In the structure of John's gospel, John 11 serves as a hinge between two halves. The first 10 chapters are concerned with the ministry of Jesus over the course of 3 years. But from John 11 onward, the events unfold just under two weeks. What happens in John 11 precipitates the crucifixion of Jesus, which leads to the hour of his glorification. John has been looking ahead to this hinge point, evidenced by Jesus saying again and again, "Mine hour has not yet come." As the story of Lazarus unfolds in John 11, we realize that the hour is upon us.
In the story of Lazarus's death and resurrection, John gives us more than mere historical happenstance. He gives us more than a glimpse of the resurrection power of Jesus. He gives us more than another display of Jesus' lordship. Within this narrative John offers a view of the dark side of grace.
There is a dark side of grace.
You probably don't know Mark Heart. He's a Christian, a husband, a father, and an employee. Like most husbands, fathers, and businessmen, he juggles these responsibilities and sometimes they come into conflict. Sometimes he has to make difficult decisions about whether or not to be a good employee and do the things that his bosses ask of him, or to be a good husband and father and tend to things at home. Just over a year ago, he to make a decision along those lines. He was scheduled to leave on a Sunday for a business trip, but his daughter had a doctor's appointment on the following Monday. Because his wife also works, they were struggling to determine who would take her to the doctor. Knowing his presence would be of great comfort to his daughter, Mark decided he would not go on the business trip. So, he wasn't sitting in seat 2A on flight 5191 as it took off from Bluegrass field on that early Sunday morning. He wasn't on the ComAir airplane that was on the wrong runway. He wasn't there when the runway proved too short for the airplane to get enough speed, crashing and killing everyone onboard except for the co-pilot.
Mark's life has been different since that Sunday morning. He has learned that those things which cause us great consternation and seem to interfere with our plans—those things that delay us from where we want to go and what we want to do—are sometimes the very things that give us life. Sometimes God uses such things to spare us.
But what about all the people who did make that flight? What do we say about them? What do we say to their families? Was God absent on that flight? Was God not as "in control" of their lives as he was Mark Heart's? We never know when the delays of life will bring deliverance, but we also never know when God is going to allow things into our lives that are exactly the opposite of what we want.
Adrian Rogers says that man faces three problems: sorrow, sin, and death. You can sum up every problem you'll ever encounter in one of these three categories. If Rogers' assessment is true, then John 11 speaks to every problem you'll ever have, because sorrow, sin, and death are all represented in the story of Lazarus.
I mentioned that there is a dark side of grace in this story. Here it is: Jesus doesn't come running when he first receives news of his friend's condition. He doesn't show up on demand. The dark side of God's grace is that a sovereign God who is in control stands back of all things. This means sometimes he uses the things he allows as much as he uses the things he directs. If God is truly omnipotent—if he can prevent things from happening, as well as he can cause things to happen—all things are laid at his feet. And this means that sometimes we don't understand what he's up to. We won't always be able to comprehend why he doesn't answer the prayer or why he doesn't show up when we want him to.
The events in John 11 tell us that there are very dark days out there, even for the people whom Jesus loves dearly. We learn that in his purpose and plan, God doesn't always respond as we ask. If you're going to have light in the darkness of such times, there are some truths in this text that you and I have to understand—truths to which you and I must be committed.
During the darkest of days, you must be certain of God's love.
To experience light in the darkest of days, you first have to be certain of God's love. You cannot judge God's love by his actions. Conversely, you can't judge his actions by his love.
When I was in seminary, we moved from Kentucky to the Arkansas delta. If you've ever been through the Arkansas delta, you know it's the ugliest place in the continental United States. It's flat with nothing but cotton fields and rice patties. After having grown up in Kentucky, a state filled with gentle rolling hills, bluegrass, and corn, I was horrified. The mosquitoes that lived in the Arkansas delta were the worst part. When these mosquitoes sensed fresh meat in the area, they came from miles away to attack. We used to tie ankle weights to my sons—two and four at the time—to keep the mosquitoes from carrying them away.
The first week we lived in the delta, Michael, my four-year-old, was bitten so many times that he developed an allergic reaction. His whole body swelled up, and there were hard knots under each mosquito bite. He even struggled to breathe, so we rushed him to the children's hospital in Memphis. After examining him, the doctor said he would need to give him a steroid shot to stop the allergic reaction. Steroid shots are pretty painful—the needle is long and it has to be given in the hip—so we had to help the doctor hold Michael down. I'll never forget Michael's face when he saw that doctor coming at him with that long needle. He immediately turned toward me and jumped into my arms. He rushed toward me to protect him from the pain of that needle, only to discover that his father was not a refuge in the time of trouble. His father was an accomplice!
I pressed Michael's little body down on that table, laid my weight across his chest, and the doctor rammed the three-inch needle in his hip. Michael looked at me over his shoulder, and I could see the sense of betrayal in his eyes. He looked at me and said, "Daddy! Why, Daddy? No!" His four-year-old mind could not possibly comprehend that the thing he most needed in that moment—the thing that would help him breathe and even live—was in that needle.
You and I cannot possibly comprehend why God allows things into our lives that cause us to cast ourselves on him, to come to the end of our own strength, so that we don't rely on ourselves. Sometimes the very thing that we most want to avoid—the thing that we most dread—is precisely the thing that God uses to draw us to himself.
I love being a preaching professor. It indulges a certain cruel streak of mine. In my practicum the class is often small enough for students to get to preach five times over the course of a semester. I let them choose whatever they want to preach for four of the sermons. But the fifth sermon is mine—and I like to assign difficult texts. These texts are difficult for different reasons. I might assign someone the text that says Christ preached to the spirits in prison. I want to hear what they do with that exegetically. To someone else I might assign the sexual laws found in Leviticus. I want to hear them stumble around, trying to explain them. I like to watch students grapple with their commitment to the profitability of all Scripture.
One of the texts I love to assign is Genesis 36. If you're familiar with that chapter in Scripture, you know that it's nothing but a list of the descendents of Esau—their names, their wives, their children, their flocks, their herds. There were so many of them that they had to leave Canaan, cross the Jordan, and go to their own country called Edom (which is another name for Esau). In the ancient near east, a man's wealth was measured in three ways: by the number of his children, his flocks and herds, and the land he possessed. Esau had all three of those things in spades. By any standard, he was one of the wealthiest men who ever lived. He even had his own country! But remember what God says next about Esau: "Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated."
Isn't that interesting? What does that tell us in Genesis 36? Why did God, through the Holy Spirit, go to the trouble of including this list of Esau's descendents that also boasts their wealth? I think two great truths emerge from Genesis 36: (1) If this is how God treats those he really hates, he truly is a good and gracious God, and (2) you had best not mistake material blessing for spiritual blessing.
In distinction to Esau, there's Jacob, God's favored one. What did Jacob get? He got a tent. He lived his entire life in a tent with his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. He never had a house. They lived nomadic lives, always wandering around. Yet we live in an age of Christianity where we value Esau more than Jacob. We interpret the goodness of God more by the blessing of Esau than by the favor God bestowed on Jacob. If Esau lived today, we would put him on TBN. He's sit there on the couch and we would ask him, "Tell us how God has blessed you and how we can have it as well." Jacob wouldn't be invited to go anywhere. Nobody would want to hear his story. Can you imagine him stopping by the TBN studios?
You can't judge God's actions by his love, and you can't judge his love by his actions, because there is only one piece of evidence that is irrefutable, undeniable, incontrovertible evidence of God's love: the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross God has demonstrated his love for us once and for all. When you are in the darkest of days—when you call out to him and he doesn't respond, beg him for an answer that doesn't come—it's the cross that proves you can know God's love in spite of what you are feeling in that moment. To trust God's actions you first have to be certain of his love, a love proven in the cross.
During the darkest of days, you have to understand his character.
To trust God's actions in the darkest of days, you have to understand his character. In verse 6, it seems like John toys with us a bit. The first part of a sentence makes us anticipate something that never comes. John has just told us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so when we read that Lazarus is ill, we expect John to say Jesus dropped everything and rushed to Lazarus' side. But that's not what happens. Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, and when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. I'd say that's unanticipated!
We sometimes view God as if he were Aladdin. We see him as a genie in a bottle. We rub the bottle, make a wish, and hope it comes true. If we just believe enough, trust enough, we'll get our answer. It's what we've often been told. But does God operate that way?
I've heard so many sermons from Hebrews 11, yet rarely do I hear anyone touch on verse 13. Speaking of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob, the writer of Hebrews adds, "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised." What? You mean God promised something they never got? That's what the writer implies. Listen to the whole verse: "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them, and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth." They did not get this promise in life. But through eyes of faith, they saw it and greeted it from afar. They knew that this life is not all there is, and because of that, they could still die in faith. They didn't die in disappointment. They didn't die crying, "Where's God? Why has God let me down?" They died in faith, having seen God's promises fulfilled in a better place, in another time yet to come.
When we face similar circumstances, we tend only to get angry with God. We forget that this world is not our home. God's promises aren't all going to be fulfilled here. There are Christians all over the world who are persecuted, who go to bed hungry, who don't have the comforts we enjoy every day of our lives. This doesn't mean God loves them less. It simply means that there is promise of a better world—that they're strangers and pilgrims on earth.
God will sometime withhold, sometimes allow, sometimes take from us that which we love, that which we want and crave and hold and possess, if it's for our own good. It's in his loving character to do so.
During the darkest of days, you have to walk in God's Word.
When Jesus says to his disciples that it's time to return to Judea, they explain to him the danger present in such a move. They insist he will be killed. Jesus responds with a question of timing: "Aren't there twelve hours in a day? And when you walk in the day you don't stumble. It's when you walk in the night you can't see." What is Jesus saying to them? He is urging them to walk in God's Word when we are stumbling our way through the darkest of days.
You and I don't live according to our schedule, our timetable. We live according to God's schedule and timetable. But we can't trust God's timing when we're trying to make him conform to our timing. When Martha and Mary realize that their brother is desperately ill, they send for Jesus, assuming he'll immediately drop what he's doing. But he doesn't. He delays. In fact, he purposefully lets Lazarus die. We know this because of what he tells his disciples: "This isn't unto death. This is for the glory of God." Jesus understands something we often forget: the death of our bodies is not really death. The Book of Revelation speaks of a second death. That's the one to fear.
If you're going to trust God's timing, you have to walk in his Word, because in the light of his Word, you can see that God has twelve hours in a day. God operates on a divine timetable, and we need to walk according to his schedule.
Back to the story. After some time has passed, Jesus tells his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I go to awaken him." The disciples are confused. If Lazarus is "sleeping," why wake him up? Getting enough sleep is often the best medicine! Sensing their confusion, Jesus puts it very plainly, saying Lazarus is dead. And the way he says it seems to say he is glad Lazarus is dead!
Should it trouble us that Jesus is glad Lazarus is dead? Should it trouble us that Jesus uses Lazarus' death to make a point? It will only trouble us if our view is man-centered. It will only trouble us if our view is that God is here for our comfort. What Jesus is telling his disciples is that to live through suffering, you first have to seek God's glory. Isn't that what he says in verse 4? "This sickness is not unto death. It is for the glory of God." The purpose of Lazarus' sickness is not death; the purpose is the glory of God.
You know what happens from here. Jesus arrives at the scene, goes to the tomb of Lazarus, weeps when he sees those weeping. And why does he weep? He weeps because of their lack of faith. He weeps because he knows that when he raises Lazarus, a dividing line will be drawn between those who see him as the source of life and who will hate him for what he is able to do. Nonetheless, Jesus draws that line in the sand when he calls out to Lazarus: "Lazarus, come out!" Amazingly, Lazarus emerges from the tomb alive.
It's important to keep in mind that the only thing different that Jesus does for Lazarus is that he compresses all his resurrection action at one time. According to God's Word, Jesus does nothing for Lazarus that he won't also do for all believers one day. There's going to come a day when our bodies are lifeless, laid in a grave. But the Bible teaches us that one of these days, the trumpet is going to sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed. This is the Word in which we must walk in the darkest of days.
If my goal in life is to seek his glory rather than just my own comfort, if my goal in life is to seek his will rather than simply to avoid suffering, if I realize that every prayer I pray has beneath it the subtext of "Lord, glorify yourself," that's going to change me. What will that do to conquer my self-centered, selfish, sinful disposition? What will that do to make me love him more and love this world less? What will that do to my ability to walk with him even when I cry out to him in desperation, and he does not answer?
In 1976, my father was a pastor in Detroit. My oldest sister lived with her husband in western Kentucky, and she gave birth to my parents' first grandchild, Cindy. My mother had gone down to be with my sister during the birth, and my dad and I waited to visit until after the baby was born. When she arrived, we packed up the car and drove through the night Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Five years later, when I got married, Cindy was the flower girl. Today, Cindy is a 31-year-old mother of a 14-month-old baby that suffers from melanoma. The cancer is present in every part of her body except her brain and her feet. It's a dark day for our family. We are crying out in desperation to God to spare her life, to raise her up. I have not one bit of doubt that God can do it, but I don't know yet if he's going to come through in the way I'm asking him to come through. She's been through one round of chemotherapy, and she has another to go. At that point they'll run a series of tests, and we'll go from there. We don't know what's happening in her body, but we do know that God is doing things through her life that I could not have imagined. We know that God is glorifying himself in my sister's life and her husband's life. This is not what I would want. This is not what I have asked to happen. In fact, I have prayed that nothing like this would ever happen in our family. It's an unfamiliar, dark place. I don't know when Jesus will come. All I can say is, "Lord Jesus, glorify yourself in this."
If my joy is rooted in my comfort, then my joy cannot last. If my joy is rooted in his glory, then my joy cannot leave. If I can hold on to that, then like his disciples—like Thomas, of all people—I can say, "Then I'll go also, that I may die with him."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.