‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 6. Uncertainty when Jesus delays
Jn 11:6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Ongoing: If you are someone who prays, I guess your greatest desire is that Jesus answers your prayers and life changes and/or people are changed. Arguably the best book around on why prayers are often not answered is Pete Greig’s ‘God on Mute’. Often we use prayer as a way of venting our wishes, our hopes and desires, trying to get God to conform to what we think should happen. The problem of suffering is an ongoing one. Philosophers, contemplating suffering and God, wonder if God CAN alleviate suffering, why doesn’t He, if God IS compassionate and loving, surely He wants to alleviate suffering, so why doesn’t He? This is sometimes summarized as, ”Can He – is he powerful enough, does He want to – is He truly compassionate?” But then we put up the answer to both as ‘Yes’ so then comes the big question, “Why doesn’t He?”
The Prayer Dilemma: Praying for sick people, especially those who are perhaps terminally ill, is not an area for the faint-hearted to enter, for it can be an area of great uncertainty. When we pray and people are healed, great, but when we pray and pray and pray and they still die, not so great! The complexity of who God steps up for and who He doesn’t is always a mystery. I think a shorthand answer is seen in Acts 12 where James is killed by Herod but Peter is saved by angelic intervention (yet still to die years later as a martyr!). Our role is to pray and pray, and then trust. Our trust is in a God who is love (1 Jn 4:8,16) and who is perfect, which means He cannot be improved upon, which includes action and inaction. Faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17) but trust is when you hang in when you hear nothing. Both are needed in the Christian life. Some find this a disquieting answer for it smacks of agnosticism, the great ‘I don’t know people’. So where can we find some answers?
The Lazarus Drama: On the way to Jerusalem on his last journey, Jesus is told about the illness of his friend Lazarus but, “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (Jn 11:4-6) It would appear that at the time Jesus had recently been in Jerusalem (see Jn 10:22,23) but had gone out of town to a place across the Jordan (v.40,41), possibly some twenty miles away. Bethany, where Lazarus lived, was just a few miles from Jerusalem and thus still about 16-18 miles probably from where Jesus was teaching. It would take a while for the message to have reached Jesus and so in declining health, Lazarus needed Jesus quickly. How often do we sense urgency in our circumstances?
Delay: But Jesus stays where he is for another two days. He will not be rushed for he knows the outcome and he knows what has to happen before he arrives – Lazarus is going to die (11:14) and it’s going to take at least another couple of days to get back to Bethany (their arrival was four days after Lazarus had actually died – 11:39). In this four days anguish has set in.
Martha: One of Lazarus’s two sisters, Martha is the first one to greet Jesus: “Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (11:21) There is a sense of reproach about this that undergirds anything else she might feel. It is difficult not to feel aggrieved when God doesn’t turn up and you know He can. But she grabs hold of a vestige of faith, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (v.22)
The things that go around our minds at such times as this are often confusing, certainly uncertain, often mixed with wonderings about what could have been, but then struggling with the reality. When the messenger had gone to Jesus with the news of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus had responded, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it,” (v.4) and he had not doubt conveyed that back to the sisters, maybe also intimating the Jesus had not seemed in any hurry to come. Martha, no doubt realistically, faced the fact that Lazarus had died even before the messenger had got back probably, and so unless Jesus had been able to get there earlier, it was hopeless. But then there were those words. What did they mean? Perhaps she has them in mind when she makes this last assertion. Is there a glimmer of hope within her, one that she dare not utter, that yet, four days on, Jesus might be able to do something? Four days! It seems impossible.
Mary: When Mary comes out, she is the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet, imbibing his presence and his words (Lk 10:39), and so his absence when she needed him was doubly troubling. She can only come out with the reproach (v.32) as she collapses at his feet weeping. The previous time she had sat at his feet it had been a joyful time but all of that is gone now. Jesus does not rebuke her for her lack of faith, but just, “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (v.33)
Jesus: At such times as this realize the Son of God empathizes with us. The verb here in the Greek that we have rendered, ‘deeply moved’ has a sense about it of indignation, even anger, the same as used in v.38. But see how it is worked out.
And then as they go to the tomb, “Jesus wept.” (v.35) As one scholar put it, ‘This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but no verse carries more meaning in it.’ They agree this is not wailing crying but it simply best put as “Jesus burst into tears.” This is Jesus who feels for the loss of Lazarus, Jesus who feels the pain of Mary and Martha and the struggles they are enduring, this is Jesus whose feelings for them are so strong that they cannot be contained and so flow out in tears of compassion. But then we find again, “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.” (v.38) There is (according to the original Greek) within all this sympathy, empathy, compassion that is blended with a righteous anger at the effect that Sin has, bringing death and pain and anguish and mourning. This is never how it was supposed to be when God first created the world, but this is how it has become when sin entered the world at the Fall. It is the curse of free-will, and yet an absolute necessity if we were to be the incredible beings we are in the image of God, with all that means. And then Jesus brings Lazarus back to life. Incredible!
And Us? There is more to think about in this realm of God and suffering but we will leave it to the next study. For the moment, let’s hold on to some of the things that have come out of this episode involving Lazarus:
– death comes to us all (Heb 9:27)
– death brings a sense of loss and anguish
– often within that anguish our minds wrestle unsuccessfully about where God is in it all
– Jesus understands this anguish and wrestling and empathizes with us, not condemns us
– the power of death is in his hands (and we’ll see more of that in the next study)
– and it is that which brings questions to us so often.
Many of us may have lost loved ones with question marks hanging over their deaths. There may be no easy answers this side of heaven but there are some helps and we’ll go on to consider them in the next study. In the meantime, even though it may sound trite from our position of anguish, it is the truth, trust is what holds us, that even though we may not understand, we trust that He does all things well.(Mk 7:37)