My family and I are big fans of the TV sitcom The Office. We have watched the series many times. If you’re like me, you may remember the episode in which Dwight Schrute’s great aunt Shirley died. There was a funeral. And to say the least, Dwight’s very traditional Pennsylvania Dutch family had some unique funeral customs. Dwight says to the camera:
We Schrutes don’t need some Harvard doctor to tell us who’s alive and who’s dead. But there was an unlucky streak of burying some heavy sleepers. And when grave robbers discovered some scratch marks on the inside of some of the coffins, we decided to make sure our dead are completely dead—out of kindness.
And so, after the coffin is lowered into the ground, they fire a shotgun three times into the coffin.
You may laugh, but before modern funeral practices like embalming were introduced, around the turn of the 20th century, the fear that you might get buried alive was very real. Some people had strings inside coffins attached to bells on the outside. So they could ring the bell if they woke up. Some wealthy people put telephones inside of mausoleums just in case.
I mention this because we’re told in verse 17 that Lazarus had “already been in the tomb four days.” According to a Jewish superstition, which is not found in the Bible, the soul of a person hung around the grave for three days—waiting to see if the body would come back to life. After three days, the soul departed once and for all. The point is that by the fourth day, people believed that there was no hope that anyone could ever come back to life. And this was likely true for Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. By all means, they believed that Jesus could have saved their brother if Jesus had gotten there before Lazarus died; maybe Jesus could have performed a miracle and saved him if he had gotten there within hours of his death. But now that it’s been four days… well, we can hardly blame these sisters for thinking that all hope was lost—no matter how much they believed in Jesus.
But here’s where Jesus, as he so often does, makes us feel uncomfortable:we learn in the first sixteen verses of this chapter that Jesus’ delay in coming to Lazarus wasn’t an oversight; it was intentional. Jesus could have been there much sooner. In verse 3, we learn that Mary and Martha sent word to him that their brother was very sick. And verse 5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So…”—that little word “so” is very important. John is saying, in other words, “as a consequence of Jesus’ love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus”—“when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Because Jesus loves this family, he delays coming for two days—thereby ensuring that by the time he and his disciples arrive at the tomb Lazarus would be dead for four days, thereby ensuring that his dear friends whom he loved, Mary and Martha, would experience all the grief, all the anguish, all the sorrow, all the disappointment, all the pain—that comes from watching a loved one die.
Look at Martha’s first words to Jesus in verse 21: “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then in verse 32, her sister, Mary, fell at Jesus’ feet and said the exact same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Lord, if you had been here…
Remember: Jesus knew that by delaying their trip down to Bethany, he was going to disappoint Mary and Martha. Jesus disappointed them on purpose. He did!
You’ve all known disappointment. I’m sure many of us are dealing with it right now! I have a son who is facing the prospect of not being able to have a high school prom or graduation ceremony. That’s disappointing. We’re looking at the possibility of not gathering for church on Easter Sunday.
If you listen to the news, that’s what it sounds like. But I’m praying. And I know you’re praying. Who knows what God is going to do? But he’s got a plan. He’s got a purpose! He’s got reasons for all this. I mean, we’ve never broadcast a worship service before on YouTube before. I just checked. We had 346 views. On a typical Sunday, we have 225 in worship… You do the math. I would love to have 121 visitors at church on a Sunday. Is it possible we’re reaching more people right now… somehow… Which goes to show if the devil through he could use the coronavirus to harm the church, it is backfiring… because, as always, God has a plan!
My point is, if you’re dealing with disappointment, and you’re angry because something didn’t work out the way you wanted, I want you to do something that a lot of pastors would be very reluctant to tell you to do: I want you to blame God. He won’t get his feelings hurt. Okay… “Blame” isn’t the best word, especially if God is disappointing you in order to do something better than you had hoped… But I want you to hold God responsible for your disappointment.
And while you do so, remember the words of a great Christian rock from the ’70s by Phil Keaggy called “Disappointment”:
Disappointment – His appointment,
Change one letter, then I see
That the thwarting of my purpose
Is God’s better choice for me.
And why is Jesus disappointing Mary and Martha? He tells us in verse 4: “But when Jesus heard [that Lazarus was sick] 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.’” It was worth disappointing, Mary and Martha, in other words, if it meant that God the Father and his Son Jesus would be glorified!
And how would that help Mary and Martha? They would have a better understanding of who Jesus is… They would know him better… And knowing Jesus is what it’s all about. John 3:16: eternal life… Connect to John 17:3… If they only knew Jesus better, they would have stronger faith.
And the faith of Mary and Martha was deficient. They believed in Jesus, to some extent… they believed he could work a miracle. But they also believed they needed something more than just Jesus… they needed better timing—“he’s been dead four days!”… they needed closer proximity—“you needed to be here, in Judea, not way up in Galilee!”
But what kind of faith is that? If you had been here…
I want to say to the sisters, “What are you talking about, Mary and Martha? Jesus is here now! Do you think that Jesus’ power is limited by these circumstances? If Jesus is here right now, what else do you think you possibly need for a miracle? Why isn’t Jesus being here right now enough for you?
“Why not say, ‘Praise God! Jesus is here! We’re going to okay! We have reason for hope! We have reason for joy! We have reason for peace! Because Hallelujah! Jesus is here!” That what these women should have said!
But you know the old saying: If I point my finger of judgment at Mary and Martha, there are three fingers pointing back at me! Just last week, I was reading Psalm 146:5, in which the psalmist says, “Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” And I felt convicted because I woke up that morning, like so many mornings during this pandemic, not feeling happy… On the contrary, I woke up feeling anxious and afraid.
My problem is, I wake up and reach for my phone—and I’m always just a couple of screen taps away from all the bad news in the world. Yet I’m looking desperately for some good news, any good news: “Has Italy turned the corner on this virus yet? Is “social distancing” beginning to ‘flatten the curve’ in the U.S.? Do we have enough ventilators? How many cases in Stephens County? How close are we to a vaccine? Is there an effective treatment? How bad is the economy? How’s the stock market today? What if I get sick?”
These are questions I’ve been turning over in my head each morning when I wake up. Why? Because obviously my “help” and “hope” is not in Jesus alone. It’s in Jesus plus favorable circumstances… It’s in Jesus plus the prospect of more optimistic headlines… Jesus plus modern medicine… Jesus plus a strong economy… Jesus plus my ability to wash my hands adequately and often… Jesus plus my ability to avoid sick people.
Lord, rescue me from a Jesus-plus kind of faith! Lord, allow me to trust in you alone—because you’re enough! Because you’re everything I need!
Not that we don’t believe in washing our hands or scientific research, not that we don’t pray for a good economy, but we don’t place our hope in things like that! Out hope is in Jesus alone!
Lord, give me the faith that Martha expresses in verse 22: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” But even now…
Listen: When you experience disappointment in life, do you say, “If only, Lord.” Or do you say, “But even now…”
If you’ve been born again through faith in Christ, there’s always a reason to say “but even now”!
“Lord, why didn’t you save my marriage?… But even now…” “Lord, why didn’t you let me get into the college I wanted to get into? But even now…” “Lord, why did you let this happen to my kid?… But even now…” “Lord, why didn’t you keep me from getting sick?… But even now…” “Lord, why did you let me lose this job?… But even now…” “Lord, why didn’t you let this relationship work out? I thought she was ‘the one’… But even now…”
With Jesus, things are never “if only this, if only that”; there’s always an “even now”! There’s always an “even now”! Jesus wants to transform your if only’s into even now’s! He’s going to do it!
Do you believe it?
And if your even now isn’t what we expected or hoped for, well… that’s only because it’s better than what we expected or hoped for!
And you say, “Wait a minute… Didn’t Mary and Martha end up getting exactly what they hoped for. They wanted Jesus to raise their brother from the dead, and that’s exactly what they got!”
To which I say, “Oh, no… they got much more than they expected. Infinitely more!
Why do I say that?
I want to show you something really cool. Maybe you’ve never seen this before. Prior to this week, I’m not sure that I’ve seen it before.
First, let’s look at verse 36: After Jesus weeps, in verse 35, we’re told that the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” In other words, they believed that Jesus’ tears proved how much he loved Lazarus… But, oh, no… not even close.
And you say, “Well, sure… because what really proves how much Jesus loved Lazarus was the fact that he performed this amazing miracle.” But, no, that doesn’t prove it, either. No one imagines that it required a great deal of effort on the part of the Son of God to perform the miracle itself. Jesus is God… a miracle is not hard to pull off.
No… I’m going to show you what proves Jesus’ love for Lazarus…
Take your Bibles and look with me at the scripture that immediately follows our scripture today. The heading in my Bible is ominously titled, “The Plot to Kill Jesus.” [summarize]
And notice what Caiaphas, the high priest, says in verse 50: “Don’t you understand that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish?” And he’s speaking with great irony; he doesn’t know how true his words are. But John, the gospel writer, does. And he says, in verse 51 and 52: “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
Jesus, in other words, would die a substitutionary death so that all of us children of God scattered everywhere would find forgiveness of sin and eternal life in him! It’s not simply “better that one man should die”—it’s the greatest news in the world that God’s Son Jesus would die because only through his death can we be saved!
Regardless, the raising of Lazarus is the straw that broke the camel’s back: It’s event that sets in motion the chain of events that leads to Golgotha… and the cross.
And Jesus knew this…
So… weeping for Lazarus and the miracle of raising Lazarus don’t prove Jesus’ love. Not even close.
What proves Jesus’ love for Lazarus—and every other sinner who’s ever lived—is that Jesus performed this miracle in part to set in motion the chain of events that would lead to Golgotha and the cross.
Do you see that? Jesus knew that in order to raise Lazarus from the dead, he would have to sign his own death warrant. He knew that in order to rescue Lazarus from the tomb, he would very soon have to take Lazarus’s place in the tomb.
Martha didn’t know what she was asking for that when she said, “But even now…” She thought she was just asking Jesus to bring her brother back to life in this world—so that he could live another 20 or 30 years in this world and then later die again. Big deal! She didn’t know that by bringing her brother back Jesus was making it possible ultimately for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary, and for everyone else who believes in Jesus to live, not just for a number of decades in this fallen, sinful world—but to live forever in God’s redeemed, perfect world.
“Look how he loved him!” And it’s as if Jesus were saying, “You think this is love? Let me show you what love looks like—next week. On the cross.”