With Jesus In A Cemetery
If we could just see what God sees, or if we could know what God knows, or if we could feel what God feels: All of us would be better able to handle life’s challenges.
Dr. Kenneth Meyer tells about flying into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a certain occasion. As the big plane passed over the expressway, Meyer noticed a colossal traffic jam. He also saw that many people were getting out of their cars. Some were standing on their bumpers, straining to see what was going on. As Dr. Meyer glanced northward, he saw what they could not possibly see—the telltale flash of red lights. Meyer knew the problem would be taken care of quickly, so after the plane landed at O’Hare and he proceeded towards his car, he had a completely different perspective from the average traveler on the expressway. He knew he would soon be home. Perspective makes all the difference. We are earthbound creatures, but if we could somehow look down upon the traffic jams in our lives, we would react much differently.
Our perspective makes a difference! Do we see our problems from above or from ground level?
In the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection in John 11, both perspectives are evident. We see the ground-level perspective in Mary and Martha and the divine perspective in our Lord. This passage is good medicine for our hearts because Lazarus’ death is symbolic of the extremities we encounter in life, the difficulties that come to all of us, whether the death or divorce from a loved one, the loss of our position or the erring of a child. Lazarus’ death symbolizes all of these things. Our Lord’s approach also shows us how our heavenly Father deals with us in the midst of the problems we face. This story teaches us about perspective.
It is the story of a brother and his two sisters. They were close personal friends of Jesus. We don’t know why or how they became friends but they were. Lazarus became ill and it was serious. Jesus was not in the vicinity but could have reached their home had he immediately started when He received the news. He did not but remained where he was.
Lazarus died and this family planned for a funeral and a time of mourning. We can all relate to this story in one way or another. Maybe it was a time of death and losing someone we weren’t ready to lose or maybe it was something else that happened that felt unfair or extremely painful and we prayed about it but for whatever reason we still had to go through it and feel the hurt and experience the pain.
Today we are going to try to understand what it means to be in a relationship with God yet feel like maybe we didn’t get treated fairly. It will be very helpful for you if you can learn early on that life is not fair and never will be.
In this story there enough emotions to go around! Let’s look at a few of them.
1. The Disciples Felt Afraid: Fear
So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, 6 he stayed where he was for the next two days. 7 Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”
8 But his disciples objected. “Rabbi,” they said, “only a few days ago the people in Judea were trying to stone you. Are you going there again?” John 11:5-8 NLT
Trying to understand why God does what He does can sometimes lead us into fearful territory. We are sometimes led out of our comfort and safety zones and left to feel as though to follow Christ means certain death.
Sometimes our American sense of entitlement really gets in our way when it comes to living by faith. I am really fascinated to watch how people react to the threat of a bad economy or the need to adjust to living with less because of something job related. It is almost as though we really believe that we should never be called to sacrifice or give anything up and yet as a country we have spent ourselves into oblivion, incurred incredible debt but don’t ask us to sacrifice our lifestyle to correct it.
There was a problem here in the fact that Jesus close friend Lazarus was on the verge of death but you get the impression that the disciples are afraid to go back to where he lives. They are really okay with just letting him die if it means they themselves might face death.
16 Thomas, nicknamed the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go, too—and die with Jesus.” John 11:16 NLT
Yesterday many Christians around the world paused to remember a great Christian hero and author. He was a pastor in Nazi Germany and he dared to stand up to Hitler and the Gestapo. He was imprisoned.
Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on April 8, 1945, by SS judge HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Thorbeck" Otto Thorbeck at a HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drumhead_court-martial" drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FlossenbÃ¼rg_concentration_camp" Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was executed there by HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging" hanging at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitulation_(surrender)" \o "Capitulation (surrender)" capitulation of HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_Germany" Nazi Germany. Like other executions associated with the July 20 Plot, the execution was particularly brutal. Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged with thin wire for death by strangulation.
The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer ... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
There you have it; our first glimpse into how to overcome when we feel fearful. We press on and do what we are called to do knowing full well that all of us are going to die and that we might die for our faith but we will die expressing our faith. We trust our God.
2. The Sisters Felt Abandoned: Forsaken
When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” John 11:20-21 NLT
28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John 11:28,29,32 NLT
Lazarus’ sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” This was not an invitation or even a request. They did not say, “Lord, please come.” They just assumed that as soon as the Lord learned of the situation, he would hurry there. They knew Jesus. They understood his wonderful compassion. The word they used for “love” is the word for friendship. They were saying, “Your good friend whom you love is sick.” Of course Jesus would come—to think otherwise was inconceivable. But Jesus’ answer in verse 4 gives us a hint of what was going to happen. When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the son of God may be glorified through it.”
In other words, death would not prevail and become the ultimate tragedy here. Something was about to happen, and it would bring Christ glory. The heart of this vignette comes later where John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.”
The word translated “loved” here is a different word than the sisters used. It is the word agape—that unstoppable, highest type of love, the love of God. Christ loves us with that kind of love. Knowing this, we might expect Scripture to say, “Jesus, upon hearing that Lazarus was sick, went to one of his disciples, found a horse, and rode as fast as he could to be with Lazarus!” But that is not what our text says. Our text says he loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus so much that he stayed away. Incredible!
From ground level it sometimes appears to us that even though we are Christ’s children and we love him, He does not care about us anymore. At times, humanly speaking, our circumstances seem to admit no other interpretation than that.
I think about Joseph in the Old Testament being sold by his brothers into slavery. He ended up in Potiphar’s household, and by hard work, integrity, and devotion he rose to the top—only to be toppled because he would not compromise himself with Potiphar’s wife. As a result, he ended up in a foul Egyptian jail. From ground level it appeared that God had forsaken him. Joseph had honored God as a young man, but it seemed God did not care about him any longer.
When a child dies in his mother’s arms as she cries to God for help and the ambulance lies stalled two blocks away, we wonder if God cares. When a Christian is falsely accused and pleads with God to bring the evidence to clear him, and it is only after his reputation is ruined that the evidence comes, we wonder if God cares. When tragedy strikes in our life it is easy to wonder if God cares. We must be honest and admit that at ground level there are times when it is very difficult to keep believing in the goodness of God.
Delays of Love: This account of Lazarus’ elevates our perspective. It explains to Christ’s praying, devoted children that no matter how it may appear, these inexplicable delays are delays of love. The principle is this: Christ delayed coming to his faithful, loving followers in Bethany in order to strengthen their love and their faith.
For two days Jesus calmly went about His work far away from His anguished ones. They probably went outside each hour to see if the Lord was approaching, then went back in to Lazarus, whose life was ebbing away, then went out again to look for Jesus. After two days the Lord decided it was time to respond to the sisters’ urgent message. Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
3. Jesus Felt Anger: Frustration
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. John 11:33-25 NLT
That fact is that Lazarus died. There was a funeral. There was overwhelming grief and sadness. There was sense of loss and finality to the loss. Mary and Martha and their friends and family walked the worst case scenario.
Why was Jesus upset? It was because He saw their perspective was all wrong. His motives on their behalf were being misunderstood. He was deeply frustrated.
How often do we find ourselves in deep trouble and we try to find God but feel like He is not there or He is not answering our prayer?
What I am about to teach you is solid foundational theology that you can base your life on.
Most people do not immediately see God’s passion for the glory of God as an act of love. One reason for this is that we have absorbed the world’s definition of love. It says: You are loved when people make a big deal about you or they make much of you and who you are or what you have done.
The main problem with this definition of love is that when you try to apply it to God’s love for us, it distorts reality. God’s love for us is not mainly His making much of us, but His giving us the ability to enjoy making much of Him forever.
In other words, God’s love for us keeps God at the center. God’s love for us exalts His value and our satisfaction in it. If God’s love made us central and focused on our value, it would distract us from what is most precious; namely, Himself. Love labors and suffers to enthrall us with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: God. Therefore God’s love labors and suffers to break our bondage to the idol of self and focus our affections on the treasure of God.
In a surprising way we can see this in the story of Lazarus’s sickness and death. Jesus chose to let Lazarus die. There was no hurry. His intention was not to spare the family grief, but to raise Lazarus from the dead. This is true even if Lazarus was already dead when the messengers reached Jesus. Jesus either let him die or remained longer to make plain that He was in no hurry to immediately relieve the grief. Something more was driving Him.
He was motivated by a passion for the glory of God displayed in His own glorious power. In verse 4 He says, “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.” Nevertheless both the decision to let Lazarus die and the motivation to magnify God were expressions of love for Mary and Martha and Lazarus. John shows this by the way he connected verses 5 and 6: “Now, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Many people today—even Christians—would murmur at Jesus for callously letting Lazarus die and putting him and Mary and Martha and others through the pain and misery of those days. What this shows is how far above the glory of God most people value pain-free lives. For most people, love is whatever puts human value and human well-being at the center. So Jesus’ behavior is unintelligible to them. But let us not tell Jesus what love is. Let us not instruct Him how He should love us and make us central. Let us learn from Jesus what love is and what our true well-being is. Love is doing whatever you need to do to help people see and savor the glory of God in Christ forever and ever. Love keeps God central. Because the soul was made for God.
Jesus confirms that we are on the right track here with all that has gone before by praying for us in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” I assume that this prayer is a loving act of Jesus. But what does He ask? He asks that, in the end, we might see His glory. His love for us makes Himself central. Jesus is the one being for whom self-exaltation is the most loving act. This is because the most satisfying reality we could ever know is Jesus. So to give us this reality, He must give us Himself.
The love of Jesus drives Him to pray for us, and then die for us, not that our value may be central, but that His glory may be central, and we may see it and savor it for all eternity. “Father, I desire that they … be with me … to see my glory.” That is what it means for Jesus to love us. Divine love labors and suffers to enthrall us with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: God in Christ. That we might see His glory—for that He let Lazarus die, and for that He went to the cross.
Let me go back to Dietrich Bonehoffer for a moment. Hear these words he wrote long before he knew he would be killed serving God. “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?”
4. Lazarus Felt Alive: Freedom
Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.” 43 Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” John 11:41-44 NLT
Now I know that Lazarus in some ways had the least to do with this story. I also know that I am talking metaphorically when I make this point. Let me do it anyway. When you and I experience things that cause us grief and sadness we will go through different stages of emotions and feelings.
Denial and isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
In essence when we work our way through these stages and we all will experience and be touched by them in some way, we come out on the other side learning to accept the new reality. To get to that point of acceptance is not unlike Lazarus hearing the words of Jesus Christ, “Lazarus, Come out!” When he was released from the bondage of death he felt freedom and he felt alive. When you and I can work through our situation and allow God to use in our lives to bring glory to Himself (because He is worthy) we will find an incredible sense of freedom and victory of the sting of death and heartache.
By the way it is okay to tell the Lord how you feel. Martha and Mary both expressed their disappointment that He hadn’t been there. We should always speak honestly to God yet I don’t believe we should ever lose a sense of Who He is and we should always be reverent even in our deepest frustrations.
Perspective brought a turning point in the prophet Habakkuk’s life and it can be an amazingly wonderful thing for us as well. As Habakkuk looked at his own people Israel, he saw oppression and ethical impropriety. It looked as if God’s sense of justice was gone.
O Lord, how long must I call for help before you will listen? I shout to you in vain; there is no answer. “Help! Murder!” I cry, but no one comes to save. Must I forever see this sin and sadness all around me?
Then, by faith, he met God, and he then had the divine perspective. Therefore, he concluded his great book by saying:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Our perspective makes all the difference! Do we see our problems from above or from ground level?
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