Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
This story of Jesus and Lazarus and Mary and Martha has been in the last four days an unusual anchor for the Anderson family. I believe it was you, Evan, who read it for the first time when you came home. I heard Barbie rise with strength on the wings of this text on Tuesday. And it is the family who has chosen it for our memorial text, not I. But I am very glad you did. May the Lord help us see in this story the glory of our Lord and Savior and Treasure, Jesus Christ, and how it relates to our situation today.
Consider six observations from this God-inspired story that connect with our circumstances—the first two of them painfully obvious and some of them shocking.
First, Lazarus was ill. Indeed, he was mortally ill. Verse 1: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” Lazarus and Luke were ill. We are not told what Lazarus’ illness was. And we do not understand Luke’s.
Second, Lazarus’ family sent for help to Jesus. Verse 3: “So the sisters [Mary and Martha] sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” And the Andersons have done the same. Indeed, hundreds of us have done the same. We have sent to Jesus. We have cried to Jesus. We have wrestled with Jesus. “Come. Come. If you don’t come, he’s going to die.”
Third, Jesus intentionally did not come as they asked, but let Lazarus die. Verse 6: “So, when [Jesus] heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” He did not go as asked. He stayed. And Lazarus died. And Luke died. Jesus did not come the way we asked him to come. He withheld his mighty healing hand.
Fourth, shockingly, Jesus calls this behavior of his love. Notice the connection between verses 5 and 6: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So [= therefore], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” John says that Jesus delayed because he loved them. He loved them all: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So [= therefore], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed.” It was his love that let Lazarus die. In these last five months, Jesus has not ceased to love this family. The risen, almighty Christ did not come the way we asked, because he loves you. How can that be? The last two observations give us a clue.
Fifth, Jesus said that this sickness was for the glory of God. Verse 4: “When Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” This must mean, then, the manifestation of the glory of God, as the all-satisfying treasure of our faith, is a greater act of love than preventing Lazarus’ death would have been. Jesus did not come, because he loved them. And he said his aim in not coming was the glory of God and the glory of himself, the Son of God. Luke Anderson has not died in vain. The glory of God is being seen. And it will be seen in more ways than any of us knows.
Sixth, in spite of Jesus’ choice to let Lazarus’ die, he wept. Verses 33-35, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” Jesus is not a simple person. He chooses to bring about a painful situation. Then he walks into that situation and weeps with those who weep.
And today our sovereign Christ is a sympathetic High Priest who knows our grief. He is not a hard master.
Though he giveth or he taketh
Christ his loved ones ne’er forsaketh.
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.
So you can see from these six observations why this story would be an anchor—why it would come with such weight and power into this family this week and anchor their souls in these troubled waters.
But there are questions—aren’t there?—that seem to threaten the strength of this text for our situation. There are counter-observations that seem at first to undermine the comfort and strength that this story brings. So let me make two of those observations and show that even though they at first seem threatening, in fact, they lead us to insights that make this story all the stronger and sweeter, not weaker.
The first of these two counter-observations is that Lazarus did not take his own life. Does that difference undo the relevance of this story for our souls?
No, it doesn’t. And if we had time we could see many deep reasons why that is the case. But very briefly let me put a biblical stake in the ground and then fasten to it a banner of hope.
The stake is this: True Christians can commit suicide. Or to put it another way: There is nothing unique or peculiar about the final act of life that makes it determinative in validating or nullifying our salvation. Or let me say it another way: The final season of faith with all its battles and failures is not the only season of faith that will bear witness in the Last Day that we were born again.
For example, suppose tonight, in my physical weariness, the remaining corruption in my born-again, Christian heart were to get the upper hand, and pride and self-pity and anger were to lash out verbally at my wife. And then suppose that in a great self-justifying huff, I stormed out of the door, got in the car, bolted carelessly through the stop sign on 18th Avenue and was broadsided by a truck and killed in an instant? Would I go to heaven?
Unless I have been a hypocrite through all these last fifty-five years of my Christian life, the answer is yes. For these reasons: 1) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for my sins and bore the wrath of God in my place so that all my sins might be forgiven. 2) Jesus Christ lived a perfect life of obedience so that by his obedience many sinners could be counted righteous, including me. 3) This sacrifice and this righteousness become mine by faith alone when I trust Jesus as the Lord and Savior and Treasure of my life. 4) This trust is embattled till the day I die, with seasons of strength and seasons of weakness, seasons of darkness and seasons of light. 5) If the last season is so dark that I die by my own sin, that season is not the only season that God takes into account when he presents the evidence that my faith was real.
Yes, it is true: Luke and Lazarus did not die in the same way. But reflecting on that does not dim the story of Lazarus, but rather opens a door of hope for Luke.
There is one final counter-observation that seems to threaten the value of this story for our comfort, namely, Lazarus was raised from the dead, and Luke’s body is in this coffin. So it looks as though the mighty love of Christ really did come through for Lazarus and his family but did not come through for Luke and his family.
But be careful. Things are not so simple. Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe heaven is the happiest place in the universe because of fellowship with God? Do you remember that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”? Do you recall that Jesus told a story about a selfish rich man and a helpless poor man who died and one went to the flames of torment in hell, and the other went to the joy of Abraham’s side in heaven? Jesus believed in heaven—the happiest place in the universe in the presence of God with no sickness and no sadness and no depression and no loneliness and no sin. That is where Lazarus was when Jesus arrived.
And, the Bible says that for the sake of love—not just love to Lazarus, but to Mary and Martha and the watching Pharisees, and you listening to my voice today—for the sake of the greatest love to the greatest number, Jesus manifested the glory of God and raised Lazarus from the dead. That is, he brought Lazarus from infinite joy back to a life fraught with sin and sickness, stress and frustration, and, in the end, to face the horrible enemy of death a second time.
So if you believe that love triumphed for Lazarus and his family, but did not triumph for Luke and his family, you must give an answer to a question that is very unlikely: Which is more painful, leaving heaven to show the power of Christ over death, or losing Luke to show the preciousness of Christ over life?
Displaying the Preciousness of Christ
My conclusion is this: God loved Lazarus and his family and took him out of heaven in order to show the power of Christ over death. And God loved Luke and his family and took him out of the world to show the preciousness of Christ over life.
Ross, Barbie, Mrs. Wessner, Evan, Catherine, Carrie, Robert, Seth, Stephanie, Christ loves you. His gift to you, in this unspeakable loss, is himself. And his call to you is that you treasure him above all things and glorify his supreme preciousness.
Luke has not died in vain. The glory of God is being revealed. There are some in this room who will date their awakening to the glory of Christ to this day.
Your deepest prayers are being answered. You have chosen a good text. The anchor holds.