Monday, October 1, 2012

If You Had Only Been Here

I've wondered about prayer since I was kid.   I wonder how does God feel? Does my lackluster prayer life hurt His feelings, like if I just stopped Skyping my Mom?   How does He begin answering prayers before I've prayed them?  Why does He wait so long to solve problems that He is going to end up solving for me in the end?  Does He ever answer me, and then I just don't understand the answer at all?  How many "thank-you notes" for prayers answered have I forgotten to send in my life?  

During my childhood, when I would plague my parents with questions like this at the dinner table, my sister would tell me that I would have to wait to ask God when I got to heaven.  But as I was preparing a recent post I ran across a passage that may have a few of the answers.

Towards the end of Jesus' ministry, He was called back to Judea by an urgent message from Mary and Martha.  They were close friends-He had been a guest at Martha's house for dinner (Luke 11:38-42). They said simply, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." There is an enormous amount of faith here.  Not only faith that Jesus can do something about it, but that He will (John 11:1-3).

Hearing the message, noticing the faith of these two women and loving their brother deeply, Jesus hops up and takes the express donkey south.  Nope.  That's not it at all.  

Let's try again.  Hearing the message, noticing the faith of these two women and loving their brother, Jesus words a quick prayer, "Father please help the sick and ailing, especially our brother Lazarus" and he was healed.  Nope. 

One more time.  Hearing the message, noticing the faith of these two women and loving their brother deeply, Jesus does nothing. That's it.

After two days of delay, He tells the disciples that they are going to go back to Judea, an idea that floors them.  "Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?" (John 11:8, John 10:39) He replies, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep"  (John 11:11). Confused, the disciples remind Jesus that sleeping is good for sick people and Jesus has to spell it out, "Lazarus is dead!"  (John 11:14)

It takes Jesus a while to get back to Judea, and when He arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb for 4 days.  Martha heads out to meet Jesus as soon as she hears He's coming, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You" (John 11: 21-22).

I find that statement stunning.  It is prayer and accusation in a single breath.  The rest of the conversation reveals that Martha believes both in the resurrection and the fact that Jesus is the promised Messiah, filled with power. Don't be fooled, her anger does not indicate a lack of faith.  She heads back home and calls Mary out to talk to Jesus next  (John 11: 21-27).

Mary's response is eerily similar.  She falls down weeping at Jesus' feet-an act of prayer and worship, accusing him with the same words, "Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:32).

Mary and Martha have a lot to teach us about prayer. They had bold, angry, accusatory words. Facing Jesus with all their honest emotion they sound like the Psalmists hurling words at God (Psalms 88).  Haven't you ever wanted to say to God, "Where were you?"  "Why didn't you help me?"  "I know you could have fixed this!" The sisters speak frankly to Jesus the way we can and should take our feelings to God in prayer.

Jesus has something to teach us too about God's reaction to our prayer.  First, when He delays He does so for good reason, even if it causes Mary and Martha some pain.  Before He left for Judea he intended to resurrect Lazarus and bring glory to God  (John 11:4). He indicates in John 11:9-10 that all these things are done at the right time. The furor over the finale of the story, when Lazarus is raised from the dead, is one of the excuses that the Pharisees used to justify the plot to kill Jesus (John 11:45-53).

Jesus' delay is not as heartless as it might seem.  Matthew, Mark and Luke mention Jesus' compassion over and over, but John shows it.  When Mary starts to cry, Jesus cried too.  As our great high priest, our permanent heavenly intercessor, Jesus is still moved by our pleas.  God is compassionate (James 5:11, Deuteronomy 4:31, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 103:8, Psalms 116:5).

So let me encourage you to do three things.  First, when you are hurt and frightened, when you are angry and accusatory, tell God.  It is not a lack of faith to bring your real feelings to God's throne.   Second, don't forget yours is not the only story.  Mary and Martha's story, the one where their brother died, is engulfed in a story where God was revealing the greater truth of the resurrection of the dead and orchestrating the events that would lead up to the crucifixion of His son.  The story of hurt and pain we are experiencing may be part of a greater story God is telling.  Finally, don't think you are crying all alone.  God is compassionate and faithful and He is waiting for the day when He will wipe all your tears away (Revelation 7:17, 21:4).

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

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