The following is the manuscript for a sermon that I wrote for my Message Preparation for Women course. I've adapted it slightly, changing some parts and including only what is necessary to communicate my main thoughts. May you know, as you read, that Christ meets you in your suffering and declares to you that He is your life. Not in an abstract way but in the most literal way possible; not in a way that changes your circumstances but in a way that means you are going to make it.
"Looking to Life Himself"
Most, if not all, of us know the pain of God not telling our stories in the way that we would. To borrow the words of my pastor, God is not telling a story of a boring elevator ride to the top, rather, He is using your life to tell an epic. God’s stories for our lives lead us through valleys and graveyards--scary places where we would not dare to go ourselves. But it is in these places that His glory is made manifest; it is in these places that our once joyful confession that “God is good” is uttered through bitter tears but with a new sweetness and honesty for we’ve tasted and seen that it is true; it is in these places that we are able to believe, against all our circumstances, that He really is trustworthy, for He’s continually given Himself to us in our darkest hour.
God told Joseph’s story by way of a deep pit and a dark prison cell. Daniel’s story involves a night in a den with hungry lions. God used the death of Ruth’s husband and a journey to a land where she was an outcast to show Himself faithful to her. The Israelites wandered in the desert and suffered exile even as the chosen people of God.
God writes our stories dangerously in ways that we do not understand that we might cling to Him as He displays His glory. When our hearts are weak and riddled with unbelief He lifts our chins and bids us gaze upon Him. Let us turn our attention to John 11:17-27 where we will see that because Christ Himself is our life, we must look to Him in the face of death.
John 11:17-27.When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem (about two miles away). Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him. But Mary remained seated in the house.
Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Yet even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.
Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die—ever. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.”
Mary and Martha’s story involves the agonizing pain of the loss of their brother. When Lazarus became ill, verse 3 tells us that Mary and Martha sent for Jesus telling Him, “Lord, the one You love is sick.” Jesus responds in verse 4 declaring that Lazarus’ sickness “will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” However, Jesus delays His coming and Lazarus dies. Verse 17 tells us that it was four days after Lazarus had died that Jesus finally showed up in Bethany where they lived. Surely this is not the outcome Mary and Martha would have chosen; surely they would have written their story differently. They knew Christ loved them for as Calvin notes they “explain their trouble to [Jesus] intimately and look for relief from Him.” Nevertheless, Christ does not respond immediately and Lazarus dies. Here we take note of our first point: Christ’s actions are delayed for His ways are not our ways.
We know that Christ loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for verse 5 explicitly declares that this is so. We cannot assume, therefore, that Christ’s delay is a lack of love. Calvin shows that we are “taught by His delay that we must not reckon the love of God by the present state of things.” In other words, His ways are not our ways and we cannot measure the love of God by our circumstances or by our perception of His response to them. Our suffering may obscure His goodness or His love but it in no way changes it. He remains loving and Calvin reminds us that “although He may delay, He never sleeps, nor is forgetful of His own. And let us be quite sure that He wishes all whom He loves to be saved.”
We all know the agony of not understanding His ways. We know the pain of waiting for Him to respond when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. Some of us even know what it is to be angry at God because His actions are delayed and He is not coming quickly enough to rescue us. Hasn’t He said that He has come that we might have abundant life? Isn’t His heart toward us good? Didn’t He say we would be victorious over the evil one?
If you've lived long enough you know, like me, what it is to wonder why Christ delays rescue. If you've suffered deeply enough you know, like me, what it is to be angry at Him for not coming through for you like you expected Him to. Most of us know what it is to wish we could understand His goodness light of our circumstances. Christ’s actions are delayed for His ways are not our ways.
I am sure Mary and Martha knew these feelings of frustration, confusion, and sorrow all too well as Christ had not come through for them as they anticipated. When Lazarus had been dead four days and Jesus finally was on His way, the text says Martha heard that He was coming and she went out to meet Him. By examining the interaction that ensues between Martha and Jesus we can take special note of two extreme responses to suffering. This brings us to our second point: we often swing between unrestrained faith claims and unbelief of Christ’s promises.
Martha meets Jesus and wastes no time before saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Yet even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” While commentator’s opinions differ over what the posture of Martha’s heart is behind these words, all agree that Martha’s words are riddled with grief. Calvin’s interpretation of Martha’s response is faithful and instructive in our own response to painful circumstances so it is to his commentary on this encounter that we now look. Calvin describes Martha’s response as a lament in which she modestly makes her wish known. He continues, saying that in speaking like this Martha gives way to her feelings rather than restraining them under the rule of faith. Acknowledging that her words came partly from faith, Calvin suggests that “disorderly passions” were mixed with this faith causing her to go beyond proper bounds. Her confidence that Lazarus would not have died does not come from any direct promise of Christ. Martha has “fabricated for herself a hope out of her own thoughts.”
And so have we. Disaster strikes and we make lists in our minds, or if you’re like me on paper, of how Christ should come through for us. We tell Him how things should have played out and take hold of promises He has not made. As Calvin teaches, ascribing to Christ’s power and His supreme goodness of course proceeds from faith, but when we persuade ourselves of more than Christ has declared, we are no longer talking about faith. Calvin says, “We must always hold the mutual concord between the Word and faith, lest any should fabricate anything for himself apart from the Word of God.” When we suffer, of course we should look to His kindness and goodness and remind ourselves of the promises that He has made, but let us not, in our grief, make for ourselves promises that we think He should hold to.
This looks like learning that Christ’s goodness to me does not require Him to respond how I think He should; it looks like not molding His promises into what I want them to be in my grief. It means believing in the dark that Christ is good regardless of my circumstances. For some of us this looks like not requiring Christ’s power to mean He must heal the sick one we love or that He will give us the job we are convinced that we need. Certainly sometimes He gives us these things in His kindness, but just as we cannot measure His love for us based on how quickly He responds to us, we cannot measure His love for us based on the way in which He responds to us.
Christ’s reply to Martha is short and sweet. He looks past her grief ridden words and says to her, “Your brother will rise again” to which Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Leon Morris states that Martha’s response indicates she finds cold comfort in Christ’s words for she had probably heard this frequently from those trying to console her. We could liken this to hearing “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him” over and over by well meaning brothers and sisters who are trying to comfort us in our pain. The day of actually seeing His goodness seems excruciatingly distant yet we respond that we agree though it is hard to really mean it. George Beasley-Murray says Martha simply states the belief of the people. She knows what she should say and she says it regardless of how much comfort she really finds in the words she speaks.
Have we not done the same when we half-heartedly repeat the truths of Scripture that we think we should be proclaiming but don’t have the strength to really believe? We find ourselves saying things out of obligation rather than out of freedom. Calvin says that here Martha’s excessive timidity shows itself as she weakens what Christ has said. Swinging from the opposite extreme of making up for herself “a hope out of her own thoughts” Martha is now hesitant to believe what Christ is promising her. Calvin instructs us to not drink in empty hopes that are apart from God’s promises but also to not let our hearts be blocked up or shut too tight when He does speak.
Maybe when faced with suffering, your response was not to lament greatly and make up for yourself promises of God. Maybe instead, you heard what He was truly telling you and you weakened His promise out of unbelief. I have known that weakness too, the weakness of wanting to believe that He is going to do something good but in fear of disappointment refusing to actually believe. Could we liken this to a child who pleads in tears for something from her parents and when they promise her more than she even asked she hesitates to believe that they are telling the truth? Have you been in a painful place and read or heard a promise of God that you know is “Yes and Amen” to you in Christ Jesus but you find it hard to receive this promise based on your present circumstances?
We, like Martha, often swing between unrestrained faith claims and unbelief of Christ’s promises. All of us can relate to one of these two responses of Martha and some of us know both responses all too well. And Christ’s response to us is the same as it was to Martha, that is, Jesus directs us to Himself for He is our life.
Verse 25 is where we find the text for this final point; where I imagine Christ placing His hand under Martha’s downcast chin and gently lifting her head causing her tear filled eyes to meet His loving gaze as He says to her in a soft but convincing voice, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die--ever. Do you believe this?”
Jesus redirects Martha’s gaze from that future day which promises life to Himself for He is the substance of that life. Beasley-Murray writes, “the eschatological rule of God for which Martha hopes, with all its blessings for humankind, is vested in Jesus.” The resurrection of which the people speak and for which they long is the very person of Christ. Morris beautifully states that “Jesus is bringing Martha a present gift, not simply the promise of a future good.” Christ promises Martha nothing outside of Himself, nothing abstract from His very person. He says to her I am. I am the resurrection you long for. I am the life you long for. Calvin teaches here Christ is declaring that He resurrects dead hearts and sustains them with His life. However, Calvin does not doubt that Christ meant to include a twofold grace in His words. He writes, “[Christ] describes in general that spiritual life which he bestows on all His own; but He also wants to offer her a taste of the power which He was soon after to show in raising Lazarus.” Christ declared to Martha what was true about Himself and He planned to show her mightily.
Jesus’ question for Martha when He had finished telling her who He is as the resurrection and the life is a haunting one. When we place ourselves in Martha’s position realizing that we too have been disappointed by Christ’s delay in our lives and have responded with unrestrained grief or with unbelief, this question penetrates deeply into our hearts. We hear Him asking us along with Martha: Do you believe me?
I remember weeping in my bed at the end of January swinging violently between unrestrained grief that caused me to ask God questions I never imagined I would be asking Him and unbelief that made my heart despair and hearing Jesus say clearly to me, “I am the resurrection and the life.” My crying ceases for I cannot deny this. He didn’t reprimand me for being desperately sad. He didn’t promise me the circumstances I wished for. He didn’t even say that one day I’d be with Him and everything will be ok. He pulled me into the present moment, lifted my downcast chin, causing my tear filled eyes to meet His loving gaze and He said, “I am.” The reality of who Christ is for us and in us as our life doesn’t change the painful reality of our circumstances but it does mean that everything we need is given to us because Christ gives us Himself.
Our stories are painful. God is using our lives to write exciting epics that go through dangerous places. He often delays His actions because His ways are not our ways. And we often respond badly by believing things that aren’t true and then refusing to believe what is true. But although Christ actions may be delayed, His presence never is. In the graveyard He is there weeping with us waiting to lift our chins that He might say to us even as death surrounds us, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
May we be people with faith like Martha who, beholding Christ, confidently say, “Yes, Lord. We believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”