Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
21 August 2016 / Ordinary Time
As you know we are walking with Jesus through the Gospel of John. This week marks a transition from the public ministry of Jesus to the private ministry of Jesus.
Last week we tackled the nagging question, “Can I lose my salvation?” I tried to reassure you that everyone who trusts in Jesus is eternally safe and secure in his hands and in the hands of the Father. While we may know that is totally true, we do not always feel like it is true.
The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks realistically to the matter of Assurance and Grace in Salvation:
18.4. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation shaken, diminished, or temporarily lost in various ways: as by negligence in preserving it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit, by some sudden or violent temptation, or by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance and allowing even those who reverence him to walk in darkness and have no light.
Yet, true believers are never completely deprived of that seed of God and life of faith, that love for Christ and fellow believers, that sincerity of heart and conscience concerning duty, out of which—by the operation of the Spirit—this assurance may in due time be revived; and by which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair.
Like the people we will meet in our story today, some of us have been there and done that.
That is why (this week) we will tackle another question that nags everyone who professes to be a Christian: Where is God when it hurts?
Almost everyone — including unbelievers — want to know where God was when their world fell apart; or where God is when their life bursts at the seams and frays at the edges.
One way or another we all lift our voices to heaven and ask,
Where are you?
Before we answer that question, we need to deal with some other things in this story, and then we will connect our stories to this one.
So, if you are willing and able, I invite you to stand and listen to God’s Holy Word.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 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.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
The word of the Lord.
May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen. You may be seated.
Sadly, for many people this story is just empty filler until they get to the really important and exciting story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
But this story full of essential truths about Jesus that set up the rest of the story.
The story shows us that Jesus was a real man who had real friends in this life. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were real people whom Jesus really and truly loved as friends.
The story also teaches us some vital and essential truths about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Namely, that he systematically defies our expectations and offends our sensibilities; and that he frequently says and does many strange things.
Actually, they are only strange to us, but quite normal to him.
Take for example Jesus’s painfully slow response to Mary and Martha’s message:
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard it his response was, “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.”
Literally, the sickness is not for death; rather (Gk. huper – for) the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.
This is the first strange thing Jesus says in the story.
This is not the way we respond to such news. We usually respond emotionally in some way — perhaps with sorrow and tears — and then practically in some way — perhaps making a call or paying a visit.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
This is the second strange thing Jesus does in the story.
We expect the story to go, “Jesus loved that family, so when heard his friend was sick, he got up and went to him as quickly as possible.”
Instead, he stayed two more days where he was. Why?
As Ridderbos explains Jesus came only to do his Father’s will period.
Remember when his mother Mary wanted to him to do something about the lack of wine at the wedding? Jesus hesitated. And now, when Martha asked him to come do something for her brother, Jesus waited. Why? Because he lived, moved, and existed on a different time frame than everyone else. He lived by his Father’s beck and call alone, not by everyman’s beck and call at all.
Now, as readers of the story, we might be tempted to think that Jesus should have jumped up and raced over to Bethany, laid hands on Lazarus, and healed his friend.
Just imagine how comforting it would have been to the sisters to see Jesus coming up the road or standing at the door or sitting beside the sick-bed!
After all we have seen and heard Jesus do up to this point, why would we think that he has to be physically present to act and save a life?!
After all this time, do we still think/believe that Jesus is merely a man, with all the space-time limitations that other men have?
Do we still think of Jesus as a healer who must be near a patient spatially and temporally to treat him the way our family doctors treat us?
Did he not heal a noble man’s son from twenty miles away just by speaking the words, “Your son lives”?!
Jesus is the Word made flesh for the life of the world; Jesus is the Son of God. Don’t we believe that he is with us — present by his Spirit even when he is not present in his body?
It’s easy to forget, and hard to remember — especially in the face of sickness and death.
Now, after waiting two days Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The problem was that Jerusalem was where the religious leaders who wanted to arrest and kill Jesus were hanging out. Bethany was only two miles away from Jerusalem.
The disciples reminded Jesus of a practical matter: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
So the disciples simply pointed out that Bethany was too close for trouble. As it turns out, the disciples were probably relieved that Jesus did not jump up and go to Lazarus. But they were panic stricken when Jesus said, “Let’s go back to Judea to see Lazarus.”
Why? Because they were afraid of the dark; they were afraid of those who walk in darkness.
Jesus knew it and that’s why he answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
In context of John’s Gospel, Jesus has already claimed to be the light of the world on several occasions. His disciples should know by now that Jesus is the light who has come to give light and life to all kinds of people, the light who shines in darkness and overcomes it, the light who exposes sin and explains God.
The point is this: In the rhythm of creation, light always comes after darkness, morning always comes after evening, day always comes after night. The same holds true for the rhythm of redemption.
To walk in the night is to walk in sin and blindness and sin. To walk in the day is to walk in righteousness and sight.
To walk in the night is to walk in darkness and death. To walk in the day is to walk in light and life.
The problem is that so many of us are afraid of the dark and the things that dwell in the dark. That fear paralyzes us and prevents us from doing the good things we know we ought to do — like visiting the sick, comforting the hurting, risking our life for others, living out the truth.
That’s when Jesus shoes more light on us and helps us see things more clearly.
After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”
As mortals we think of death as the ultimate finality. But Jesus is the Light and Life of the world. Here he gives us a unique perspective of life and death.
From his point of view as the Word made flesh, death is not the end of all things, especially for those who trust him. Death is a temporary state, just like sleep, only a little longer.
Our friend is asleep, but I go to wake him up. This is Jesus-speak code language for “Lazarus is dead, and I go to raise him up to life.”
How do we know? Because of what happens next.
Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Our English translations are sorta cold and clumsy at this point. They make Jesus sound like a cocky jerk.
But the Greek text Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead. And I rejoice for your sake so that you might believe because I was not there. Let us go to him.”
Jesus did not rejoice that Lazarus died. He rejoiced that his disciples were going to see a sign that would deepen their faith in him.
Notice that Jesus wants his followers to go with him. Like a good shepherd, he invites his flock to share in the life-changing experience together.
By the way, this is what a missional community does. It rejoices with those who rejoice, and it grieves with those who grieve.
So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with [Lazarus].”
This is one of the most honest responses recorded in the Scriptures.
Some teachers think Thomas’ “die with him” refers to Jesus, because the Jews are going to catch him and stone him if he gets close to Jerusalem.
But Thomas’ “die with him” refers to Lazarus who is already dead.
Either way, it shows the raw human response of a disciple (a true follower of Jesus) to real life situations. The circumstances and conditions that come with following Jesus are costly.
After a few years of conflict and controversy, surely we can understand why Thomas is feeling cynical and fatalistic.
As I meditated and reflected on this story throughout the week, the song “Silence” by Jars of Clay kept coming to mind. In one verse they raise their voices to God and say:
Did you leave me unbreakable?
You leave me frozen?
I’ve never felt so cold
I thought you were silent
And I thought you left me
For the wreckage and the waste
On an empty beach of faith
Was it true?
Cuz I…I got a question
I got a question
Where are you?
Where are you?
If you have ever watched a loved one fade from life into death by way of a terminal illness, this is a question that has crossed your mind, your heart, and lips on more than one occasion.
This is not a question we ask we things are going well, when life is good. This is a question we ask when life stinks and the walls are crumbling down around us.
Where are you?
I am scared and lonely and struggling — where are you?
My friend is dying of cancer, my child is going wheels off, my debts are crushing, my boss hates me, my spouse left me — where are you?
Our world is falling apart, floods are wrecking homes, wars are ravaging nations, terrorists are wreaking havoc, politicians are — where are you?
The ones you love are sick and dying, babies are slaughtered in the womb, children are fatherless, elders are pushed to the margins — where are you?
Our community is broken and divided, our congregation is broke and dangling by a thread, — where are you?
I am dazed and confused, filled with doubts and conflicts — Where are you?
What’s taking you so long? Why won’t you answer me? When will you come to us?
After his beloved wife died, CS Lewis wrote these words in his book A Grief Observed:
… Meanwhile, where is God?
This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms.
But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
… Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’
… Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent — non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it frankly, we don’t ask for Him?
Now, I imagine that Martha and Mary wrestled with these kinds of questions as well.
“Jesus, where are you? Our brother is dying. Our hearts are breaking. Where are you?”
This is a question we must under and reflect upon this week as we wait to see if Jesus will arrive in Bethany.
I know that many of you have endured some very difficult, painful and heartbreaking things in recents weeks. And I know you have asked this kind of question at some point.
You want to know, “God, where are you? Why aren’t you here? When will you ever show up?”
And it’s the waiting that is difficult for us.
And it’s so easy for us to forget in that moment that he was always there. He never left you; he didn’t abandon you.
Maybe you did not see him or notice him; maybe you were blinded by your circumstances. But he was always there; he will never leave you or forsake you.
He may not always come in the very moment you ask, or show up as quickly as want, or do things in exactly the way you think he ought, but he will always do what is right and good for you and for his glory.
While it has not always felt this way, Jesus has been with you every step of the way. And through it all you’ve been in his hands, and in the Father’s hands. And nothing can ever change that.
And while you know that to be true, you don’t always feel that it’s true.
But I pray that the gospel you hear today will keep you from utter despair, and move you from darkness to light.
Jesus is coming — wait for him.
[PS: I am so thankful for Bo Cogbill’s prayer at communion. In it he mentioned that (like us) Jesus cried out “Where are you?” from the cross. In this way, the Shepherd sympathizes with us as a sheep — as a lamb led to slaughter before the face of God. He was truly forsaken so that we might be truly forgiven; he was abandoned so that we might be welcomed and received.]