I don't know where you're coming from this morning as we try to tackle this question of suffering in the world. It would be tempting to try to tackle it as a philosophical problem.
I don't know if you (like me) did religious education at school – But I remember studying the question of God and suffering in RE lessons – and the teacher threw out all these big words that the philosophers say about God that none of us could understand…
- That God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent.
- He is omnivorous.
- He's ambidextrous, he's bifocal, he's double jointed.
He's all these things right. And as the teacher said this I thought to myself – this is just a game!
Don't you think that sometimes? When people start to talk to you about God – it just sounds like a game, doesn't it? Can we imagine a perfect being, and pump it up on steroids and thrust it into the heavens and worship it.
But that is not how Christians think. We don't think God up... he comes down. When he reveals himself to us he does so in flesh and blood – as a person. As Jesus. You see our suffering isn't philosophical – it is personal. So the answer to our question this morning comes to us in seeing how Jesus deals with it personally. Which is why we're opening up the Bible so we can see him in action – responding to a family in crisis. That's the situation we parachute into in verse 1 of John 11, isn't it?
"Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha." – It's their brother who is ill. He hasn't just got man flu. Terrible though man flu is – something is going on with Lazarus that is much more significant than that. So his sisters – Mary and Martha send for Jesus – verse 3 – do you see? "…saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." And here we get the first of three shocks we're going to look at this morning – as we see Jesus…
SHOCK #1 – The God of Love Who Does Nothing
He loved Lazarus. He loved this family. "So…" – verse 6 – "…when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was."
Now… for me… when I'm in trouble I expect those who love me to pitch up straight away. Isn't that what we expect love to mean? Like for those of you with young children – when they wake up crying in the middle of the night – You don't take your diary out and say: 'Ok, let me see – I've got a slot free a week on Tuesday. I could fit you in then. Is that alright?'
No! Love means you run. You get there as fast as you can. But Jesus doesn't! He does nothing.
I suspect many of us know what that feels like. There are times in life when something comes along – and it's not a fly in the ointment – it's a hippo. And it's painful and difficult and you can't see how you're going to get past it.
Perhaps you prayed. Perhaps you begged. Perhaps you waited. Perhaps you cried. But heaven was silent.
There are times when it is hard to believe in the goodness of God. And folks… this is one of those times.
Why on earth doesn't Jesus drop everything and rush to Bethany? I mean, it says there so clearly in verse 5 – he loved them. But look again at verse 6. "So – Therefore… when he heard…" he sat down and had a cup of tea.
Because he loved them… he delayed? That's what this seems to be saying. How does that work?
It seems to get worse when Lazarus dies! When word comes through Jesus says to his disciples in verse 14: "Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there…"
What? How could you be glad?!
No! Read on – look at what he says next: "for your sake I am glad that I was not there… so that you may believe."
A friend of mine was telling me about how her little daughter spotted her putting a cake into the oven last week – the little girl shouted "CAKE!" as it went in. 'I want CAKE!' But obviously it wasn't cooked yet so mum says 'No!' And so the bottom lip starts to tremble, and the tears start to flow. 'But… I thought you loved me.' Kids have no concept of delay bringing future advantage, do they? You will know that if you have ever taken a child to get a vaccination. In their eyes a complete stranger stabs them with a sharp bit of metal – causing them to burst into floods of tears. But they don't know what you know – The pain is real, if only for a moment, but we can see that it was done to prevent something far worse happening.
That's what's going on here. Jesus is giving us the first hint that his delaying… is part of a plan.
- A plan to prevent something much worse happening.
- A plan which will help them see the one thing their souls need more than their brother back.
- A plan which will bring them… to fully trust in him.
Now that might seem a bit crass to you. Is Jesus playing with their emotions like a puppet on a string? Surely there is a better way – an easier way to help people "believe in him".
Well, please hang in there. Jesus is no heartless monster – As here's…
SHOCK #2: The God of Power With Tears In His Eyes
Jesus may not have shown up to Lazarus' sickbed... but he does show up to the funeral. AND when he does… he weeps so much that everyone comments about it.
Have a look with me at verse 33: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'"
And so we learn that God is not immune from the pain. And if you are hurting this morning – Jesus wants you to know that he weeps with you. He feels your pain. In fact, he takes it personally. Twice it says here in John 11 that Jesus was "deeply moved." These words were originally written in Greek and a more literal translation of them is: 'To snort with indignation'.
So this is more than mere empathy. It is an expression of anger. Why?
Well… the Bible tells us that for Jesus pain and death are an intruder. They do not belong in God's world. So Jesus doesn't just stand distant and aloof to the pain of the world – like the God's of Greek Mythology. No! He cries out against it – because this is not the way things were meant to be!
I mean… open up the story of the Bible at the beginning and you will find – Genesis chapter 1 – that God makes a world that is "good". Everything he makes is "good". And the goodness is there because God is there. God is the source of all goodness.
But then the people God makes – reject his good rule. They push him and his word to the margins. And they fall into sin and suffering. Everything that was good… has now been spoiled by our rebellion.
- So there is disease in the world – because there is health that has been spoiled.
- There are family breakdowns – because there are relationships that have been spoiled.
- There is depression – because there is mental health that has been spoiled.
- And there is death – because there is life… that has decayed and spoiled.
Every experience we have of suffering in the world is an experience of this fallenness. But all of those experiences testify to the original and ultimate good. Even a bad world can testify to a good God – it really can.
Which is why God – when he shows up to this funeral – is not only sad, but angry. Angry that pain and suffering and death are now a reality. Angry that the good world he made has been spoiled by our sin.
You see – God is not immune to the pain. But we are not immune from the blame.
We recognise that there is a fallen world out there. But if we're honest – we must also see that there is also fallenness in me. And those two things are connected.
The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn experienced one of the horrors of the 20th century – the Gulags. As an outspoken critic of the Soviet government he was sent to one of those forced-labour camps.
And from it, he wrote that it would be convenient if the world could be divided into goodies and baddies. And wouldn't it be great if the line dividing the baddies over there and the goodies over here… was there – and I could be safely on the right side of the line. But famously Solzhenitsyn said, "The line dividing good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart." There is evil out there – there really is. But there is also evil in here – there really is.
Another author of the last century – G.K. Chesterton memorably answered The Times newspaper's call for essays on the question "What is wrong with the world today?" with a two word answer. "What is wrong with the world?" – "I AM."
- I contribute to the pain of this world… So do you.
- I have caused suffering in this world… And so have you.
- In many ways I am a victim of this world, I'm a victim of evil – but I am also a perpetrator of it.
So it is a curious thing for me to want God to rid the world of evil. Am I asking him to rid the world of me?
Of course not. And God doesn't want that either! He would be well within his rights to do so.
But he is not content to leave us to the inevitable judgement which falls on us in the Karma response to suffering. Which says that if you do good – good will come back to you. If you do bad – bad will come back. You get what you deserve. And none of us deserves the goodness of God.
But neither does he want to leave us in the hands of the Chaos response – Which gets rid of God altogether and says it's just a random world. Some people get lucky and some people get unlucky. There's nothing anyone can do about it. But if you say it's just random – it cannot be wrong. And then you can't have a problem with suffering.
But it is wrong! All of our being cries out against it!
Which is why Jesus not only snorts with anger at this funeral – but he also invites us to have a problem with suffering and evil.
Like did you notice how believing in Jesus enables Mary and Martha to make a complaint? They both say the same thing in verses 21 and 32: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." That's actually a statement of great faith: 'Lord Jesus, you're so amazing – you could have stopped this.' But it's also a statement of complaint too: 'What's going on Jesus? Where were you?' And actually in the Bible – Believers complain to the Manager all the time! And they don't get zapped. Because Jesus invites you to join him in having a real problem with suffering.
Jesus also gives you a real solution to suffering. Do you see in verse 43? "When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out.' The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, 'Unbind him, and let him go.'"
This is an emotional rollercoaster here, isn't it? He comes to the funeral. He cries more than anyone else. And then he transforms the funeral into a homecoming. Who is this Jesus? Well, here's…
SHOCK # 3 - The God of Resurrection Who Brings Hope to the World
As in a matter of weeks after this he will transform his own death. In a matter of weeks, he will endure the horror, the tragedy, the sacrifice – the hell of the cross. He will go through that valley of the shadow of death. And yet he will burst through the other side into resurrected glory.
There really is a solution to suffering with Jesus. And it's Him.
The goal of our existence – the point of our suffering if you like – is that we might find him. Not only so that we would find refuge in him – But so that he might pull us through the other side.
I have often put it like this – that Jesus is the needle that goes through the black shroud of death and comes out the other side. All the rest of us are swallowed up by that black shroud. Billions of battles have been fought with death and no one has ever survived them. Except this guy. Except Jesus.
I know it's hard to believe – but there is a victor over the grave. There really is hope beyond the scope of this sin-stained world – and beyond the certainty of death.
As Jesus really did go through that black shroud of death and come out the other side. And if we're connected to him we are like the thread attached to the needle – pulled through that same trajectory... towards that same destination.
And what is that destination?
Well at the end of the gospel accounts of Jesus life we get a foretaste of what the future will be like. That's why the gospels give us encounters with him beyond the grave. Because it's meant to show us what we're looking forward to.
And what we're looking forward to is not pie in the sky when you die. It's not sitting on clouds and polishing halos. When Jesus rises from the dead….
- He goes for long country walks with his friends. That's the future.
- He has long conversations with his mates long into the night about the stuff that really matters. That's the future.
- He has tear-filled, Joy-filled reunions. That's the future.
- He goes fishing with friends and they have barbecues on the beach as they watch the sunrise. That's the future.
If the Jesus story is true. It's worth investigating don't you think? Because with Jesus you have your one shot at the happy ending.
I don't know if you've ever heard the story of Joni Erickson Tada – who at the age of 17 fractured her spinal cord after a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. She is in her 60s now. She's spent half a century in a wheelchair, but she still says: 'Only Jesus offers me a new spinal cord.'
Only Jesus offers hope for these bodies and this world.
So what are you going to do?
Here we are – we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death – and you say to me, 'But it's really horrible here. There is such pain, such suffering, such darkness.'
I know, I know – but follow that thought! It is right to have a problem with suffering. God does! He hates it even more than we do! So don't throw your problem with suffering at him – Bring it to him. Come to Jesus. And there you will find the solution to suffering…
- Because he shows up in the midst of your grief and he cries with you.
- He will weep, and walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death –
- He bring you out the other side to a life fully and finally set free from sin and pain. There is an end to our suffering – but we only find it with Jesus.
So let me finish with John 11 verse 25: "Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?'"
Well do you? I wonder if as I read those words – "Do you believe this?" – I just wonder if you've come to the point where you're saying to yourself: 'I think… maybe I do.'
For some of you – this is the first time you've heard anything like this. But for others maybe you've been looking into this for a while and you realise…
- You do believe in Jesus.
- You do believe he is the resurrection and the life.
- And do you want him to walk with you and take you home to be with him forever.
Well you can have him today!
On the next slide there is a prayer that you can pray. It says this: "Dear Jesus, I recognise who you are. You are Lord, you are light – I on the other hand am lost and in the dark. I need you. Thank you for dying for me. Thank you for rising to give me new life. Please forgive me for my sin and selfishness. Come into my life and lead me through this life and into eternity. Amen."
Now those words aren't magic – they're just a way of starting a relationship with the God who wants to weep with you, who wants to walk with you and who wants to give you a real hope.