John 11.1-45, Ezek. 37.1-14
The story of Lazarus’ death and resuscitation is the pinnacle of Jesus’ miracles in John’s Gospel, and it all happened in and through prayer. When I read the Gospel of John, I see the intimate prayer life of Jesus. And, today I want to focus on the suggested and spoken prayers in the story that happen in the midst of everyday life. These aren’t prayers that arise from some created reality. They are prayers that intersect everyday moments in people’s lives.
Anne Graham Lotz has a teaching on this passage of Scripture entitled, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayer?” I would invite us to think differently about prayer. I understand that God always hears and responds to our prayers – just not in the way we might want or expect. God always hears us when we cry out. But many times we interpret God as non-responsive, even dead to our cry for help. We witness this kind of answered prayer best in Christ Jesus. The Israelites had to wait a very long time for the coming of the Messiah, and now Christians are waiting a very long time for the return of the Messiah. God’s ways are not our ways, but God always hears and responds to us to be sure.
Deliberate prayers like Jesus
The passage opens by remembering a specific moment of an act of worship with a heart tuned in prayer (John 11.1-3). Jesus and Mary would share an intimate moment of profound gratitude as a result of the story of Lazarus in this text (John 12). Jesus takes his time in prayer, spending two days remaining where he was before engaging in any response to the situation (John 11.4-7). He relied on the intimate relationship he had with his Heavenly Father to secure his response before he responded.
We might call these the prayers of waiting. Two days of waiting would certainly invite a long season of prayer at the time of a dear friend’s death. I can only imagine the kinds of prayers that Jesus prayed during those days of waiting. I have experienced these kinds of prayers and perhaps you have too while waiting in the hospital during a surgical procedure. Waiting prayers touch the deepest part of our heart and soul and invite us into a more profound relationship with Jesus Christ.
Disoriented prayers like the disciples
Based on the disciples’ response, we catch a glimpse of the ultimate danger that Jesus was in – religious leaders want to stone him (John 11.8-16). Jesus offers the disciples a response that they cannot understand. Jesus always seems to be talking in riddles, over their head even when he is speaking plainly. When Jesus declares that Lazarus has died, it is doubting Thomas (of all disciples) who affirms Jesus’ decision to go to Lazarus. I can only imagine the courage it would have taken to face the potential of their own stoning by association with Jesus. I can only imagine how disoriented the disciples are with Jesus delaying his response for two days, and then being willing to return to the place of conflict with the possibility of death looming ahead of him.
We might call these moments with the disciples disoriented prayers. For it is Thomas who speaks out about the situation. Thomas whom we know as the doubter becomes brave in this moment and willing to lay his life on the line for the sake of Jesus. In my work in the medical field I have found that many physicians do not believe in the power of prayer or the Christian understanding of God. It is in those moments of doubt that families insist on God’s intervention in their lives with powerful outcomes. I remember one situation as an 8-year-old boy had a brain tumor and they were uncertain as to his survival. But he had a mother who believed God could do the impossible when the physician did not have much hope. I recall several times when a Jewish neurosurgeon supported the hope of Christian parents for God’s intervention, and they saw a miracle.
Departing prayers like Lazarus
Lazarus has died (John 11.14). We have no idea about his prayer life prior to his death, but now there is no longer any hope for him to offer prayers on his own behalf. The only way this healing will take place is through the prayers of others, i.e., Jesus. We don’t really know much about Lazarus’ prayer life, but we do know he was a friend of Jesus.
When I was in the hospital, I witnessed the death of two little boys who had heart-failure on the same day. Their mothers had become friends and their hearts were knit together at the time of those little ones’ deaths. I walked with them through the suffering of their children, the funeral, and the graveside service as they sought to comfort one another. Their hope was found in what I call afterlife prayers. The mothers found strength in their belief that their children would be able to play together in heaven when they could not play together on earth. And, the mothers found hope in their friendship in grief.
Delayed prayers like Martha
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Jesus places himself just two miles outside of Jerusalem where many are plotting to take his life (John 11.17-18). According to theologian N.T. Wright in his commentary entitled John for Everyone, the word Bethany means “house of the poor.” It seems there is evidence that the poor, needy, and sick people were cared for like a Hospice House at Bethany. Martha hears that Jesus is in town and goes to meet with him (John 11.19-21). Her immediate response is questioning Jesus. Have you ever found yourself in a place where you feel your prayers have not been heard? Martha finds herself in a quandary of an unanswered prayer. Martha believes in Jesus, but she doesn’t understand his perspective (John 11.22-27). I would go so far as to say she even disagreed with how Jesus handled the situation. She wasn’t in agreement with Jesus’ behavior. Yet, she unwaveringly submits to Jesus’ Lordship over her life. She doesn’t let unanswered prayers destroy her faith in Jesus or her belief in the afterlife.
We might call this a season of delayed prayers. What we perceive as unanswered prayers, God has already heard our cry for help but has chosen not to respond immediately. These kinds of prayers cause us to doubt and hold disbelief in our hearts. I remember a mother who struggled with this kind of situation when her 15-year-old son was run off the road into a culvert and suffered a severe head injury. There was little hope for any kind of recovery but she prayed and believed in God’s miraculous work to give her son back to her. At one point we prayed together and I gave him my own personal basketball. I wrote Scripture on it and placed it in his hands, and encouraged him that he could press into his healing and claim his life again. And, some three months later I had the privilege of visiting with him in the hospital as he had his last surgery. He had just been playing basketball the day before with his friends. The power of prayer leads us to believe the impossible is possible with God.
Discouraged prayers like Mary
Martha urges Mary to seek Jesus out and when she does she too questions Jesus’ response to the situation (John 11.28- 32). Jesus “if you had been here…” Mary is heart-broken and discouraged. Mary knows that Jesus is capable of miracles. Again, the “if only” moments with God break our hearts. We cannot comprehend that God might choose not to answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Our minds are in a fog and our emotions are bound in the struggle of discouragement.
There are times at the hospital when discouragement was a continual theme in some patients lives. I remember one teenager who came to the hospital with a brain tumor and his parents were distraught. I spent hours with his parents during the surgical procedure, and the mother was so sick with anxiety. It was a time of holding our breath wondering if the young man would survive the procedure. He came out of surgery talking and flirting with the nurses. Within a week’s time he went home to recover, and the first thing he did when he got home was to get back on his motorbike and ride. Discouragement can get us down. But when we persevere during life’s trials, hope emerges. Prayers of discouragement become a living hope for a new, unexpected future.
Depressed prayers like Jesus
And, they cry together (John 11.33-37, 38). Jesus and those with him weep together. Jesus joins their sorrow. He isn’t cold and aloft, but joins them in their despair. Can you imagine this moment with me? Mary bereaved with the loss of a brother falls at Jesus’ feet weeping and questioning. Why, Lord? Jesus is profoundly touched in this moment, and he himself begins to weep. And, as Jesus came to the tomb, he is deeply disturbed. John Wesley says it this way, “Out of sympathy with those who were in tears all around him, as well as from a deep sense of the misery sin had brought upon human nature” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes).
We might even call these the weeping prayers of Jesus. How his heart was moved with compassion for those who experienced the death of a loved one! I remember one situation as a premature child was brought into the hospital with uncontrolled blood-pressure issues. The blood pressure continued to rise up over 200 and the doctors had given up hope to regulate it. The parents gathered with me and we began to pray specifically that God would regulate the blood pressure, and that the blood pressure would return to normal. I watched as the doctor removed himself from the situation but the parents continued to press in with prayer, and hours later without any assistance from the medical staff the blood pressure returned to normal. The little one was released from ICU to be monitored, and was soon released to return home. The power of weeping prayer is effective. When medical science has no impact on genetic problems or physical illness and disease, God still is in the business of healing prayer.
It has been four days since Lazarus died (John 11.39). Tradition has it that the spirit of the person would still remain near the body for three days, so four days was ample time to declare that Lazarus was truly dead. Some believe that “after death, the soul reviews the events of its entire life for three days” (The Christian Community). Martha will speak up about how dead Lazarus really was. There would be an awful stink from the decomposition of the body. There is no doubt in Martha’s mind that Lazarus is dead beyond human resuscitation.
I remember a child that climbed out of the doggie door and fell into a backyard swimming pool. She was found down; no one knew for how long she had been in the water. EMS came and they brought the child to the ICU. They ran tests on the brain to see how much damage was done and how to help assist the child in recovery. I prayed with the family at bedside as they wept. Within hours the child sat up talking and drinking from her sippy cup. She went home later that day and I was given the privilege of walking the family out of the hospital with much celebration and thanksgiving to God. You see, God is still in the business of answering prayers in the direst situations.
Divine prayers like Jesus
Out of a moment of deepest sorrow, Jesus calls forth life (John 11.40-44). When we hear Jesus’ prayer, there are details we don’t want to miss. First, Jesus was well prepared and prayed up before he ever prayed for Lazarus. Second, Jesus thanked his Heavenly Father before the answer came. Third, Jesus commands a response from Lazarus to come forth! He doesn’t ask, he commands. Jesus knows his authority over death and disease, and he exercises it unashamedly. Fourth, Jesus directs others to care for Lazarus to untie him and let him go. Jesus knows his identity, asserts his authority, and claims the answer to his prayer.
John Wesley evaluated the texts as Jesus lifted up his eyes “not as if he applied to his Father for assistance. There is not the least show of this. He wrought the miracle with an air of absolute sovereignty, as the Lord of life and death. But it was as if he had said, I thank thee, that by the disposal of thy providence, thou hast granted my desire, in this remarkable opportunity of exerting my power, and showing forth thy praise” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes). When Jesus cried with a loud voice, Wesley assessed, “That all who were present might hear. Lazarus, come forth – Jesus called him out of the tomb as easily as if he had been not only alive, but awake also” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes). And when Jesus came forth bound hand and foot with grave clothes, Wesley reflected on Lazarus, “Which were wrapt round each hand and each foot, and his face was wrapt about with a napkin – If the Jews buried as the Egyptians did, the face was not covered with it, but it only went round the forehead, and under the chin; so that he might easily see his way” (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes).
Of course, not every person who needed a miracle was given a miracle in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus walked past a lot of people who needed answers to prayers. The answers did not come for many on this earth who were seeking a touch from God. So how do we reconcile that some prayers are answered and others are not. For most of us belief in God’s sovereignty helps us in our unbelief when we do not get what we want or think we deserve. Trust in God’s grace and mercy provides avenues of hope for the uncertainty of the future.
When I think about how Jesus spent two days were he was most likely in grieving prayer, I can only imagine the prayers Jesus prayed for Lazarus and his family during these two days of waiting. The scripture that comes to mind is Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones (Ezek. 37.1-14). I can only imagine that Jesus knew the story of Ezekiel’s conversation with God Almighty about the resurrection that would come. Ezekiel was asked, “Can these bones live again?” and Ezekiel responds, “Lord God, only you know.” Only you know, Lord, what is possible. The Lord proclaimed to those dry bones, “When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.” Yes, and Lazarus came forth. I call these glory prayers.
Glory prayers are those prayers pray in the power of the presence of God in accordance with God’s re-creative will. They are the prayers that line up with the Word of God for our circumstances. The re-creative power of God is alive and active in the world and at times we seem to tap into God’s power that blesses us beyond measure. But the answers to these prayers happen when we live in the holiness of heart and life, resist the devil and he will flee. We are to claim the power of the blood of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross by exercising forgiveness. When we want to pray glory prayers we follow the example of Jesus in the Scriptures, and begin by getting away from the crowds and praying to our Heavenly Father.
Dispatched prayers like “some” folks
But with any movement of God, there will always be those who worry and fret. There are times our flesh and blood respond against God’s will. Whenever there is an encounter with God’s glory, there are always “some” who live in worrisome behavior (John 11.45-46). Worry is coming. And, the story closes with “some” folks being worried with Jesus’ behavior. I can only imagine how “some” of these folks were the ones insisting on sealing Jesus’ tomb out of worry. They had been at Lazarus’ resuscitation and they worried about his miraculous work. But worry didn’t change God’s mind! Lazarus remained alive until he died a second natural death.
I imagine these fleshly behaviors as dispatched prayers. The “some” dispatch worry among community leaders. There are always “some” among Jesus’ followers who worry and are fearful about what God might do in his community of believers. The “some” even demonized Jesus who brings forth God’s creative work. When Jesus’ prayers are answered, the “some” respond in worry. They struggle to make sense of God’s re-creative work in Lazarus. And, the “some” dispatch words of worry.
Desiring God prayers
However, next week we enter into the story of Palm Sunday. We will sing the Hosannas – the same Hosannas we have sung every Palm Sunday for years! But did you know that when we sing the “Hosannas,” we are praying and asking God to save us? Hosanna is the Hebrew word for “Save us, we pray!” (John 12.13, Psalm 118.25-26). The story of the Passion of Christ is rooted in the exclamation of the Israel people calling for God’s salvation in prayer. Each time we sing “Hosanna” we call on God to save us! What a powerful prayer!
We might call these salvation prayers. Salvation prayers begin when we invite Jesus into our hearts, but salvation prayers are also prayed everyday of our lives. Salvation begins with the moment we invite Jesus, but salvation prayers continue our whole lives into eternity. If we find ourselves believing that salvation is only a moment but then we don’t have to work out our salvation every day, then we miss the salvation story of holiness of heart and life. Sanctification is the continuing work of God in our lives as we seek to grow in our discipleship.
Here in the Gospel of John we witness the profound prayer life of Jesus. It is within the context of prayer that our relationship with Almighty God can grow. How is your prayer life? Do you find yourself waiting upon God’s timing for a miracle in your life? Do you know yourself to be like Martha with delayed answers that seem to never come? Do you see yourself like Mary with a heart filled with discouragement? Do you imagine yourself like Jesus weeping with a broken-hearted friend? Have you taken time to meditate on the Word of God to declare and call forth new life? New life comes by way of prayer first, then in action and deed. Wait upon God in prayer and see the new life you seek. The altar will be open today during communion for you to rededicate your prayer life.