Andy Stanley - When Life Happens
If tragedy or a sudden change of circumstances, either yours or the circumstances of somebody you love has caused you to doubt God, has caused you to be angry at God, has caused you to wonder if maybe God is angry at you, caused you to lose your faith, caused you to walk away from faith. As strange as it might be to hear this from me, I actually understand that and I don't blame you. And if I were you, maybe it would be me too. And that's what we're talking about today and that's what we're gonna talk about for the next couple of weeks in this series that I've entitled "Under the Circumstances; Holding onto God When it Appears that God is no Longer Holding on to You".
We've all been there and if you haven't been there yet, you're probably gonna be there eventually, regardless of what you believe about God, regardless of your faith system, regardless of your religion. It's so strange when bad things happen and circumstances go the wrong way. There's something intuitively, or I should say instinctively, I think in human beings, for whatever reason we look up, like "What's going on"? It's like, "If there's anybody out there to whom it may concern, what in the world is going on"? That's what we're gonna talk about. Because that's in you, that's in me, that's in all of us. And to start at the lowest of the low rungs on the ladder, I wanna begin with a statement, that might perhaps be the most insensitive statement ever uttered by anyone at any time.
And the reason I would take it to that extreme is because this statement actually comes from the lips of Jesus. As we're gonna discover today, Jesus actually went out of His way. He went out of His way, risked His reputation to create a scenario that included pain, sorrow, grief, sickness, anger, and ultimately death. And the reason He went out of His way to create this scenario, the reason He did this, as hard as it is to believe, it's quite the story, is to assure us that God the Father is aware and that God our Heavenly Father cares and that He is with us in it and He can see us through it. Now the challenge with this story is if you grew up in or around church, you know the story and the temptation is gonna be to run to the end of the story because you know how the story ends. But it's not simply a story, it's something that actually happened. It's a narrative.
And it's so important for the next few minutes, if you can, instead of rushing to the end mentally, if you can enter into the story, and specifically if you could pause and we could pause to enter into the emotion of this story, of this incident, because it is so layered with emotion. And that's where this narrative from the life of Jesus begins to intersect with all of our experiences. Whether you're a Christian, non-Christian, used to be, don't care, don't have any faith in God, this is a narrative that I'm convinced and I think you will be too at the end, that Jesus actually engineered because it intersects with all of us. He engineered it to intersect with all of our lives.
So here's how the story goes. Again, most of you know this. One of Jesus' closest friends, one of his supporters, somebody who had hosted Jesus in his home many, many times became sick. He had two sisters, he lived with his sisters or they lived with him. Jesus is a couple of days away. They know basically the direction that Jesus left when he left their hometown. And they send a servant to find Jesus. The sisters send to servant to find Jesus. And when, excuse me, when the servant finds Jesus and Jesus' apostles, the servant says to Jesus, "Jesus," this is amazing, because Jesus recognized from whose home this servant came. The servant says to Jesus, "Jesus, the one that you love is sick and his sisters are requesting that you would come back to Bethany and do what you've done for so many people, heal their brother".
And of course He would. I mean Jesus had healed strangers. Jesus healed multiple people he didn't even know. In fact, there's one incident. Jesus is on His way to heal a girl He'd never met and a woman He'd never met touched Him and was healed just by touching Him. So of course Jesus is gonna get up immediately and go heal a friend, but because He has been invited by the sisters who He also knows, to come heal a friend. But if you know the story, the disciples, the apostles get up to leave and Jesus is like "Sit back down, we're not going". And He sends the servant back to Bethany. And Jesus stays there where He is with His apostles for two days and waits for His friend to die.
Now again, this is so emotional, this is so crazy that John who is writing this years after the event, John was there for this, the gospel writer John was there for this, and he's writing after the resurrection of Jesus. And because he knows his readers don't know who this family is and don't know much about them, John inserts himself into the story. He says, "Oh, by the way, before you shut Jesus out," he writes into the story, gospel writer John writes that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And why does he state that? Because if you only knew this part of the story, you would think Jesus must despise them. I mean, He must be angry with them. No, I'm not gonna go heal somebody I know because well, something bad must have happened. And John's like "No, no, no, understand, Jesus actually loved these people".
Then two days later when He gets up to go to Bethany, the apostles, His disciples, the 12, they're totally confused. "Why now, why go at all"? Because last time they were there things didn't go so well for them. In fact, they say that. They say "Rabbi, hey, a short while ago, the Judeans there in Bethany where Lazarus and Mary, Martha lived, the Judeans there, they tried to stone you. And yet you're going back there"? What if maybe you just do one of those work from home miracles that we've seen you do, where you don't actually have to go do it. You can just kind of say something or think something. We don't know how that works, but you've done that before. Maybe just kind of proclaim him healed. We don't really wanna go. They're more concerned about their own wellbeing than Jesus. Because you know, when they tried to stone Jesus, of course they thought well, if they're taking Jesus down, they're probably taking us down too.
So let's not go to Bethany. And Jesus responds with this. He says, "our friend Lazarus," there it is, "our friend". "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I'm going there to wake him up". This is how casually Jesus talks about death. His disciples replied, 'cause they really don't wanna go, "Lord, if he sleeps, he'll get better". And of course they're thinking, "How do you know he's asleep"? But hey you know, you're Jesus, this is the kind of stuff you do. So Jesus, if you're confident that he's asleep, then maybe the fever broke, whatever it might be, we don't wanna disturb things in Bethany, let's just stay here. So then he told him plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake," and here's the statement, here's the thing that, I don't know when John's writing this, he's like, "Do I really put these words in the lips of Jesus"?
I mean we're trying to convince people that Jesus, who he claimed to be, this is terrible. I bet he debated whether or not to include this, but he did because it's true. In fact, it's statements like this next one that cause me to believe in the authenticity of the gospels, they can be trusted. Because in literature, one of the way that people who navigate and evaluate literature determine whether something's true or not, anything that makes the hero look bad is generally true because nobody would add that later or make it up. "For your sake," he says, "I'm glad I was not there". And they're thinking, "Because"? And you better have a good reason because when we go to Bethany, if we go to Bethany, you are about to be confronted with sister anger and sister grief and sister disappointment. And it's gonna be bad.
If you think that Judeans who tried to stone you were angry, you wait till you deal with Mary and Martha when they found out that you waited around two days so their brother would die while they watched. So by the way, "Jesus, before we go tell us 'Why are you glad you weren't there?' I think you owe us an explanation. You're certainly gonna owe them an explanation". He said, "I'm glad I was not there. So that you may believe". Now at this point in the story, this is kind of funny after the fact. You remember in Winnie the Pooh, the character, Eeyore. Remember Eeyore was kind of the negative, the downer. And in a lot of narratives there's always like the downer person. So Tom, so Jesus has one of those with his apostles. It's Thomas the downer person.
And so Thomas when he finds out they're actually gonna go to Bethany anyway, he says, "Well" I love this. "Let us also go that we may die with Him. Lazarus is dead. If we go to Bethany, we're gonna be dead. We're just all gonna be dead. Come on guys, let's all go to Bethany and let's just die with Lazarus. This is not going to go well. The end is near for all of us". I think Thomas is saying to John, "John, you don't have to put that in there. Like John, come on, this is what happened, right? These are real people". Back to Jesus statement, "I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe". But here's the question. Don't leave early, this is so important. Believe what?
And this is so important words, lemme put it this way. What is so important for them to believe that He would let a friend die while the friend's sisters watched and waited for Jesus to show up to save the day and Jesus doesn't show up and save the day. What could be so important for them to believe that Jesus would allow these circumstances to play out the way they did? And the answer to that question is related to the answer to this question, The question of why would Jesus allow this to happen is related to the answer to this question. Who is you? In other words, I'm glad I was not there, so that you may believe.
Well obviously part of the you was the 12 apostles traveling around with Jesus. But again, John wrote this many years after the event and John wrote this many years after the resurrection of Jesus. And the you here isn't just the yous and the story, the you is you and you and those of you whose faith has been crushed by circumstances. And those of you whose faith is being crushed by circumstances. Jesus is saying, "I've allowed this tragedy, to play out the way it has, so that you, anyone who hears this story and knows what happened, will believe, will believe, will believe".
So Jesus engineered, think about it. Jesus engineered a heartbreaking set of circumstances to address our where's-God-when-we-need-God circumstances. That's what this is. The Jesus engineered this so that in the moment of our where's-God-when-I-need-God, where's God when my sister-in-law needs God. Where's God when my brother needs God? Where's God when my child needs God ? In our where's God when I need God moments Jesus engineered these circumstances, this narrative for you. And you know who else he engineered it for? Not just for those of us who consider ourselves church people and Christian people that are grappling with where's God when I need God. And I thought God promised and God didn't come through on His promise. He also engineered this for those of you who don't believe, and for those of you who used to believe, and then life just crushed your faith and destroyed it.
And here's the amazing thing about this narrative. Jesus is so brilliant because of what happens next. Jesus is about to affirm, don't miss this, Jesus is about to affirm what you felt when God didn't show up for you. Jesus is about to put a exclamation mark, not cross it out, an exclamation mark beside what you felt when God didn't come through for you or your son or your daughter or your friend or a husband or your wife. He's about to affirm what some of you are feeling right now. But here's the amazing thing. He's about to affirm your frustration and your anger and your grief and your questions. And he's about to affirm all of that with no condemnation.
Do you remember if you know the story, do you remember what happens next? They get up and they go to Bethany. Meanwhile, the city of Jerusalem's about two miles away from Bethany. So all of these mourners and all these people have come from Jerusalem to support Lazarus' sisters Mary and Martha in their grief because he's a well-known citizen in the area. So there's lots of people. So Mary and Martha are in the home and they're grieving and they're crying and there are these mourners and a servant shows up at the door and says, "Mary and Martha, the Rabbi is on His way, He's coming down the road, He'll be here just a few minutes".
And you remember maybe what happens next, right? Martha, Martha decides she's gonna go see Him. He's late. He's late to do the miracle. He's late because He missed the funeral. But she's goes out to to meet Him and what she does, she expresses what many of us have expressed and what many of us are expressing right now because God has not come through or seemingly not come through for us. She's not happy and here's what she's thinking. "After all I have done for you, I have fed your 12 hungry mouths plus yours. Anytime you guys show up and all the people who follow you, I have hosted you, I've been hospitable, I have done everything. We've believed in you, we followed you, we've supported you. We put up with the grief of the religious leaders who think we should separate ourselves from you. And when we needed you most, when your friend needed you most, you didn't show up in time".
And she says exactly that and John records it. Martha said to Jesus, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died". Translated this is your fault because you could have kept this from happening. Look up here and in this moment we are all in the story. In this moment, this story intersects with my story. It intersects with your story. If you have ever leveraged tragedy to make the point that God doesn't care and God isn't there, if you've ever leveraged disappointment with God or something that's happened to someone you love and you step back and you say, "You know what? If there is a loving God that wouldn't have happened. God would've stepped in. If God could have, God would have. And since God didn't, God must not even exist or not the God I was taught to believe in and trust as a child".
If you've ever done that, what happens is we feel like we're stepping away from faith and we're standing outside of faith system and we're lobbying in criticism. "How could you believe in that kind of God? How could you put trust in that kind of God? God didn't come through for me. God doesn't come through for other people". You feel like you're on the outside lobbying in your criticism. And Jesus, this is what's so brilliant. And this moment, Jesus goes out of His way in this occasion, to draw a circle large enough to include you and to include me because we are all represented by Mary and Martha in the story with our disappointment and our frustration and our anger with a God who could have and should have but didn't. You are included in this story and here's why. Because your story is included in the grand story of God's good news of great joy for all people. That Jesus arranged this for people like you and for people like me that perhaps we might believe or believe again.
But that's the question. Believe what? "I'm glad I wasn't there so that you might believe". So Jesus goes on into Bethany and when Mary finds out that He's coming with Martha, she goes out to see Him as well and she unloads on Him in the same way, "If you had been here, our brother wouldn't have died". And she's weeping, weeping, of course she is. Now she's weeping because she's lost her brother. And now there's the anger and the frustration of being in the presence of the very person who could have kept this from happening. Can you feel that? Isn't that what we would've felt? Isn't that sometimes what we do feel? Jesus is so brilliant, He created and engineered circumstances with a circle so large we can't escape the emotion and the pain and the frustration of the moment because we have all at some level been there.
Then John says, "When Jesus saw her weeping and the Judeans who had come along with her weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and he was troubled". To which you know the reader is thinking, well if you're deeply troubled and moved in spirit, then I mean if this bothers you that much, why didn't you show up and keep it from happening? And then they lead Jesus to the cave where Lazarus is buried and then this incredible thing happens. This the shortest and many of you knew this, you grew up in church. This is one of your Bible facts you remember. Then the shortest verse in the Bible. Now the numbers in our Bibles that split up the Bible between chapters and verses, all that was added many, many, many, many years later. Hundreds of years from the event, right?
And it's so interesting to me that whoever determined those numbers and we're not sure who it was, we know the time period it happened, but we don't know who it was, for whatever reason, they get to these next two words in the Gospel of John and they are so apparently moved by the story and if so entered into the emotion of the moment, whoever put the numbers in the Bible decided these two words get their own number. And I think that's appropriate because these two words are packed with meaning. The text tells us that He stands in front of Lazarus tomb and Jesus wept. Why? Because Mary and Martha were weeping. Mary and Martha who blamed Him were weeping and He enters into their pain and their frustration and their loss and their grief and He weeps.
And it's not that His eyes were moist or there was a tear, He was weeping in such a way that the entire crowd could see Him being moved by emotion which was not normally appropriate for a man to show in public. And there's the man, the Rabbi, and he's weeping in such a way that it is public and everybody's looking at Jesus and they immediately kind of split into two parties. One party says, "Wow, look how much this Rabbi loved Lazarus! Look at the display of emotion! How unusual for a man, especially a Rabbi, to lose His composure. He loved this man so much"! But the other group said, "We're not buying it" because two chapters ago, two chapters ago, but in our Bible, it's two chapters ago, not too long ago, this very Rabbi supposedly healed a blind young man who had been blind from birth and many people witnessed this miracle.
If He had the power to make a young man, who was blind from birth be able to see if he was able to restore the sight of a blind young man, surely he could have showed up in time to save Lazarus, His friend, from dying. All this emotion, all these conflicting emotions, all this drama and it's real and it's loud and you can smell it and you can hear it and it's everywhere. And Jesus is standing in front of Lazarus' tomb, and while it's true that Jesus could have kept this from happening, as we see throughout the story, Jesus had a different agenda in mind. He had you in mind and He had me in mind and He had your sister in-law in mind and your father in mind. And Jesus steps up, then He does the unthinkable. Again, now we're introduced to a whole new wave of emotion and Jesus says, "Remove the stone".
Now I don't know how, if you've heard this story before or heard it before, I don't know what you picture, we picture a couple teenage boys running up there and pushing the stone away. That's not how it happened. Moving the stone in place was not a casual endeavor. The stone is up above the hole it's held by something that's been there for a long, long time. They remove the wedge and the stone actually rolls into place and gravity is holding it wedged and covering the front of a tomb. And it's supposed to stay there for a long, long time, maybe forever, or until they decide to remove the stone to take out the body or the bones and put the bones in an ossuary. But this is a done deal. You don't remove the stone and you certainly don't remove the stone on that day. I mean there was a gasp in the crowd when Jesus announced remove the stone and now they have a decision to make.
Do we trust the Rabbi who showed up late, who missed the opportunity, who missed the funeral? And besides that, everybody in this audience knows because of how much time has gone by, Lazarus is not gonna look like Lazarus after three days in that environment. The whole body begins to deteriorate beyond recognition. These funerals happened quickly. And Martha reminds Jesus of this and she reminds Him of something else as well. Remember what she said. "By this time, Lord, there is a bad odor. I mean this is a bad situation and now you're about to, I mean, are you kidding us? You are so late. There's a bad odor for He has been in there four days. Lord, you weren't a day late, you weren't two days late. You didn't simply miss his final moments with us as we held him in our arms. You are four days late" and Jesus says, "Remove the stone anyway".
It's about to become horrible, insult to injury. Can you imagine this emotion? Do we do this or not? And then this is my favorite part of what happened. Jesus begins to pray and He prays out loud, so loud everyone can hear His prayer because He wanted everyone to hear His prayer. And my friends, He wanted us to hear this prayer. So as they're beginning to remove the stone, this took maybe an hour, maybe longer. Here's what Jesus prays so that everyone can hear so that John could record it so that we could read it. "Then Jesus looked up," 'cause isn't that what we do in times of grief? "Father, I thank you that you have heard me". He'd already been praying. "I knew that you always hear me, but I am saying this or I said this for the benefit of the people standing here".
And I think He said it for the benefit of the people sitting here and the people sitting there and the people watching there and the people listening here, all these years later. "I said this, for the benefit of the people standing here". The people navigating circumstances that is slowly crushing their faith. The people navigating circumstances in the past that totally crushed their faith. Circumstances that are too hard, too heavy. Wondering if God cares, wondering if God hears your prayers, wondering if God is angry with you, wondering if you did something wrong, wondering if you could have done something right that would've kept these things from happening. Or maybe wondering if all of this is just fiction, stories, children's stories to keep us in line. He says, "I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here that they may believe".
And once again, believe what? I'm glad I was not there. So that you might believe. Believe what? And here it is. And this is a big it, "that they may believe that you sent me". Okay, Jesus, you're telling me, you're telling us, that you engineered this entire scenario, this entire event, you engineered this because this was all about who sent you. Jesus would say, "Yes". "Well Jesus, is that such a big deal that it's worth all of this drama and all of this pain and all of this grief"? Jesus would say, "Yeah," and here's why, because this is so important. If the Father sent the Son to show us, we talk about this all the time, I don't know if this has gotten from your head to your heart yet.
If the Father sent the Son to show us what the Father is like, then you can rest assured that the Father weeps with you in your pain regardless of your blame. That He weeps with you in your sorrow just as Jesus wept with His friends in their sorrow, even though He could have done something about it. If the Father is like the Son, and this is Jesus' point, if the Father sent the Son to represent the Father, then you can know with certainty that circumstances are not an indicator of God's absence or God's silence. But you can live with a certainty and the assurance that God has entered into your pain with you because this is what the Son did and the Father sent the Son to demonstrate His love and His compassion and His care for you and for me, and this maybe more important, if the Father sent the Son, if this is what Jesus wants us to believe, if this whole thing was arranged so to prove the fact that the Father sent the Son.
If the Father sent the Son, He sends the Son to demonstrate what the Father can do. And if what Jesus does next, which we all know how the story ends, if what Jesus does next is an indication of what the Father can do, then there is hope and there's hope for you and there's hope for me regardless of the circumstances. All those stories we heard growing up about you're gonna see loved ones again. All the things Jesus said about eternal life in heaven. All those things that we hope are true, but how do we know they're true? If the Father sent the Son and the Father has the power to do what the Son is about to do, there's hope. There's the assurance of God's presence and the assurance of God's promise about your future and the future of those that you love.
And so Jesus takes a deep breath and He calls out loud, not because somebody couldn't hear Him that needs to hear Him, but because He wanted the crowd to hear Him. And Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out and the dead man came out". And I'm absolutely confident there were people in the audience who passed out in that moment. Therefore, this isn't a surprise, "Therefore many of the Judeans who had come to visit Mary and who had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him". Oh yes, they did. And what did they believe? They believed exactly what Jesus wanted them to believe. Oh my goodness, no mere mortal can call a man who's been dead for four days back to life. Clearly this man has been sent to us by God. So what He says can be trusted. What he's promised can be trusted who he says our Heavenly Father is can be trusted. And if the Father is like the Son and the Son is demonstrating the love and the compassion and the concern of the Father, then there's hope. Even in the darkest of our nights in the most dire circumstances.
"I'm glad I was not there, so that you may believe". I'm glad He wasn't there either because now I can believe He's here with me and He's there with you and He included us in the story so that we can face tomorrow with confidence and hope knowing that we are part of the story of God's good news of great joy for all people. I'm glad He wasn't there either, because now we know. Now we know that circumstances, circumstances are not an indicator of God's absence or a lack of concern or a lack of compassion. I mean, think about this. If the empathy, if the empathy and the compassion, if the empathy and the compassion and the concern of the Son reflects the empathy and the compassion and the concern of the Father, then what the Apostle Peter would later write is true. And Peter was there and saw this as well. And then Peter after this, after the resurrection, suffered all kinds of things and lost his friend. He lost James, the brother of Jesus. He lost James the other apostle.
There was so much confusion and yet at the end Peter's like, "Hey, but you don't need to put your eyes on any of that, that don't confuse your life with the love of God. Don't confuse life with God. Don't confuse the circumstances of life with God's love and God's concern. Peter would say, "I know better. I've seen better. And there is hope for you. And he writes to Christians in the first century, he says, "Here's the right response. Humble yourself, humble yourselves therefore under God's mighty hand," that is, surrender yourself to your loving and compassionate Heavenly Father "that He may lift you up," there's hope "In due time".
And then this, "Cast," that is throw upon, throw all of your merimna, and I use the Greek term because there is so many English terms packed in this powerful word. He says, "I want you to cast all of your worry, all of your cares, all of your anxiety, all of your anger, all of your frustration, all of your angst, all the stuff that you bring and are afraid to bring to God at times". He says, "No, your heavenly Father can handle it. You bring all of that and you cast your cares on Him because when you do, you honor Him with your pain and you honor him with your frustration and you honor him by saying to him, 'I am in need and I believe that you can do something about it.'"
And the reason I believe isn't because of something I read in a book or something I was told as a child, I believe that because I believe the Son came from the Father and like Son, like Father. And the compassion of Jesus that we see throughout the gospels is the compassion of the Father that is poured out for me in my time of need. And Peter says, "I've seen this, I've witnessed this". You just bring it on and you dump it on your Heavenly Father because you can know for certain, He cares for you because He cares for you.
Now I know it's easy for me to stand up here and say, right? And I haven't heard your story, but I don't just stand up here and say this. 'Cause you know the Bible says, and I'm just supposed to tell you what the Bible says. I don't think I'd have enough confidence or enough, I don't know, whatever, to be able to stand up and promise you that. But I've experienced it to some degree. But more than that, I have walked with people who've experienced it to an extraordinary degree. In fact, when I was creating this message a couple of months ago, actually, it dawned on me that in the past four or five months, I've sat with two moms, they don't even know each other, both of whom lost two children.
My friend Shirley, who I didn't tell Shirley I was gonna mention her name today, I did the funeral for both of her sons. They were both friends of mine. One in 2021, one this year, her only kids. My friend Maryanne, who's here, who lost and buried two daughters over the course of time, one was a teenager, one was an adult. And they didn't get a miracle, they didn't get a resurrection, but they are confident there was one. And they are confident it's not the last one. And their hope, their hope, the source of their strength, they would tell you is that Jesus came from the Father to demonstrate what God the Father is like. And they have held onto that like many of you have through extraordinary circumstances, extraordinary pain and extraordinary grief.
And you have found your Heavenly Father to be as faithful, as Jesus was faithful to those He loved and those that chose to follow Him when He was on planet earth. So whatever you're going through, whatever you're going through, whatever you're facing, whatever you're navigating, whatever you're stuck with, whatever you're stuck in, the situations where there's no solution and there are no great options. God has not abandoned you. God is actually with you and He weeps with you as well.
And Jesus went out of His way to demonstrate and punctuate that very thing. And now you are invited, or for some of you, you're invited back because it's just been too hard to maintain faith. You are invited or you are invited back to cast all of your care and all of your grief and all of your sorrow and all of your anger and all of your frustration on Him. And you can know with certainty He cares for you because God sent the Son to illustrate and demonstrate that for us. And that's the invitation. And that's where peace is found. That's where grace is experienced. That's where you learn to be able to sleep at night. That's when you learn that you can hold on to God when it appears that God is no longer holding on to you. And we'll pick it up right there next time in part two of "Under the Circumstances".