The story of Lazarus is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. Jesus’ friend Lazarus had come down with some illness and word was sent to Jesus. Jesus had just healed a man who was born blind. That miracle had never happened before, and surely if Jesus could heal some stranger of a birth-defect, he would heal a friend from a disease. But Jesus didn’t go. He told his disciples, “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 11:4, ESV). Of course, Lazarus did die from the illness. But Jesus’ argument was not that he would not die, but that the illness would not lead to death; it’s destination was not death. Death was simply a layover on the way to its true destination.
But can you imagine the heartache that this layover brought to everyone who knew Lazarus? His sisters are two of the main characters in the latter half of the story. Martha came to Jesus first when he finally showed up, while Mary stayed home in her grief. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,'” (John 11:21, ESV). Slow it down a bit, and concentrate on those words. Hear the brokenness. Note the blame. It would seem that in Martha’s heart, the death of her brother laid squarely at the feet of Jesus. He dawdled. He lollygagged. He didn’t move when he should have. Lazarus’ death was not due to illness. It was due to Jesus’ inaction. Check out what Mary said when she finally came to see Jesus, “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,'” (John 11:32, ESV). Wow! Same exact words. Grief-stricken, both sisters become brutally honest with Jesus (God the Son!) about their feelings.
Jesus had disappointed both of them. These were good friends of Jesus. Mary and Martha threw Jesus a party and Mary listened to him sitting at his feet while Martha served. These were followers–people who loved Jesus, and people that Jesus loved. Why would he not come? Why would he ignore their plight? If he had been there, Lazarus would not have died.
I’m sure that you and I have never been angered or disappointed with the action–or should we say, inaction–of Jesus. We’ve never experienced grief and heartache, left to wonder why Jesus never stepped in to save the day. We’ve never questioned Jesus’ motives or response time. At least, many of us would never admit to it. But we’ve probably all been there at least once in our lives.
Notice Jesus’ response to Martha and then to Mary: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this,'” (John 11:23-26, ESV)? To Mary: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him? They said to him, ‘Lord come and see.’ Jesus wept,” (John 11:33-35, ESV).
To Martha Jesus spoke words of comfort. To Mary he cried tears of sorrow. Not one word of rebuke, but sympathy and empathy. He reminded Martha of the promise of resurrection, refocused her tearful eyes upon himself as he was the resurrection and life. Upon Mary’s heartache it was time to fulfill the promise. Jesus was deeply moved. The Greek used here means a disturbance deep within. It often manifests itself in sternness, but in this case it manifested itself in tears. The heartache that others were feeling, he felt himself. But while they were powerless to end the pain, Jesus was not.
Jesus had planned on ending it before it ever began. Remember what he told his disciples: “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 11:4, ESV). Death would be a layover, but not the destination, and subsequently, neither would the grief and disappointment.
In the midst of despair, sorrow, grief, disappointment, and heartache, we believe that it will not end. We are stuck in the middle of darkness, unable to see the light. Like Martha and Mary, we tend to look for someone to blame, and since God is almighty he could have kept our hearts from being broken. In our hearts and mind he is worthy of the blame. In these times we must remember the promise of glory, the promise of resurrection. Thus Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” (Romans 8:18, ESV). He told the Corinthians, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Corinthians 4:17, ESV).
Jesus told Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God,” (John 11:40, ESV)? In all three of these verses, the truth is that the pain comes and is real, but if the pain is that real, the glory is exponentially more real and exponentially greater than the pain…if we believe. So, the stone was rolled away and Jesus called upon the name of Lazarus to come out. Lazarus, who had died four days before, came out of the grave bandaged in burial clothes. Glory met disappointment that day. It will meet it again. In fact, it does often in smaller ways, to give us a taste of what is to come.
One quick last note: I only looked at the first part of what Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here…” I didn’t deal with the second part of her statement, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you,” (John 11:22, ESV). We don’t know what Martha was inferring, but it is obvious she didn’t expect Lazarus to come back to her. What we see though, is in the midst of her disappointment, she still believed. She didn’t give up on Jesus even when she seemed so hurt by him. Mary is the same way. While there was no second part to her statement her actions tell her faith: “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet…” Perhaps she collapsed in grief, but the indication is she fell not collapsed at his feet, as if submitting to his will, though he had not come and done as she had wished.
In the midst of grief and disappointment, may we learn from these two ladies. Though they did not understand Jesus’ plan, and though they strongly felt that he had caused them such pain, they still believed and they still submitted to his will. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” And so we shall. We shall see the moment when glory meets disappointment.