You will never hear a faith journey story without some amazing out-of-the-blue, didn’t-sign-up-for-this kind of circumstance. I’m talking about the kind of circumstances you probably don’t really ever want to go through again, and wouldn’t wish on anyone, but yet it’s like God did something in the middle of that circumstance, and it became a defining moment. It’s a time where it seemed like God was so far away, yet on the other side of it, you look back and see God was really in it all. We call these defining moments “Pivotal Circumstances”.
The amazing thing is that they can be positive. You’ve probably heard stories of people who go on a mission trip and God opens their eyes in a whole to way, or someone had their first child and the miracle of birth got their attention.
But oftentimes, pivotal circumstances are the negative circumstances of life. They’re the things that just come out of the blue; the phone call with information we didn’t expect to get. Suddenly, we’re faced with circumstances that are just bigger than life. We don’t know what to do or where to go. It’s in those moments that God is often introduced or re-introduced into our lives. Suddenly for the first time in our life we find ourselves on our knees, crying out to God. And all of a sudden God is invited in at a completely different level.
I think C.S. Lewis says it best in his book, The Problem of Pain. He writes: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God grabs our attention…like WAKE UP! There is an undeniable relationship between the big, bad unexpected circumstances and our faith. It’s something God has leveraged from the very beginning of time. In fact, James, the brother of Jesus, who was at the center of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead, wrote about the relationship between circumstances and our faith.
James 1:2-4 (NIV)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your [What’s the word?] faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
In other words, James says that it’s not accidental that Christians and non-Christians alike face these overwhelming circumstances. It’s not accidental that in the middle of those circumstances something begins to happen to our faith in God. A determined, persevering faith starts to grow, so…let perseverance finish its work. God is up to something in the big, pivotal circumstances of life. He does not cause them, but many times He will let us go through them because they are one of the primary things God uses to grow and strengthen our faith.
I think a great illustration of this comes from a story that most all of you are familiar with. In fact, as soon as we start the story you’re going to know the end. But I want to ask you to just slow your mind down and experience this story with the characters. Because here’s a situation where Jesus doesn’t just leverage a negative, pivotal circumstance to grow somebody’s faith. No, in this story, Jesus actually creates a negative circumstance in order to grow someone’s faith. I want you to listen to this familiar story with this new idea in mind as we discover why and how God uses pivotal circumstances to do something in us.
The passage is John 11:1-15. The story begins:
1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
All three of these characters are close friends of Jesus. He has eaten in their home, and they have supported him in many ways. So the sisters, after their brother became sick, sent a messenger to find Jesus whose only a few miles away, and here’s the message they sent:
3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
Now look closely. It’s not, Lord, Lazarus is sick; it’s Lord, the one you love is sick. They knew that Jesus would automatically know who they were talking about because the message came from Mary and Martha. Their relationship with Jesus was so close that they could simply describe Lazarus as “the one that you love”. Now Jesus has healed many, many people; strangers He never saw but once. In some cases, He healed people he never even saw – just by speaking a word. And so of course, when Lazarus became sick with a life-threatening illness the sisters called for their friend, Jesus.
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
Jesus says something new here. Sickness/illness/disease can be for God’s glory. This is not like when you win an award and you’re up in front of everybody in your company and you say, “I just want to give all the glory to God. He’s the one that gave me the strength to do my job.” That’s nice, but there’s another kind of glory that’s even better, something way more effective. It’s where something really, really negative is introduced into your life and God says, I’m going to allow that, and I’m going to leverage it for my glory.
Now, remember John is the one writing this and he was right in the middle of this event. He was right there so he knew how this happened. He continues:
5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
John says you need to understand this isn’t just a family Jesus met one day. There is something about this relationship that goes beyond the average relationship. He knew their names. He knew where they lived. He had been in their home. They had supported him. There is a special relationship between Jesus and this family.
6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
That makes no sense! He did exactly what you would expect Him NOT to do.
One of the reasons I believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are actual historical documents that record the life, words, and events of Jesus is stories like this. If you were writing fiction in order to get people to love and follow the teachings of Jesus, you wouldn’t write it this way. Everything about it is wrong. Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick, the one that He loves, and He does nothing for two days!
You’ve probably felt that in your life, haven’t you? You ask God for help…and nothing. God, I need a job…nothing. God, I need money…nothing. God, are you even listening? So you promise to go to church, do all these things, and still nothing.
For two days Mary and Martha suffer watching their brother die. They asked everybody coming from that direction, “Have you seen the teacher, Jesus, and His disciples?” We’ve sent word. The messenger came back. We know He got the word. Slowly they watch their brother die. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
Then after two days…
7 Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
Now here’s another important piece to realize. The town of Bethany, where Lazarus lives, is near the region of Judea. And Judea has not been a happy place for Jesus and His disciples.
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “only a few days ago the people in Judea tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”
The disciples were good at refreshing Jesus’ memory. Don’t you remember what they tried to do to you? We’re your followers…if they stone you, they’ll stone us too!
Now, remember these are the heroes of the faith, the people we name our children after; The saints… And they are thinking, We like the idea of just sitting here.
Hey, Jesus, remember the time that the guy came to you and said, “my servant is sick?” You were going to go to his house and he said, “Oh, you don’t need to go to my house.” Then you just said the word and the servant was healed. Let’s do one of those. Let’s just do that again. I think this is the perfect time to heal somebody without actually going there because we don’t want to be stoned. Of course, we don’t want to see you stoned either.
Then Jesus gives a little lesson for a couple of verses here. I’m not going to teach that lesson today. But at the end of it, it’s pretty funny because the disciples realize they need to just give it up, because they’re going. Dear Thomas is ready to be a martyr, let’s go die with Him. Like they just know He’s going to die.
11-12 After he had said this he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”
Basically, they’re saying: Oh, we don’t need to go. If he’s sleeping, that’s great. That means the fever has broken, he’s resting calmly. So we don’t need to go then.
13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.
I imagine the confusion at this point. You meant he was dead? They probably thought, “If you knew he was dying, then why did we just sit here for the last two days? Why didn’t you at least do your wireless healing thing?”
Then listen to this next verse. Jesus says,
15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
But what about for Lazarus’ sake? What about Mary and Martha’s sake?
You’ve got to hear this. This is huge!
Jesus looks at His twelve disciples (they guys He’s going to hand the whole thing off to later one day – the guys that are kind of scared all the time… terrified at sea, denying him later) and He says…
For your sake (the twelve of you) I’m glad I wasn’t there. I’m glad he died.
I’m glad Mary and Martha went through everything they went through watching their brother die.
I’m glad for the disappointment they have in me.
I’m glad for the mystery surrounding this whole thing.
I’m glad for the Jews that are around them saying, See, I told you he wouldn’t come. He’s not who he says he is.
I am willing to allow the one I love to die and the hearts of the people who I love to be broken.
I’m glad about all this because I have something so big and so major that I want you to learn. That’s how important this lesson is that I’m about to teach you.
And then this little Greek word that’s translated into two English words “so that.” It’s called a henna clause. It’s just one little Greek word, henna, which means, now I’m going to give you the reason, the purpose behind this. Now I’m going to let you in on what’s really going on.
You want to know why I’m glad we were not there? You want to know why we stayed here and I let him die. You want to know why I let Mary and Martha’s hearts be broken?
15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Jesus would allow someone who He knew personally and loved to die? He allowed his sisters to sit there and watch him die just so the disciples could have bigger faith (now don’t get me wrong, we see later that Martha and many others benefited from this as well). But from the disciple’s perspective, they had to be asking, “Is it worth all of that?”
Another reason I believe this really happened… This is too severe to make up. This is in total opposition to everything we want to believe about God. And Jesus says, I set this whole thing up. That’s how important it is that you have big, bold, audacious, strong faith in me.
Then we skip down to verse 21. Martha sees Jesus coming down the road days later. And she comes running to Jesus and says what you and I have said to God. In some way, shape, or another, we have all said something like this to God.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Basically, Martha is saying “Jesus, this is your fault. Jesus, I’ve seen you heal strangers. I’ve seen you heal people that weren’t even in your presence. I heard about the Roman centurion, who represents a government that we despise. You didn’t know his name or the servant’s name, and you healed his servant. Yet you wouldn’t come here to heal your friend? Jesus, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. If you’d been here, I wouldn’t have had to watch him die. If you had been here, I wouldn’t have had to answer all the questions of all the people who said, Where’s Jesus? I thought he was your friend. Jesus, it’s worse than simply watching him die. I had to watch him die knowing that you weren’t coming. If you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Now verse 22. This is amazing.
22 But I know [Which means “but I believe, I trust.”] that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Now, this is amazing. She’s standing in front of Jesus and says to him, “I’ve watched you, and here’s what I know. As broken as my heart is and as angry as I am, I still believe God will give you whatever you ask for.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha is like, “Yeah, I know. And she reaches into her theology box and pulls out something every Jew believed.”
24 Martha answered, “I know, he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Martha is saying, “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, don’t worry, Martha. You’ll see him again someday. I know that. That’s what we say at every funeral, Jesus. But, Jesus, you could have kept this from happening. It’s not that I don’t believe that there’s going to be a resurrection. It’s just that…”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.
You’re right that God would give me whatever I asked, but it’s bigger than that. You’re right that I’m a teacher who’s come from God. It’s bigger than that. You’re right that I’m a miracle worker and I could have saved your brother. It’s bigger than that. It’s so big and it’s so important and it’s so relevant to everything that I’m about. It’s so important for people who will live hundreds and thousands of years from now. It’s bigger than that. I am personally the embodiment. I am the resurrection and the life.
Now folks, you don’t make a statement like that without backing it up. That’s what this moment was all about. Who is Jesus? Jesus made a claim He hadn’t made until now. You are looking at resurrection. You are looking at life.
25 He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Did you know in Greek there’s not a word for trust? There’s just the word belief or faith. And so when John wrote this, he knew this is more than just believe, because there is faith and trust in there. And so he combines this little Greek word with a little preposition believes in, which means trust. It’s his way of saying trust.
Jesus says, Anyone who trusts me or puts his trust in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives by believing in me will never die. And this is where it benefits Martha and us too…He says to her, Do you believe this? He wants her and us to believe more too. This is all about faith. This is all about confidence in Jesus. Because your faith and my faith is important to our God.
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, [Deep breath] “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
With tears in her eyes, I believe that even though you let my brother die. I believe that even though you didn’t come. I believe that even when you didn’t answer my prayer. I believe that in spite of the ridicule and scorn I’ve received from the people around me who have mocked me because I’ve claimed that you would come and you would be my friend. Jesus, right now I have nothing to hang that believe on, but I believe. Wow.
Then Jesus asked to be taken to the grave, and He’s standing there with all the mourners. And verse 35 says this—shortest verse in the whole Bible.
35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
I love this verse because here is this clash. Here’s the world we live in. Jesus who can perform miracles, Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, Jesus who knows what He’s about to do, and instead of rushing in and doing a miracle, He pauses to feel exactly what Mary and Martha had been feeling. Exactly what you have felt as you’ve stood by the grave of loved ones, exactly what you felt when God didn’t come through for you, exactly what you felt when your kids didn’t turn out the way you thought they would turn out, exactly how all of us have felt.
And we say, God, we believe and we trust, but you’re not doing anything. And Jesus pauses. It’s as if he says to you and says to me, I understand how that feels. And I mourn with you. I know.
Then He said, Mary, Martha, would you have your servants remove the stone? Now Lazarus is buried in a cave much like Jesus would later be buried in. And Martha’s like, wait, wait, wait. Jesus, we don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but he’s been in there for four days. Jesus said, But I want you to move the stone.
In the King James version, it’s kind of interesting. Martha says, But, Lord, by this time he stinketh. Stinketh. If he’s been in there for four days, embalmed or not, it’s going to stinketh. But Jesus said, move the stone. So they rolled that stone away. Imagine the drama. People are questioning what He’s doing this for? And then Jesus does the strangest thing. I think all of this, it’s not just for their benefit, but for ours too. And John says that then Jesus prayed a very odd prayer. He looked up to heaven…
41 and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
In other words, I am praying so that everyone standing here will know that you and I have a connection. So they don’t think I did something on my own, but instead that I’m simply here to do your will. And you have given me the power over death. And He said, Lazarus, come forth. And Lazarus came out of the tomb, living. And if there was ever any doubt in their minds or our minds that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, all the loopholes in that argument in that moment were closed. And here’s how the story ends.
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.
Jesus didn’t simply leverage a painful situation. He created one in order to show the connection between pivotal circumstances and the growth and development of our faith. But look, you can choose to let these situations go one way or the other. You can let them lean you away from God or you can let them be used by God to grow you.
Do you know what makes the difference whether or not we lean into God or lean away from Him? We’ve all heard stories of people who said, when I was twelve years old my mom died, and I decided God couldn’t be trusted and I ran from God for 20 years. Or, when I was eighteen years old this happened, and I thought, how could God allow this, and I ran from God.
In most cases the thing that makes the difference are the people we are surrounded by. Because in times when God is a big disappointment, we need people to come around us and frame the question differently and interpret the circumstances differently – not people who smooth things over and try to make God look good again. That’s not the goal. When people are able to give us a different perspective, it’s amazing how we come out on the other side. But separated from that community, separated from insight and testimonies—the same pain that can grow your faith can destroy a person’s faith.
You know, there’s only one thing worse than disappointment with God—that’s disappointment without God. And all of us, at moments and times in our lives are going to be disappointed with God, but you can be disappointed with God within a context where you still trust him anyway.
If I had advice to you as we close this message and as we close this series, it’s simply this. If you are in the middle of a pivotal circumstance, if you are in the middle of one of those, I don’t know where to turn; I don’t know where the answers are and I’m almost to the point of despair, where nothing matters; you want to walk away from God. If that’s where you are, here’s my only advice: Would you add to your prayers to God, heal him, or heal her, or bring them back, or I need my job back—whatever your prayer is—would you add this: God, I need to see you in this.
God, I’m not asking you to change everything. I want your will to be done, not mine. But I’ve got to see you in this. If I can see you in this, then there is hope. If I can see you in this, then I know there’s an end. If I can see you in this, then I know there’s grace to be sustained. Because at the end of the day, I want to emerge with bigger faith, not less faith. But God, I don’t know how that’s possible if you don’t somehow show up in the midst of a situation where it seems you are very silent and absent.
Your suffering and your pain and the bumps in the road really are not the exceptions. They are part of the story. And Jesus made it all too clear; it’s an important part of the story. Just as your Heavenly Father leveraged the greatest crime in history, the crucifixion of his Son, just as He leveraged that as a reference point for faith, for your salvation, and for the fact that God loves you, in the same way, if we will let Him, He will leverage our deepest pain, our darkest hours, and our deepest valleys, because God has chosen to use the Pivotal Circumstances to grow our faith in Him. Fortunately, we don’t get to sign up. He chooses. He uses. Our responsibility is how are we going to respond, because your faith is extraordinarily important to your Heavenly Father.
Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father, we don’t always understand your ways, but we do trust you. Please show us where you are working in our Pivotal Circumstances. And as we wait for you, please surround us with our church family to give us support and the love we need to make it through. Show us the hope we can believe in. We love you with all our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.