I was reminded recently of how important reading Scripture is for developing our relationship with God and knowing God more. The more we know God, the more we love God and know how to love others better. Not sure where to start, I began in my favorite book of the Bible: the book of John. Every story is packed with poetry and goodness. When I’m uncertain about something, I use my commentary Bible (the NRSV) to help, or I’ll look something up online, or I’ll check out the Greek concordance to review the translation. Doing this has helped me fall in love with reading the Bible again.
I was reading chapter 11 the other day and was newly amazed by a story I had heard since I was a child–the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
One of my favorite interpretations of this story comes from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. When Jesus is told that Lazarus is very ill, Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death.” The KJV says, “This sickness is not unto death.” Jesus says this because he knows that Lazarus will be raised from the dead. Kierkegaard uses this passage to say that the true sickness unto death is not any illness that kills our bodies but the despair which kills our souls even while our body lives.
As I read, I was again struck by this interpretation, but this time I saw something else. After Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, the gospel writer says: “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Though he loved them…
The NRSV commentary says this: “In light of Jesus’ love for the family, his staying away is jarring, but see 2:4; 7:9-10 for other examples of Jesus’ refusal to cooperate with the wishes of his friends and family.”
The examples in 2:4 and 7:9-10 are interesting because both show Jesus at first refusing to do what his family members ask of him–but then doing them anyway. In 2:4, he tells Mary that it should not be his or her concern that the wedding party in Cana has run out of wine–his hour has not yet come. Yet in the next verses we see Jesus changing water into wine. In 7:9-10, Jesus’s brothers tell him to go to the festival, but Jesus again says that his hour has not yet come. In the very next verse, it says that, after his brothers had gone, Jesus left for the festival!
Did Jesus lie to Mary and his brothers? That was my first reaction. I actually laughed out loud when I read that Jesus sneakily left for the festival after telling his brothers no. He’s a funny one, that Jesus, I thought. But I now see that these three passages are linked in their meaning.
Jesus was not bound to the timelines of his family and friends.
What he did was for God’s glory, not his own. He obeyed the Father, not people, even though he loved them.
When Jesus finally arrives at Lazarus’s tomb, the man has been dead for four days. Mary and Martha, both believing that Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying, have been left to wonder why Jesus would stay behind while their brother suffered. But Jesus was not there to serve Mary and Martha. He knew what would bring glory to God.
When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, it says “many of the Jews…believed in him,” and the miracle was the final straw for the Pharisees wishing to kill Jesus. Finally, his hour had come. It was in the proper timing that Jesus performed the miracle.
Miracles are meant to glorify God. No miracle is without this purpose. We often want a miracle because we want the healing, but Jesus wants to do more than that. His miracles are never for temporary security, but for eternal glory.
Sometimes, we get this confused, and we keep asking for the miracle again instead of Jesus himself.
After Jesus feeds the five thousand, the people keep coming back to him for more bread. Jesus says they are confused: “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6:26). The people wanted more bread, not Jesus. But the bread was a sign, and what the sign was pointing to was what mattered, not the sign itself.
Jesus fed and healed many, caring for their physical needs. But these were temporary fixes. Even Lazarus’s body would die again. What mattered was what Jesus was saying–that in him was eternal life, the ultimate healing of the soul given to us now and forever.
Though Jesus loved them, he waited.
Because Jesus loved them, he allowed Lazarus to die so that others would believe and not die.
Though God loves us, God waits.
Though God loves us, God allows bad things to happen.
Though bad things happen, we do not lose faith, because no physical illness is a sickness unto death.
Though we die, we do not die, but have eternal life.
God works in our lives not because we demand it but because of God’s own mercy and grace. We do not understand why things happen, but God sees the bigger picture. When it feels like God is not working in our lives, we can wait in faith, knowing that God’s timing is perfect.
Jesus loves us too much to comply to our standards and sense of timing. In the same way, we should not be swayed by others but by the Spirit, living in obedience to God rather than to people.
We can wait in peace. God has heard, and God offers eternal life today. There is nothing greater that we can ask for than what has already been given to us. When Jesus died on the cross, everything we could ever ask for was accomplished.
We are disappointed when God seemingly doesn’t answer our prayers. We are asking for signs when God wants to offer God’s very self. We ask for healing when God offers eternal life today and forever. We ask for specifics when God knows how. We ask for now when God knows when.
We ask for God to be here, to stop death, and to save us, and God reaches out and says, “It is finished.”
God has already done it.
Because Mary and Martha trusted Jesus and the resurrection, they did not despair in their mourning. Martha said to Jesus, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (11:22). If Lazarus had not been raised from the dead, he would have lived. Jesus did not raise him from the dead so that he could live on earth forever. He raised him from the dead as a sign of what would be true for all of us at the resurrection.
When God does not answer our prayers, and people die, we must remember this–they are alive. We may not see the miracle, but it has already been done.
This does not mean we do not mourn. Mary and Martha had faith in Christ, but they mourned. Before Lazarus is raised, scripture describes Jesus’s incredible distress at seeing them mourning. Even though he knows the outcome, the reality of death is real and painful to him in the same way that it is painful for us even though we believe in the resurrection. Mourning is a healthy and appropriate response to death. It is despair–the sickness unto death, as Kierkegaard writes–that is an unhealthy response, because it denies the possibility of hope and life to come.
We must remember this truth daily. I so often forget the promises and blessings that God has already pressed into my closed fists. I continually ask for new miracles and signs, when Jesus, through the resurrection, has already given the greatest gift of hope.
Disappointment has no room in our hearts when we remember to be grateful for the cross.