If the previous couple months have affirmed one thing to me about the nature of the Church, it is our togetherness.
The spring of 2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as a vulnerable and difficult season of concern, grief, isolation, and loss. And, in our great missing of each other and our gatherings, have we not caught a fresh scent of true fellowship; of our need and nature to somehow in some way connect, gather, pray, share joy, and support one another?
Jesus once gave a word in the face of isolation. Of the grave illness of Lazarus, he assured his disciples, “This sickness will not end in death” (John 11:4).
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus. John says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). In their heartache and worry, and in their trust relationship with Jesus, these sisters send word to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (11:3). Similar urgent, expectant prayers have undoubtedly been prayed during this pandemic, just as ardent now as then, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
Jesus explains that while he is never the cause of sin’s curse in its many outcomes, yet he remains sovereign through human pain and peril. Jesus, in every trial and circumstance, is always at work to save. Three times in this chapter (vv.4,15,42) we are assured that, while in the trial we are only able to count the pain, the infections, the deaths, God knows the count of those who— through this trial—in their seeking are found, in their doubt come to know, and in their dead hearts are resurrected eternally alive.
In the temporal world, by the time Jesus leaves for Bethany, Lazarus has died. “What! Lazarus, dead? I thought Jesus said… didn’t we all hear him say, ‘This sickness will not end in death’?”
When Jesus arrives at Bethany, he goes to the tomb that has housed Lazarus’ dead body for four days. He is deeply moved at the grief and unbelief he sees; this too is part of the weight he will soon bear to the cross. Jesus commands the stone across Lazarus’ tomb be rolled away, and calls out with the Voice of resurrection power, “Lazarus, come forth!” And… he does.
We must ask ourselves, of whom is this promise spoken? The answer is, the one Jesus loves. The one who is his own. Ones like Lazarus and Martha. Ones like Mary, who bowed herself in humility, willing to wash his feet with her own hair—as confession of sin, and confession of faith—with gratitude to him as her Savior. Of such people it may be said, “This sickness will not end in death.” And, this must always be said of the one Jesus loves!
I must tell you, as much as we know this can be said of every one who has come by repentance and faith to be the friend of Jesus, you must also realize the opposite is true for any person who is not by faith the friend of Jesus. No matter one’s health, strength, or security. If they are not by faith one Jesus loves, the opposite is true. For the person outside of Christ it cannot be said, “This sickness will not end in death.” Rather, it must be said of this person, “This apparent health, this seeming strength, this transient security, will not end in Life.”
On the cross, the promise of Jesus to those he loves is put to the test of faith.
Here on the cross, the predicament, the punishment, the prognoses of all that makes us ill by sin is laid on our Friend. He takes it all onto himself, and bears it, finally destroying the deadly contagion of sin and all its refuse in our lives! But here also at the cross is the charge against all who have made themselves not friends but enemies of Christ. For all their apparent strength, wellness, and goodness, it will not end for them in life, but in eternal death. For their greatest malady will be their rejection of Jesus as friend, and his innocent blood will be upon them, forever unforgiven.
Finally, to all of us who are by faith the friend of Jesus, who have been made well—the cross reminds us that we carry within us, in our hands and in our mouths, the great antidote our dying neighbors need. It is the very gospel of Jesus.
At this vulnerable time in our world, I say to all: friend of Jesus, seeker of Jesus, isolated and spiritually-separated from him—believe! Become by faith one he loves. Trust his promise: “This sickness will not end in death.”
Rev. Paul Larson is President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.