Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio


Text: John 11:1-45

June 2019 


     Eighty-six year old Mr. Carpenter, who rarely spoke a word to his minister, once approached her

after service.  “Preacher, why don’t you pray and ask God to start wearing a watch?”  The pastor

was puzzled by his question.  Assuming it to be indicative of the onset of dementia, or possibly a

criticism of the length of her sermon, she asked in a rather condescending way:  “Why should God

wear a watch Mr. Carpenter?”  The elderly man replied, “Because He’s hardly ever on time!”

    Along with God’s purposes, God’s sense of timing is an issue a lot of folks struggle with.  God

often seems, from our perspective, to be too early or too late; rarely right on time.  I’m reminded

of a funeral I officiated for a young girl in Pittsburgh many years ago.  At the age of twenty, Melissa’s

life was lost in a boating accident on the Ohio River; snatched away from her parents; snatched

away from her friends; most tragically, snatched away from her one year old son.  As I counseled

with Melissa’s father prior to the service, he asked me through a veil of tears, “Why preacher?  Will

you tell me that!?  Why would a loving God allow life to be taken so early?  Missy had her whole life

in front of her.”  I didn’t have any words to offer in that moment as I thought to myself, “He’s right. 

This is so unfair.”  Yet during Melissa’s service, I was led to read familiar words of Jesus from John’s

Gospel:  “I am the resurrection and the life…..do you believe this?” 

      A few years earlier, I stood in the home and at the bedside of my father’s cousin Frank as he

writhed in pain from the bone cancer in its latest stage.  His wife Teresa shuddered as she emptied

another syringe of morphine into his IV port.  She looked at me with tears streaming down her

face.  “What is God waiting for?  Why doesn’t He just take him?”  Again, I did not know what to say. 

Instead, I stood there, a lump in my throat the size of which felt like an orange, feeling pretty

clueless.  Here I was in theological seminary studying to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament, and

I couldn’t think of single thing to say which seemed remotely right.  A week later at Frank’s grave-

side interment, Father Castellucci read from the Gospel of John:  “I am the resurrection and the

life….. do you believe this?”

      Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, a family from the village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem;

a family which Jesus loved deeply.  Lazarus had been ill a while, and was in the last stages of that

illness.  No doubt, the physicians of the day, with their limited understanding, had tried mightily to

bring healing to Lazarus.  But there was nothing more they could do.  Yet there was word of medi-

cal miracles being performed throughout Galilee and Judea by the rabbi from Nazareth.  And not

just any rabbi from Nazareth, but a close personal friend of the family, and One who was being pro-

claimed by some to be the Messiah of God.  So Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus:  “Lord, he

whom you love is ill.”  The sisters’ expectation was clear.  If Lazarus was able to hold on just a bit

longer, and if Jesus would beat a path, this life might be saved.  It was all about timing.

      On the other end of the message, strange words; an unlikely response from One who, when

hearing of a need, would typically say, “Let us go at once.”  Instead, “This illness does not lead to

death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  And, “after

having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” 

       Finally, after two more days of agony in the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany, Jesus

decides it’s time to go there.  But Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead, and He tells his disciples as

much.  In spite of that, and despite His disciples’ warnings that Jesus’ enemies were waiting for

him in that region, they set off.  And interesting that with the extreme danger which lay ahead, it is

the one whom we tend to beat up as the doubting and faithless disciple who  spurs them on: 

“Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die

with him.’” 

      By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus had been in the grave four days.  And the entire

village was mourning with his grieving sisters when word of Jesus’ arrival gets to them.  Martha

immediately runs out and meets Him.  She doesn’t say, “O Master, thank you for coming.”  She

seems more angry than appreciative when she cries, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would

not have died.”  What kept you?  But even now, can’t you do somethingJesus assures her, “Your

brother will rise again.”  Yes Jesus, I know he’ll rise in the resurrection on the last day.  But how

about now?  Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection and the life……do you believe this?”

      Before long, Mary also comes out to meet Jesus, and falls at His feet weeping, “Lord, if you had

been here, my brother would not have died.”  Where have you been?  I find it significant that in

this moment, Jesus has no word to offer.  In the presence of human suffering and death, Jesus Him-

self “began to weep.”  The Jews who were there may also have wondered: If Jesus loves Lazarus so

much, why didn’t He get here earlier and prevent his death?  What crummy timing!  His spirit trou-

bled, and His heart breaking, Jesus calls for the stone to be removed from the mouth of the tomb. 

      Now we are given testimony to one of the greatest expressions of Jesus’ power – the last and the

largest of the seven miracles or signs John will record in His gospel.  Above Martha’s objections that

after four days, the body of Lazarus is in a state of decay, Jesus – tears staining His cheeks and per-

haps a lump in His throat – calls forth with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  Gasps rise from

the crowd.  Lazarus, still bound in bandages, comes forth from the tomb.  Almost matter-of-factly,

Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Jesus demonstrates by this awesome sign that we are

not bound by the grave, but rather freed by the word of the Lord.

       That’s the story as John records it.  Yet we’re left with a lot of questions, none of which can be

answered with any certainty.  First and foremost, how did Jesus do it; bring a person who was dead

for four days back to life?  As with any of Jesus’ miracles or signs, we have no explanation, nor does

faith require one.  How long did Lazarus physically live beyond this resurrection?  We’re not told,

but John does tell us that he was having dinner with Jesus less than a week before Passover, and

lived long enough to share his story with multitudes of people.  Of course, Lazarus died again.  But

it’s safe to assume that whatever span of earthly life he went on to live was much different than his

former life.  As with the person who dies on the operating table but is reanimated by a miracle of

modern medicine, there is a new and amazing story to tell from the perspective of a radically trans-

formed spiritual life.  My hunch is that Lazarus’ remaining days on this earth were absent any fear of

death, because Lazarus had been called forth by the One who is the resurrection and the life.

      Now let’s return to the concern which opened our message.  How about God’s timing?  Too early

when a young life is lost.  Too late when a person suffers long with age and/or disease.  Sometimes

we join Mr. Carpenter in wondering why God doesn’t wear a watch.  But Martha and Mary learned

something of the Lord’s timing in this morning’s episode.  Jesus may have been days late according

to their calculation.  But as far as Lazarus was concerned, Jesus was right on time.  And the larger

lesson here is that God’s perfect purposes are always perfectly fulfilled according to God’s perfect

timing.  As with Jesus being the resurrection and the life……. do we believe this?

      From our side of things, God’s timing is often hard to live with.  And I suppose we’ll always find it

a temptation to question God’s timing right along with questioning God’s purposes.  Things rarely

seem to go according to our well-planned schedules.  God is usually ahead of or behind.  But we see,

and perceive, and schedule from such a limited perspective and narrow scope of understanding. On

the other hand, God sees the entire picture; a picture, portions of which we are given only a

glimpse.  It’s like a child, in whose small world, everything needs to be right now.  As parents, we

know better the when’s and how’s and why’s.  The child does not, and cannot, comprehend things

like right timing and ultimate purpose.  They see and grasp only a tiny segment of the big picture. 

So too we in relationship with our heavenly Parent.  Where we are short-sighted, God is long-

sighted.  Where our point of view is constricted and limited, God’s point of view is expansive and

entirely without limit.  When we criticize the Lord for being too early or too late – Lord, if you had

only been here – we find that when it all shakes out, God was right on time after all, and was right

there the entire time.

      Yes, we’re left with a lot of questions.  And those questions may not be satisfactorily answered

tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, or next year.  But an essential of faith is waiting on God;

trusting God’s timing to turn out to be perfect timing.  As Paul wrote to the Roman Christians in res-

ponse to the unfairness of untimely suffering, “We know that in everything, God works for good

with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  Along with that trust in God’s

purpose comes a call to trust in God’s timing, however unfair or skewed it may seem from our

severely limited point of view.  I’d like to close with these few words from the Psalmist: “I wait for

the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who

watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”  Amen