A couple of weeks ago, I heard a preacher say that we read the bible with the end in mind. What he meant was that because we are so familiar with the various stories of the bible, our minds automatically skip to the ending, and we miss the story in the middle.
The scripture that was read earlier is proof of that. Most of us know the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, and we know that even though Lazarus was really sick, and even though Lazarus died and was buried, Jesus arrived four days later and raised Lazarus from the dead.
And is often said, all’s well that ends well.
But what if you didn’t know the ending. What if all you could see was Lazarus’ pain and suffering? What if you didn’t know the ending and could only see the grief of Mary and Martha?
John 11:14–15 So he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”
Well, Jesus certainly didn’t mince any words, did he? He didn’t say, “Lazarus Has expired.” Or “Lazarus has passed away” or “Lazarus has gone to be with the Lord” or “Lazarus has gone to his final rest,” uh-huh Jesus said, “Lazarus is dead.”
Jesus didn’t pull any punches. He just said it plain and simple. What was it that Dickens wrote in a Christmas carol, “Marley was dead, to begin with, old Marley was as dead as a door nail.”
Lazarus had experienced the one thing everyone in the human race has in common, death. Manlius said, “We begin to die as soon as we are born, and the end is linked to the beginnings.”
Horace wrote, “pale death with impartial Step, knocks at the poor man’s cottage and the palaces of kings.”
And it was Sigmund Freud who said, “The goal of all life is death.”
And Charles Templeton stated, “The greatest man stands but a heart beat from the grave.”
And that great modern-day philosopher Homer Simpson summed it up when he said, “Don’t let Krusty’s death get you down, boy. People die all the time, just like that. Why you could wake up dead tomorrow! Well, good night.”
I’m much of the same mind as Woody Allen, who said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Everybody dies; every person here shares that aspect of life. You may differ from every other person here in regards to your age, upbringing, occupation, and race, but the truth of the matter is this, your life is similar in the fact that you all were born, and you are all going to die.
Now ain’t that a cheerful thought?
And even though you may not be able to change your appointment with the grim reaper, the truth is that you can alter his appearance. Death can come as your master. Someone to fear, or we can say as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
And if that is the case, we view death not as our master but as our servant—a doorman who ushers us into the presence of the almighty.
Death is a certainty in life. It is not an option, and It’s not a maybe. Every once in a while, I hear someone say, “If I die.” And I want to say, “If you die? Do you know something I don’t?”
Death isn’t a possibility. It’s a certainty. You don’t say “if,” you say “when,” whenever death is the subject.
We are all born to die; death is a congenital disease inherited from our parents, whether death comes to the unborn child whose life is destroyed through abortion.
Or to the teenager whose life is snuffed out in a senseless traffic accident.
Or, to an aged Christian, who serenely enters his master’s presence as he sleeps, we must recognize two things, 1) We are all going to die, and 2) we are all going to die too soon.
Wouldn’t we love to have the epitaph that said, “I expected this but not yet?”
But you know, most of us have come to accept that death is a reality.
We understand our own mortality pretty well. None of us really know how much string is left on our ball of twine, but hey, that’s all right. After all, we know that death is just another part of living. It’s life.
And as Christians, we are secure in the thought that death isn’t the period in the story of life but only a comma. It is a transition point, a change and not an end.
And Lazarus was dead; that part of the story was over. All of Lazarus’ illness (Whatever it was), all of his pain, all of His suffering was done, gone. In a very real sense, Lazarus was healed, healed from all disease for all eternity.
However, the story of Martha and Mary was quite different, and while the suffering For Lazarus was finished, the suffering for his family was just beginning.
John 11:32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The reality of that pain and suffering was brought home as Christ watched the sister of Lazarus begin to weep. All too often, we are guilty of thinking that our Christianity makes us exempt from all the world’s suffering.
We have somehow mistaken the word saved for the word safe. Salvation does not open a charmed life for people. It doesn’t erase all of life’s little problems.
It is unfortunate and yet realistic for us to realize that Christians are people too. We don’t get an easier life or necessarily have an easier death.
Now that’s not to say that we can’t avoid some pitfalls as Christians. The Christian family doesn’t have to worry about an enraged drunken father administering beatings, yet they may not be protected from a drunk driver.
Christians may not have to worry about liver cirrhosis because of their extensive drinking habits, but they may have to contend with liver cancer simply because they are human.
If Christianity automatically exempted us from pain and suffering, we’d have to bar the church doors to stem the flow of prospective converts. Christ doesn’t bribe us into a relationship with him through promises of a trouble-free existence.
And although Christ doesn’t erase suffering, he can ease our suffering through his presence.
Thomas Wolfe, “Man was born to live to suffer and to die, and whatever befalls him is a tragic lot, there is no denying this in the final end, but we must deny it all the way.”
Cynical, maybe. Negative, perhaps. But consider the words of Christ as he spoke to his followers in John 16:33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart because I have overcome the world.”
Jesus didn’t say you might, or you may have trials and sorrows. He said you would have trials and sorrows.
We read in the Old Testament, Isaiah 43:2 When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.
Notice that the good prophet said when you pass through the rivers when you pass through water, and when you walk through the fire. Not if, but when.
Anthony Padovano writes, “Pain is part of the process, from the shedding of blood that initiates birth to the last gasp of astonishment in the face of death. We are encircled in suffering.”
The biography of a human being is a history of anguish. The way one reacts to the suffering of life matters more in creative human terms than the suffering itself.
We become the people we are through the disadvantages and conflicts we endure.
The signature of pain has left its mark on all of us. Not one of us has been or will be exempted. But pain and suffering are not generic. They are personal. Lazarus’ pain was very real and very personal. It was experienced in the first person.
Nobody had to describe it, and nobody had to say, “Lazarus, you are hurting.” He knew that he knew that he was in pain.
Some of you know pain firsthand. You know it on a personal level. You have been hurt, perhaps through an illness, or through depression, or a destroyed marriage. You’ve been there, you are hurting, and God knows that.
And sometimes, the pain is someone else’s but becomes our own. Mary and Martha weren’t physically hurting; they weren’t the ones who were sick. It was Lazarus who was suffering from the illness. It was Lazarus who died.
But his sisters were suffering as well. Their pain might very well have been physical because it was real.
There are folks out there who know just what I am talking about. You’ve gone through it, you’ve gone through the suffering of a loved one, you’ve experienced the loss of a child, or a spouse, a parent or a friend.
In Saint John, in 1985, a family whom I grew up with lost their ten-year-old son.
He was digging a tunnel into a riverbank, and it collapsed on him, and he suffocated. And when I went to visit his Parents in the funeral home, I was devastated. I went outside on the sidewalk and cried out, why God, why, why, why, why?
And not just for the pain and terror that little boy had felt, but because I saw that couple as I had never seen them before. They were totally whipped. Some of you know what it’s like to lose a child, and it’s wrong. Children are supposed to bury their parents. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children.
There’s not even a word for those who have lost a child. If you lose your parents, you are an orphan. If you lose your spouse, you’re a widow or widower. But there is no word to describe those who have lost a child.
The truth of the matter is that God could save all the little boys who suffocate and all of the young adults who are killed in car accidents, and all of the fishermen who drown.
But God had already given them the intelligence to know that you shouldn’t dig caves in mud banks, drive too fast or work in your boat alone without a life jacket.
I knew that child, those young adults and the fisherman. They were friends of mine, and I would love to have them back, but it does not make God any less good because they died in accidents.
And if the accidents hadn’t been their fault, then they would have been the fault of some other human being, not God.
What about diseases like aids and cancer?
When aids was at its peak in the eighties, people knew how to slow the spread of aids, but they let their hormones rule them instead of their brains, so aids had to have been the only disease in history that was spread through stupidity.
Give me a break and realize that it will be someone using the intelligence that God has given them to develop a cure for aids. Most of the problems in the world, from cancer to hunger to war on the environment, are the product of man’s greed.
If the world poured as much money into cancer research as we have into our armed forces or for our toys, or pets for that matter, then cancer wouldn’t kill nearly as many of our loved ones.
World hunger isn’t a supply problem. It’s a greed and distribution problem.
How much food is destroyed or not produced in countries like Canada, Australia, and the U.S. because there isn’t enough profit? How much milk has been dumped, how much wheat has been stockpiled, and how many sheep have been shot because they weren’t profitable at some point? Don’t blame God. Blame humanity.
And some suffering is simply brought on by us. And this is tough.
If Jonah had been obedient, he would never have ended up in the belly of a whale. If you smoke and end up with lung cancer, you have no one to blame but yourself, don’t stand demanding, “God, how could you do this to me?”
You cheat on your spouse, and they leave you. That’s a tragedy of your own making. You don’t do your job right and get sacked. We need to recognize that some of our sufferings are our own fault. Nobody is to blame but us.
Some suffering is caused by Satan. Take, for example, in Job 1:19, the storm that killed Job’s family was directly attributable to Satan. The mobs that attacked the early church in the book of acts, and the crucifixion of Christ, those were all suffering caused by the devil. But sometimes, we give the devil too much credit and credit him with things that just happen.
You lose your job because of a poor economic climate in the country; you or a loved one gets cancer, your car slips on icy roads, and you’re involved in a car accident, either trivial or tragic. We need to realize that sometimes bad things just happen, and that is just the way it is.
Well, if that is the reality of suffering, what in the world do we do? If the sermon was to end at this point and simply say that all of our lives, we suffer, and then we die. If that was it, the grand total of our life, then I would find a tall building, climb to the top and jump.
But I am convinced that within the Bible, it may well say that trouble came to pass, but nowhere does it say that trouble came to stay. We have to realize that there is an appropriate response to suffering.
Our First Response Is a Response of Questioning. When I stood on that Footpath and cried out my anguish for that child and his parents, I couldn’t imagine that I was the first Christian to question God or that I would be the last.
Our natural response is to ask our Father the reason. How often do our children ask us why? Or how come? How often do we put guilt trips on ourselves and others for our questioning, and yet what was it that Christ cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” What was he saying, “why God? Why?” And while it’s all right to ask, it is God’s prerogative not to answer our questions, and we can’t resent that or feel bitter about it.
Our Second Response Is a Response of Grief. The sorrow that comes from watching a loved one hurt and dies is born Out of love. To pass off Christian grief by saying “well they are in a better place now” or “they are with the Lord” or “the suffering has ended” is trite. Yes, they may be better off with God, but the loss is still there, and the grief is a natural Reaction.
In fact, it is in this story that the shortest verse in the bible is found, John 11:35 Then Jesus wept. Even though Jesus knew that he not only could raise Lazarus from the dead but would indeed raise his friend from the dead, he still wept.
Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
Grief is a human emotion. Even when we know that our loved ones have gone to a better place, grief and sorrow need to be expressed. Mourning is a natural part of the grief process; if we skip it, it will eventually return to haunt us. There will come times in our life when we need to take time to cry.
The Third Response to Suffering Has to Be A Response Of Recovery. You can’t mourn forever. Grief is a natural process and, as such, has to have a natural climax. Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional. Grief is a natural emotion, but it has to end; we have to come to the place where we no longer wallow in self-pity but get on with life.
You can be content to go through your sorrows, or you can grow through your sufferings, you can become bitter, or you can become better, and the choice is yours and yours alone.
The Old Testament prophet writes in Habakkuk 3:17–18 Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
And let’s go back to Jesus’ words in John 16:33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart because I have overcome the world.”
If your happiness is tied to your circumstances, then you are destined to be unhappy. The most naive and, unfortunately, the most common sentence in the Christian language is “if I can just get through this problem, then everything will be all right.”
Uh-huh, what you’re going to find is another problem. And what you need to do is to grow and stretch in those problems, untie your happiness from your circumstances, and harness them to Jesus Christ. If we can rely on his grace, we can get through life and its suffering.
The biggest disappointment is that most people become bitter through their pain, where if they learned to lean on Jesus Christ, then there is the potential to become better instead.
Often we can’t see beyond the immediate to see the eternal. You can’t see beyond the pain, but you can’t live in it forever. Churchill said, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal, it is courage that counts.”
Mary and Martha had to get over Lazarus’ Death and get on with life. But you say, “Pastor, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.” I know that, but Lazarus had to die sometime. I almost wished he had left Lazarus dead. It would have been fairer for all those in this life who face the loss of a loved one without a Jesus there to say, “Lazarus come Forth.”
We need to learn the lesson of Psalm 30:11 You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
You understand that with my natural rhythm and grace, anything that could allow me to dance with joy would be nothing shy of a miracle.
But the principle, the end result, is not the dancing. The end result is found when we allow ourselves to dance in our grief.
It’s when we acknowledge that through our suffering, struggles and tears, God is in control, and he will strengthen our lives.
There is no trouble on this earth which is greater than the grace of our God. Do you believe that this morning?