This message was preached at First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh on the Sunday following Dr. Holmes’ mother’s massive stroke, and five days before she died.
When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
In front of this textual sentence stands a great affirmation that has something to say to our compulsive generation: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” At the very heart and foundation of everything that enters our lives, however dark or ominous it seems, stands the unchanging love of God’s Son, the Lord of the cross, Jesus Christ. That is not jump up and click your heels news, but it is the best news in any situation.
“The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6). Discipline is seldom fun. Sometimes it comes in the form of love that lingers, as it did here.
His Lingering Love Permits Pain
Our culture promotes pain avoidance. Dozens of advertisements tell us we can live without suffering. That is a myth because it is built upon a false hypothesis. The Bible says that suffering is as normal a part of human existence as breathing. Job, Scripture’s oldest book, describes life as being, “Of few days and full of woe” (Job 14:1). Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble.” We would all be discouraged except that He adds, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
Suffering deepens our dependence on Christ for strength and teaches us that He is worthy of our trust. J. I. Packer describes pain and suffering as, “God’s chisel for sculpting our lives.” The Bible never says our lives can be pain free. Paul learned from his agitating thorn that Christ’s strength is perfected in our weaknesses. Character is developed through suffering.
Two days ago I left my mother’s hospital bedside in Ireland to fly across the Atlantic to bring you this message today. Even though I left with her blessing — she was able to nod her approval to my leaving to be with you — I can tell you that I never before in my live felt a magnetic pull like I felt before I left that hospital room. I know more than ever before about the love of Christ that sometimes lingers.
Mother suffered a massive stroke on Wednesday morning. It is not likely that I shall see her again this side of heaven. Out of the deepest resources of my soul I must tell you today for Christ’s sake that when God does not respond immediately to our cries in pain it is not because He does not love us, but precisely because He does love us and wants to accomplish some growing purpose in our lives. Mind you, I am all too aware that it is easier to say this when we are not conscious of any particularly painful experience in the present tense. While Lazarus was in good health, no one came running to Jesus from Bethany.
It was more than Lazarus. Paul learned that deep pain is the way of strong growth. John Bunyan’s name would be added to that list, as would the names of thousands of Christians in every generation. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was written in response to his twelve years of suffering in Bedford Jail. Conditions there were primitive to say the least. It is doubtful John Bunyan would have requested one day of that captivity. It is more likely he prayed for early release. Yet, had his prayers for freedom been granted immediately millions of us would have been denied a great Christian classic.
His Lingering Love Promotes Perseverance
Scripture assures us, “He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29). “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). But it never says instantaneous results are guaranteed. There is an old Irish proverb that says, “You get the chicken by allowing the egg to hatch, not by smashing it!”
“It’s a waste of time to pray,” she said. “I’ve been praying and nothing has happened!” We have all made prayers, and made them earnestly, but they were not answered. What happened to them? Where did those prayers go?
Someone says, “You were praying for something that was not good.” John Huffman, at the Congress on Preaching in London, spoke of his prayers for Suzanne, his daughter, after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. People all around the world, many in this congregation where John served, prayed for Suzanne’s healing. Was Suzanne’s cure not a good thing? Of course, it was. Was it in the scope of God’s ability to answer? Of course, it was. Yet, she died. It seems like such a loss. When John said he lives now with a piece of himself missing, we all listened intently. Then he added that he knows where that piece is. It is in heaven, and one day all of John will be joined with Suzanne and it will all make sense. Meanwhile, John and Ann persevere with grace and with that hurt that only parents whose child has died can understand. God’s lingering love promotes perseverance.
Incidentally, in a similar vein, I was told that some members of our staff and congregation partnered to pray for me last week at the very hour I was scheduled to speak at the Preaching Congress. I was moved to hear about that kind of caring commitment when I called from London to check on you. Then I realized that they had unwittingly prayed one day early.
Someone asked me yesterday, “What happened to those prayers?” Surely the answer must be that God holds them in trust for the very moment they were intended. Don’t you imagine that somewhere among the vast bank of heaven’s resources there is a repository for prayers once deposited to our account that will mature for payment at just the right time. Surely they include John and Ann Huffman’s prayers along with the petitions of thousands upon thousands, no millions upon millions, of parents who pray for their children to be healed, or, to find the right partner, or choose the right path, or accomplish good for themselves and their world. Not for one second can I believe that a prayer is ever lost.
We have our first English Bible translation largely because of John Wycliffe. He was a persevering, praying man. His enemies, all good church people, determined they would do everything possible to make sure Wycliffe never finished translating the Bible into English. They persecuted him mercilessly. When he died, they burned his body at the stake and threw his ashes into the Thames. “We’re rid of him,” they thought. They were wrong. In God’s providence, John Wycliffe’s work was done because he stayed with the job God gave him. His memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, appropriately notes his impact on Christian history, calling him, “The Morning Star of the Protestant Reformation.”
Perseverance! When I taught college communication courses in Mississippi, a student brought this contribution to class about sticking to the goal:
Two frogs fell into a vat of cream
Or, so I’ve heard it told
The sides of the vat were shiny and steep
And the cream was deep and cold
“Oh, what’s the use,” cried frog number one,
“‘Tis fate, no help’s around;
Goodbye, my friend! Goodbye sad world!”
And weeping still, he drowned.
But number two, of sterner stuff,
dog paddled in surprise;
And all the while he wiped his face,
and dried his creamy eyes.
“I’ll swim a while, at least,” he said;
Or, so I’ve heard he said.
It really wouldn’t help the world
if one more frog was dead!
An hour or two he kicked and swam;
Not once he stopped to mutter.
He kicked and swam and swam and kicked;
And hopped out via butter!
When we pray and it seems our prayers are not answered, it is not that God is uncaring. We are not being ignored so much as challenged. No praying breath, nor accompanying effort, is ever wasted. Job was right, “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10).
Join your hands with God’s hand for the things you ask in prayer and be confident that the right answer will come in due time. His ear is not deaf. His arm is not short. His love endures forever.
His Lingering Love Produces Posterity
To Mary and Martha, Jesus must, at least for that moment, have appeared neglectful. Yet, He never is lax. Even though, according to the text in John 11, no new messenger came to Him, the omniscient Christ knew what was going on. The whole situation was constantly in His purview. He was able to tell the disciples, “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:4).
This Christ who loved Lazarus and loves us never misses a sigh, nor a pain, nor a tear. He sees all, and through it all He loves us with Calvary love.
It may seem as though our prayers are not being answered, but they are! He may not be moving on our schedule, but He is moving at the right pace for what is best. If what you want is good, hold fast to Jesus who said, “Can not five sparrows be sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten…Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6).
When His answer comes it provides all we need end more.
Once I heard a song of sweetness,
As it cleft the morning air,
Sounding in its best completeness,
Like a tender pleading prayer.
And I sought to find the singer,
Whence the wondrous song was home;
And I found a bird sore wounded,
Pinioned by a cruel thorn.
I have seen a soul in sadness,
While its wings with pain were furled,
Giving hope, and cheer, and gladness,
That should bless a weeping world.
And I know that a life of sweetness,
Was of pain and sorrow borne;
And a stricken soul was singing,
With its heart against a thorn!
We are told of cruel scourging,
Of a Savior bearing scorn,
And He died for our salvation,
With His brow against the thorn.
We are not above our Master.
Will we breathe a sweet refrain?
Then His grace will be sufficient,
When our heart is pierced with pain!”
Lazarus came forth and so shall we when it looks as though love has lingered. Always remember this: We will rise again. Even death can’t keep us in the ground.
Look to Christ, Lord of Calvary’s cross, Lord of every situation that ever has impacted, or will impact, your life. Believe Him. It is well, for He is Lord!