Sometimes God uses our circumstances for His glory and to glorify His Son.
John(82) (Part of the Believe(74) series)
by Marc Webb(56) on February 16, 2020 (Sunday Morning(281))
God's glory(4), Hope(6)
The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. “We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now,” the regular teacher said, “and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind.”
The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, “I’ve been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs.” When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much. But the next day, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. “No, no,” said the nurse. “You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live.”
Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: “They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?” Hope is defined as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” Hope is something we all want, and it is something we all need.
We all have hopes and dreams. What is it that you hope for? There was a Forbes article on the internet from May 4, 2016 called “The Top 8 Things People Desperately Desire But Can't Seem To Attain” written by Kathy Caprino. She says she hears daily first-hand what people deeply long for. But what’s so intriguing about these responses is that it’s becoming more obvious with each passing year that the things we humans desperately hope for today are becoming more elusive and challenging to access and sustain. Here are the top eight things we hope for. Number one is happiness. She says happiness is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain because we don’t understand exactly what will make us happy and we search outside ourselves for happiness. Two is money. That is pretty much self-explanatory. Three is freedom. The freedom to find our ‘true purpose.’ Four is peace. Peace from noise, chatter, pressure, responsibilities, etc. She says to have peace you just have to commit to being at peace, and building daily practices that will support you in that commitment. Five is joy which she says comes from the process of becoming more of who you already are. Six is balance which takes understanding your non-negotiables (what you won’t compromise on, what you won’t say “yes” to), and then living from that knowledge, and making the right decisions that align with your top life priorities. Seven is fulfilment which is “satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character.” We simply can’t experience fulfillment if we’re not living up to what we know is our highest and best potential. The last thing we hope for is confidence which comes from acknowledging our own magnificence, not shying away from it.
Did any of those resonate with you? The main thing I took from that article is it was not written from a Christian perspective. I can tell you the secret to those eight things that people desperately hope for and that’s being in a relationship with Jesus Christ. We can have those things from the perspective of Jesus if we fully submit our lives to him. That doesn’t mean everything in our lives will be perfect but we will be content with the measure of what we have in our lives in each of those areas.
So, how is your hope? Does it bounce back after being hit? Does it cause you to doubt when you lose hope in a situation? God knows that we all struggle with finding and holding onto hope. When you are facing tests of faith, even the strongest Christians can find it a challenge to have hope. There is a well-known verse in the Bible that talks about hope. It is Jeremiah 29:11. It says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” No matter what is going on in our lives we can have hope in our heavenly father that he has a plan for us that includes our hope and our future.
Our scripture this morning is found in John 11:1-16 and we are going to see two threads running through it. The first is hope. In fact, we see variations of hope. We start with hopefulness and then move to hoping beyond hope and lastly we will see hopelessness. John introduces us to a family that had a very close relationship with Jesus. In fact it says he loved them and they loved him back. But even though they had a relationship with him all was not well with their family. They were struggling with finding hope and holding onto that hope. But even in the midst of that struggle they knew who to turn to. They knew to turn to Jesus. I am talking about the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Anyone looking in on the death of Lazarus would conclude that there was no hope.
The second thread we will see is glory; God’s glory and Jesus being glorified. The most important thing in the universe is the glory of God. It is the reason for everything he does. God’s glory is his manifestation and revelation of Himself. It is God’s self-disclosure in His activity. His glory is revealed in an infinite number of ways, including, his creation, his redemption of us and in the standard of perfection by which he measures us. We see that in Romans 3:23. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God’s glory refers to His infinite and overflowing fullness of all that is good. The most gracious and complete manifestation of God’s glory came in the person of Jesus Christ.
So, in this story over the next several weeks, we will see that even in the face of absolute hopelessness, Jesus demonstrates His power to step into any situation and transform that situation into a time of blessing; this even includes situations that appear hopeless. But first and foremost this situation will be for the glory of God and for his son to be glorified through it. That brings us to the big idea that John wants us to understand this morning which is “sometimes God uses our circumstances to show his glory and to glorify his Son.”
Before we begin our study in chapter 11, let’s pray. Dear Heavenly Father, we come before you this morning and ask that you fill us with your spirit. We ask that you open our hearts and minds to your word for our understanding and so that we can be ready to tell others of the hope that we have in your son, Jesus. Show us exactly what you want us to learn and do not let us leave here without that understanding. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Our first point this morning is “hopefulness” and we see this in verses 1-3 of John chapter 11. This is what God’s word says, “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
We are told about a sick man whose name is Lazarus. In fact he is close to death. We find that he is from Bethany which is the same village where Mary and Martha lived. This seemingly ho hum introduction of Lazarus emphasizes that he is not the primary focus of the story. We will see today and the following weeks that Jesus is the focus of the story.
The name Lazarus was a shortened form of Eleazar which means “God has helped.” Back in Jesus’ day that would have been a common name, so, John identifies him by the village where he lived, Bethany. John also identifies Bethany as the place where Mary and Martha lived. Next, John identifies Lazarus as the brother of Mary and Martha and further identifies Mary. He evidently expects his readers to already know who Mary is because he says that this Mary was the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair. This is interesting because John doesn’t tell us that particular story until chapter 12 in verses 1-8. This encounter between Mary and Jesus must have been well known in the church and John’s readers would be familiar with it. John also may have been differentiating her from the other Marys in his gospel.
The sisters did probably the only thing they knew to do. They sent word to Jesus because they were worried about their brother and they knew Jesus could heal him. They were hopeful because they had seen and/or heard that Jesus had healed many times before. They also knew that Jesus loved Lazarus. This family was very close to Jesus. He knew them well. They had a close relationship with him. If you remember, once Jesus set off on his earthly ministry he did not have a home. His brothers and sisters didn’t believe he was the Messiah and even though his mother, Mary, pondered all the things she knew about her son in her heart, we are not told when she started to actually believe. But in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus had a place to lay his head and find peace, love and rest when he needed it.
Notice the sisters do not ask Jesus to do anything. They make him aware of the situation and because he loves them they are hopeful that he will respond appropriately; at least in their eyes. They understood that the Jews were trying to arrest him or outright kill him. They understood that coming that close to Jerusalem would be a considerable risk. Maybe they thought Jesus would just heal their brother from where he was just like he did when he healed the official’s son in John chapter 4. Again, at this point they were hopeful that Jesus would take care of the problem. It didn’t really matter to them how it was accomplished.
Next, in verses 4-10, we see that Mary and Martha go from “hopeful” to “hoping beyond hope.” This is what God’s word says, “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
If we take verse 4 at face value we see that there is nothing for Mary and Martha to worry about. Jesus states that Lazarus’ sickness would not end with him dying. He didn’t mean that Lazarus would not die a physical death. He meant that even though he will die, his death would not be final. Lazarus’ sickness and subsequent death, like the blind man in the last chapter was for the glory of God. Sometimes sickness and even death may be God’s will for his people. We can see that all over the story of Job. In this case, Lazarus’ circumstances would bring glory to God because through them the Son of God would be glorified. How would Jesus be glorified? First, people would see the deity of Jesus, and the Father and the Son would be revealed for who they are in the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. Second, from this miracle many people would come to faith in Jesus and the faith of his disciples and followers would be strengthened. Third, this incident would be a turning point that would lead Jesus to the cross which was the most significant way that Jesus would be glorified.
This tragedy and the tragedies we go through in our own lives are not by God’s design but God will use them for an opportunity to show his glory and to glorify his son. That reminds us of the big idea this morning that “sometimes God uses our circumstances to show his glory and to glorify his Son.”
We can offer our trials to God for him to either remove or retain as he pleases thereby bringing glory to his name, deepening our faith and possibly that of others too. Joni Eareckson Tada, a paraplegic, said, “I do not care if I am confined to this wheelchair provided from it I can bring glory to God.” Hudson Taylor said, “Trials afford God a platform for his working in our lives. Without them I would never know how kind, how powerful, how gracious he is.” We can begin a maturity in our Christian walk when we offer our suffering and pain consciously to God for his using.” And I would add for his glory. Which brings us to the first next step on the back of your communication card which is to “offer my pain and suffering to God so he can use it for his glory.”
In verse 5, John again says that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus but in the very sentence it says when he heard Lazarus was sick he stayed where he was for two more days. What? Did we see that right? Now follow this train of thought for a minute. It is possible that John makes a big deal of the love between Jesus and this family to show that what he was going to do next did not reflect a lack of love and compassion on his part. Also, Jesus’ delay did not cause Lazarus’ death. It is likely that Lazarus was already dead by the time the messenger got to Jesus. Carson in his commentary says, “This does not mean that Jesus is indifferent to human suffering. He loves Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It is in consequence of that love that he delays his departure by two days, waiting for the divine signal. This delay will make a substantial contribution to the strengthening of the faith of the Bethany family.”
Jesus was obedient to the timing of his father which we have already seen a couple of times in John’s gospel. This story shows us that God knows everything and that he is sovereign. He has the right to rule and he rules rightly. His delays are perfect and his timing is perfect and his delays do not contradict his love for us. In our lives today, we can perceive that God is delaying when our prayers aren’t answered as quickly as we want or when he delays things that we believe he would want us to have.
Jesus’ close relationship with this family makes his decision to wait two days to go to Lazarus’ aid all the more puzzling. Imagine what the sisters are thinking when the first day goes by and no Jesus and then the second day goes by and still no Jesus. Sure maybe Lazarus was already dead but Jesus didn’t even come to see the family and mourn with them. This delay was going to serve several purposes. First and foremost, it was for the glory of God and Jesus. Second, it was going to strengthen the faith of the sisters by forcing them to trust in him. Third, this delay would ensure that Lazarus would be dead for four days before Jesus showed up on the scene. In Jesus’ day, the Jews believed that the spirits of the dead hovered over the tomb for four days seeking to get back inside the body of the dead. But after four days the spirits left because the face would be so decayed that they could not recognize it. It was at this point that they felt the person was truly dead. If Jesus had come any earlier the people may have thought he had just healed Lazarus and not actually brought him back from the dead.
Finally, Jesus tells his disciples it is time to go to Lazarus and back to Judea. But they are not sold on the idea. They have some serious reservations about going back where people were threatening to kill Jesus and possibly themselves as well. They were genuinely concerned with Jesus’ welfare and did not understand what lay ahead for him. Jesus answers them with a proverb about time that doesn’t seem to make sense in this context but is meant to give them hope that going back to Judea would not end with all of them being killed.
In this proverb, Jesus talks about there being twelve hours in a day. The Jews believed that each day was broken up into two twelve hours periods; day and night. The number of hours in a day would of course change from season to season but each day was still broken into two equal parts. They did not have street lights in Jesus’ day so it was only during the daylight hours that one could walk around without stumbling. When it was dark you stayed inside because if you tried to walk around at nighttime you would stumble because it was pitch black. The twelve hours of daylight symbolize Jesus’ ministry on the earth. Just as no one can lengthen or shorten a day, the disciples’ concern could not extend the time allotted to Jesus on this earth nor could the Jew’s hostility toward Jesus shorten it.
That is a great principle for us to learn today. We can’t lengthen our days as they are already numbered by God. Jesus’ earthly ministry was set for a precise time by God just like our days on this earth are set precisely by God. In the physical sense Jesus is speaking about walking and living in light or darkness or day and night. In the spiritual sense when one lives in the “light” of the will of God he is spiritually safe. As long as Jesus followed God’s plan, no harm would come to him until the appointed time. Satan couldn’t thwart God’s purpose for sending his son and Satan can’t thwart our purposes as long as we are fulfilling the purpose for which God put us all on this earth. That brings us to the second next step on the back of your communication card which is to “not worry about my time left on this earth but to continue to pursue, grow and multiply disciples.”
Next, in verses 11-16, we see that the situation has gone from hopeful to hoping beyond hope to now hopelessness. We find out that Lazarus is dead and we can only imagine what is going through the sisters’ minds. John doesn’t divulge that to us just yet but he does give us insight into what the disciples were thinking. This is what God’s word says, After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
After he relates this parable about daylight and stumbling in the dark he says Lazarus has fallen asleep and he’s going to Bethany to wake him up. The disciples misunderstand what Jesus was saying. They think he means Lazarus is just physically sleeping and if he is going to get better he needs his sleep. They saw no reason to risk their lives to go to him; Lazarus would get better in time. Sleep is used in the Bible as a synonym for death, particularly about believers. So when Jesus said he is going to wake up Lazarus, he meant he is going to raise him from the dead.
The word sleep translates to the Greek word from which we get the English noun for “cemetery.” A cemetery, supposedly fearsome and spooky, gives us a Christian word of faith. Christians who die are not dead forever but sleep temporarily until Jesus wakes them up. This sleep does not mean an ending of existence or awareness, in fact Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:8 says, “that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
The disciple’s misunderstanding would open up the way for Jesus to further teach his disciples and bolster their faith. He ends their confusion and says plainly that Lazarus is dead. This is important because the messenger only said Lazarus was sick. This proves that Jesus is omniscient. He knew Lazarus had already died. The death of Lazarus brought a crisis to Jesus and he was glad because it gave him the opportunity to demonstrate what God can do and the disciples’ faith would be made that much stronger. Every crisis in our lives can be an opportunity for God to show us what he can do and to show others what God can do through us.
We know that during the time the disciples were with Jesus their faith waned. They never reached the point where they didn’t need to have their faith confirmed and developed. Raising Lazarus from the dead would have a profound effect on the disciples and others that witnessed it. It is the same for us today. Faith is a progressive thing. Our faith is not always strong. It wavers at times. Our hope can waver even when we rely on Jesus and trust in him. Things don’t always go the way we planned them or the way we want them to. But that is where submission to the sovereignty of Christ comes in. He need to trust that he has the right to rule our lives and the he rules rightly.
Finally, as we come to the end of our scripture this morning, John relates that Thomas all of the disciples takes the lead. It is a little curious that Thomas does this because he is not the usual spokesman for the disciples. Some commentators believe Peter wasn’t there at the time which is why we see Thomas speaking up. Thomas says “Let’s also go, that we may die with him.” John identifies Thomas by giving the meaning of his name. Didymus is the Greek equivalent of Thomas and both mean “twin.” Maybe this speaks to Thomas having dueling emotions. We know that he is called “Doubting Thomas” but here his words reflect loyalty, love, devotion and courage in spite of his pessimism. We see an act of leadership and courage that coincides with his doubting personality. It is not marked with an abundance of faith or hope. In fact it sounds hopeless. He believes he and the other disciples are going to die along with Jesus. His negativity led him to believe he would die if they went to Jerusalem but his love for Jesus was so strong he was willing to die with him. He looked death in the face and chose death with Jesus rather than life without him. Thomas unwittingly lays out the terms of following Jesus that we see in Mark 8:34, which says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Following Thomas’ bold lead, despite their doubts, they all went to Bethany with Jesus. If we want to be a disciple of Jesus we must be willing to follow him anywhere even if it means we are going to die.
Hope is a powerful thing, even for non-humans. A number of years ago researchers performed an experiment to see the effect hope has on those undergoing hardship. Two sets of laboratory rats were placed in separate tubs of water. The researchers left one set in the water and found that within an hour they had all drowned. The other rats were periodically lifted out of the water and then returned. When that happened, the second set of rats swam for over 24 hours. Not because they were given a rest, but because they suddenly had hope! Those animals apparently hoped that if they could stay afloat just a little longer, someone would reach down and rescue them. That reminds me of God reaching down to us and sending his Son to die on a cross to rescue us. That is the hope that sustains us. The power of hope cannot be underestimated. When hope fails, dreams shatter and people give up.
I want you to know this morning that you can find hope in God and in his Word. Psalm 39:7 says, “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.” And Psalm 71:5 says “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.” Finally, Psalm 119:81 says, “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word.” When you are struggling to find hope you can turn to Jesus and his Word and find your hope in him. That brings us to the last next step on the back of your communication card which is to “put my hope in God and in his Word for all things.”
As Doris and Gene come to lead us in a final song and the ushers prepare to collect the offering and the communication cards, let’s pray. God, we thank you for hope. We thank you for the hope we have in Christ Jesus who died on the cross and rose again conquering death and Hell. Because of his victory we have eternal hope. I pray that that hope will sustain us when we have trials and tribulations. Help us to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and the hope of salvation. I also pray for the offering this morning. Use it to further your kingdom in this church, community and around the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.