Understanding Advent Through the Story of Lazarus – When God Comes Near
“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Perhaps Bonhoeffer was given a glimpse of Advent 2020 when he penned these words. Troubled in soul? Poor and imperfect? Looking forward to something greater? How well that describes so many of us as we near the end of this tumultuous year. If Bonhoeffer is right, perhaps Advent 2020 holds out more promise for us than previous years. If these are the conditions for a meaningful Advent, we are there.
I am committing my three Advent blogs in an effort to draw us into a story that may seem as far from the Christmas story as one can get. I’ve been meditating on the curious story of the raising of Lazarus from John 11. I say ‘curious’ because much in the story seems nonsensical. However, I believe there is much here that can teach us about the nature of God and help prepare us for the celebration of His coming as the child of Bethlehem.
Part 1 – Healing Delayed
Mary, Martha and Lazarus were siblings living in Bethany just a short distance from Jerusalem. We remember Mary as the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus loved these three, and they loved him and believed in him. So when Lazarus fell seriously ill, the sisters sent for Jesus, the healer.
Now Jesus was in Bethabara, some twenty miles from Bethany. A fast-moving messenger could travel that distance in less than a day. One day to get the message there, and Jesus could be back to Bethany on the second or at worst, third day. So the sisters tended to their dying brother and waited, watched, prayed, hoped.
Nothing. Lazarus drew near death, and daily, maybe hourly they went out and looked down the road, straining to see the image of Jesus drawing near with healing in His wings. And as they waited in vain, Lazarus died.
Meanwhile, upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness and impending death, Jesus remains where He is for two more days. Unthinkable? Uncaring? Callous? All these could apply to such a response.
The disciples with Jesus didn’t want to go at all, fearing death at the hands of the Jewish authorities (11:8). But Jesus promises them they will go, and He indicates that His delay in leaving is for their good. “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (11:14-15).
And this is where it gets curious, because back in Bethany with Lazarus’ death has come sorrow, grief, weeping and mourning. It also brought no small amount of anger and reticence on behalf of the sisters. And as soon as Jesus shows up, it comes out. Some 5+ days after the appeal was sent from Mary and Martha, Jesus and His companions finally arrive in Bethany. Immediately He is confronted by Martha. ““Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). Later Mary is coaxed to go to Jesus, and she greets Him with the same rebuff, “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32).
Why would Jesus delay His coming and allow such grief and despair to be felt by those He loved? And for what seems such a curious reason? Was His delay really necessary for faith to be kindled in those who followed Him? Was the reward worth the cost?
As we live these days of Advent in a year that lays in tatters behind us, we must join in the lament of these sisters. We know Jesus can heal. We know He can restore and bring hope. We know He loves and cares for this world. But over 1.5 million people have died from COVID-19. Racial tension fills our streets with protests. Political animosity tears at our nation’s fabric and moral relativism erodes the moorings that gird the foundations of our culture.
So where is Jesus? Why can’t we see Him through the tear gas, the hurricanes and the armies of PPD-clad medical teams? Why can’t we hear His voice above the partisan vitriol or calling out through the lament of millions of graveside mourners? Why can’t we find Him on social media where we search for everything else?
If Advent is a time of waiting for His coming, has He tarried too long? Is hope lost? Is despair all we have left? Are we looking in vain down the dusty road this Advent season? Perhaps so, if we look at the story from our side, if we measure things according to our timeline.
But God’s timing is always read on the face of an eternal timepiece. Jesus was ready to teach His followers His most important lesson; He was greater than death itself, and for them to believe it, He would confront death head on. To do so, His timing was perfect.
In Galatians 4, Paul tells us, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” In Romans 5 Paul says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” In Ephesians Paul continues the theme, “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
The fullness of time. Just the right time. Times reach their fulfillment. These are the promises of Advent, and if we are to celebrate it as people of the promise, we must hold fast to the truth that God comes near at exactly the right time.
How about for you this Advent. Are you longing for a fresh sense of God’s nearness? Are you searching for a deeper connection with a God who seems to have delayed in answering prayer? Is your faith wavering as you look down the road waiting for the healer to arrive? Are you running out of time?
Where do you need God to show up in your life?
This Advent, may we not only trust in His love, His power, His goodness and His provision, but also in His timing. May we believe throughout this Advent that God’s will is being worked out in the fullness of time…”
My prayer is that we take courage and hold fast to the faith that God’s timing for us, our family and our nation is perfect. In this season of waiting, let us not lose hope because the one in whom we hope is faithful.
Next week – How God Comes Near.