(Text: John 11:1-43)
Sometimes God can seem absent and remote from our daily experiences. Anyone who has never experienced what I call the “aloneness of soul” is very fortunate indeed.
Questions can arise, especially in tough times. Where is he? We can wonder about what God thinks and feels toward us. We can puzzle about our status with God. Am I saved? Am I loved? Does God even like me?
In our distress, Christians cry out to God for answers, help, confirmation, and for remedies. And although sometimes our prayers are answered very quickly, at other times it can seem that God does not always appear at our side. It can seem as if our prayers have been whispered into the air and floated away into nothingness.
Human beings are designed to be finite creatures. We will always be finite creatures, with fixed boundaries in time and space. We can only be in one place at one time. We can only see the world from an outward-looking perspective.
Our conception of closeness, therefore, involves not just emotional and intellectual intimacy but also a physical proximity. We want those we love to be near. In fact, it is nearly a universal mark of closeness to hug someone. The very act of embracing involves physically drawing another person closer.
Closeness is important to us. When we cry out in distress, it would be a heartless “friend” who could watch us suffer without stirring themselves to help. We expect our friends and loved ones to come near and give us comfort. In order to be a good friend, we understand that we are expected to do the same for them.
Yet in this chapter of his gospel, St. John presents a Christ who does neither. And (seemingly, worse) does neither at a time of great trauma and worry.
Jesus’ friend Lazarus is at a terminal stage of a terrible illness, no doubt bedridden and fevered. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus. They evidently anticipate that he will hurry to them, and save Lazarus as he saved so many others. They expect the response of a friend. Surely, Jesus will run to their aid? Surely Jesus will want to be immediately close to Lazarus?
Yet, no. Jesus purposefully delays. He waits so long, that by the time he arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead and buried for four days.
Is Jesus really so heartless?
St. John is eager to demonstrate that Jesus is not heartless neither callow, nor indifferent to the suffering of his people. St. John goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Troubled! The Lord of Creation!
It is a reminder that Jesus so fully became man that he inhabited and experienced the real traumas of mankind, and is not a stranger to them. It reminds us that Jesus is compassionate and is not a grim, stone-faced theologian who supplies glib answers to life’s tragedies. Instead, he is troubled, even by the death of one insignificant, lowly man and the sorrows of his unimportant family.
St. John wants the reader to understand this point: the stimulus for Jesus’ reaction is the weeping of Mary and the other Jews. Later, when Jesus himself arrives at the tomb, he can no longer contain himself, and also weeps. It must have been profuse weeping too, for the Jews remark, “See how he loved him!“. That’s not a comment in reaction to a teaspoonful of teardrops.
So what does the text teach, then, about prayer and God’s response? In a nutshell:
- Problems can be magnified when we attempt to apply our humanity to God. We must not forget the existential differences between God and ourselves, and become immediately discouraged or disheartened if, for example, some cloud of comfort does not immediately materialise over our prayers. Sometimes that happens, but not always.
- God does not always answer our prayers immediately. In fact, our prayers are mostly answered after a delay. Very often the grace and sanctification we receive today are thanks to the prayers of yesterday. When we pray, we are really not praying for the present (for that is the moment in which the prayer is lifted), neither for the past (because that has now gone), but for the future. Prayer will always and only be answered in the future, even if the prayer is answered a mere minute after we have finished praying.
- Persistence! If there is one thing that Jesus teaches about prayer, it is the need to be persistent. Keep praying. Hold onto the hope of faith and never let go. When it feels like we are all alone and our prayers are futile, at such times we are in fact least alone, for God testifies that he “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit“. The right reaction is to keep praying and hoping.
- Jesus delays in order to magnify God’s glory. What does God’s glory mean? It means that he is shown to have power to do what mankind cannot. It means that he comes to the rescue when all is hopeless. It means that he provides a way when there is no other way. It means that when the situation is over, we see the wisdom and power of God as being infinitely superior to our own. And it causes us to grow in faith and love. It makes us more greatly believe in the One that is Immortal, Invisible and Only Wise.
- God does feel our pain. If there is one thing this narrative in John’s Gospel should dispel forever, it is the notion – too popular in some theological circles – that God’s Kingship and Sovereignty are incompatible with deep sympathy and compassion for his errant and damaged creation. His love and kindness is seen all the way back in Genesis. When God saw the corruption of his world, he inspired Moses to write unashamedly: “God’s heart was filled with pain“.
- Power does not diminish God’s sorrow. Note that although Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus, this power did not make him immune to the sadness around him. He weeps so much that it is unmissable. God may be God, but the temptation to think that unlimited power diminishes God’s heart of compassion is wrong. Jesus is the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief“.
The story of Lazarus, like all stories in John’s Gospel, is one that underscores the role of faith. Not a vague optimism or a general confidence in the future. But a faith that is invested in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the Resurrection and the Life. The great miracle worker and healer of souls and minds. And if he would have us do one thing, even in the darkness, it is “to pray without ceasing“.
It is not wasted effort – it is never wasted! – and we will reap the rewards on a brighter, sunnier day.