Holding On To Hope

Holding On To Hope

Isaiah 61:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

We cannot live without hope. That’s not just a sentiment, but a proven fact.

The American Psychological Association has found that people who have positive views on aging live 7.6 years longer than those who have negative views.

Depression is fast becoming the second-leading cause of death in America.

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and insightful psychologist, observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning:

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future–his future–was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment…Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sick-bay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up.

Have you given up on true joy in your marriage or with your parents or kids? Have you given up on a significant and joyful career and are settling for as much money as you can make? Have you given up on a friend or colleague or family member? Do you have hope that things will ever be better in your life than they are now? If you need some hope, you’ve come to the right season of the year.

I know it doesn’t seem that way. We are entering the busiest time of the year, with hassles and hurries, toys and trees, presents and preparations, decorations and dinners and all Christmas has become. How can this be a season of true hope?

“Advent” comes from Latin words meaning “to arrive.” On Christmas Day, hope arrived. Hope for the world and hope for your heart. How can this hope be real for your soul today? There’s only one way. Let’s discover it together.

The Messiah we wanted

The Jews of Isaiah 61 were an enslaved people, and had been for centuries. They had exchanged the Egyptians for the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians. Still to come would be the Greeks and then the Romans. Now they were exiled slaves in the pagan nation of Babylon, hundreds of miles from home with no future and no hope. Or so it seemed.

But through all the centuries of their occupations and tribulations, the nation had found hope in a single word: “Messiah.” The Hebrew word means “anointed one,” the person who would be chosen and empowered by God to rescue his suffering people.

Some thought the Messiah would be a great prophet or preacher. Some expected a great and wonderful priest, or a miracle worker.

But most expected a military conqueror, a warrior who would destroy their enemies and lead their nation into global dominance. He would be a ruler like David, one who would reestablish the throne of the nation and lead the people forever.

God had promised his greatest king: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).

Isaiah had earlier prophesied: Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7).

One of the most popular non-biblical books in ancient Judaism was 1 Enoch. It offered this promise to the people of God:

The word of his mouth shall destroy all the sinners and all the ungodly, who shall perish at his presence…All the kings, the princes, the exalted, and those who rule over all the earth, shall fall down on their faces before him, and shall worship him. They shall fix their hopes on this Son of man, shall pray to him, and petition him for mercy…Then the sword of the Lord of spirits shall be drunk with their [enemies’] blood; but the saints and elect shall be safe in that day (1 Enoch 61:3-4, 12-13, 15).

Isn’t it tempting to seek such military, political, materialistic hope? To wait for God to defeat the insurgency in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the terrorists around the world? To wait in expectancy for him to heal your wife’s cancer or get your son through rehab or make your job succeed? To make God a means to our end, expecting him to do what we want and need because we come to church and pray and give and serve?

No wonder the Jews were disappointed in the Messiah they got. They wanted a king on a throne for Christmas–they got a baby in a feed trough. They wanted a ruler to overthrow their enemies–they got a rabbi who taught them to love their enemies. They wanted a military conqueror to rule the world–they got a crucified carpenter who died for the world.

They got nothing they wanted, but everything they needed. So did we.

The Messiah we received

Isaiah predicted a military Messiah, One who would be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). These predictions will be fulfilled completely on the day Jesus returns to our planet, on the day when he comes as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, on the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

In the meanwhile, Isaiah gave us a second Messianic theme: the Suffering Servant. The Messiah who would suffer for his people as he served their God.

Isaiah 42:1-4 declared: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

Isaiah 53 described in detail the sufferings he would endure and predicted: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (v. 3).

Isaiah 61 told the people how this Suffering Servant would come and what he would do. In short, he would bring them all they needed. Not what they wanted, but what their souls needed, now and for eternity.

In their theology, anyone who was poor, brokenhearted, captive or in prison was being punished justly for sin. But the Messiah would “preach good news to the poor,” “bind up the brokenhearted,” “proclaim freedom for the captives” and “release from darkness for the prisoners” (v. 1b). If you’re poor, brokenhearted, captive, or imprisoned, know that he comes for you, to bring God’s hope to you.

And so he would “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” for his suffering people (v. 2a). “Favor” translates a Hebrew word which means to be accepted or to be given God’s grace. If you’re alone this holiday season, without family to accept you or friends to love you, know that he comes for you, to bring God’s hope to you.

He would also proclaim “the day of vengeance of our God” (v. 2b). If you’ve been wronged, slandered, gossiped about, hurt or judged unfairly, know that he comes to bring God’s hope to you.

He would “comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion” (vs. 2c-3a). Mourners would sit in ashes–he will give them a crown of beauty. They would wear a “spirit of despair,” but he will give them “a garment of praise.” He will turn their grief into his glory “for the display of his splendor” (v. 3). If you’re mourning today, in sorrow or grief or depressed despair, know that he comes for you.

Ultimately “they will inherit a double portion in their land and everlasting joy will be theirs” (v. 7b). If you’re without joy and hope, know that he comes for you.

Such was Isaiah’s promise to God’s enslaved people in Babylon. When would this Suffering Servant come? When would the Messiah visit his peopled with God’s favor and hope?

Jesus of Nazareth has begun his public ministry. He has called his first disciples and begun his first work among the people.

Now he returns to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth for Sabbath services. The people have already recited the Shema, their call to faith; they have heard the Psalms and the prayers, and the reading of the Law. Now comes the time when a visiting rabbi would be invited to select a reading from the Prophets to read and teach upon. The people read through their scriptures every 3.5 years. On this occasion, they’ve been reading from the book of Isaiah.

So Luke tells us that “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him” (Luke 4:17a). Jesus could have read any passage he wished. He could have read from the predictions of a military Messiah, a coming Conqueror. Instead, “he found the place where it is written” (v. 17b) that the Messiah would be the Suffering Servant of God and his people, the very text we have been reading today (vs. 18-19).

Then “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (vs. 20-21).

With this announcement the hope of heaven came to earth. The One who would preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, free the captives and release the prisoners has come for us. For all of us. For each of us.


Now he calls us to come to him. To repent of our self-sufficiency and self-control. To seek our hope not in the toys and traditions of Christmas but in the Christ who came to be Immanuel, God with us.

The One who came first at Christmas has come a second time to make his home in the hearts of all who have trusted him as Lord. His Spirit now inhabits your body. You are his Temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). All of God there is, is in your life. And in this moment.

“Advent spirituality” is the conscious decision to place your hope in Jesus this holiday season. To seek his presence in worship and word each morning, to surrender your life to the fullness and control of his Spirit each day. To measure success this season not by what you get or give but by how fully you know Jesus and make him known.

With all my heart I believe that God is calling you and me to a new level of surrendered obedience in these days. To be people who live differently from the world, who aspire to a higher standard. Students who handle dating relationships differently from your non-Christian friends. Parents who model godliness for their kids at home as well as in the Sanctuary. Christians who do what Jesus would do with alcohol and pornography and financial integrity. All of this because our hope is in Jesus and in the reward he gives to those who are fully his.

When the Allies liberated German concentration camps, they found among the suffering prisoners thousands of starving children. They quickly clothed and fed them, and put them in warm and safe homes and shelters. But the children would not sleep at night. They tossed and turned in fright and anxiety.

Then a child psychologist hit on the solution. She instructed that each child was to be given a slice of bread to hold in bed at night. Not to eat, just to hold. And these children, able to feel the promise that they would have food in the morning, slept easily and well.

What bread are you holding today?

Playing Marbles with the World

Playing Marbles with the World

John 9:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

The alien movie Men In Black ends with the camera pulling back from Earth until our planet fades into the blackness of the universe. We fly back as the Solar System recedes, then the Milky Way. Then the universe itself becomes a black marble. Then two aliens play with that marble, flicking it back and forth. Is that the way it is? Or does God have a plan and a purpose for this fallen planet and our problems and pain?

In our series we have learned that Jesus will turn water into wine, heal a nobleman’s son, and feed 5,000 families. We have learned why we should take God at his word, and what happens when we do.

Now we must ask a hard question: why do we live in a world where such miracles are needed at all? Why does the wine run out in our lives? Why do our children get sick? Why do we get hungry?

As good as it is to know that Jesus can feed the hungry and heal the sick, wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where no families ever faced hunger and no eyes were ever born blind? Wouldn’t that be the better miracle?

The question brings our series to the place where most of us live. Maybe your grandfather lived to an elderly age; mine died as a young man because doctors mismatched his blood after an appendix operation. Maybe your father was healed miraculously of his heart disease; mine wasn’t. Maybe your son or daughter was protected from a tragic accident; I know several in our church family who still grieve for lost children. Maybe your job was preserved, or your financial needs miraculously met; I can name several friends whose families are hurting today.

Why do we live in a world where miracles are needed? Why does God permit people to be born blind? Why does he allow your blindness today? What does he want to do about it this morning?

Why some are born blind

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'” (vs. 1-2).

In the ancient world, illness was always a sign of divine judgment. If the man had incurred his blindness as an adult, there would be no question: the sin was his own. Since he was born with it, the disciples wondered whose sin had caused it. But it was a given that all suffering comes from sin. All pain is someone’s fault.

In a sense that’s true. In the Garden of Eden the man would have full eyesight; your children would be well; my father and grandfather would be alive. When mankind fell into sin, the world fell with us. Now we experience diseases and disasters which were not part of God’s created paradise.

And much of our present suffering is our personal fault as well. God gave us freedom of will so we could choose to worship him. When we misuse that freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours. Haman was hanged on the gallows he intended for innocent Mordecai; the men who wanted Daniel thrown to the lions met them instead. Saddam Hussein obviously deserves the fate he has been sentenced to receive.

In the disciples’ theology, all pain is our fault and God is off the hook. Our question is answered. Why must God do miracles in our fallen world rather than make a world which doesn’t need them? Because of our sin.

Except that’s not how Jesus answered the question: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). This happened so that God might do his work through this man’s life and suffering. How? In what way?

God works miracles for our greatest good. In this case, so the man could be healed by the divine power of a miracle-working God. His eyesight would always be more precious to him than mine is to me or yours is to you. He would be a character in the divine story of redemption. His life would be immeasurably more significant because he was born blind and healed than if he had never been born blind at all.

Scripture is clear: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God meets all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). He longs to be gracious to us and rises to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18). He is a Father, waiting to give us our daily bread. God works miracles for the present good of his children. We may not understand that fact at the time, but his word says that it’s so.

God works miracles for the eternal glory of his Kingdom. He turned the water into wine and “thus revealed his glory” (John 2:11). He fed 5,000 families so they would know that he was their Prophet and King. God’s word says that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Scripture promises that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5).

And God works miracles for our greatest growth. Jesus’ opened the man’s physical eyes so he could open the man’s spiritual eyes, with this result: “‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (v. 38).

He worked this miracle for the spiritual growth of those who observed it as well. The man became my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v. 25). And all who saw the miracle were confronted with an opportunity to trust the One who worked it.

God could have created a world in which we had freedom from suffering or freedom from choice, but not both.

All choice requires consequence, or it is not a true choice. If I order a chicken fried steak at lunch but the waiter brings me bran muffins, I will be protected from the indigestion and heart disease which would result from my dietary choice. But I would not be free to choose.

We live in a fallen world where disease and disaster are a consequence of Adam’s sin and our own, where drunk drivers and fanatical terrorists and alcohol abuse are a part of life.

But we also live in a creation which is being redeemed by its Creator. God’s holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes, today and in eternity. He will redeem it for your greatest good, his greatest glory, and our greatest growth. Always.

When you are born blind

Now, how does this theological conversation help you when you’re the one born blind? When you’re the one dealing with a frustrating parent or a rebellious child? When your marriage is struggling or your job is being downsized or your friends are ungodly or your temptations are overwhelming? What do you do?

Jesus “spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (v. 6). This was accepted medical practice in the day. Now comes the crucial part: “‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7).

Jesus asked the man to trust him. Washing in the pool of Siloam was not part of any accepted medical practice. And it required sacrifice on the part of a blind man.

The pool of Siloam was one of the great landmarks in ancient Jerusalem. The reservoir is 53 feet long, 18 feet across, and 19 feet deep, with columns built into the side walls. The problem is that it was on the southern end of Jerusalem, while the Temple area where Jesus and this man were likely talking was on the northern end. Imagine him feeling his way along, at considerable bother and risk, all because a man told him to do so.

This blind man took Jesus at his word. He “went and washed”–the Greek word means not just that he splashed some water on his eyes, but that he bathed them in the pool. With this result: “the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Here we see the divine-human partnership at work. Jesus would heal the man’s eyes, but he would have to wash them first. He did what he could, and Jesus did what he could not.

Here’s my problem: I want to heal my eyes in my way. I want the Great Physician to use accepted medical procedure, to do things in a way I can understand and accept. I want him to meet my needs in my timing and according to my will. I want him to bless my decisions. I want to be God, and I want him to serve me.

Isn’t it hard for self-sufficient people to let Jesus put mud on our eyes? Isn’t it hard to surrender to his will before we know it? To write him a blank check before he fills in the amount? To let him guide us anywhere, before we know where? To go out not knowing? To step before we can see? To put him in charge and let him be God?

Yet that is the essential first step to the power of the Lord. He will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. And he will not share his glory. When we sell out, surrendering all, giving everything, then he can move in power. He cannot drive the car unless he’s holding the steering wheel. He cannot fly the plane unless he’s the Pilot. He cannot be your Great Physician unless you’re willing to submit as his patient.

Where do you need to make such a surrender to him today? What is your blindness this morning? Where are you in need of Jesus’ mud and Siloam’s water? How do you need God’s help for your friendships, your dating relationships, your finances, your family, your future? Take Jesus at his word. Seek his plan for your life, his next step for your problem, his help for your hurt. Claim this promise in his word:

“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

Believe that he has a purpose for your problem, a plan to give you hope and a future. Call on him, come and pray to him, and know that he will listen to you. Seek him with all your heart, and you will find him this day.

Have you given him your problem in faith? Have you found his word for your need? His promise for your pain? Are you standing on that word?

His holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes, now and in eternity. You may never understand fully on earth the ways he is using your pain for your good, his glory, and our growth. But you can know that he is, if you will take him at his word today.


I have prepared this message with some particular people in mind. A couple who lost a daughter recently, another who lost an infant boy some months ago, a mother and father whose teenage daughter was killed, another whose adult daughter died far too young. I’ve been thinking about them, wondering what this message would say to them.

I’m thinking today about those of you whose dating relationship is not going well; those who aren’t sure what to do for a friend with a problem; those wondering if you’ll ever be married, or married again. I don’t know all the ways God is using your pain for your good, his glory, and our growth. I don’t even know some of the ways he is doing that for you. But I’m taking him at his word today that he is. I invite you to do the same.

Albert Einstein made the famous statement, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We are not a marble he toys with. He loves you and me individually, personally, beyond description.

So today is the day to take him at his word. To submit to his Spirit, to yield to his purpose, to walk with him in prayer, to know that his holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. Today is the day to let Jesus put mud on our eyes, however he intends to do so, and wash in whatever pool of Siloam is his will for us.

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth” (v. 1). Today that “man” is you. This is the promise of God.

When You Cannot See His Hand, Trust His Heart

When You Cannot See His Hand, Trust His Heart

John 11:1-45

Dr. Jim Denison

I hate to fly. I don’t just dislike flying, with all the security hassles, long waits, and cramped seats. I actually don’t mind all of that so much. The part of flying I hate is flying–that moment when the bus packed like sardines and weighing a gazillion tons leaves the ground. I sit on the aisle, as though four feet from the fuselage will help. I read a book, as though not thinking about my plight will make it disappear. And I stay in denial until the wheels touch the ground again.

You see, I don’t really understand heavier-than-air flight. If I had been one of the Wright brothers, we’d all be grounded today. I don’t see how something that weighs more than this building can fly when I can’t. When I was a young boy I wanted nothing more than to be Superman, flying up there in clouds. So one day I tried. I cut out some cardboard wings, strapped them to my arms, climbed to the roof our house, and jumped. With predictable results. I haven’t liked flying since.

The hardest part for me is turbulence. When the airplane starts to shake, I grip the armrests instinctively. I don’t have any idea why. I know that my armrests will not help much if we plummet 30,000 feet to the ground. But I can’t help it.

The only thing that helps me is hearing the pilot in his soothing voice telling me I have nothing to worry about. If he’s on the same plane and he’s not worried, I am less worried. Or so I tell myself.

Where has your airplane encountered turbulence today? Where is there unresolved guilt in your past or fear for your future? Who needs your forgiveness? Whose forgiveness do you need? What pain in your marriage or family or relationships is hurting your heart this morning? You can grip your pew hard, but it won’t help much. Trusting your captain is the only way to make it through the flight. But it’s hard to do that when he’s the one who flew your plane into this storm.

Let’s talk about that issue today. If Jesus could raise Lazarus, there’s nothing he cannot do. But he didn’t do what you want and need him to do. He didn’t answer your prayer the way you wanted. He has flown your airplane directly into a storm. In such turbulence, how can you trust your pilot today?

Believe that God has a plan (vs. 1-16)

Apart from the crucifixion accounts, this is the longest continuous narrative in all the gospels. The story comes just days before Jesus’ last Passover and his crucifixion. He has returned to Judea, where his enemies tried earlier to take his life (John 10:39). His actions will lead to the authorities’ plot to kill him (John 11:45-53). Mary and Martha have no way to know that Jesus’ timing regarding their brother’s illness will directly affect his atoning mission. There is always more to God’s plan than we can see.

Our story begins: “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11.1). “Lazarus” means “God is my help.” His name would be fulfilled in this remarkable miracle.

His hometown was located about two miles east of Jerusalem, situated on the southeastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. It was Jesus’ home whenever he traveled to Jerusalem or Judea, and became his headquarters for the last week of his life.

Jesus had no closer friends on earth than Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. So the sisters sent word about their brother to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (v. 3). They did not ask him to come–they assumed that he would. As he had turned water into wine, healed a nobleman’s son, fed 5,000 families and opened blind eyes, surely he would heal his man whose family had been his family.

But he did not. His reply was strange indeed: “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it'” (v. 4).

Jesus’ timing was not theirs. He saw Lazarus’ sickness as an opportunity to glorify the Father. He sees every storm we encounter in the same way–as a chance to bring glory to the Lord. And so, even though he loved Lazarus and his sisters (v. 5), “when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v. 6).

It seems that Jesus received the news that Lazarus was sick, had time to travel to Bethany to heal him, but chose not to do so. But this is not true. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days (v. 39). Jesus was in Perea, a day’s travel from Bethany. The messenger left when Lazarus was alive and traveled a day. Jesus waited two days; then he traveled a day to find Lazarus dead for four days. Doing the math, we can determine that Lazarus died when the messenger was on his way. If Jesus had left immediately, he would have found his friend dead for two days already.

But why wait the additional two days? Because people in the ancient world believed that the soul hovers around its body for three days, hoping to be reunited with its flesh. And so they mourned for those three days with the loudest and most emotional tears and cries, in case the soul of the deceased was watching their grief. This is the reason Jesus delayed his return for two days: by the time he came to Lazarus, his friend was “really” dead. There was no possibility of his resuscitation. No one could claim that the man had been merely comatose, or pretending his death. Four days without food or water, wrapped in air-tight burial clothing, would have resulted in anyone’s death.

So Jesus waited the right amount of time to do the greatest miracle, to do what was to Lazarus’s greatest good, God’s greatest glory, and our greatest spiritual growth. He always does. Even though we sometimes don’t know it.

Where in your life are you frustrated or confused about God’s timing? What prayer has he not yet answered? What need has apparently gone unmet? Where is he in Perea and not in Bethany? Believe that God has a plan. Rest in the fact that the will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain. Trust his plan and purpose and timing, and one day you will know that you were right.

Trust what you cannot see (vs. 17-41)

Upon his arrival, Jesus found a family and friends still in agonizing grief. During the first seven days after death, mourners were forbidden to wear shoes, engage in any kind of study or business, or even wash their bodies. All the chairs and couches in the house were reversed, and the mourners sat on the ground on a low stool.

Word preceded Jesus’ arrival. Martha left her crowded home to meet him (v. 20). And so she heard one of the most significant statements in human history: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (vs. 25-26a, emphasis added).

Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right now. Not just at the end of history, but in this moment of time. He “is” the resurrection and the life–apart from him there is neither. When we believe in him we will “never die.” His promise can be translated literally, “every single one of the ones living and believing in me not never shall he die unto the age.”

Jesus would soon explain that his Father’s house contains many “rooms” (John 14.2, translated “mansions” in the KJV). This word originally meant the destination at the end of a journey. The picture is clear: our lives are but a pilgrimage, a destination. Our bodies are the “vehicles” for that journey. One day we arrive home. We step out of the car and go into the house. Others on the road see the vehicle left behind. They cannot see into the house. But we are nonetheless home. We never die. The person who is alive spiritually will never die spiritually. We are immortal.

But death has not become life just yet. Jesus saw these sisters’ grief, and that of those who mourned with them, and was “deeply moved in spirit” (v. 33). In stark contrast to the gods of the world’s religions, who stood apathetic and distant from human emotion, God incarnate felt every pain we endure, every sorrow we grieve (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). No deity in any other religion across human history has ever cried. But Jesus did: when he saw the place of his friend’s burial, “Jesus wept” (v. 35). This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but the most powerful two words in all of literature.

Now Jesus enacted all he has been preparing across these four days. “Once more deeply moved,” he came to Lazarus’ tomb (v. 38).

There was an entrance, followed by a chamber which was six feet long, nine feet wide, and ten feet high. There were eight shelves cut in the rock—three on each side and two on the wall facing the entrance. The bodies were placed on these. The tomb had no door–in front of the opening ran a groove in which was set a large stone. This stone was rolled across the entrance to seal the tomb and keep wild beasts out. I’ve seen the tomb which is shown to tourists as “Lazarus’ grave,” but no one is certain if it is the authentic location of this miracle.

Here eternity lay in the balance. If Jesus failed with what he did next, his every claim to be the Messiah would be hopelessly discredited and his movement would end. If he succeeded, the rulers would become so threatened by that movement that they would kill him. By ending this man’s death, he would ensure his own.

Our Lord never hesitated: “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!'” (v. 43). His words literally shouted, “Lazarus! Here! Outside!” And the dead man obeyed (v. 44a), as we all will one day (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52; John 5:28-29).

As a result, many Jews “put their faith in him” (v. 45). But others went to the Pharisees with the story. The Sanhedrin met (v. 47), and “from that day on they plotted to take his life” (v. 53). One day soon they would succeed.


Our story forces us to confront the issue most of us face in suffering and grief: why? Why did God allow this? Why did Jesus not answer my prayers, or heal my brother, or solve my problem? If he could raise Lazarus, there’s nothing he cannot do. But he didn’t do it for you. Why?

The answer is that his plan is seldom ours. His timing is beyond our understanding. Had Jesus healed Lazarus before he died, we would never know that he can heal us after we die. Had Lazarus not gone to his grave, we would never know that Jesus will come to our grave. Had his sisters not walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we would never know that life waits on the other side.

Aren’t you grateful that Jesus dealt with Lazarus as he did? Who will be grateful that Jesus dealt with you as he does?

Either God is Lord or he is not. Either he has a plan in the midst of our pain, a way to use our turbulence, or he does not. Either he will redeem all that he permits or causes, or he will not. In ways we can see, and most often in ways we cannot. Not yet.

It’s human nature to reject those who reject us. If you let me down, it’s hard for me to trust you again. If Jesus didn’t come when I call or heal my brother before he died, why should I believe his plan and trust his help now?

God is redeeming all he permits or causes. We can share in that redemption and providential purpose, or we can miss it. We can choose to believe that God has a plan, and we can choose to trust what we cannot see. You can choose to allow him to use and redeem your pain for your greatest good, his greatest glory, and our greatest growth. Or you can miss all the ways his weeping compassion wants to encourage you and his resurrecting power wants to help you. When he comes to visit you in your grief you can turn to him, or not. The choice is always yours.

We are living between Lazarus’s death and his resurrection. Your child is dead; your marriage ended years ago; your job is done; your future is hard. Jesus has not yet called your pain from its tomb to be transformed into life and glory and joy. But he will. One day he will.

In the meanwhile, as the songwriter says, “God is too wise to be mistaken; God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand–when you don’t see his plan–when you can’t trace his hand, trust his heart.”

The harder that is to do, the more we need to do it. Let’s ask Jesus to raise Lazarus again, right now.