It’s the sad refrain of a broken world: “If only”. “If only he’d entered the freeway five minutes sooner…”, “If only I would have kept my mouth shut…”, “If only the lab results had shown it…”, ….. “If only God had heard my prayers…”.
We live in a world that is painful and confusing so often, and for people who want to seek after God, adding to that pain and confusion is the regular complaint that one prayer or another has gone unanswered. It’s very tempting to assume that God has forgotten, doesn’t care, or has no plan at all for us in the vast scheme of things. If you’ve ever felt that way, please know that you’re not alone. Every honest seeker of God will wrestle with this at some point in the journey.
We’re going to be reading a large portion of text this Sunday, John 11:1-44, which sheds a remarkable light on the subject of delayed answers in prayer.
The text plainly says that Jesus loved this family, yet it also says because Lazarus was sick, Jesus waited two more days to head to Bethany. Does that seem like the behavior of someone who loves someone else? His reasons for delay are somewhat disclosed in v15 – does this give us any clue as to why God sometimes allows our prayers to seem unanswered? How can we view an apparent silence from heaven differently in light of this?
When Jesus arrives both women confront him with “If only you’d have been here”. In answering Martha, Jesus makes his 5th statement of “I am”, calling himself the resurrection and the life. He was revealing that in some mysterious way, the future hope of God’s plan of redemption was reaching back to the present and infusing life with abundant possibilities, beyond what we can see (HT N.T. Wright). But this wasn’t just a theological exercise for Jesus – he isn’t portrayed as a dispassionate observer of human plight. V33, 35 and 38 make that abundantly clear. If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God and God’s heart toward the human race – what do these verses tell us about him? Even in what looks like an unanswered prayer, even in the midst of broken dreams, what can we discern about God?
When Jesus wants the stone rolled away, pragmatic Martha resists. The whole thing stinks too much. She seems to want to forget and move on. Jesus does not. The stone over the tomb is the ultimate emblem of resignation. It’s too far gone, there is no more hope. Jesus says, “Take that away, I’m not done here.”
What happens next is one of those too good to be true moments. It forecasts what Jesus himself will soon experience and the hope of Easter morning. But it serves also as a parable for us. What are the bleak situations or dreams that have died which we’ve rolled a stone of resignation over? Even though Jesus didn’t respond when we wanted him to, and things don’t look the way we expected them to…can we allow for the possibilities of him bringing new life in ways we never thought of? Have you experienced this already? Have you faced some pain and seeming disinterest from heaven, only to find that God has revealed some new and unexpected life in ways you hadn’t anticipated? What lessons about God, his patterns and his heart toward us can we learn from this text?
Hope to see you on Sunday!