Often when people find themselves in difficult situations they do wonder where God is and whether he cares about what is going on?
I preached about this on 13th January 2002 at Rainham Parish Church.
The talk is based on John 11:1 – 45
I wonder how many of us would own up to finding God frustrating particularly when he appears not to answer our prayers?
Do we even sometimes think that he hasn’t heard us?
I know that when we either don’t get answers to our prayers or not the answer we expect, there are all sorts of excuses given which aren’t necessarily correct. Regardless of what earnest people tell you; such as you are lacking in faith, or your spouse is a non-believer so God can’t possible answer your prayers, or any of the many other platitudes I’m sure you’ve heard, the truth is more complex. Though of course, sometimes we are the problem because of our own wilfulness or our hardness of heart or our own embittered attitude.
In Isaiah 55 God says “ As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “
Put it another way God knows far more than we do and seeing things from an eternal perspective he knows what we really need. That being so his timing is perfect and inevitably his answer comes right on cue. Often he has something far better in mind than we can ever imagine.
When my brother in law Nick was dying from AIDS we prayed as did many other people. I am utterly convinced that God could have physically healed him. But he didn’t. As it turns out God did something even more wonderful. He brought Nick back to faith and then called him home quickly. As that lovely old hymn puts it:
“Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me,
And on his shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.”
Nick by God’s grace was saved some of the nastier aspects of AIDS such as dementia and blindness.
Faith is about trusting God even when we can’t see what he is doing and things appear from our point of view to be hopeless.
So what was happening in this story about Lazarus?
Lazarus a good friend of Jesus was ill and his sisters Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus no doubt in the hope that either he would come in person or would heal Lazarus at a distance.
Yet even though it is clear that Lazarus was a very special friend of Jesus, he didn’t rush to Bethany to be at his friend’s bedside. I suspect that most of us would have gone as quickly as possible to Bethany. Yet Jesus listened to his Father rather than to his friends and stayed where he was. Is there a message for us? Do we react to events and situations emotionally rather than prayerfully and thoughtfully?
Can you imagine what Mary and Martha must have thought? You can imagine then looking anxiously up the road to see if Jesus was coming. Hours drag into days and still Jesus hasn’t come. Why? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he realise how serious this illness is? Then the awful moment arrives and Lazarus breathes his last and the sisters were grief stricken and probably angry with Jesus who had let them down. You may have said to God in the midst of your troubles “Don’t you care?”
So they prepare Lazarus and have him buried, no doubt in accordance with Jewish custom by sunset of the day he died. Jesus isn’t even there to comfort them as they bury him. If he came now, it would in their opinion, be too late. But then they only have a human perspective.
Jesus does come but four days after Lazarus has died. Why the delay? Jesus says in John 11 v 4 “The final result of this illness will not be the death of Lazarus; this has happened in order to bring glory to God, and it will be the means by which the Son of God will receive glory.” That just makes it sound as if the illness is not as serious as the messenger has said. But do note that the illness is being allowed so that God’s healing when it happens will cause Jesus to be glorified and indeed it will bring others to faith, as we shall see. It is rather as Paul stated in that famous verse from Romans 8 “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
As Jesus and the disciples prepare to go to Bethany, Jesus tells them “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I will go and wake him up.” Initially, the disciples think that Lazarus is actually asleep, but Jesus is using a euphemism and has to explain, “Lazarus is dead, but for your sake I am glad I was not with him, so that you will believe.”
Jewish tradition said that the soul stayed near the body for three days after death, in the hope that it may be brought back to life. So by delaying for four days, it will be absolutely obvious that Lazarus is dead and beyond human hope of coming back to life. When Jesus goes to Bethany to wake up Lazarus there will be no mistake that this is a miracle, bringing Lazarus to life after he has been in the tomb for four days.
I don’t know what you would have said if you were in Martha’s place when Jesus arrived in Bethany? Maybe you would have had a go at him or just ignored him. Martha firstly brings out her criticism but then shows her faith in Jesus. She says, ” If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Perhaps she is beginning to see the answer to the question posed to Abraham in Genesis 18 v14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Can you answer that question truthfully? Can you say with Martha “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask”?
I think it worth hearing again the rest of this conversation between Jesus and Martha as he encourages her in her faith.
“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her. “I know” she replied, ”that he will rise to life on the last day.” Jesus said to her “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes Lord,” she answered, “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world“.
How about us? In the midst of all our own sufferings and disappointments and let downs can we make a statement of faith like this? Do we really believe that Jesus is the resurrection? That new life is possible not only after physical death but also here and now for us who have been spiritually dead through our sins?
What about Mary who from the story in Luke 10 appears to be the more spiritual and thoughtful of the two sisters? We can’t tell whether her comment to Jesus is made out of disappointment or anger or despair. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
Many people have thought that when Jesus saw the grief of Mary and the others he was moved to tears out of sympathy and this could well be true. But there is also the thought that it was their lack of faith in him that brought him to tears. Some of the Jews were heard to doubt him “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”
So we now follow Jesus to the root of the problem; Lazarus dead and buried in the tomb.
Jesus knows what he is about to do, but look at the excuses and the reticence of people to let him deal with the problem.
“Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered. “But Lord” Martha, the dead man’s sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!” Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?”
How many of us try to put God off when he offers to deal with our problems and hurts?
Oh no! Its been going on too long for me to be healed!
It’s very painful and unpleasant to talk about. Let’s leave it alone!
My past stinks so I don’t even want Jesus to see it!
I don’t know if that’s how you have reacted when the Lord challenges you about something, which needs his healing. Do the greengrocer’s shutters come down around your mind because you don’t want to hear what Jesus is trying to say to you?
Fortunately for Lazarus and indeed for us, Jesus takes no notice of the excuses and once the stone is out of the way, he calls in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out!” “He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave clothes, and with a cloth round his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them “and let him go.”
How amazing; the dead coming back to life at Jesus’ command. Lazarus must have been a frightening sight wrapped in his grave clothes rather like a character from a Hollywood horror film. However removing the grave clothes completed the healing.
When Jesus touches people’s lives and brings healing and new life, there are quite often the trappings of their former lives and problems to be taken care of. These are our responsibility to help remove. It isn’t always pleasant, but we are doing the Lord’s work in this matter so we have to obey when he tells us to remove the grave clothes from someone he has brought to life. The Lord once sent me an ex male witch to counsel and pray with. Removing his grave clothes and untying him was not easy or pleasant but that was the Lord’s command to me for this man’s healing.
What was the reaction of those who saw what happened at the tomb in Bethany? Some saw and believed and put their faith in him. But for others, even the raising of the dead did nothing for their faith. Many of the religious people were outraged because Jesus was a threat to them and their established view of God.
Isn’t that the same in this day? Some see God at work through the power of the Holy Spirit and believe; yet others, even Christians, sadly reject him and disbelieve the evidence particularly if it threatens their view of how God should be. It is particularly sad when you find people in churches praying against those sent by God to do his work. Perhaps they like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day don’t realise that they are actually opposing and rejecting God by their actions.
Is Jesus calling you this morning to come out of your tomb? Many things, illness, bereavement, our past, our unrepented sins, and unforgiveness can entomb us. We get wrapped in all sorts of things as our grave clothes: our sins, the way we have been rejected, the hurts we have suffered, the way our parents mistreated us, our own unforgiveness to name but a few.
Jesus is having the stone taken away and the light of his love is shining in on you. He is calling you to come out and be set free and live again. You can receive his healing and his freedom today.
Shall we have a prayer?
Lord Jesus help us to hear your call this morning, to rise up and leave our tomb whatever that tomb may be. Help us to receive your healing and live new lives for your glory. And help us to participate in the healing of others as you command us. Amen.