in the fresh light of who he really is and what he really does and how he really works.
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This isn’t easy to do. Because there’s a challenge for people who know the Bible’s stories: We know how things turn out. So the palpable tension, the unbearable angst, the soul-crushing grief—they barely register.
“It’s all good, Martha! Don’t you know how this turns out?”
“Turn down the wails, sweet Mary, your brother’s gonna be just fine.”
“Come on, everybody, holster the doubts—haven’t you read through the end of the chapter yet?”
Of course they don’t, of course they can’t, and of course they haven’t. They’re in the story.
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They’re in the story, just like we’re in our own story. They’re waiting for the page to turn, like we’re anxiously waiting for our own pages to turn. And while their finite minds recall smidgens of how God worked in pages past, they’re still waiting and groaning and devastated as they navigate their current chapter.
Yes, they should trust what their eyes have seen and their ears have heard. Yes, they should believe that the Jesus who unlocked the eyes of the blind also holds the key to the grave. Yes, they should believe, like the centurion with the sick servant, that Lazarus can’t be farther or nearer to Jesus’ love and power (Luke 7:1–10).
They should, they should, they should. And so should we.
But we don’t.
Because it’s not that easy.
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It’s not easy, because we’re self-sufficient. It’s not easy, because we’re culpably forgetful. It’s not easy, because sight is louder than faith. It’s not easy, because we tell ourselves that Jesus only loves us when he does nice things for us. It’s not easy, because it’s hard.
Their eyes had seen and their ears had heard, yes, but remember what Jesus taught: The eyes and ears he wants to reach are the eyes and ears of our hearts. And those are much harder to reach.
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But it’s not impossible.
It just takes someone who wants our faith more than our comfort, someone who wants our abiding joy more than our passing fancies, someone who’s willing to walk us through death so we can glory in life.
It takes someone who’s willing to stretch our sight until it tears, someone to call us out upon the waters where feet may fail,¹ someone to look us right in our cataracts and ask, “I know you can’t see, but will you believe?”
It takes someone who knows that the glory of God is the best sight we could ever see—better than our families, better than our homes, better than our jobs, better than our money, better than our pre-flood selves and our pre-flood situations, and better than the dreams we were dreaming about our future lives.
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Where can we find someone who loves us like this? John 11. This is exactly who Jesus is, and this is exactly what he’s doing. Did you hear John’s not-so-subtle hint earlier in v. 4? When Jesus first heard the news about Lazarus’ condition, 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” (v. 4).
Two days later, when he knows Lazarus is dead, he explains,
“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (v. 15).
Then, before the famous act, which has reverberated throughout history, he asks Martha a final question:
“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40)
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How will you define Jesus’ love? Does Jesus love us by giving us what we want? Does Jesus love us by giving us what we feel we need? Or does Jesus love us by showing us his glory, even when it costs us our comfort to see it?
Brothers and sisters, if you believe, you will see the glory of God. Not mainly in a rebuilt church facility or a restored home or better flood management in the city of Houston. I can’t promise you those things, because God has not promised us those things. But what God has promised is that he is for us, that he is working for our good, and that he longs for us to see his glory and be satisfied in what we see.
We are going to see the gospel work of God. We are going to see wonders in this church. We are going to see his provision in new ways. We are going to experience his direction, and his redirection. He is going to change us and stretch us and grow us. How, I don’t know—I’m not the architect here. But I know, because Scripture tells this story over and over again, that we’re going to see beautiful things we never expected to see through deaths we never wanted to die. We’re going to see the glory of Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not stop Lazarus from dying, because he cared more about his friends seeing his glory than maintaining their way of life. And Jesus did not stop Harvey from spitting, because he cares more about showing us his glory than maintaining our way of life.
If it takes suffering, loss, and even death for us to see that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, then Jesus will take us through suffering, loss, and death.
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In the days and weeks and months to come, we will be tempted just like Martha and Mary and their Jewish friends were tempted. We’ll look at all we’ve lost, and all we’re suffering, and how we feel, and then we’ll look at Jesus who seems to be far away, and we’ll do these three things:
- We’ll question his love.
- We’ll limit his power.
- We’ll miss his ways.
So we’ll need to remember that his love is intentional—he knows his glory is the best sight we can ever see.
We’ll need to remember that his power is limitless—he can and does raise the dead.
And we’ll need to remember that his ways are mysterious—he’ll take us through death on the way to life.
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My main concern for us as a church is not what we’ve lost, though I hate to see all that we’ve lost. My main concern for us as a church is that we don’t miss what God wants us to gain.
The one we worship, Jesus of Nazareth, is the resurrection and the life. He died on the cross for our sins, he’s already been raised to new life, and he’s the head of this church, his body on earth.
And if that’s how he works—bringing death from life, both in Lazarus’s sickness and his own crucifixion—should we expect any different strategy as he works in our lives?
If we listen carefully to John 11:4, perhaps we might hear Jesus saying,
“This flood does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
¹ From “Oceans” by Hillsong United.