We acknowledge that the meaning of our deepest experiences is often hidden from our eyes. John 11 is one of the more emotional windows into the ministry of Jesus. In this chapter, Jesus confronts grief, and in the process, teaches us valuable lessons.
Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, send word to Jesus that Lazarus, the one Jesus loves, is sick. This was not an explicit invitation or a request for immediate intervention. However, the assumption is that once Jesus heard, he would immediately come.
Mary and Martha knew of his tender compassion. They understood Jesus’ heartfelt affection for their brother. And yet, when Jesus receives word about his good friend’s condition, he delays even beginning his journey to Bethany for another two days.
The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus delayed because He loved them. He delayed that God would be glorified. And yet, imagine waiting for Jesus. He has the power to heal, he has a history of healing (even raising the dead), and yet he delays! How could Jesus be so callous?
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has died and been in the tomb for four days. Jesus walks into a setting of pain, tears, and grief. According to Jewish thinking, the soul of the deceased hung around the body for three days. And yet, Jesus purposely waited until the 4th day to show up. To those who grieved, the situation was utterly hopeless by the time Jesus showed up. But as we know, Jesus specializes in bringing light to hopelessly dark situations.
Consider the silence of God.
Joseph is thrown into prison in Egypt, and many would conclude that God had forgotten him. Moses spends 40 years on the backside of the desert while the Israelites suffer under the hands of the Egyptians. Where was God when his people needed him the most?
In contemporary situations, a Christian is falsely accused of misconduct by a co-worker which leads to years of lawsuits and hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees and his reputation is largely ruined. Then, he is acquitted of all charges. We wonder if God cares.
In the midst of COVID-19, loved ones slip into the arms of Jesus, alone in ICU. There is no funeral, no opportunity to grieve in the presence of family and loved ones, and no closure. And in our grief, we question God’s compassion.
And yet, we know that God is good. We acknowledge that the meaning of our deepest experiences is often hidden from our eyes. We find comfort in admitting that we do not fully understand our lives.
If we equate our perceived silence of Jesus with a lack of his love and care, then from our limited human perspective, it seems as if there are times when God ceases to love his children.
Oh, that Jesus would free us to not know. We need an ability to walk honestly in the mystery of our days. There are times when we cry out to God in grief, and his response is silence. These are times of deepened trust.
In John 11, Christ delayed in coming to those he deeply loved. He instituted a period of perceived silence in order to (1) strengthen their faith, (2) push them along in embracing the mystery of the Almighty, (3) glorify God, and (4) deepen their love for Lord Jesus.
In times of grief, questioning, and silence, may we sing and dance in the ever-deepening mystery of God’s love.
Unquestionably, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is pain, grief, and death all around. Today, if you are hurting, you need to be assured that God weeps with you. Jesus is not unaware. He is not a stoic, distant, rigid, isolated God. Rather, God is fully aware! He is close, active, and individually caring for every person.
Jesus is unique. He is matchless. He individually distinctively responds to every one of his children. What a truth! Jesus knows our particular challenges. He is at work, even now, uniquely working in my life to orchestrate everything for my ultimate good and for his ultimate glory. Because of the distinctive nature of every person, Jesus responds to grief in a uniquely individualized approach.
When Jesus enters Bethany, he first encounters Martha. She hurries out to meet Jesus and says (v. 21) “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha expresses the heart of every believer after facing disappointment, “Lord, if you had only been here…” There may be an accusatory tone in her voice. Jesus, where were you? In essence she is saying, “Jesus, if you would only have followed the script I wrote for you, my brother would be alive!”
This is the heart of many. Where were you God when my loved one died? Where were you when my marriage dissolved? Where were you when my husband cheated on me? Where were you when my father was abusing me? Where were you when my parents divorced? Where were you when my child rejected the values we worked so hard to instill in them? Where is the Lord in the most painful of days?
Yes, we are his children but that does not mean that we are not allowed to express our pain to the Lord. Some have bottled up feelings and anger towards the Lord for years. Perhaps today is the day that your heart needs to be expressed before Him.
Jesus speaks truth when he tells her that her brother Lazarus will rise again. When Martha assures Jesus that she knows this, Jesus makes the great declaration, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
A short time later Jesus encounters Mary who falls at Jesus’ feet and amazingly makes the exact same statement. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus responds by weeping with Mary. The word here means that tears ran down the dusty cheeks of Jesus. We have a great God who loves us, delays, and stays away and then comes and completely enters into our sorrow. This is the great mystery of the Lord!
Two identical statements. To Martha he responds with truth and to Mary, Jesus responds with tears. Sometime grief needs to be met with truth. Jesus is our shepherd. He promises to be with us in even the darkest valley. Other times, grief needs to be met with tears. With Martha, Jesus speaks and with Mary he is speechless. With Martha, Jesus is bold and direct and with Mary he is broken and trembling. With Martha, Jesus confronts her mind while with Mary he enters into flow of her heart.
Too often, we lack perspective. Do I judge Jesus’ love by my circumstances? Or do I judge my circumstances by Jesus’ love? Ask the Lord Jesus to grant you the wisdom to know how to lean into grief. Jesus is the perfect combination of the ministry of truth and tears. When we lean into grief, we will need both.
Jimmy Dodd is Founder and CEO of PastorServe, strengthening the church by serving pastors. He is part of the leadership team of the Resilient Church Leadership initiative.