“When He had heard therefore that Lazarus was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was.” -John 11:6
The lapse of years made it possible for the beloved evangelist to draw aside the veil which curtained the happy intercourse of our Lord with the home at Bethany. We are thus furnished with a conception of the one green oasis in the rugged wilderness through which He passed to his cross; and are able to think of the pure and holy love that broke in upon his loneliness, and with true affection softened the bitterness of his last days, so far at least as human love could.
There were marked diversities in that home. Martha, practical, business-like, and thoughtful of all that could affect the comfort and well-being of those she loved ; Mary, clinging, spiritual, gifted with all a woman’s delicacy of insight and tender sympathy; Lazarus, a man of few words, quiet and unobtrusive. But Jesus loved them each. In the forefront of this marvelous chapter stands the affirmation, “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus”; as if to teach us that at the very heart and foundation of all God’s dealings with us, however dark and mysterious they may be, we must dare to believe in and assert the infinite, unmerited, and unchanging love of God. Whom the Lord loves He rebukes; the sons whom He receives He chastens; the boughs that are capable of bearing fruit are rigorously pruned. This is not joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, in the golden Afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them that are exercised thereby.
I. Love Permits Pain. To that hidden retreat in Perea there came one day a breathless messenger with the tidings of the illness of Christ’s friend. The sisters never doubted that He would speed at all hazards to his side, and stay him from death. And if He had done as they expected, He would not only have saved his life, but have spared the sisters the anguish of long suspense, the flickering out of hope, the agony of the death scene, the grave, and the desolate, darkened home. How different were his love and their thoughts of it! “When He had heard therefore that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was.”
What a startling therefore! He abstained from going, not because He did not love them, but because He did love them. His love alone kept Him back from hasting at once to the dear and stricken home. Anything less than an infinite love must have rushed instantly to the relief of those loved and troubled hearts, to stay their grief, and to have the luxury (which only love can appreciate) of wiping and stanching their tears and causing their sorrow and sighing to flee away. Divine love could alone hold back the impetuosity of the Savior’s tender-heartedness until the Angel of Pain had done her work.
Who can estimate how much we owe to suffering and pain? But for them we should have little scope for many of the chief virtues of the Christian life. Where were faith, without trial to test it; or patience, with nothing to bear; or experience, without tribulation to develop it? These qualities could not be perfected in our Lord without suffering. “He learned obedience by the things that He suffered.” And we can only secure the fruit of the autumn by paying the price of wintry frosts and equinoctial hurricanes. Suffering robs us of proud self-reliance, and casts us in an agony at the feet of God. Suffering prunes away the leaves in which we rejoiced, that the sap may find its way into fruit. Suffering isolates the soul, shutting it away from all creature aid, and surrounding it by a wall of fire. The leaves of the aromatic plant must be crushed ere they will emit their fragrance; the ore must be plunged in the furnace ere the gold is set free; the pebble must be polished on the lapidary’s wheel ere its brilliant colors are apparent.
This leaf, this stone- it is thy heart:
It must be crushed by pain and smart,
It must be cleansed by sorrow’s art,
Ere it will yield a fragrance sweet;
Ere it will shine a jewel meet
To lay before the Savior’s feet.
How soon does pain drive us to the Savior! Whilst Lazarus was in health, no messenger hasted to bring the Savior to Bethany. But when death hovered over the little group, they summoned Him with all speed. This is an illustration of how pain, like a surge of the ocean, lifts us up and flings us down at the feet of the Savior. The dark moaning waters drive the dove to the Ark; the dreary winter sends the swallows south j the sharp pruning knife compels the sap into the leafy crown or ripening branch; tempest roar makes the timid nurslings nestle close to their mother’s side. Pain makes God a necessity. It is in the valley that we exchange the word “He” for “Thou.” “Thou art with me.”
Pain often reveals some unrealized side of our Savior’s character. The sisters had never known Him as the Resurrection and the Life, if Lazarus had not died. David had never known God as his Rock, and Fortress, and Deliverer, if he had not been hunted on the hills of Engedi. Israel had never known God as a Man of War if the nation had not endured the horrors of Egyptian captivity. Thus our very necessities read us lessons of the variety and fullness of the resources of our God. Every stormy wind in its rush whispers some new name for Christ. Every wave that dashes at our feet flings there some message from the ocean fullness of his nature. Every crucifixion rends some impenetrable veil that had hung before his heart.
And pain is often suggestive of the noblest acts of sacrifice and self-devotion. It was after Lazarus had suffered that Mary broke her alabaster box over the head of Christ, not only viewing Him as the Resurrection, but preparing his incorruptible body for its brief sojourn in the grave. Many of the masterpieces of literature and art owe their existence to the strange touch of pain, giving a fire, a passion, and an intensity to the brain and heart of genius. If the Master is about to use thee largely in ministering to others, do not be surprised if He puts thee to serve an apprenticeship in the school of pain. Poets learn in suffering what they teach in song. Blood and water flowed from a pierced side. Pearls must be dived for by those whose feet are heavily weighted to make them sink.
And there is this further thought. The Lord permitted those sisters to suffer because of the benefit which would accrue to others. Speaking to his disciples shortly afterwards, He said: “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there.” The sisters suffered because their pain offered a platform on which Jesus could erect one of his greatest miracles, to stand as a beacon to weary hearts of all ages. This idea is not foreign to even heathen philosophers. “Accept,” says the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “everything that happens to thee, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to the health of the universe ; for God would not lay on any man that which he suffers, if it were not useful for the continuance and perfection of the whole.” It is probable that no one suffers nobly without in some degree ministering to the glory of God in the well-being of others. Let those who live to suffer, who lie all day in pain, and all night in utter weariness, take heart! In some way that passes our thought they too are fulfilling a useful and blessed office to the entire family of man.
Such are some of the results of Pain; and as we count them over we cannot wonder that God’s love allows us to suffer, and is even eager to stand aside to let her do her work. For the time in which Pain can perfect her work is short. She needs to make haste, because the morning cometh in which she will not be able to work.
II. God’s Love sometimes leaves our Prayers unanswered. What has become of so many thousands of our prayers? They were not deficient in earnestness; we uttered them with strong crying and tears. They were not deficient in perseverance; we offered them three times a day for years. They were not deficient in faith; for they have originated in hearts that have never for a moment doubted that God was, and that He was the rewarder of them that diligently sought Him. Still no answer has come. The argosies went forth to sea, but, like some ill-fated vessel, have never been heard of since. There was no voice, nor any to answer, nor, apparently, any to regard.
What is the history of these unanswered prayers? Some may say that they sought things which were not good-and this may explain some of the perplexity; but a better clue is given here: this was a prayer touchingly pathetic and earnest, for something which was prompted by natural affection; for something which it was in the scope of Gods love to give, for it was given; and yet the prayer was apparently unanswered. The answer was postponed and delayed.
When prayer is unanswered it may be that it has been mistaken in its object, and the mistake will be indicated by inability to continue praying, and by the dying down of the desire in the soul. In other cases, especially when desire and faith remain buoyant and elastic, and still the answer comes not, God’s intention is that in the delay the soul may be led to take up a position which it had never assumed before, but from which it will never be again dislodged. No praying breath is ever spent in vain. If you can believe for the blessings you ask, they are certainly yours. The goods are consigned, though not delivered ; the blessing is labeled with your name, but not sent. The vision is yet for an appointed time; it will come and will not tarry. The black head may have become white, the bright eye dim, the loving heart impaired in its beating; but the answer must come at length. God will give it at the earliest moment consistent with the true well-being of the one He loves.
III. God’s Love comes at Length. To the sisters He must have appeared neglectful; but He was not really so. Notice, that after two days, though no fresh message had reached Him, “He said to his disciples, Lazarus is dead.” How carefully He must have watched all that transpired in that much-loved home! He saw the messenger’s return; the momentary joy his tidings gave; the gradual waning of life; the anguish of the watchers as they beheld the slackening of the silver cords of life. He had followed in thought the funeral train to the rocky tomb. The whole situation was constantly present to Him, till He saw that He could interpose with the best possible result.
So is it ever. His step may linger ; but his watchful interest never falters. There is not a sigh, a pang, a tea^, that escapes his notice. There is not a fluttering pulse which He does not feel, noticing its tremulous anxiety. He sits as a refiner of silver. He knows our sorrows. He is acquainted with our grief. He slumbers not, nor sleeps.
And when He comes He does more than we asked or thought. He raises not the sick, but the dead. He makes the darkness of the tomb the background against which to set forth the luster of Resurrection glory. He does much more than the wildest fancy could have dreamed. Prayer is seen to be answered in a sweeter, deeper, diviner form than could have been hoped for. The benefit gained by the long delay is evident; and the wisdom of the Divine patience is acknowledged. “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”
In after days the three would not have wished it otherwise. They would review it all, as we shall review things from the hill-summits of glory. And as the whole marvelous story passed before them in after years, they would anticipate the cry with which the Redeemed Church shall hail the unfolding of the Divine purposes in relation to our race, “Amen! Hallelujah! Amen! so be it!” – the reverent assent of the understanding, the acquiescence of the soul. “Hallelujah!” – the glad, long outburst of adoration and praise, of worship and love.