Has-Been Heroes: Waiting on Lazarus (John 11)

If you were fortunate enough to pick up a Nintendo Switch then you are probably hankering for some new software to supplement your Legend of Zelda diet, and the next title in the pipeline is a little rogue-like adventure called “Has-Been Heroes”.  This highly tactical, procedurally generated experience insures that no two play-throughs will be alike as it openly embraces the concept of perma-death.  Once your character has fallen in battle, they are gone. No respawn, no continue screen, just a sudden, jarring, and final ending to all of your time and investment into a character who has graduated to another plane of existence.


To be blunt, cheating death is one of the primary escapist fantasies in gaming.  The ability to resurrect on cue enables us to explore environments boldly, utilize trial and error to problem solve, and even find our most recent failures humorous and share-worthy on social media.  Removing this fail-safe certainly ups the ante and ratchets up the tension for the player and makes every step as well as each mis-step as costly as they are in the real world.


I don’t want to rehash previous ground with reflections on permadeath (this can be found in a previous blog entry), but if one is going to embark on a series of thoughts about the concept of losing, it only makes sense to take on the one form of losing that we are all guaranteed to deal with.  Throughout our lives we are surrounded by it, we endure the pain of it as it takes our loved ones, and one day we will eventually succumb to it ourselves.  Death has an almost flawless record of victory, and losing to this enemy was assured the day we took our first breath.  The pain it delivers is real, and throughout the Bible this is handled seriously and with respect.  We will approach this the same way here as we consider the case of Lazarus, the man who Jesus raised from the dead.


This is not Christ’s first resurrection miracle, but it is distinguished by the length of time between the death of Lazarus and his re-animation.  In John 11 we start with Lazarus alive but fading as his sisters send an urgent message to Jesus to come quickly.  Verse 6 records His difficult to understand response, “when He heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where He was two more days.”  Hmmm.  What an odd decision.  When Christ was asked by a centurion to heal his servant, His response was to head there immediately.  When He was asked to heal Jairus’s daughter He also began to move that direction with haste.  But here lies His friend, a man referred to by his sisters as the “one that you love”, and Jesus hangs out for two more days.


Have you ever felt like God was just chilling out when you were at your breaking point?  Have you been in a state of unmitigated crisis and it seems like the answer is in no hurry to get to you in spite of your urgency?  By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days.  He has clearly  demonstrated previously that he can do long-distance healing, but in this case He simply chose not to.  There is about to be a lot of heartbreak here, and John is going to record all of it in unflinching detail.  Let’s dive in…


We get our first insight into what Christ was thinking in verse 4, when His original response to the news of the illness is that “this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God and that His Son would be glorified through it”.  There is a higher order here than what anyone else in the scene is considering, and while the suffering could be ended quite easily by the hands that have healed countless others, this pain had a purpose.  There was also a purpose to what seemed to be meaningless waiting.  Our clue is in verse 8, when the disciples respond unfavorably to the plan to go to Lazarus.  When Jesus rolls out his itinerary their immediate feedback is that this is the place where the people just tried to stone Jesus to death.  Indeed, if you flip back just a few verses to John 10:31 you see why the disciples had cause to be concerned.  Because, you know…. the afore-mentioned stoning to death.  They felt a certain kind of way about that.


Waiting on God has many purposes, and none of them are particularly enjoyable.  But in this circumstance, it was exceptionally necessary even though it seemed callous and uncaring at the time for Christ to choose not to immediately run to his friend’s aid.  This action, the raising of Lazarus, is the official starting point of Christs’s ascent to Calvary.  This was the point of no return.  Once He completed this step every wheel starts to spin with added purpose.  In John 11:45 the governing council begin their plans to frame and murder Jesus in direct response to the resurrection of Lazarus.  Chapter 12 marks the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and His final days on earth.  Everything picks up speed once this seemingly innocuous action of raising Lazarus occurs.  So the answer to the question, “Why did He wait until it was too late?” Is more clearly understood in the context of the eternal significance of the chain reaction that occurs.  Lazarus had to die, Mary and Martha had to cry, and Jesus had to bide His time because there was more going on here than anyone was aware of at the time.


So now that we have the context, let’s return to the city of Bethany as we find Jesus arriving and Martha choosing to go out and meet Him on the way.  And as always, Martha gets straight to the point greeting Him with, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I think we have all had a similar thought in regards to God’s hands on a situation of ours.  I can feel her pain as she tries to balance reverence to the Messiah with the bitter emotion of knowing He could have so easily prevented her pain and loss, and for reasons completely invisible to her He simply didn’t show up.  He wasn’t there for the healing, He didn’t come to the funeral… He didn’t even show up for the burial ceremony.  Have you been there?  Ever had this internal dialogue?

Surely He will fix this, He’s never let me down.  I just need to have faith.


Well, it’s a little late, but God’s still in control.  This is just a little test.  He will show up.


Hmmmm…. really felt He would have handled this by now.  I know I prayed about this… maybe I have some sin I need to deal with.  That’s got to be it.  Then He will fix everything.


Hello?  Is this on?  We are well past the point of making a dramatic entrance now.  I’m claiming promises and quoting Scripture…. can you still hear me?

To her credit, Martha balances her pointed statement of blame with a follow-up indication of a still flickering flame of faith.  In verse 22 she finds the courage to say “Even now I know that whatever you ask of God He will give to you”.  And with that tender step onto holy ground, the miracle begins to take shape.  Time to get a little closer.  Christ, having been greeted by Mary with the identical passive-aggressive statement that He could have prevented this, has a remarkably human response to the setting around Him.


He is not confidently striding towards the tomb without showing feelings or compassion like a T-1000 robot, even though He knows exactly what He is going to do when He gets there.  He doesn’t say,”Stop your crying, I will fix it”.    He listens, and in verse 33 we see that He is troubled and groans in His Spirit after He saw the pain that Mary and the others were in.  And when they wept… He wept too.  Verse 35 is the shortest but yet one of the most critical verses in the entire Bible as it simply records, “Jesus wept”.


I cannot overstate the importance of that simple sentence.  God’s response to their pain was to FEEL it with them.  This is not the action of an uncaring deity living somewhere over the rainbow.  His heart broke and tears rolled down His cheeks as He fully experienced the wave of emotion that accompanies the passing of a loved one.  He deliberately chose not to cheat death, at least not yet anyway.


In the comics or movies when a superhero can fly anywhere they want but instead choose to walk and ride in cars, the reason is because heroes want to travel WITH others who do not share their powers.  This keeps them grounded, approachable… human.  Christ, the ultimate immortal superhero, could have floated on clouds but chose against that so He could experience the act of losing with us.  And while a miracle is about to occur that launches Christ towards His own date with death, the most remarkable thing that occurs on this day isn’t when God flexes his muscles and dusts death of His shoulder… it’s when He shows us that the experience of death and loss affects Him just as deeply as it impacts us.


Are you ready for a resurrection? Because the story doesn’t end there.  In a foreshadowing of things to come, the stone is rolled away and the man who was irrevocably dead emerges from the tomb alive and well.  And similarly, our losses in life are oftentimes the means in which God will use His resurrection power to bring them back to life at the proper time.  All who have chosen to put their faith in Him will experience this miracle.  Our belief in our personal resurrection hinges on the proof that Christ can raise the dead.  And through this example as well as His personal resurrection from death we have the confidence that He can and will do the same for us and each of our saved loved ones when the time is right.


Our faith, even when applied to a losing scenario, is the ignition point for resurrection to occur.  He is moved by our pain, but His power responds to our belief in Him.  Those who have placed their lives in His hands and have been wrenched from our arms in this life have been laid to rest with this eternal flame already lit to claim their resurrection.  As we close this thought, I want to leave you with a scripture that can sometime be poorly understood.  Psalm 116:15 records the statement, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints”.  That can be easily misunderstood when taken out of context.  The Hebrew word here is what is used when describing incredibly valuable, rare, and expensive jewels or stones.  The implication here is that our death is an exceptionally rare and costly moment for Him, one that he values and fully understands in terms of cost.  He does not take our passing lightly.  But His free gift of resurrection is a PROMISE that supersedes this loss, even though death is implied for a resurrection to occur.


When it comes to losing, death is most likely the most painful loss to absorb because of the sense of finality.  But He holds the keys to this adversaries’ lair and resurrection is guaranteed for all who placed their trust in Him.  He understands, He feels your pain, and He mourns the loss with you… and He will fulfill His promise of eternal life for all who choose to believe.


Losing to death may be fatal but it is not FINAL.  The pain it causes is real but not PERMANENT.  Through His resurrection of Lazarus as well as His personal resurrection shortly thereafter, Christ demonstrated how he views death.  It is an exceptionally painful experience that impacts all who are near it,  and even He was not immune to its effects.  But even this pain serves a purpose as Lazarus and Jesus both had to die to be resurrected, one to serve as a catalyst for the cross and the other to serve as the sacrificial solution. It is right to mourn those we lose, but just as critical that each death serves the purpose of leading others to the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection power.


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