He waited. He hadn’t come when He was needed or when He was expected.
They’d sent Him the message. He knew what was at stake. But instead of responding to their need, He’d ignored it and acted as if nothing was happening.
Now, their brother was dead.
They felt betrayed. Was He powerless?If He loved them but couldn’t act, then did that mean He was powerless? And if He could have acted and He chose not to, did that mean He didn’t truly love them?
Did He really love them?
Martha couldn’t wrap her head around the questions and emotions. None of it made sense. Everything she thought she knew about the Rabbi from Nazareth had come crashing down in the moment her brother died. Now, she didn’t know what to think.
I’ve been there, haven’t you? Maybe not to the level of Martha. After all, she was calling out to a physical Jesus to come and physically heal her brother. That’s a pretty major request.
But I’ve called out to Jesus asking Him to do what only He could do before it was too late, and He’s seemed to ignore my plea. So in that way, it feels the same.
And the doubts we have in those moments are real. Pretending they’re not isn’t impressing God or fooling Him. He knows about them. He wants to address them.
That’s what Jesus did when He finally showed up in Bethany. But we’ll get to that later. First, we have to address the lie that Jesus told.
So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it 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.” – John 11:3-4 ESV
This illness doesn’t lead to death. Yeah, right. How many times have I read this passage without seeing this? You and I both know that this isn’t the truth. Lazarus is going to die. And Jesus says that he isn’t.
I’m not sure how to handle this. My theological training wants me to conclude that Jesus means that ultimately He will be raising Lazarus from the dead. But let’s be honest for just a moment: this illness led to death. My head tells me that Jesus is seeing the end of the story. My heart says that he isn’t prepared for the death that will come.
This is one of those questions I’ll have to ask him someday; one of those “theologically incorrect” moments of honesty. I think He’ll have an answer.
But let’s consider the other part of the story. Jesus waits. He delays. Intentionally. His friends are asking for His help, and it seems that He isn’t all that concerned with answering their request.
This takes the story out of the realm of “theology” and puts into our daily lives; mine, at least. I’m dealing with these types of struggles right now.
We know – theologically – that God is all-powerful. We also know – theologically – that God loves us. Therefore, when we need Him most and call upon Him in faith, He should respond immediately to meet that request. That’s what Martha and Mary fully expected when Lazarus became ill.
He didn’t respond. He delayed.
This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t really like these verses. If you take time to read John 11:1-16 while trying to ignore what you know is coming later in the chapter, Jesus seems cold; indifferent; maybe even a bit arrogant.
Can I be transparent with you for a moment? I don’t really like this Jesus.
Which makes Martha’s interaction with Jesus, when He finally does show up, all the more impressive. When a supposedly all-powerful and all-loving God fails to answer my prayers of desperation when I cry out for Him to do what only He can do, I wouldn’t be so calm when He finally showed up in person at the point of my greatest despair. I’d be asking Him why He didn’t come sooner. I’d be asking Him how He could be so heartless and uncaring.
Not Martha. Yes, she acknowledges her doubts when he comes, but then rests in her faith that Jesus is who He claimed to be; that He is all-powerful and loving.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” – John 11:21-22 ESV
Now, my instinct shifts to wanting to believe that Martha was holding out hope that Jesus would resurrect Lazarus. But reading what happens next doesn’t seem to confirm that. Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will be raised from the grave (that he’s been in for four days now). Martha answers with the “theologically correct” answer:
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” – John 11:24 ESV
Now that’s a lot closer to my public reaction to God’s apparent indifference. “God, you could have done it, but you didn’t. You’ve got a bigger plan in play that I don’t understand now. I’ll trust You.”
That’s more like it, Martha.
I know that Martha doesn’t expects Jesus to resurrect Lazarus right then and there, because when Jesus commands that the grave be opened, Martha is the first to object because he’ll stink after decomposing for four days. She’s resigned herself to the theologically correct answer to her unanswered prayer.
And it’s in the middle of all of this that we find every elementary aged Sunday School attendee’s favorite verse: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Why did He weep? Was He sad that Lazarus was dead? I don’t think so. Was it because He was just soft and couldn’t help it when He saw Mary’s tears? Was he a “sympathetic crier?”
I think Jesus wept because He hates what death represents. Death is the result of the Fall in Genesis 3. It’s the ultimate symbol of humanity’s corruption. And He hates it.
So Jesus couldn’t help but act in this moment. He raised Lazarus. And weeping turned into celebration.
So, there we have it. The resolution to Jesus’ statement that Lazarus’ illness won’t lead to death (even though it did). Jesus ultimately healed Lazarus just like Mary and Martha asked Him to.
But wouldn’t it have been a lot easier for everyone if He would have just left for Bethany when they originally asked Him to?
But then again, it wouldn’t have been as cool of a story either.
Here’s to hoping that your unanswered prayer (and mine as well) ends in a much cooler story that you would have written.