At some point in their lives, all Christians have to deal with the disappointment and frustration of God not answering their prayers on their timetable. They want something that is godly and good, they pray for it, and. . . nothing.
When we are wrestling with this problem, it’s useful to consider the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. All of us remember the triumphant conclusion, but it’s easy to overlook the less-than-triumphant beginning. In John 11:4, Jesus receives a message from Mary and Martha about Lazarus’ illness, but rather than leaving immediately for Bethany, v. 6 tells us that He stayed two days later where He was. As a result, when He arrives in Bethany in v.17, Lazarus already has been in the tomb for four days.
Unquestionably, Jesus could have acted immediately to heal Lazarus from a distance. Failing that, at least He could have left immediately, showing proper sympathy for Lazarus’ family. Instead, He kicks around for 48 hours, which results in great suffering for people He loves. When He does show up, Mary and Martha are not best pleased with Him.
However, a careful consideration of Jesus’ actions here reveals not laziness but rather pursuit of a greater goal. The resurrection of Lazarus is the miracle that finally pushes the leaders of the Jewish nation over the edge. John 11:45-53 reports that after it takes place, the chief priests and Sanhedrin become so afraid of Jesus’ popularity that they decide He has to die. If they don’t reach that conclusion, Jesus isn’t killed on the next Passover as the Lamb of God.
Thus, at that point in His ministry, Jesus is compelled to work a miracle that will force His enemies’ hand so that His death follows the divine timetable. Healing a live Lazarus wouldn’t have been remarkable enough to make them act. Jesus healed lots of people.
For that matter, raising a Lazarus only two days dead (as He could have done if He had left immediately) wouldn’t have done the trick either. The Jews would have been aware, as we are, of the Rule of Three. Generally, humans can survive for 30 days without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air.
Thus, if Lazarus had been in the tomb for only two days, the Jewish leaders plausibly could have argued that he wasn’t truly dead. Given that Lazarus was one of Jesus’ disciples, collusion was a reasonable possibility. In our own time, faith healers have tried similar stunts!
Raising Lazarus after four days in the tomb, though, made for an irrefutable miracle. After so long, the Jews wouldn’t merely have known that Lazarus was dead. Because the tomb was not hermetically sealed, they would have been able to smell that Lazarus was dead. When Martha objects to removing the stone in John 11:39 because of the stench it would raise, she has reason for so doing! Conversely, when Jesus restores life to the decomposing corpse, nobody can deny what just has happened.
Today, we cannot speculate on the reasons why God might delay or deny the answer we seek in our prayers. However, we must remember that from His perspective, things look very different than they do from ours.
The other day, a Facebook friend of mine posted the following quotation from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, something she apparently does annually.
"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?
“If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything - God and our friends and ourselves included - as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred."
In a time when people across the political spectrum seem more interested in believing evil about their enemies than discovering what is true, this certainly has a great deal of resonance! So far as it goes (and it may go further in the book, which I neither own nor have read), I think Lewis’s analysis is astute. Indeed, Christians must beware of the corrupting power of hatred!
However, we also ought to press the inquiry forward another step. It is not enough to identify hatred and contempt for our enemies as seductive. We must ask why it should be so.
The answer, I think, is one of comparison. The more vile our enemies are (or we make them out to be), the more brightly we and our friends shine. Next to the manure pile, even the soiled garment appears clean. The lesser of two evils often comes to resemble a positive good.
The benefits of adopting such a stance are manifold. We no longer have to subject those who are on “our side” to searching moral inquiry because, well, look at the other guy!
Most especially, we no longer have to subject ourselves to searching moral inquiry. Our enemies, rather than the word of God, have become our standard for self-evaluation. In comparison to the picture we paint of them, we have no flaws worth mentioning. There is nothing we need to change; instead, we can bask in our own self-righteousness.
Of course, when the hearts of God’s people are given over to hatred and self-righteousness, the devil has won completely. We have no justification for maximizing the difference between ourselves and our enemies. We too once were deceived, enslaved, hateful and hating one another. Rather than contempt, we must respond with recognition, sympathy, and pity.
The difference between us and anybody else is not our inherent goodness. It is that we have known the light of the grace of God, which cleanses and instructs us. If God could love and be merciful to me when I was His enemy, I must love and be merciful to my own enemies.
Admittedly, humility and self-sacrifice are not as enjoyable as contempt and self-righteousness. However, we have no hope for true righteousness apart from them.
Even though Facebook does its best these days to compete with television for the title of “vast wasteland”, one occasionally encounters a gem on it that—hopefully—justifies reading through all the rest. For example, the other day, a friend of mine posted this description of his grandmother:
What my grandmother lacked in money she made up for in love.
She was proud to say that no one came to her home hungry and left the same way. Her first words were always, “Want something to eat?”, and her last, “Want something to take with you to eat on?”
Many of us have been blessed by knowing godly women of a similar temperament. My own mother was that way. My sister still likes to tell the story of how she and her husband were leaving my parents’ house, and my mother kept trying to give her something.
“Would you like this?”
“No, Mom, we don’t need that.”
“How about this?”
“No, thank you. Don’t need that either.”
And so forth. Finally, in desperation, my mother picked up one of her potted plants off the front porch, held it out to my sister, and asked, “Well, would you like a pansy?”
Some find joy in accumulating. Others find it in giving. It’s no secret, I don’t think, which of these attitudes is godlier.
Indeed, the spirit of giving is the spirit of Christ. As Paul observes in 2 Corinthians 8:9, He gave everything He had so that we might become rich. He sacrificed Himself so that He could fill our deepest needs.
As disciples, we could do far worse than taking the words of my friend’s grandmother for our own. We ought to go through our lives doing our best to make sure that no one leaves us hungry. Sometimes, this occurs without metaphor, through a literal filling of bellies. I know I appreciate it when brethren share their food with me!
However, it ought to be much broader than that. Thankfully, we live in a country where physical hunger is rare. However, the hunger pangs of the American soul seem more piercing today than ever before. So many feel lonely, isolated, depressed, overlooked, and worthless. Doctors prescribe antidepressants by the bushel, yet the epidemic of misery continues.
Perhaps the problem is that we have become so affluent that we have forgotten the value of the things that money can’t buy. I recall reading some years ago that the average American only invites someone else into their home once a year. It is far worse to live in a mansion that is empty of human contact than to live in a cottage that is filled with love and laughter and friends.
None of us can change our society singlehandedly, but we can change the lives of the people around us. We can make sure that they don’t leave us hungry. We can show them that they matter by the way we speak and the way we listen. We can expand an everyday contact into a meaningful one. We can leave a life a little brighter than it was five minutes ago, not through any special skill or talent, but simply through love.
This manner of living doesn’t lead to any earthly recognition, though a surprisingly large number of people may show up for your funeral. It will not attract the attention of the miserably self-centered world, though it will attract the Lord’s attention. Nonetheless, not letting anyone leave hungry is one of the few things that we can do with our lives that will make an eternal difference in the lives of others.
Do not despise the day of small things. In the end, the small things are the ones that matter.
Along with all the other clichés used to describe 2020, it has become commonplace to call it a “difficult” year. We all know this to be the case. It seems like everything we do now has become just a little bit harder. If you go to the store and forget your mask, you have to go back to the car and get your mask before going in the store.
I know that’s a trivial example, but even trivial burdens add up. Because life is harder, I think it’s fair to say that most of us feel like we’re in survival mode rather than flourishing mode. This is true in every area of our lives, but I think it’s particularly true in our spiritual lives. Instead of striving to bear fruit for Christ, many of us have fallen into the rut of existing.
This is a problem. Indeed, in Galatians 6, Paul warns us about growing weary in doing good. Other such warnings abound throughout the New Testament. Rather than focusing on the negative, though, this evening I want to look at the positive. I want to look at some reasons why, even in this difficult time, we should cowboy up and be tireless in doing good.
First, we should do so because IT ENCOURAGES OTHERS. Look at Paul’s self-description in 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8. I find this fascinating. We think of Paul as this titan of the first-century church, as indeed he was. By contrast, we don’t even know the names of most of the brethren in Thessalonica.
Nonetheless, the encouragement that those nameless Christians gave to the famous apostle was a life-and-death matter to him. Simply by staying faithful, they brought him through a dark time and gave him the strength he needed to continue his work. Indeed, throughout Paul’s epistles, the encouragement he gains from the faithfulness and labor of other Christians is a constant theme.
Today, things are no different. All Christians need encouragement from one another, and that’s true of even the most prominent leaders in the church. Every member of this congregation matters to the elders here. Every one of you matters to Clay and me, and when we see you working for the Lord or even simply remaining faithful, it brings us great joy.
Of course, the opposite is true too, and there’s something that I want all of you to think about. It’s no secret that since the COVID outbreak, our attendance has been way down, especially on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. I’ve said repeatedly, and I’ll say it again, that Christians need to do whatever is necessary to protect their safety. Nobody is going to judge anybody; nobody is going to start getting phone calls from the elders about forsaking the assembly.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been among the non-attendees, I want each of you to ask yourself a question. Why is that? Is it because you’re concerned about your safety, or is it because 2020 is a hard year, and you’re tired, and it’s easier to stay home?
Again, no judgment. I completely get that. Think for a moment, though, about the effect that you have on your brothers and sisters here simply by the choice to assemble or not. It’s hard to push through, but if we assemble, even if we’re tired, even if school just started, we will bring joy and blessing into the lives of people we love. Think about these things, and what you do with that, I leave to you.
Second, if we are tireless in doing good, WE WILL BEAR FRUIT. Consider the way Jesus ends His explanation of the parable of the sower in Luke 8:14-15. I think both of these explanations are relevant to us. First, we see the problem with being an existence-level Christian. If we allow the coronavirus to choke out the word in us, we will defeat God’s purpose in our salvation, just like crops that don’t bear fruit defeat the purpose of the farmer.
On the other hand, when we bear fruit, the harvest can be many times more significant than we are. However, Jesus here uses a key word to describe what we have to do if we want to bear fruit. We have to endure. We have to persevere. We have to press on through difficulty. If we don’t, there won’t be fruit.
I find this so encouraging because it reminds me that if I do keep going, even when it’s hard, there will be fruit that I can see. This is true in every area of our spiritual lives. If we persevere as godly parents, godly workers, godly friends, and godly neighbors, there will be fruit. It won’t be wasted effort.
I think, though, that most of all, this is relevant with respect to evangelism. There are lots of things that Christians think you have to have in order to be effective at winning souls. They think you have to be eloquent, charismatic, and a Bible expert. None of that is true.
Instead, we only need two things. We have to love people enough to share the truth with them, and we have to be persevering enough to keep doing it. Maybe this person we invite doesn’t come to church. Maybe this other person we invite comes but doesn’t come back. However, if we keep on working through discouragement, sooner or later, someone will be saved because of what we said.
Finally, if we are tireless in doing good, OUR WORK WILL NOT BE VAIN. Look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56-58. Even though if you only look at v. 58, it sounds like this is making the same point as the parable of the sower, a look at the context reveals something different. We can be sure that our toil is not in vain in the Lord not because God will bless our efforts. Instead, Paul says our toil is not in vain because God through Christ has given us victory over sin and death. This isn’t about earthly success. It’s about eternal success.
It is certainly true that the ceaseless toil that God expects from us as Christians can get to us. I spent last week writing and preaching sermons, but I know that for as long as I remain a gospel preacher, I’ll be spending most weeks that way. I work to save souls and keep brethren from falling away, and that won’t change for as long as my life in Christ continues. There always will be people in need to be cared for, ruffled feathers to smooth, and special events to plan. Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We keep doing the same thing until we die.
What’s the point, then? Why do it? Why keep trying to roll that boulder up the hill? The real reason is not the earthly effect of our labors. It’s the spiritual effect.
If you think you have a hard life, consider the life of Jeremiah. He spent his whole life prophesying, and hardly anybody ever listened to him. He told people the truth, and they hated and persecuted him for his pains.
And yet, Jeremiah’s labor was not in vain because it found favor with God. No matter what, we can be sure that He will regard our labor for Him in the same way, and nobody who inherits eternal life ever says it wasn’t worth it!
Luke 14:15-23 is commonly known as “The Parable of the Banquet”, but it might equally well be called “The Parable of Excuses”. In the parable, a man gives a banquet and invites a number of people. However, the invitees all have excuses for why they will not come. In response, the host becomes angry, instructs his servants to find absolutely anybody to fill the places at the table, and vows that none of the original invitees will be allowed in.
In the context of Jesus’ ministry, this obviously is a parable about the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were the ones originally invited to the spiritual feast of fellowship with God, but for various reasons, they declined the invitation. Consequently, God invited the Gentiles into His kingdom in their place.
However, it’s also valuable for us to apply the parable to ourselves today in a more direct sense. It is sad but true that people will lose their souls because of the excuses they used to justify their disobedience.
These excuses begin with respect to obeying the gospel in the first place. Some say that they would be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, except that their family always has held to a denominational tradition. Others say that they’re too wicked to become a Christian, so they need to get their lives straightened out first. Still others say that they are “not ready yet” for unspecified reasons. All of these excuses, though, allow the sinner to put off their salvation indefinitely, to their ultimate ruin.
The same applies to the justifications that Christians offer for prolonged disobedience to one of God’s commandments. Yes, they know that Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and that Christian wives are commanded to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
However, they tell themselves that these commandments were written with a generic inoffensive spouse in mind, not with their particular obnoxious spouse. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my wife is a shrew!” “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my husband is an idiot!” Thus, they feel free to return evil for evil rather than obeying the commandment. Their lives are marked by decade after decade of disobedience in a dysfunctional marriage.
Excuses also often emerge when a Christian fails to assemble regularly. Of course, there are legitimate reasons not to assemble—illness, work (though the Christian whose work schedule often keeps them from assembling is well advised to look for another job), or, these days, vulnerability to COVID-19. Other excuses (the preacher is boring, nobody there likes me, etc.) are less legitimate.
It is worth asking, though, whether the obstacles that keep us from assembling also keep us from worldly activities we enjoy. Work schedules can be frustrating, but one wonders about the man who never is able to assemble on Sunday morning but somehow manages to reserve his Saturday mornings for fishing trips. Likewise, if we avoid worship services because we’re afraid of the coronavirus, but we don’t seem to be afraid of vacationing in crowded tourist traps, perhaps it is time to examine our motivations more closely.
Whatever our excuses, we must acknowledge that we have far less reason to disobey than Jesus did. In heaven, He was equal with God. He was guiltless and did not deserve to die, and we were guilty and did not deserve to be saved. Nonetheless, rather than offering excuses, He offered Himself in obedience to His Father. As His disciples, is our call to do anything less?