For the most part, I believe around half of what people tell me. But, after you gasp at my confession, hear me out.
Even when someone I trust tells me something, I presume that one or more of their facts are off, some are opinions, and all are contextual. For those who frequently stretch the truth, my confession sounds like grace. Perhaps even misplaced grace. But my confession may appear accusatory for those closest to me who try to be truthful.
I argue that my approach is motivated by grace in all cases. For the truth-teller, I take the pressure off of getting all of their facts straight. And for the liar, I realize that most lies have an element of truth at their core. This element of truth is what makes lies believable.
And in all cases, my assessment helps me to be a better listener. Discerning which is truth and which is fiction requires paying careful attention. Admittedly, fact-checking takes time, and I’m sure I sometimes get it wrong, so I try to spend my efforts wrestling only with the essential points.
I wonder if God uses a similar filter when listening to my prayers? Probably not, since God already knows truth from fiction and doesn’t need to use averages or guess which parts are true.
Last week, we looked at a prayer of praise that Jesus said out loud for a crowd to listen in on His conversation. These prayers are helpful to study since they offer insights into the mind of God. This week’s example is found in John’s Gospel.
Jesus hears that His friend, Lazarus, is sick. But instead of dropping everything and heading towards Bethany, Jesus goes on about the work at hand. Which is understandable from several angles.
First, the last time Jesus was in Judea, where the town of Bethany was located, the community leaders wanted to stone Him. And when Jesus announced to His followers a couple days later that He needed to go see His friend, they discouraged Him from going back to Judea.
With Jesus knowing what was unfolding in Bethany, He and His followers headed that way a couple of days later. As they approach, word travels ahead, and Martha, a sister of Lazarus, goes out to meet Jesus on the road leading into the village.
Seeing Jesus, Martha said to Him, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!”
We don’t know for sure the tone that accompanied Martha’s words. Nor do we know for sure how her body language punctuated her accusation. But we can imagine how we feel when we lose someone close to us. And we have an idea of the disappointment and frustration we feel when someone we believe could prevent a tragedy doesn’t show up in time.
But Martha adds a foreshadowing comment. “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask for.”
Scripture is a living text that ebbs and flows according to our situations and moods. One day we read a story like this, and Martha is shouting with angry tears. At another time we envision Martha as full of anticipation and gratitude. And these mood swings seem to occur regardless of how often we’ve read the same story.
God’s Spirit plays a role in our timing and the impact the words have on our demeanor and what we take away. Provided that we’re listening.
Martha runs home to tell her sister, Mary, who rushes to meet Jesus with a crowd of mourners following. As soon as Mary saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said through tears, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
The Good News Translation adds an exclamation to the end of Mary’s words that don’t appear in any manuscript, revealing the hand of the translators. When we read this story, an exclamation point feels right as someone who experienced loss and disappointment. I can imagine a blubbering Mary, barely able to get out her words.
I can also imagine how I would feel if I arrived too late to help. Scripture tells us that Jesus felt a special affection for Lazarus and his sisters. And it appeared that He let them down by waiting too long to arrive. After all, it is likely that Jesus healed a few other people during the two days before He left for Bethany. Couldn’t He have left sooner after He learned HIs friend was ill? It appears that Mary thought so.
We read that Jesus felt great compassion for His friends. And as Jesus arrived at the tomb where Lazarus was buried, we read the shortest verse found in scripture. Jesus wept.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read these two words without tearing up. There is something about God weeping at the sight of grief. I can’t put my finger on it, but as I try to put down my thoughts this morning, I can feel tears streaming down my face.
We each deal with grief and disappointment in our own way. These emotions are contextual. In other words, we respond out of a plethora of past experiences. Many who watched this scene unfold were surely weeping along with Jesus and the sisters of Lazarus.
But we read that others responded with indignation. “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”
We don’t know if Jesus heard these comments or if they came from someone who overheard them. But can’t you imagine the hurt and feelings of helplessness behind these words?
And then, it happens. They took the stone away as Jesus requested. The crowd gasps in anticipation of ripping the bandage off an open wound. Martha warned Jesus about the smell of death.
I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know that you always listen to me…
Undeterred, Jesus looks up and prays, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so they will believe you sent me.”
God listens and acts out of love, compassion, empathy, and grace. But Jesus realizes that not everyone intimately knows God in the same way He knows God. But there is more.
Jesus accentuates the connection between Himself and God. “You sent me,” says Jesus. The arrival of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus was not a matter of coincidence. And what comes next is also a part of God’s plan for humanity.
As the story continues, we read that after Jesus says a prayer out loud He called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Scripture should have more explicit warning labels like “Don’t try this at home.” I suspect that thousands of well-intended, faithful followers of Jesus have prayed and shouted similar words. And cried out to God in anticipation that they also can bring a person back from death. And perhaps this has happened a time or two.
And some may argue that it’s all about faith. If our faith is strong and we believe that God will do our bidding, the argument goes, miracles happen. And miracles do happen. God listens and acts. But in my experience, God does as God chooses based on the knowledge that is far beyond any of us.
Be wary of side shows that may have more to do with personal problems than divine intent.
But on that day, under those circumstances, Lazarus walked out at the beckoning of God, living among humanity. According to the writer, Lazarus walked out of the tomb with his hands and feet still wrapped in grave cloths. And with a cloth around his face.
Seeing Lazarus coming out of the tomb, Jesus asks that the attenders “Untie him, and let him go.” Lazarus was free.
I mentioned earlier that we read scripture from a very personal perspective. Our experiences affect how we interpret the stories, along with how the translators choose and arrange words that they believe reflect the intentions of the original manuscript.
But suppose for a moment that the story is not about physical death. Instead, imagine Jesus standing in front of your tomb. However, not a physical cave but a circumstance that keeps you bound. What is tying you up and keeping you from a life of abundance?
Imagine Jesus praying out loud for you to remind you, not someone else, that God sent Jesus to save you. To save you from whatever obstacles, addictions, worries, shortcomings, or failures that hold you down.
At some point, Jesus will save you from death. But the afterlife is beyond anything we can grasp. So let’s stay focused on the here and now.
God listens and responds to you and me. God’s response may not be what we asked for, but it will be what we need. Even if we don’t know what that is. And likely, we can’t imagine or don’t think we deserve that which God has in mind for us.
Each Sunday during our series, Pray, we’re collecting prayer requests. You can submit a request online from our website home page. In addition, prayer request forms are located around the church and during water and food giveaways.
You can join us each Sunday in person or online by clicking the button on our website’s homepage – Click here to watch. This button takes you to our YouTube channel. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to connect@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.
Content for this series is based in part on:
Robert L. Morris, Jr.. Pray Like Jesus: What We Can Learn From the Six Recorded Prayers of Jesus. Bloomington, IL: Westbow Press, 2019.