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Pastor Glenn McDonald: When Jesus Doesn't Show Up

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    


It’s wonderful to have good friends in all the right places.


Life is so much easier if you’re close to an excellent real estate agent.  And an outstanding plumber.  And a financial planning wizard.  I am blessed to have a cherished friend who also happens to be a great dentist.  The Shane Company says, “Now you have a friend in the diamond business,” which they are happy to report is the longest-running advertising campaign in radio history.   


When a man named Lazarus becomes seriously ill, his sisters Mary and Martha must feel on top of the world.  They have a friend in the healing business. 


They dial 911 for Jesus.  “Lord, the one you love so very much is sick” (John 11:3).  If he hustles, he can get there before Lazarus slips away.  Geography, of course, is no obstacle.  Jesus can heal from a distance, if he so chooses, since he’s done that on multiple occasions.  


Strangely, unexpectedly, maddeningly, he does nothing.  “When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (11:6). 


Author Rebecca McLaughlin notes, “Jesus frequently healed strangers… But this time, when his closest friends cry out, he waits.  This is the first reality with which Christians must grapple.  Sometimes, we call Jesus through our tears, and he does not come.” 


Lazarus dies.  Four days later, Jesus finally shows up.  Martha descends upon him.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). 


Jesus doesn’t disagree.  Nor would he disagree if you have ever prayed, “Lord, you can take away this disease.  You can restore this accident victim’s brain activity.  You can heal my child.”


So, why doesn’t he?     


There is no question what the New Testament teaches.  We live in a broken world.  God cares about every experience of pain.  Because of that, God heals.  None of that sounds mysterious until we confront two realities:  God heals what he chooses to heal, and God keeps his own timetable.


Here we should pause to acknowledge that God has already given us astonishing resources for restoration. 


We have immune systems that we are still just beginning to understand.  Our bodies are equipped with defense mechanisms that heal scratches, hunt down bacterial invaders, and are even capable of re-growing substantial parts of certain organs.  We also need to thank God for doctors, nurses, counselors and psychologists – his primary human allies in the quest for healing – and to receive with gratitude the medications and procedures they have helped develop. 


It’s heart-rending when people profess trust in God by refusing to give medicine to their sick little ones, as if we must conclude, “I’m sorry, but amoxicillin doesn’t count as an answer to prayer.” 


In his book Prayer: Does it Make any Difference? Philip Yancey points out that the same people who insist that God must always be trusted for direct medical intervention don’t grow crops that way.  They don’t plant rice in the Sahara Desert and then pray that God will send rain – ignoring the evidence that a desert is a very poor ecosystem to support rice. 


Our world has a God-provided structure and order.  Most Christians have believed that it pleases God for us to live and work within that structure, and to welcome the best that science, technology and mental health have to offer.


It’s also true that followers of Jesus can be just as clueless about reality as those who have no faith at all.  A hundred years ago, if you lived in Holland and went to a Dutch Calvinist church, you almost certainly smoked cigarettes. People who didn’t smoke, in fact, were considered unspiritual. God-fearing Dutch Calvinists eventually learned, along with the rest of the world, that tobacco is full of toxins.  They concluded that the need of the hour wasn’t to pray with greater passion concerning the cancer and emphysema they were experiencing.  Their healing choice was to stop smoking.


Dr. James Dobson once received a letter from a young woman who tearfully explained, “I’m expecting a baby and my boyfriend and I aren’t married.  Why would God allow this to happen?” 


Free will is one of God’s excellent gifts.  But it comes with the corollary that we have to respect the reality of reality, so to speak.  God won’t miraculously intervene every time we paint ourselves into a corner.


Back in the heyday of the PTL Club television ministry, Tammy Faye Bakker announced that her beloved little dog Chi-Chi had eaten a pile of lima beans and died.  “I thought my world had come to an end,” she cried.  When God didn’t answer her prayers to raise Chi-Chi from the dead, she arrived at this explanation: “The fact was that Chi-Chi was a naughty little dog.”


There are two lessons here.  First, always maintain a safe distance from lima beans.  Second, when a prayer for healing goes unanswered, we must refuse to act on the impulse to place the blame at the feet of the one who is sick. 


From time to time, lavish promises have been made: “Simply believe, and no matter what kind of healing you seek, God will provide.”  But when Jesus doesn’t show up, the finger usually points to the suffering person.  You didn’t have enough faith.  Or, more insidiously, God must be punishing you.


Countless people have felt far worse about their dyspepsia or their diabetes or their depression because well-meaning Christians have said, “You’re not doing it right.”


If God is, in fact, able and willing to heal, should we pray about anything and everything? 


Should I pray, for example, for God to restore my hair to its original blond color that I saw in the mirror for my first 25 years?  Should I ask God to put an end to the continuing progression of little frailties that are afflicting my body at this later stage of life? 


All the evidence points to the fact that God is not going to prevent me from getting older and dying.  All of us are terminal cases.  Every one of the original disciples, all the great saints and theologians of the ages, and all the faith healers of the past who boldly declared that God always heals, are no longer in this world. 


Ultimate healing won’t be ours until we receive new bodies in heaven.


Since God’s miraculous interventions in this world seem so hit-or-miss…since good-hearted people tend to promise too much or too little in God’s name…and since God has chosen not to give us answers to all the questions we have…are prayers for healing really worth our time? 


We can come up with a hundred reasons why we shouldn’t bother asking Jesus to show up in our hour of need.


But there’s one compelling reason we should do it anyways:


Jesus did in fact comfort the afflicted, cast out demons, and heal broken bodies.  And he told his disciples to do the same. 


And as he goes deeper into his conversation with both Martha and Mary, he opens their eyes to realities they never suspected – which is where we will go the next two days.  

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