Growing up in Northern California, I was always amazed by the forest; the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the enormity of the trees. How did they get that tall?
And with all the environment issues in California; fires, drought, and the bugs – how did they survive?
I mean, some of the trees as thousands of years old.
Well, I learned something really cool this week about trees. Trees in the forest of the same species are connected by the roots, which grow together like a network.
Their root tips have highly sensitive brain-like structures that can distinguish whether the root that it encounters in the soil is its own root, the root of another species, or the roots of its own species.
If it encounters its own kind, and recognizes that it is not healthy, there is a flow from healthy trees to sick trees so that they will have an equal measure of food and energy available to get healthy.
Isn’t that cool?
Hang on to that and we’ll swing back to it again in a minute . . .
We’re wrapping up a series entitled Rooted and throughout this series we’ve been asking the question; What would it be like if you had an amazing, out of the box, are you kidding me, kind of faith? The kind of faith that no matter what happened you trusted God.
Well, when you read the narrative of scripture, what you see is this amazing story of God trying to build into people that kind of faith.
So, what we’ve been doing is looking at those things God designed to create deep roots of faith in Him so that when things in life get a little difficult . . . and they will . . . you will be grounded in trust that I am your God and you are my people.
Today we’ll be looking at the root of pivotal circumstances.
You don’t hear a faith story that eventually, as a part of the story, somebody tells you about some unexpected circumstance that completely shaped their faith.
Sometimes these pivotal circumstances are positive; someone goes on a mission trip or gets involved in Faith Café, or Because Every Mother Matters, or Watering Malawi, or one of the many other projects we’ve done at Logos Dei over the years and God opened their eyes to what he’s doing in the world.
Sometimes people have their first child and it was like, “Wow, the miracle of birth got my attention”
But sometimes, it’s the negative circumstances of life, those things that just come out of the blue, and you definitely didn’t sign up for; someone faced information they didn’t expect, they lost their job, they lost their home, lost their family, or had a difficult conversation with their child. For me, it was a phone call I received from my sister, telling me that my Dad had been killed in a car accident.
But the amazing thing is that there is an undeniable relationship between those pivotal circumstances and our faith. And it’s not an accidental relationship, it’s an intentional relationship that God leverages.
In fact, James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about the relationship between circumstances, specifically negative ones, and our faith.
He said, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
In other words, in the middle of those difficult circumstances, don’t think that God is doing something to you. He is doing something within you. He is growing deep roots of faith.
But I think the best illustration of this comes from a story from the life of Jesus that most all of you are familiar with. In fact, as soon as we start this story, you’re going to know the ending . . . because we touched on this story a few months ago and I know you were paying very close attention.
But what I want you to do is slow your mind and experience this story in a fresh new way because what you’ll see is that Jesus doesn’t just leverage a pivotal experience, he actually creates a negative circumstance in order to grow someone’s faith.
So, I want you to listen to this familiar story with this new grid in mind as we discover why and how God uses pivotal circumstances . . . not to do something to us but to do something in us.
Let's listen to our text: John 11:17-44
At this point of Jesus’ ministry, he was becoming controversial . . . He has just wrapped up a preaching tour where large crowds had been following him to see what he’s going to do next.
But Jesus told them in very clear terms that he is God and all that he had been doing was designed to help them see that.
As you can imagine, this hasn't set will with the religious leaders, who are now out to get him.
So, as we come to this text, Jesus is hanging out with disciples near the Jordan River because it was a much safer place for him to be.
And as he is there, he receives word that one of his closest friends, Lazarus, is dying in the nearby town of Bethany.
Now, you would think that Jesus would immediately get up and go be with him. After all, he had met the needs of so many other people . . . but instead, Jesus decides to stay put. You see, what is to follow is a sign and the signs are designed to help people see more clearly who Jesus is. And so, he waits.
And after two days of chilling out with the disciples, he says "Ok, guys let's get going"
Now, Bethany is only 20 miles away so he could have easily made it in a day but he takes his time and when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
And as he approaches the city gates, Jesus is met by Lazarus' sister, Martha and she's pretty frustrated with him because it's too late. Her brother is dead and now she has most likely lost everything.
You see, in that day, women were vulnerable because this was a man's world and women had to rely on men to provide for them.
Martha has just buried the only man in her life, her brother . . . which means that she is without any means of economic support and relegated to the fringes of community.
In other words, she is in a horrible set of circumstances; circumstances she can’t do anything about and certainly would never have signed up for. . . and so of course she's frustrated . . . because Jesus has created this negative circumstance. He could have done something when she asked, but he didn’t.
But even as she questions Jesus, she makes a new commitment to him and affirms that she still believes God will give Jesus whatever he asks.
And so, Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again and then he uses an I AM statement . . . Remember what that is. I AM is the name of God.
Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life and who ever believes in me will have life"
Jesus has created this negative circumstance to build roots of trust in her. So, he asks, "Do you believe? Do you trust me?"
It’s a pivotal moment for her. It’s a moment of choice. And in this moment, she lays down her anger at Jesus, she gives up her need for answers and guarantees, and she simply lets herself fall into a faith that offers no certainty and no promise of comfort.
After this, Martha runs into town to let her sister Mary know that Jesus has arrived and immediately she got up and ran to him, and a crowd of people followed her; all of them mourning and grieving for these sisters.
You see, funerals were a community wide event. The village had essentially shut down. Everyone is weeping and bawling. Lazarus' friends are weeping. All the families who know this family are weeping. And they are embracing these women; being a support system for them during this difficult and challenging time in their lives. But there were some in the crowd who were grumbling.
And this is important. Do you know what makes the difference whether, or not, we lean into God during a pivotal circumstance? The people we are surrounded by.
Because in times when it seems like God is nothing but a big disappointment, that’s the time we need people to come around us and frame and interpret the circumstances differently, to help us see God in the circumstance or at least get us through the circumstance so when we get to the other side, we can look back and say, “Wow, God showed up. I didn’t see him then, but I see Him clearly now”.
In my experience, when my Dad passed away, a community of faith surrounded me – not people who tried to smooth it over and try to make God look better than he looked in the moment. But people who comforted me and helped me to frame and give a context for the pain.
At my Dad’s funeral, I’ll never forget when we sang the song, “It is Well”, my uncle raised his hands in praise to God. It was a powerful moment for me . . . that my uncle could see that God was present in this overwhelming time of grief and give him praise.
The deep roots of his faith, reached out time mine . . . like the trees in the forest and my faith grew because of it.
But separated from that environment and that community, separated from insight from other believers, separated from the comfort of other believers - the same pain that can grow our faith can destroy a person’s faith. I’ve seen it over and over again.
In the middle of the pain and suffering of these women, the community in Bethany surrounded them . . . and Jesus just shows up.
When he enters in the city and collides with her entourage, he was moved with compassion and he wept. Can we just pause there?
To me, these are the most powerful 2 words in all of scripture. Jesus, the author and creator, steps into his creation and grieves with it.
Now, if the crowd hadn’t hushed when he wept, I’m sure it does when Jesus tells them to open the tomb. The text doesn’t say but I’m guessing that more than one or two Jaws dropped.
You see . . . you’re not supposed to be exposed to a dead body because it’s ceremonially unclean. And by exposing yourself to it, it will make you unclean.
Not to mention that it's been four days, and everybody knows that by now, the guy is not just dead . . . he's really-dead.
You see, in that culture, they believed that the Spirit of a person would hover over the body for three days but on the fourth day, when the body began to decompose, it would depart.
Well, it's been four days so the spirit has left . . . and let's be honest a decomposing body smells.
But Jesus isn't concerned about religious rules, or superstition, or even the stench of death as he prays to the father thanking him for who he is and that through this sign people would believe that He is the resurrection and the life.
And then he gives a command . . . “Lazarus come out”.
The literal translation is this . . . it's this way. Come out of the grave and come to me this way because I am the resurrection and the giver of life.
And with this command Lazarus walks out of the grave.
Can you imagine the emotional transition in that moment? Lazarus gets out of the coffin, comes out and starts’ talking to everybody. Talk about a pivotal moment.
She got their brother back, alive and well and restored to health.
And that’s what Jesus does. He touches dead people and brings life.
You see, this story is about grace . . . this raising doesn’t happen because of a sister's plea or even their worthiness as friends. It happened because Jesus has compassion for them and in his compassion, he extends his grace . . . period.
But in all of this, there is something else happening. A foreshadowing of things to come and a glimpse into what God intends for us.
Jesus does not just love these sisters, and raise a brother . . . he is also unveiling His kingdom . . . He’s showing his power over death and revealing a kingdom that has yet to come . . . it’s a kingdom in which there will be no more pain, no more suffering, and no more death.
And as we read the story of the resurrected Lazarus, we are reminded of the death and resurrection of Jesus . . .
- Jesus comes as the only Son of God who is deeply loved by his father . . . this is the sisters only brother and they deeply love him
- And just as Lazarus died, Jesus died on our behalf
- And as Lazarus rose from death, so Jesus rose from death to conquer death for those who believe that he is the resurrection and life.
You see, we don’t worship a God who is immune to suffering. If you’re hurting, he knows exactly what you feel like, because he was present for the death of the Son and he felt it.
But his promise is, “Trust me. Stick with me. We need to get through this. We need to get to the other side of resurrection. I have worked out all things for Good. I have a plan. And I know right now, it is exceedingly painful because I have felt that pain, but we can do this!”
So, if you are suffering . . . I want you to lean heavily on Jesus for comfort and love and support and understanding and encouragement.
And I want you to be in community with his people . . . that’s what God's church is supposed to be about. You need others around you when you’re in a difficult circumstance and you need to present and available to rally around those who are in difficult circumstances.
And God today would call us to worship him in faith because today may feel like a funeral day but a resurrection day is coming.
So today, suffer and weep as these women did, mourn and cry as they did, surround and support one another as the town of Bethany did, but by faith, trust that resurrection is coming, and this same Jesus, reaches down into death, and has life for you and for me.
And if you are in a pivotal circumstance and you’ve been praying about it . . . I want you to do something. Would you add this to your prayer . . . “God, I need to see you in this. Make this experience one that helps me grow deeper roots of trust in you. So that my relationship with you grows stronger.”