Shattered dreams are difficult to handle. One of the founding members of our church family came to faith in Christ through a very painful experience. She and her husband had just finished building their dream home as they were preparing for retirement, when he arose from breakfast one morning to tell her that he was leaving her for someone else. She was so traumatized that she fell apart emotionally and became, for a season, hospitalized. It was there that a fellow patient challenged her to live life again, and she eventually found hope in learning to trust Christ.
Tragedy and loss come in many faces. It can be an overwhelming health issue or a relational one. It can be huge financial reversals, or the loss of a loved one to death. When tragedy strikes, life can so quickly lose its luster and meaning. We can struggle with the desire to move forward because life as we knew it will never be the same. One of the great sermons of all time was preached by a Scottish minister by the name of Arthur Gossip who, the Sunday following the sudden and unexpected death of his beloved wife, entitled his message ‘When Life Tumbles In, What Then?’ It’s a question that we all need to answer in our hour of trial and tragedy. As we are preparing our hearts during this Easter season, I want us to look at an event that triggered what was about to happen to Jesus, his own death, and ultimately his resurrection. The hour of the greatest victory was preceded by one of the most tragic moments, the cross. John tells us that the resurrection of Lazarus was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ It was the trigger that created the course of events which we call the passion week, or the suffering of Jesus. This incident is found only in John’s gospel, and we discover something both disturbing and delightful about this story. This incident raises both painful questions and gives comforting answers. It is a story that shatters dreams, but ultimately restores hope in life’s most devastating moments.
THE FIRST QUESTION THAT THIS INCIDENT REVEALS IS ABOUT THE DISTURBING HUMAN PREDICAMENT.
In this world we will suffer all kinds of trials and troubles. It raises the question about why God allows pain and suffering to go unchecked in our world. How often in our darkest hours, heaven seems so silent.
A. The context of the story.
Jesus had been summoned to come to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary because there was a severe medical crisis in their lives.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
(This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’[i]
As the event plays out, we find that Jesus doesn’t immediately respond to the need as they thought he should. We could say much about the struggles we have with unrealized expectations from God. Many try and give pat answers to God’s delays until one day they are the ones who are suffering. How often do we wonder when we are in crisis and God doesn’t immediately come to our rescue, if God cares? Our prayer may be, where is God in this mess? Why is this happening to me? We can also question God’s love for us. However, we notice in our text that this questioning of God’s concern and love are not the issue. The sisters knew that Jesus loved Lazarus. We also read that Jesus loved Martha and Mary.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.[ii]
Nor is this the issue in our lives. God loves people and demonstrates that love by dying on the cross in order for us to he reconciled to Him. What we do discover is that God’s timetable and ours are different. What did Jesus have in mind? Jesus gives us a glimpse earlier when he stated that this sickness would not end in death.
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.[iii]
Wait a minute. As we will discover, Lazarus dies, but what is being expressed is that this will not be the final word. God’s plan is to raise Lazarus from the dead in order for Jesus to be gloried. Here is a vital truth that we must all wrap our head around. We were designed by God in order to bring glory to Him. When the apostle Paul was describing the nature of sin, the essence of sin is not what we think of: namely, the wrong things we have done, or the things we have neglected to do, but rather is what we are doing bringing glory to God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” So, the essence of life then is to bring glory to God. Here we see that God had something even more profound, more powerful in mind in this situation. We are often like Jesus’ disciples and do not understand in the moments of our pain why or what is happening. We do not see the eternal significance of what is happening because of the challenge and pain before us.
Why did Jesus wait to go into Judea and do something about Lazarus? This question was on the minds of many when Jesus finally arrived in their minds, too late.
But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’[iv]
B. God has a different timetable than us.
Why does God delay in our hour of pain, sorrow and loss? Why does God not rush in and rescue us when we find ourselves in trouble, rather than wait until we come to the end of ourselves? In this particular incident, Jesus knew that Lazarus had died. His disciples only knew that Lazarus was sick and the sisters had sent word for Jesus to come. One of the great lessons of life is that God’s delays are not necessarily God’s denials. We often do not know what God ultimately intends in much of our troubles. God has an eternal scope, while we are locked into our earthly perspective. However, the apostle Paul reminds us in the hour of our struggle that God’s love is constant.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called to his purpose.[v]
Jesus would be gloried through this experience, and it would cause a deeper level of faith to arise in the hearts of His followers, as well as bring others to faith. God often does in our lives things not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of others.
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.
His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’
Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.[vi]
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us of God’s impeccable timing. In chapter three, he reminds us that there is a time for everything under the sun, and then we witness God putting things together in such an amazing manner.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.[vii]
We cannot fully understand Palm Sunday without this incident. This happened just days before the triumphal entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem. Here we see the tension and response between those who believed in Jesus and those who didn’t and were threatened by Him. What we see is the power of love winning over the power of sin and death, humanity’s greatest enemy. Yet in these moments of supreme victory, we can also see the shadow of the cross looming before Jesus. Jesus now is willing to risk his life for the sake of his friends.
C. Love risks all for the other.
Notice how intense the situation was at that time in Jesus’ life. When Jesus suggested to his disciples that they go to Bethany and wake Lazarus, they immediately realize how dangerous that idea was.
and then he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judea.’
‘But Rabbi,’ they said, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?
Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.”[viii]
In other words, Jesus was putting his life at risk in going to Bethany to minister to Lazarus, and the disciples understood that. This act of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead becomes the triggering event leading to His own death. Jesus is willing to sacrifice His life for His friend’s life, and not only for Lazarus, but for all humanity. It is a crystalizing moment. By raising Lazarus from the dead, it brings some to faith, but for others it only revealed the hardness of their hearts.
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.[ix]
These Pharisees were part of the religious leadership of the day. So they called for a meeting of the Sanhedrin [their parliament]. It is there that they discussed the implications of what Jesus was doing. They were afraid that they would lose their positions of authority under the Romans.
If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.[x]
D. It is an issue of Trust.
The great lesson we need to learn in all of our disappointments, losses and difficulties is not to try to figure out the whys, but rather to trust and have confidence in God’s unfailing love. We need to trust that what God is allowing us to walk through will one day be a help to ourselves and others. For us, these things are designed to bring glory to God and shape us more into the image of Jesus.
Martha and Mary had no idea of what Jesus was about to do in their lives. They knew that Jesus was the Messiah and they also believed in the resurrection from the dead, but Jesus was about to demonstrate that He is the resurrection and Lazarus was about to rise again. Jesus was about to transform their lives and vision. Jesus was not just there to comfort them, rather He was there to demonstrate and create a greater degree of trust and confidence in Him. He was also preparing His disciples regarding what He had been telling them regarding His own upcoming death and resurrection from the dead.
You may say, that doesn’t help me in my current situation or loss. However, when we consider that we have a hope that goes beyond this life, it helps us through the difficult parts of our earthly pilgrimage. We must remember that we were never designed to remain here. The bible teaches us that while on earth we are, in a sense, absent from the Lord. Our destiny is to be with Christ forever and experience the ultimate victory that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished, namely victory over all the effects of sin and death in our earthly journey.
THE SECOND QUESTION THAT THIS INCIDENT REVEALS IS, WHERE DO WE FIND HOPE IN OUR LOSSES?
How can we find the courage, the strength, and the hope to move forward when our world comes crashing down? Or to state it differently: When facing loss, where can we find hope? Victor Frankl, discovered in a time of devastating loss in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, and later wrote in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’
A loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect on man. Frankl contended that when a man no longer possesses a motive for living, no future to look forward toward, he curls up in a corner and dies. Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in camp, had first to succeed in showing him some future goal.[xi]
The key concept in our text in facing loss and restoring hope is the resurrection. Death is not the final word, nor the ultimate end. Jesus now explains that reality to Martha.
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.
Martha answered, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.[xii]
If death is our greatest enemy and we can face it because of Jesus, then we can also face whatever else comes against our soul. Faith in Christ, and in his resurrection power elevates us in every trial. It helps us live not just in the moment or for this world alone; we have a hope beyond. We have a reason for living because we know that God has a greater plan in place for us.
William Jennings Bryan, who served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, once explained how powerful his Christian faith was to himself.
Immortality! Who will estimate the peace which belief in the future life has brought to the sorrowing? You may talk to the young about death ending all, for life is full and hope is strong; but don’t preach this to the mother who stands by the deathbed of her baby. If the heavenly Father decides to touch with divine power the buried acorn to make it burst from its prison walls, will He leave neglected in the earth, man who is made in the image of his Creator? If He stoops to give to the rosebush whose withered blossoms float upon the autumn breeze the sweet assurance of another springtime, will He refuse the word of hope to the sons of men when the frosts of life’s winter come? No! I am as sure that there is another life as I am that I am alive today.[xiii]
We must live with the hope of eternity ever before us. What we may willingly forfeit in this life for eternity is not folly, but wisdom. Here in John 11, Jesus is telling us that this resurrected life is found in Himself. We need to trust Him to help us find hope and healing in our losses and sorrows.
Let me return to Arthur Gossip, the pastor whose life suddenly was changed by the sudden loss of his wife. That Sunday morning in 1927 when he preached a message entitled ‘When Life Tumbles In, Then What?’
“I do not understand this life of ours. But still less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name, fling to what? Have we not lost enough without losing that too?
…But if we turn from faith in the time of trouble, what shall we turn to?”
He continues… “there is one thing I should like to say which I have never dared to say before, not feeling that I had the right. We Christian people in the mass are entirely unchristian in our thought of death. We have our eyes wrongly focused. We are selfish, and self-centered, and self-absorbed. We keep thinking aggrievedly of what it means to us. And that is wrong, all wrong. In the New Testament you hear very little of the families with that aching gap, huddled together in their desolate little home in some back street; but a great deal about the saints in glory; and sunshine, and the singing, and the splendor yonder. And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell. I for one want no melancholies tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. …And is that not the mood that best becomes us? Think out your brooding. What exactly does it mean? Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again? Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands? Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ himself has met them, and has heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?” [Then referring to his wife,] “I love to picture it. How shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendor of her glory…
To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won’t even have looked round them before we burst in. In any case, are we to let out dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force? Or, seeing that it has to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather then that they should miss one small amount of their rights. When the blow fell, that was the one and only thought that kept beating like a hammer in my brain. I felt I had lost her forever, must have lost her, then realized that to all eternity she must shine far ahead of me; and my heart kept crying out, ‘I choose it, I choose it. Do not for my sake deny her anything.’ I know now that I have not lost her. For love is not a passing thing one leaves behind.”[xiv]
THE FINAL QUESTION THAT THIS INCIDENT REVEALS IS, HOW DOES THE RESURRECTION RESTORE OUR HOPE?
It is true that before the resurrection we see a cross, a tomb, a sense that all that was once hoped for is lost, but that is a preparation for something far greater, the miracle of the resurrection. Jesus came to Lazarus not to heal his sick body, but to resurrect it from the dead. This was to help prepare His disciples for what was about to happen to him shortly. Even though they experienced this amazing miracle, when their hour of darkness came they forgot that Jesus is the resurrection. Jesus had promised that not only that He would die, but that He would rise again. Even though their dreams were shattered, what God had in store for them was far greater. We have the Easter morning account of the women heading to the tomb to further prepare the body for burial, wondering who would move the stone. Then there was the visitation of angels announcing the good news that Jesus was alive! Often in our sorrow we focus on the loss and pain, rather than the rest of the story.
Gordon MacDonald reminds us in his book ‘Rebuilding Your Broken World’ that when people are dealing with devastating experiences, they are “usually the turnaround moments ushering people into greater and more powerful performances of character, courage, and achievement.”[xv]
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.
‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’
Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me.
I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’[xvi]
Without doubt, this certainly arrested people’s attention. We know that Jesus is with us in our losses and moments of perplexity, just like He was there for Martha and Mary. What we need to understand is that if death, our greatest enemy, is defeated through the work of Christ’s resurrection, then whatever happens to us, God is able to renew and restore. There is no challenge too great that God cannot help us with.
What does God want to do with those challenges in our lives that seem beyond us? Do we not realize that these are moments for His glory? How does God want to ultimately use these things in our lives? We live in the present moment but God is preparing us to be with Him forever. Here we see that this was designed to create belief in Him, but also prepare the disciples for what was about to happen shortly.
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.[xvii]
That was the positive result of what happened but it also created a greater tension for Jesus.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs.
If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, ‘who was high priest that year,’ spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all!
You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God to bring them together and make them one.
So from that day on they plotted to take his life.[xviii]
As great as this miracle was, we need to remember that Lazarus eventually died later. This was simply a postponement of the inevitable. This is something we all have to address in our lives: the loss of someone we love, as well as our own departure. Jesus’ resurrection changed the whole dynamic and destiny of the disciples’ lives, and ultimately ours as well.
So, what dream has been shattered lately in your life? What stone that seems to leave love buried needs to be opened by the command of Jesus? What plan has gone awry? The resurrection is not just a symbol of renewed hope, but the beginning of a new and wondrous relationship with Jesus. Every loss in our lives must be factored through the lens of the resurrection. What does God want to birth in our lives from our current struggle, heartache and sorrow? May we look past our losses and sorrows and see God’s coming victory!
[i] John 11:1-3, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] John 11:5-6.
[iii] John 11:4.
[iv] John 11:37.
[v] Romans 8:28.
[vi] John 11:11-15.
[vii] Ecclesiastes 3:11.
[viii] John 11:7-8, 16.
[ix] John 11:45-46.
[x] John 11:48.
[xi] Victor Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ as quoted by Michael Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1989), 194.
[xii] John 11:23-27.
[xiii] ‘Blessed Immortality.’ taken from Infosearch.
[xiv] Arthur Gossip, When Life Tumbles In, then what?, taken from Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. 8, 237-38.
[xv] Gordon MacDonald, Rebuilding Your Broken World, (Nashville, Tn: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1988), 27.
[xvi] John 11:38-44.
[xvii] John 11:45.
[xviii] John 11:46-53.