Please turn with me in your Bible to John chapter 11. It begins on page 897 in the church Bible in front of you. Again, it’s good to see you. We’re glad that you’re with us tonight. We’re starting a new mini-series that we will camp out in for the next three weeks. You see the title in your bulletin – “Entering into the Crucible of Unbelief.” And just before we jump in and read, something to consider.
C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Great Divorce, tells the story of a group of people who are standing between heaven and hell. And towards the end of the book, Lewis describes a man who is limping and he has a lizard on his shoulder. And the lizard’s words captivate the man, and yet they also leave him weak, chained to a life he hates. And the lizard whispers all kinds of soul-destroying things into the man’s mind. And so in the story, an angel confronts the man and asks for permission to kill the lizard. “It’s the only way,” the angel says. The man asked if the lizard’s death will hurt him. “Will it hurt me?” And the angel answers, “It will hurt you, but it won’t kill you.” And the man, so addicted to this lizard, stubbornly refuses, and notice the words he says. “Get back.” He says, “Get back. Why are you torturing me? How can I let you tear me into pieces?” See, the man doesn’t want the pain. He doesn’t want the anguish of amputation.
And so he begins putting forward excuse after excuse. “There’s got to be another way.” And the lizard makes it’s plea as well, bargaining for it’s future, at one point screaming to be spared. But the angel comes back again and again to the same question – “May I kill it? May I kill it? May I kill it?” And the man finally says that he will allow it. And then, in a fantastic twist, the lizard doesn’t die. In a fantastic twist, the lizard mutates into this great stallion; a horse standing strong. And the man, formerly in bondage, is made new. He’s transformed. And he mounts the back of that horse. Like a shooting star, he rides off into the foothills. The man, now strengthened, now at peace. His face shone with tears. He’s fully alive. He rides to the mountains, to the place of joy, that he may see the face of God.
And Lewis is saying that we all have things. I mean, we all have things, don’t we, that keep us from coming to Jesus. We all have things. And I can’t speak for you, but some of the things that I can cling so stubbornly to, that keep me from coming to Jesus, they captivate me and they are kept in the dark, in the corners of my life and my heart, and I don’t want the anguish of amputation. They result in me not walking, not by faith but by sight. Those things are my sadness and suffering, my sadness and my suffering, and my pride, and my doubt. And so, Lord willing, that’s the game plan for the next three weeks. We’re going to look tonight at “Jesus and our Sadness and Suffering” in John chapter 11. We’ll look next week at “Jesus and our Pride” in John chapter 13. And then in two weeks, “Jesus and our Doubt” in John chapter 20. So this evening, we’re talking about “Jesus and our Sadness and Suffering.”
I think we all know the famous clichés – “Things will get better. Things will get better.” And we can hear that and we can think, “Well, how do you know?” Right? Or, “Time heals all wounds.” You know, time by itself doesn’t heal anything. Nietzsche’s famous line, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” but sadness and suffering doesn’t mechanically, it doesn’t automatically lead to growth and strength. It has to be handled well. And so we all have things that keep us from coming to Jesus, but the beautiful part of Lewis’ story, the beautiful part of Lewis’ story is that those are the very things, those are the very things that God can use to take us to the mountains, to the place of joy, right into the heart of God. If handled well, sadness and suffering can drive you like a nail into your true home, into the heart of God. And so let’s go to Him in prayer and ask for His help before we read. Let’s pray.
Our great God and heavenly Father, I pray that You would work through my lisping and stammering tongue, that You would take these words and make them a balm to those of us who are hurting, that You would use them to bring healing and change. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
John chapter 11, beginning in verse 17:
“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But 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.’
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this, he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.’ After saying these things, he said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her 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!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
Amen. This is God’s Word.
Jesus tells a story at the end of His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, where He says that storms will come into each person's life. And you may be here tonight and you are in them. And maybe you're here tonight and your family is hanging together by a thread. And Jesus, He says, "Storms will come." And maybe you're here tonight and there is a disease that is sucking the life out of you or out of the people that you love. And Jesus says, "The rain fell." And maybe you're here tonight and you would say, "I can't believe that my family doesn't look the way that I always dreamed that it would." And Jesus says that "The flood came." And maybe you're here tonight and you would say, "I can't believe that my career is the way that it is or that we're where we are financially." And Jesus said that, "The wind beat and blew on that house." And maybe you're here tonight and you would say, "I never thought that I would experience loss like this." And so Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, He’s talking to you. He’s talking to you and He’s saying that the one thing that suffering always does, it always hurts and it exposes the foundation of our life.
I was recently just kind of messing around with my dad and I was bragging to him about my fifth and sixth grade First Pres Day School basketball coaching skills. And you know, I’ve got a pretty good 2-1-2 defense and we run a fast break and I’ve been coaching for a number of years. And my dad kind of, of course messing back, said to me, “David, there are two kinds of coaches. Those who have been fired and those who will be fired.” And so, maybe you can put in a good work for me at the Day School.
But the same is true for suffering, right? Suffering. It’s all around us. C. S. Lewis called suffering and ultimately death, “the great equalizer.” That’s why even in our prayer tonight, the famous Jim Baird quote, “There’s a hurt on every pew,” that rings true. Suffering is all around us. If it’s not on your front door today, it will be on your front door tomorrow. And so even if you’re here tonight and the sun is shining on you, you can be sure that it is coming. And so as Christians, we must know how the Bible speaks into this experience of sadness and suffering and we have to ask ourselves, “Where do we find the resources? Where do we find the resources not just to survive, but how can this, how can this lead us to the mountains, to the place of joy, into the heart of God?”
Loved by Jesus
And so what I want to do with the rest of our time this evening is unpack what Jesus does about our sadness and suffering; how John 11 provides not full and exhaustive answers but some help and some healing in our sadness and suffering. And so look at the text with me. We didn’t read verses 1 to 6, but these verses set up the story. We have these three dear friends of Jesus – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. You notice in verse 3 the sisters sent to Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” And then verse 5, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And so this family was beloved by Jesus.
Let me just pause there for a second and ask, especially if you’re here tonight and you are in a long and dark night, “Can you imagine being known as the one Jesus loves?” If you’re here tonight and you’re in a long, dark night, can you imagine being known – in verse 3 and verse 5 – can you imagine being known as the one Jesus loves? Or as Sinclair Ferguson put it, “Is it beyond your powers of imagination, is it beyond your powers of imagination that when you are in need that the Lord Jesus might turn, He might turn to His heavenly Father and say, ‘Father, our friend is sick.’ He might turn to the heavenly court and say, ‘Our friend is in need.’” I think we all have our own version of John 11 verse 3, what seems to be this juxtaposition. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” We all have our own version of John 11 verse 3. And what I want us to see right out of the starting gate is what the reason can’t be for the sadness and suffering. We want the reasons. The reasons. We want the reasons. Right out of the starting gate we can see John 11 verse 3, “He whom you love is ill,” we know what the reason cannot be. It cannot be because He does not love us.
Let’s go a little bit deeper. Look at verses 5 and 6. These verses are important to put together. Verse 5, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Verse 6, “So,” or, “Therefore,” or, “Because He loved them, when He heard that Lazarus was ill, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” And so Jesus, out of great affection, He delayed. And we see in verse 14, as a result of Jesus’ delay, Lazarus eventually dies. And so now you understand some of the tension in this story.
The chapter continues most movingly, verses 16 and 17, as Jesus, after His delay, comes to Bethany. And by the time that He comes, we read that Lazarus has been dead for four days. And you'll notice that as the family hears that Jesus is near, Mary and Martha's responses could not be more different. One minister said that they respond completely in character. Mary goes and hides and Martha goes right at Him. And we see her question in verse 21. She runs to Him. She says to Him the words that our hearts are often screaming out in our unique sadness and suffering. "Lord, where were You? Lord, if You had been here." In her words, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died."
Profession of Faith
She says in verse 27 one of the great professions of faith, one of the great professions of faith in the New Testament, “I believe that You are the Christ. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.” We tend to hear that as Jesus’ last name – Jesus Christ. That’s not His last name; it’s a title. A Jewish person would understand that to mean, “I believe that You are the anointed one.” In other words, in the Old Testament, there were three offices that were anointed, where a man was set apart in a special way to do something on the Lord’s behalf. There was the prophet and the priest and the king. And the promise was that one of these days, one of these days there’s going to come One who’s going to be the ultimate prophet, priest, and king. And what I want to do, is I want to see how Jesus embodies all three in this story – prophet and priest and king.
And if you’re here tonight and you are in deep darkness and you are lost and lonely and you can’t see past the fog, you can’t see what’s out ahead of you, I think my hope is that as we see Jesus in this text as prophet and priest and king, that it will provide a little bit of light for us. I’ve heard a minister say before, “Like driving at night in the fog, you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make it the whole way like that.” Like driving at night in the fog, you can only see your headlights, but you can make it the whole way. And that’s my hope – that we would have a little bit of light in our darkness as we see Jesus in this text.
The Perfect Prophet
And so first, Jesus is here embodying the perfect prophet. I want you to see how Jesus compassionately enters into Martha’s suffering. As a prophet, what does a prophet do? A prophet reveals truth and the assurance of promises. Look at verses 25 and 26. Jesus assures her by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And so in this brief interaction, we are reminded that in the Bible the people of God don't get answers as often as we get promises. And so part of learning to live by faith is learning to live in the questions. It’s learning to live in the questions as we cling to the promises. And so Christians are a people that stake their lives on the promises of God. Jesus here is compassionately entering into His friend’s suffering and offering her assurance in His promise of resurrection.
And I think what Jesus is doing for Martha, as a prophet, is He's giving her a horizon. He's giving her a horizon for her sadness and suffering. I don't know if you've ever had the experience where your team was playing and it was a big game, but you were going to miss it and so you record the game. But then you have "that friend" or "that person" at the office or you look at social media and you discover the winning outcome. Have you ever had the experience where you're watching a game and you know the outcome? You know your team won, but as you're watching it, you're pulling your hair out because you're thinking, "There's no way! There is no way! There's no way that we win this!" But in the back of your mind, you know how the story ends. You know that there is victory. You know that the end is near. I think that's a little taste of what Jesus is providing for Martha. Jesus promises resurrection. There is a horizon that He provides as prophet in assuring Martha of resurrection.
You know walking is one of the main images in the Bible for facing suffering. Just walking. And so Psalm 23, “When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Just walking. Psalm 73, “As for me, my feet had almost stumbled and my steps had nearly slipped.” Isaiah 43, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Not, “If you pass.” “When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and when you walk, when you walk through the fire you will not be burned and the flame cannot consume you.” And so what do you do if you’re suffering and you don’t know where to go? You keep walking. It is so courageous, it’s so heroic just to do the next thing. You should have noticed that those passages, they don’t tell you how to feel. They’re telling you which direction to walk. There’s a horizon that you’re heading towards. That is how you carry a lantern in the darkness. You call to mind God’s truths, God’s promises even though they feel infinitely far away and you keep walking. And you walk towards the mountains, towards the place of joy. So that’s Jesus as our prophet.
The Perfect Priest
I want you to also see Jesus here embodying the perfect priest. Beginning in verse 28, we see one of the most beautiful interactions recorded between Jesus and another person in the Bible. Knowing that Mary is suffering deeply, Jesus called for her. Do you notice what she does? She runs to Him; she falls at His feet. So she’s at the feet of God in the flesh. She’s probably hysterically crying, weeping, and she cries out, notice, the same words that her sister cried out in verse 21. The same words that we so often cry out in our sadness and suffering. “Where were You?” She says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Did you notice how Jesus responds to her cry? “How dare you! How dare you question Me! How dare you question the sovereign God!” No. How does Jesus respond? We don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness. How does Jesus respond? Verse 35 – the shortest verse and one of the most profound statements in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” I don’t know what you imagine God’s posture to be toward you in the midst of your suffering and grief, but in Jesus we have a God who weeps with us. We have a God who weeps with us. Will you see and accept the tears of Jesus? Will you see and accept them? Friends, that is the God that you have.
One of my favorite passages in C. S. Lewis’, Chronicles of Narnia, comes from The Magician’s Nephew. And in it, the main character, Diggory, is in Narnia but the one thing that’s always looming in his mind and the one thing that’s always heavy on his heart is his mother who is sick, who is deathly ill back in our world. And so Diggory longs for this Aslan character, this lion, to heal his mom. And he even has a vision of that healing taking place. And so naturally, when he sees the lion, the words that come out of his mouth are, “Please, please, please, won’t you heal my mother?” And then this is what Lewis writes. “Diggory looked up and saw something that surprised him more than anything else in his life. The great and fierce lion, wonder of wonders, his head was bent down, and great big shining tears stood in the lion’s eyes. Great big shining tears. They were so big compared to Diggory’s that for a moment he felt as though the lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”
That’s not just good literature; that’s good theology. Jesus is the Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief. Jesus sees your tears. He has borne our grief. He has carried our sorrow. He will not break the bruised reed. He’s near to the brokenhearted. He will bind up your wounds. This is the one to whom you pray. This is the God that we have. And because that’s true, we must become a people who express, who express the reality of suffering. That is to say, that Christians are to be a people who not only walk, who not only walk through the valley of the shadow of death, who not only walk through the fire knowing that the Lord is with them, Christians are to be a people who know how to honestly lament. Christ our priest invites Mary with His tears and Christ our priest invites us with His tears to lament our suffering and the suffering of our neighbors. “Let us then with confidence, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Becoming more like Jesus will mean that there is more lament in your life because you have eyes to see that this world is not the way that it is supposed to be. You have eyes to see the sadness and suffering all around you.
Scholars will tell you that the most common form of psalm – there are 150 God-inspired psalms, God-inspired psalms – the most common form by a long shot, a third to half of the psalms, are laments. These cries of sorrow. Why would that be? Derek Kidner says in his Psalms commentary, “The very presence of lament in Scripture is a witness to God’s understanding. He knows how men and women speak when they’re desperate.” He knows how men and women speak when they are desperate. He knows. He doesn’t just allow us. He invites us – where? To direct our sorrow and sadness because He knows how we speak when we are desperate. And so we weep, we weep, and we worship. Those aren’t mutually exclusive. The Psalms are the hymnbook of God’s people. We weep as we worship. Those aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to pull yourself together to come to Jesus. You don’t have to leave your cries and your complaints and your confusion at the door. You come as you are. We weep and we worship in the same heart at the same time because one of the things that the psalmist understands, one of the things the psalmist understands is that one emotion doesn’t eliminate another. We weep and we worship in the same heart at the same time and both are there fighting it out. And that is why the most important word in a lament psalm is “But.” “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love,” Psalm 13. “But I will sing of Your strength,” Psalm 59.
The Perfect King
And so we’ve seen Christ as our prophet, we’ve seen Christ as our priest, and third and last and very briefly, I want you to see Jesus here embodying the perfect king. You see Jesus still with Mary in verse 33. He not only weeps with her, but when He sees the reality of her suffering over her brother’s death, when He sees the sadness that’s covering this place, when He sees, as John Calvin says, “the general misery of the whole human race,” verse 33, “He was deeply moved in His spirit.” You see the same language in verse 38. When He approaches the tomb, “Jesus, deeply moved again.” And many commentators note that this phrase, “deeply moved,” indicates the grunt, the grunt that a warhorse makes as it charges into battle. And so what does that mean? As Jesus approaches death, as He approaches the presence of death, His eyes are not only filled with tears but His heart is filled with rage. He’s not only a priest who grieves beside us, but He’s a king who goes into battle for us. And so He sees death. He sees the last enemy, death itself, and He is enraged with its temporary power.
I want you to see how His language in this section, verses 38 to 44, I want you to see how His language turns to imperative; these commands. And so He says, it’s like what a sergeant does to his privates, He says, verse 39, “Take away the stone.” Verse 43, “Lazarus, come out.” Verse 44, it’s one word, “Loose him,” or, “Unbind him and let him go.” And so Jesus is here as the great king. He sees death and He sees the one that Hebrews says holds the power of death, and that is the devil. And He grabs the jaws of death. And as our great king, he rules and defends us. He conquers all of His and our enemies.
He Goes in For Us
And if you look in the next section, verses 45 to 57 and specifically in verse 53, you see that Jesus knew that for Him to raise Lazarus, Jesus knew that for Lazarus to come out of the tomb that He would have to go in. In verse 53, they make plans to kill Him. And so here He is providing a sign for us. This is John’s gospel’s seventh sign. This is the end of the book of the signs. The first half of the gospel of John. So He’s providing a sign of where He is heading – to crush Satan’s head. And the Scriptures tell us that He will rise, He will rise with healing in His wings. That’s where the story is heading. And so we walk and we lament. But because we don’t just have a priest who grieves beside us, but we have a king who went to battle for us, because of our great king we can rejoice. And so we walk and we lament, but we rejoice. Joy and sadness cannot be locked away in separate compartments and categories because to experience sadness does not eliminate joy.
Nancy Guthrie writes, “I’ve come to think that sorrow actually deepens our capacity for joy, that as our lows are lower, so our highs are higher. Deep sorrow expands our ability to feel deeply. We feel sadder than we ever knew we could, sadder than we think we can survive, but our sorrow prepares for us to experience a more satisfying and solid joy than we’ve ever known before.” So the Scriptures tell us, James 1, “Count it all joy when you meet trials.” Romans 5:3, “We rejoice in our suffering.” 1 Peter 1:6, “In this you rejoice. You have been grieved by various trials.” And so these writers tell us to rejoice knowing that suffering won’t have the last word. To rejoice because we are in the hands of One who not only calls us friend, but we are in the hands of the God of resurrection, even as we are in the fire. And so rejoice. You know a verse that I think about a lot is Psalm 30 verse 5. “Weeping may endure for the night, weeping may endure for the night” – and suffering and sadness for you may tarry. It may be a dark, long night; it may be a lot of dark and long nights – “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.”
Let me close with this. After he lost his twenty-six-year-old son in a climbing accident, Nicholas Wolterstorff, formerly Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, wrote a little book entitled, Lament for a Son. And in it, he penned these words. He said, “It is said of God that no one can behold His face and live. I always thought this meant no one can see His splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant no one can see His sorrow and live. Or perhaps, His sorrow is His splendor.” Perhaps His sorrow is His splendor. I think that’s the picture we are given in John chapter 11 – His sorrow is His splendor. You get to the last book in the Bible, Revelation chapter 7, and you have a giant multitude that no one can number from every tribe and tongue and nation. And they look up at the throne and they see Jesus. And it says that “He will guide them to springs of living water. And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And all of us should stop and think, “Will my money do that for me? Will the apathy and the fear that I can cling to, will that get off the throne and keep out all the sadness? Will the self-disciple or the degrees or the possessions, the intellect, will that make it all better?” No. Jesus, our prophet, priest, and king, will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And I want to tell you, as I tell my own heart, to walk and to lament and to rejoice while it’s still dark. As you’re asking, “Will I be loved? Will it all be okay? Will it all be worth it?” “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” On that day that Revelation is talking about, on that day, as you are on the mountain at the place of joy, you will see the face of God, you will experience the heart of God, and you can say with the psalmist, “You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, and I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Amen. Let’s pray together.
Heavenly Father, some of us are sitting here and are in the furnace right now. Would You help us to see Jesus, our prophet and priest and king? And would You restore and confirm and strengthen and establish us? We pray this in His name, amen.
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