If you were told that a friend had suddenly become ill to the point of death, would you not do everything you could to get to your friend as soon as possible, especially if you knew it was within your power to help your friend survive the sickness? Would you not literally leap at the chance to also spare your friend’s family the pain of seeing their loved one suffer and die, especially if that family was also dear to you? Of course you would go; of course you would help! Why? Because you love those people. But when Jesus was told this kind of news about His friend Lazarus, the all-powerful Savior did not rush to help. In fact, He stayed where He was, allowing Lazarus to die and breaking the hearts of those who called for His help. Why did Jesus delay? For the same reason you would not delay: Because He loved those people.
Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, sent for Jesus while their brother was dying, completely confident in Jesus’ ability to prevent that death, completely confident that He would do so if only He were with them. Their anguished words upon Jesus’ arrival express that certainty. Both sisters say to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).
Perhaps you’re feeling a similar anguish. Some loss haunts you, perhaps the death of a loved one or the death of plans and dreams dear to you. You sent for the Lord through prayer, but He never arrived, at least in the way you wanted Him to. You say in your heart what Mary and Martha said aloud: “Lord, if you had been there…” a statement which for you may find truer form in a question: “Lord, where were you?” or even now, “Lord, where are you?”
Mary and Martha were, for a time, without the physical presence of their Savior. So are we in our day. However, the Lord is absolutely with us, by His Spirit (Matthew 28:20, John 16:7). What’s more, Jesus will return, bringing all of those who’ve died in Him back to physical life (John 11:24). Though we cry out with John in the final paragraph of Scripture “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20) we must affirm with Peter that the Great Shepherd’s present distance from us means salvation for all of the sheep who’ve yet to enter His fold ( 2 Peter 3:9). As it was with Mary and Martha, Jesus’ delay in coming to us is an act of divine love. So it is with His sometimes refusal to answer our prayers according to our initial liking.
Notice the sequence of thought between verses 5 and 6 of John 11. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Verse 6: “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” John does not tell us that Jesus delayed despite His love for this family; het tells us that Jesus delayed in order to demonstrate His love for this family. A better translation is: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, therefore, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed …” The original language is intense and deliberate in pointing out this causal connection, perhaps so intense because the concept is so counter-intuitive.
And we know what happened as a result of the delay! Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, a work far more glorious than the healing which Martha and Mary called for. Jesus demonstrated His power not only over sickness, but over death itself. He showed that He is the resurrection and the life (11:25, Colossians 3:1-4) and therefore that those who trust Him, though physical death take them, will live beyond such death and rise again upon His return (John 6:39).
In the time before Jesus returns, we experience glimpses of that great day, both in God’s answering prayer in the way we want, and in His denying our terms so as to give us something greater. Why does God do or not do the things you ask Him to? Because He loves you. If you know Christ, that truth answers every question you have about God’s activity or inactivity in your life (Romans 8:28-30). And always remember, the painful situation haunting you is much bigger than you, involving, perhaps without your knowledge, many more people and many more circumstances, all of which God is working together toward creation’s summation in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). The Father’s “yes’s” and His “no’s” both express His eternal love for His people in His Son Jesus Christ.
Mary and Martha got to see their brother again shortly after he died; but the three of them still had to face death in this life – Lazarus for a second time! We do not get our loved ones in the Lord back in the way these sisters did. But when we do see again those who died in Christ, death itself will be no more. And that day is not that distant!
Think of it: Mary and Martha and Lazarus have been with the Lord some two thousand years now. If you know Christ, you will be with Him soon. Most likely, not one of you reading this blog will survive this life for another one hundred years. So that means that one day, before a century passes, you will see your Savior. Until then, we eagerly await the wrapping up of history, the ingathering of God’s whole family, and the resurrection not like that of Lazarus, but of Jesus! (Romans 6:5).
In the meantime, Jesus is never truly distant. He has sent His Spirit to dwell among and within us. The Spirit has given us a complete Word, focusing our hearts upon our Savior. Within that Word are songs by which we can express to our heavenly Father the joys, pains, and fears we experience while we eagerly and actively await the return of His Son, our Savior. Such gifts could never come from a truly distant deity.
Yes, Jesus is away from us physically, and like Martha and Mary for those few painful days, we can’t see Him. But just like He did for those dear ladies, He will come for us. The One who wept at Lazarus’ funeral (11:35) will wipe away every tear from our eyes. We will see clearly that all of the heavenly homesickness in this life was more than worth it, that all of what Jesus did and did not do for us in this life was because He loves us.