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April 6, 2023

Easter People: How We Feel Safe in a Suffering World

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On August 1st, 2007, a bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed.  Thirteen people were killed and 145 people were injured.  It was a bridge thousands of people drove over every day, to and from home or work, and the collapse of the bridge came as a total surprise.

Life can feel a lot like the experience of people on the bridge that day – one moment you are safe and secure, and the next moment you are free-falling in the air heading towards the river.  It doesn’t take much for us to realize we aren’t as in control of our lives as we think we are.  Anything can happen at any moment.  

But one of our deepest desires in this world is to be SAFE.  God gave us that desire, and it’s a good one, but how are we supposed to feel safe when hard and unexpected things can happen at any moment? 

A passage that has been pivotal in shaping my thoughts on safety and suffering, especially the past few weeks, has been John 11:1-44.  In this passage, Jesus receives a request from two beloved friends, Mary and Martha.  Their brother, Lazarus, is ill, and they know enough about Jesus to know two things:

  1. He loves them.  
  2. He has the power to heal their brother.

So they send a message to Jesus saying, “’Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3).  I find it fascinating they don’t include in their request their desire for Jesus to heal Lazarus.  It is embedded and assumed in the phrase “he whom you love.”  They assume that when Jesus loves someone, He moves towards them to heal.  It’s part and parcel of who He is and what He does.  

John confirms the love Jesus had for this family and tells us, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”  Right, we think – exactly.  So this is when He moves towards them to heal.  But here’s the kicker and where things become really confusing.  John’s next words are, “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6).

And in that lingering of two long days, Lazarus dies.  DIES.  

And somehow, Mary, Martha, and we, as the audience, two thousand years later, are supposed to connect Jesus’ delay with His love.  

This is hard.  It was hard for Mary and Martha, and it is hard for me.

It’s hard because I’ve been on the receiving end of that delay.  And I know you have too.

“Lord, my friend, whom You love, is sick with cancer.”

“Lord, my child, whom You love, is riddled with anxiety.”

“Lord, my husband, whom You love, needs a job.”

“Lord, my church, whom You love, is in need of revival.”

Just like Mary and Martha, we are confident of two things:

  1. God loves us.
  2. He has the power to heal.

But just like Mary and Martha, after we ask expectantly, hopefully, maybe even excitedly, our excited asking turns to anxious waiting and then to helpless fuming as Jesus purposefully stays away.  

Is there anything worse, we ask ourselves, that He could do?  An angry answer is better than no answer at all.  But to just stay away, keep quiet, not respond, hold back power, and then expect us to understand, “Oh right – Your delay equals love,” seems beyond our human ability to understand.

But when we encounter the delay of Jesus in verse 6 as the response to our request, we have to remember the “so that” in verse 4: “But when Jesus heard [their request] 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’” (emphasis mine).

For most of us, the word “glory” does not imply or involve death.  It involves bright lights, big names, big results, big platforms, and lots of life.  

But God’s definition of glory is a little different than ours for this simple reason: it involves death.  In fact, there is no glory without it.  Death is the necessary ingredient for glory, honor, and resurrection to occur.  

Jesus explains this in John 12:23-24 when He says, “`The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’”

Like I said before, this is hard.  It was hard for Mary and Martha, but it was hard for Jesus as well.  We know this because John 11:33-35, says, “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.” 

What’s amazing to me is Jesus knows what He’s about to do.  He knows resurrection is moments away and these sisters are about to be reunited with their brother, yet He weeps.  While I don’t pretend to understand all that was behind Jesus weeping, I do think some of it had to do with the pain of seeing people He loved like Mary and Martha in pain.  I think His sobs had to do with the fact that His delay and decision to stay away causes us great anguish and sorrow. 

So over the past few weeks, I have found great comfort in the short sentence and two powerful words, “Jesus wept.”  Our pain never brings Jesus joy, nor does it cause Him to be indifferent.  It moves Him deeply.  And there is something so comforting about that.  He wouldn’t allow the pain, and He wouldn’t linger or delay, unless He had to.  Unless His staying away and letting death reign in the short term was actually better in the long term.

This past week has been full of Lazarus-like moments for me and for people I love.  We have experienced the delay of Jesus with a friend we are praying for who still has cancer.  We have experienced the delay of Jesus in the shooting that occurred at Covenant School and Presbyterian Church in Nashville.  And we have experienced the delay of Jesus in personal family requests where suffering and brokenness has remained when we know God has the power to heal but has chosen not to in way we wanted Him to.

These delays are hard, but part of the beauty and comfort of John 11 is that we see it is ok for them to be hard.  There is much weeping that occurs before rejoicing.

But here’s where I’ve had to land.  

What I have to remember is this: God sent Jesus into the world to “save” us (Luke 19:10) – His death on the cross and resurrection made us “safe” from eternal separation from God and hell (John 3:16).  When He left this earth and ascended to Heaven, He left to make a home for us where we would never be in danger from any enemy ever again.  Heaven is a place where sin, suffering, sickness, and brokenness is fully redeemed and will never be allowed entrance in (Revelation 21:4, 8, 27).  

So why does Jesus allow suffering to occur in the here and now, and why does He delay?  I believe it has something to do with our concept of being “safe.”  While we think being safe means freedom from all sickness and suffering, in the big scheme of things, being “safe” means we will live forever with Christ.  So while we live on this earth, to keep us safe, God always forgives us of our sin and lifts our shame when we call out to Him in Jesus’ Name.  But sometimes He allows hard circumstances to remain.  And that is because “while sin always blocks our relationship with God, suffering can deepen it” (Tim Keller, The Songs of Jesus).  

Lilias Trotter, a missionary to Northern Africa in the early 1900’s wrote this in her diary,

“We creatures say, ‘While there is life there is hope,’ but our Creator will never suffer himself to be so limited….with Lazarus [Jesus] deliberately stayed away until death had established its reign, so that Martha and Mary might know him as resurrection life.  So the first answer to many prayers may, therefore, be the reign of death.  The last spark of life may be quenched and faith and hope left alone with the dead – and with the God who raises the dead.  Do not be dismayed if the first answer to some of your prayers is a revelation, not of the power of God to make alive, but of his might to slay every hope outside of himself.” 

Suffering can actually help to make us “safe” from an eternal perspective if it helps us to turn to, rely on, and trust God more.  God alone knows exactly what each and every human heart needs to be really, truly “safe.”  And what we have to remember over and over is this – He is fully committed to our safety and healing, no matter what our circumstances look like in the here and now.

That is the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in John 11, but more importantly, that is the story of Jesus in John 19-20.  And it is our story too.

I Corinthians 15:20-23 says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 

No matter how many delays of Jesus we experience in this lifetime, no matter how long we are asked to wait, no matter how many days or weeks or years our family members, loved ones, or our hopes and dreams are buried in a grave or laid to rest in a tomb, Sunday is coming.  Resurrection is on its way.  Because while death is an essential ingredient of glory, it isn’t the final outcome.  Death begets glory, but glory is displayed in resurrecting life.  

So this week, ask yourself, where are you in the Lazarus story?

  • Are you Mary and Martha, eagerly asking Jesus to come, knowing that He loves you and trusting He holds all power to heal?
  • Are you in the stage of waiting, confused, wondering how Jesus’ love and His decision to delay somehow go together?
  • Are you standing with Mary, Martha, and Jesus Himself, weeping by a tomb, yet comforted by the nearness and empathy of Your Savior?
  • Or are you rejoicing and watching resurrection take place – in the healing of a relationship, a disease or illness, or in the lifting of anxiety or depression and the healing of a heart?  

Wherever you are, remember this: each component of the narrative in John 11 is a necessary part of the resurrection story.  And for all those who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, each and every part of the story leads us to resurrection, reunion, and redemption in the presence of our Father, Savior, and Friend as well.

This is what means to be Easter people.  May we encourage one another in the hope we anticipate and celebrate this Easter Sunday.

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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