There is probably no better time for John 11: 17-27 than right now in that there seems to be a real sense of gloom, or weariness, or lethargy in the church. I sense this, and I have asked other people about it and there seems to be no one common denominator. Interestingly enough, several of my colleagues called this past week and asked me about the same situation. There is a real gloominess or a shadow-I'm not sure what it is-not just covering our own church but many churches. Every pastor that I have talked to has noted that everything this year is down-finances, attendance, membership-everything is down. People are blaming all kinds of things, and no one really knows. There just seems to be a general malaise in our country.
As I talked with about one hundred people and asked them what was going on, there seems to be a real sense that people are stressed. There has been a long shadow of terrorism since September 11, and we get tired of the alerts and the term "weapons of mass destruction." There is the shadow of the war with Iraq that seems to have gone on longer than anticipated, and the shadow of recession has lasted just too long. Many people expected these things to last only a year or two, and yet the recession has been present in Japan for over ten years. The suicide rate has tripled as a result. So not just here, but around the world there is a sense of gloom.
Many people have noticed increased stress at the workplace including a lot of relocations. Combine that with the advent of the contemporary service at White Clay and the constant change of staff, and White Clay has gone through a long transitional period. This can cause people to become weary.
So what do we do when there is a sense of gloom that pervades our lives? In John 11:17-27 we encounter Mary and Martha at a very dark time in their lives. The shadow of death has fallen upon their home. Lazarus, their brother, is dead. All the members of this family are single and are so close-knit that they wanted to live together. The oldest brother in the family, Lazarus, has passed away. What a loss this was. It seemed as though life was spinning out of control. God seemed to be absent. They knew Jesus could have healed Lazarus but instead he was laid in the tomb. Are you experiencing a tomb-like experience right now? Is there some-thing in your life which is like the binding of grave clothes, you feel suffocated, and you feel something is wrong. What do you do in this situation? John 11 gives us some guidance:
What do we do when we just don't know what to do? The first thing Mary and Martha experienced was their emotions. They responded emotionally to this situation. Grief is a normal thing, and when we lose people, we grieve. In fact, in their culture it was expected. They had three days of private, intensive mourning followed by four days of intensive community mourning, followed by three more days of lighter mourning. Grieving was expected. You could see it in their dress and in their actions.
When Martha hears that Jesus is coming, she can't even get out of her chair because she feels so depressed. You can hear it in her voice, "Jesus, if you had only been here, Lazarus would not have died." This is a statement of grief.
People think that Christians aren't supposed to grieve. I Thessalonians 4:13 tells us not to grieve as those who have no hope. Isn't grief an unfaithful response? The answer is no. The text admonishes us not to grieve like those who have no hope. Grieving is a normal part of life. It is not an expression of a lack of faith. It is an expression of how much you love that person. The deeper the love, the greater the grief oftentimes.
Have you ever asked why we have emotions anyway? From an evolutionary perspective, emotions are useless. They don't help the strongest survive. They actually make you weaker through compassion for the weakest link. Why do we have emotions? It is the one thing that evolution cannot explain.
We have emotions because God has emotions and it is part of being created in his image. When you look at the life of Jesus, what do you notice? Jesus has emotions. In John 13:21, John particularly notes that Jesus is disturbed. In another text he is frustrated. At another time, he is agonizing. In this test, first it says he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and we find that Jesus weeps. Why? Because there is no hope? He is weeping because his heart is breaking for these people. He is saddened because he knows the human experience of loss and he mourns with them.
Jesus does not enter the home of Mary and Martha and rebuke them for crying; He does not chide them, but he enters into their mourning. Jesus doesn't say a whole lot, and that's probably a good thing for us to remember if we visit someone who is in the process of mourning or grieving. So often, we unwittingly say some awful things. We do so much damage when we talk too much.
The customary time for others to be with the grieving family was the fourth day, and he arrives then and weeps with them. He entered in and shared their suffering and pain with them. May we care like Jesus did.
How are you feeling right now? You can share that with God. Don't hold it in. Just tell God. He is not intimidated by how you feel. Read the Book of Psalms. It is filled with human emotions and hurt. The Bible tells us that God mourns when we mourn. Hebrews 4:15 says that we have a high priest who empathizes with us. He is not insulated from our grief. As you experience your emotions of grief, tell God about it even if it doesn't sound too religious. Share your emotions with a close friend because it will relieve and help you. Sometimes emotions are like poison to our system. Unless you get them out, healing never begins.
Mary and Martha experienced their emotions. You may have noticed that I experience my emotions all the time. The first time I saw my father cry in public, I was embarrassed for him. I was ashamed to be there, but I was wrong because it was part of his humanity. The moment I received my salvation is the moment that I began to experience my emotions. That's how God created us and gave to us. When people begin to repress their emotions, they begin to lose the color of life.
However, we don't live by our emotions, we live by faith which we see in Mary and Martha's example. Emotions are temporary and change quickly. Faith is eternal and is grounded in truth and does not change. Mary and Martha are experiencing grief and yet they live by faith. In verses 21 and 22, they say something that many people find to be an accusation.
If Martha thought Jesus was really going to raise Lazarus from the dead, when he asked her if she believed he was the resurrection, she would have said yes, but she doesn't. She says, "I believe in you." When Jesus goes to remove the stone, she objects about the bad odor. She doesn't expect him to raise Lazarus from the dead.
What Martha is saying to Jesus is simply this, "Lord I know that had you been here, you would have, because you could have, healed Lazarus. Yet I know that despite my experience of not seeing healing and a miracle occur in this situation, I know that you can still heal even now." That's what these verses mean. Isn't that incredible faith? I didn't experience it myself, and yet I know that you could have, and I trust you with that. This is actually what Job said in Chapter 13:15, "Though he slay me, yet will I serve him."
Do you have that kind of faith? Do you really believe that God the Father knows best for your life? Can you trust him? Where does Martha get this faith? Earlier we read that she is distracted, but she learned from her sister to sit at Jesus' feet and listen. As a result of listening and developing a stronger relationship with him, she knew God loved her family and that he had the sincere desire to renew, restore and answer prayer. She knew God wanted the best for her life and her brother's life. She knew that whatever happened would be God's best. Whatever happened as a result, she accepted it because she trusted God. She knew that God was trustworthy.
Do you trust God and are you living by faith? Imagine what would have happened if Mary and Martha had lived by their emotions and developed their beliefs according to their emotions. What would they have done and said? I imagine it quite differently. I'm sure they would have accused Jesus for Lazarus' death. However, Martha knew that her emotions were simply part of her human-ness and that they are not a good basis for doctrine, theology or a belief system in life.
What I am seeing in our nation is that this is how people approach God and develop their beliefs. They no longer believe according to some form of knowledge that God gives them, people only believe what they experience. This is a very dangerous position to be in because what you are saying is that you really don't believe God. Emotions are part of the storm of life, and you must get through them. Faith in God and in His Word is the anchor that saves us from shipwreck. You must remind yourself of God's promises. First Martha and Mary experienced their emotions, next they made a statement of faith, and then Jesus reminds them of God's promises-"Your brother will rise again." Every Christian funeral that has taken place over the last 2,000 years is a reminder of the resurrection. In a time of darkness, we need to be reminded again of the hope of the resurrection.
There are many promises you can claim in times of darkness:
Philippians 4:6 - "Be anxious for nothing......."
Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all things through Christ...."
John 12:31 - "Jesus said, 'Now the prince of this world has been driven
Jesus is talking about the effect of the cross in this passage. Ephesians calls Satan a toothless lion. He growls, but he has no power. Revelations 20:1-3 says that the devil is bound. We are living in a period where Satan is bound and the gospel progresses. Matthew 12:29 Jesus talks about binding the strong man and that's what he came to do.
The chief characteristic of our age is that we live in a time where the power of evil abounds. But Jesus asks us, "Do you believe this?" When you look at the world, do you feel that evil is winning or God is winning? Who has the upper hand? It feels as though evil is becoming victorious. Jesus says that the truth is that the prince of this world is cast out. In fact, God is in most complete control when it seems that the whole world is falling apart.
A good example of this is John 13:1-4. At a time near the end of Jesus' life, the religious leaders felt that they had everything under control. Judas thought that he had Jesus right where he wanted him to be. All the while it seemed that evil was afoot and was going to become victorious. Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave the world and go to the father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God. What things did Jesus have power over? All things. What things do you feel that God is powerless over right now? What are the things that you are concerned about? When it seems that things are most out of control, Jesus is the most in control.
What in your life feels like a grave? What feels like the experience of Mary and Martha? What feels like a hopeless situation? Maybe it's your job, maybe there are problems in your life that feel like there's no way out. Maybe it's a divorce that you never got over and you fear loving again. Maybe it is simply confusion. Maybe it's the burden of financial pressure? What feels like a grave to you?
Hear the words of Jesus when he speaks to Lazaraus: "Lazarus, come forth." There was something Lazarus had to do to obey Jesus' command. He had to unbind the grave clothes and let them go. We need to do the same. God wants to deliver you from your depression and despondency, but you have to unloose the cloths and let them go.
It may happen immediately, or there may be a delay. With Lazarus' resurrection, there was a four-day delay. But a delay is not a denial. Trust God. Don't follow your emotions. Trust God and he will speak. You will come out of the situation, and the cloths will drop because he promises it.