Summary: The raising of Lazarus teaches us that Jesus is the giver of life, of eternal life, even if prayers for healing in this life are unanswered.
“A Matter of Life and Death”
John 11: 1 – 53
We’ve all prayed, every one of us, for a loved one who was ill. Each of us here has asked God to heal someone we care for. It could be a spouse, one of our children or grandchildren, a friend, an aunt or uncle, one of our parents or grandparents, a neighbour, or a co-worker. Sometimes the situation has been serious – someone we love is dying or seriously ill. Sometimes it’s not been so serious, or at least not life threatening. No doubt some of you here today have been to healing services, have experienced the laying on of hands, or have been anointed with oil as it talks about in the book of James. I can’t count how many times I have asked God to make those whom I love better, healthier, stronger. I suspect it’s the same for many of us. We all pray.
So we’ve all prayed. But have all of these prayers been answered in the ways we have wanted? Have those for whom we’ve prayed been healed of all their illnesses and diseases? Has each prayer resulted in the person getting well, regaining their strength, and even remaining alive? We know the answer. And we don’t necessarily like the answer; more, we don’t really understand the answer. When the answer is “no” we often feel confused. We wonder why. Why heal this person and not that person? Why must this person I love suffer like this? Sometimes it seems that the answer is “no” more often than not. Even so, we continue to pray.
“He whom you love is ill”
The people in our story today are not that different from us. Here we have a story about a man who was seriously ill – a man named Lazarus from the village of Bethany. Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha. All three were friends of Jesus, and our story tells us that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And of course Mary and Martha loved their brother Lazarus. And Lazarus was dying.
Mary and Martha also loved Jesus; more than that, they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world (v. 27). So when Lazarus fell ill, they sent word to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They knew that Jesus could do something. Both Mary and Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32). They had faith and believed that Jesus could heal Lazarus. And they were hoping that he would do something. They were hoping that he would come right away.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? Isn’t this just like us? As those who trust Jesus today, we often hope in the same way. We pray, and hope for an immediate answer. We hope Jesus will respond quickly. We trust that he can (or at least we should), and we pray accordingly. We want Jesus to hurry; the more serious the situation, the more urgent our prayers.
But what happens in our story? We learn that even though Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and even though he knew that Lazarus was deathly ill, that he still waited two days before leaving for Bethany. Jesus remained where he was for two more days.
I wonder, did Mary and Martha ever learn that Jesus waited for a couple of days before leaving to go to Bethany? I cannot imagine how that would have made them feel to know that Jesus, whom they loved and trusted, waited, that he deliberately delayed his trip. What does that make you think? How does that make you feel? How should we react to this picture of Jesus – a Jesus who waits and allows illness to take its course? I think we all have felt this way. Perhaps you’ve said to God, echoing both Mary and Martha: “Lord, if you had only acted sooner, my loved one would not have died.” Why does the Lord tarry? And why does he seem only to seldom answer prayers for physical healing?
When the Lord delays, we experience a gap between what we know of the Lord’s power and what we know of the Lord’s will. If we really believe in Jesus, then we believe that he is fully capable of healing those who are sick and dying. We call Jesus our “great physician.” Yet he doesn’t always heal. He doesn’t always respond to prayers of faith, does he? Certainly Mary and Martha had faith in Jesus. They believed that had Jesus come sooner, Lazarus would not have died. But Lazarus did die. So while Jesus is able to heal our physical bodies, it would seem that it is not always his will to heal. And this is what we find so difficult to understand.