Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. John 11:1-2 | ESV
Time passes. It’s now Spring. And someone is lying sick, life and energy slipping away. It was Lazarus (aka Eleazar = “God helps him”) from the village of Bethany (Bethany = “house of dates” if you thought it was a sweet spot; “house of misery” if not so much), home also to Mary (aka Miriam = “Bitter”) and Martha (“Rebel”) his sisters. (Spoiler: this is the same Mary/Miriam who anointed the Lord with that expensive ointment and then proceeded to dry off his feet with her hair – yeah, that Mary. It was her brother, Lazarus, whose life was ebbing away.) MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“And I left Trophimus sick at Miletus.” 2 Timothy 4:20
This verse won’t make its way into too many of our devotional calendars. It has to be one of the saddest, loneliest verses in the Bible – although Jeremiah 8:20 – “Harvest is past, summer has ended, and we are not saved” – probably beats it for the “Most Depressing Verse” award.
Tell me a story of healings.
Quote me the verses promising deliverance, hope, and life!
But sickness and death are just as much a part of our journey under the sun as are healing and life.
The vows we recite at every wedding proclaim it: “in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until death do us part.” We often quote the line of Isaiah 53 that proclaims “by his stripes we are healed.”
Yes we are.
And yet we still get sick and we still die; every last one of us, whether religious or irreligious, whether believing woman or skeptical man; whether profane old fool or innocent young girl; believer, agnostic, atheist and every shade in between. “He sends his rain on the just and on the unjust, and causes his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Neither faith nor science hands us a golden ticket by which we avoid the reality of sickness and death.
All of reality is shot through with the threads of sickness and health, life and death.
And into this reality steps the God-Man.
Into this reality steps the very embodiment of the reign and rule and good pleasure of God.
So much healing – and so many more still in need of healing.
In this land of the “now” of dashed desires, unheeded prayers, and rampaging sickness and death and of the “not yet” of hope, resurrection, and life, the “now” sure seems to be the chord struck far too often. Which I suppose is why we call the “not yet” a “miracle.”
How desperately we need to see the not yet in the now that surrounds us.
How crucial is the eye that with Brother Lawrence sees the dead tree in middle of winter and is suddenly seized with an epiphany of anticipation in the spring that is surely coming. We need eyes that can see life in death that can feel rhythms of health in sickness, of hopelessness in despair that can call the things that are not as though they were. John 11 is a story that has both threads firmly woven through it – just as we do in our own lives.
In the first part of this story in John 11 we focus on the thread of sickness and death, the thread of hopes dashed and life lost.
The season has just turned.
and Lazarus is sick, his life ebbing away…
What do you struggle the most with – embracing hope in the midst of sickness and despair, or accepting the reality of sickness and death in the context of your faith? Why?
Abba, there’s so much I don’t understand, so much I don’t get, so much that makes no sense. All I know is life hurts so deeply at times. Meet me in the midst of the pain, and through it, through the tears, bring me into a deeper experience of life and joy. Through Jesus.
37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained.41 And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” 42 And many believed in him there. John 10.37-42 | ESV
“Deeds are so important to you, so why don’t you just look at mine! Look at my track record! If I don’t have a track record of works clearly demonstrating my Father’s beauty and goodness, then, fine, don’t take me serious for a moment, just write me off as a nobody, a heretical windbag. But if I have the deeds, then even if you can’t handle what I say and how I say it, trust what I actually do so that you can recognize and experience this fundamental reality: Abba in me, me in Abba.”
Forget the rocks, they went for the throat, to throttle and seize him right there on the spot. But he walked right through their grasping hands.
So it was time to leave. Again. This time across the Jordan, not too far from where John was dunking people at the start of all this. Jesus decided to hang tight there for a while. News spread about where he was and crowds once again began gathering. They kept saying, “You know, John never had a resume of miracles and divine healing, but everything John said about this man was spot on!” And in that desert place filled with so many echoes of John, many laid it all on the line for Jesus.
MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
I have several key mentors who, being dead, still speak. Brother Lawrence is one of them.
When I am asked about prayer, I reach for Brother Lawrence.
When people want to know how they can hear God and experience his lead and direction in their lives, I turn to him.
Mother Tessa Bielecki describes him as “a great awkward fellow who broke everything.”
At age eighteen, he experienced a profound conversion when he saw a bare tree in the middle of winter “standing gaunt and leafless against the snow.” But what for others was just another lifeless tree in the dead of winter, Brother Lawrence saw a sign of hope as he was suddenly seized with anticipation of the miracle of this same tree burgeoning with new life the following spring. He was overwhelmed by “a high view of the providence and power of God” which never left him and which kindled in him an intense love for God. He entered a monastery of the Discalced (shoeless) Carmelites in Paris where, as a lay brother, “he worked for fifteen years in the kitchen, though he had a natural aversion for it, then as the monastery’s doorkeeper.”
Great awkward man who broke everything.
Not even a real monk.
And popes came to sit at his feet and learn about his practice of the Presence.
Funny how often such practice of the Presence ends up happening on the other side of the Jordan rather than in holy vaulted halls.
The religious in-crowd were so sure they were in tune with God and so they not only turned their noses up at Jesus but were ready to stone and throttle him.
But poor pilgrims in nowhere land on the other side of the Jordan saw the Glory in his Face.
John had no impressive track record of signs and wonders – shoot, he didn’t even have a decent wardrobe or a respectable “church.”
But he was spot on about Jesus.
They could see it for themselves in his face.
And they could hear it in his words.
“Eyes that see and ears that hear: both are a gift from God” says ancient sage.
Lord we would have both.
Is the presence of God something you “practice” or is it more something you sporadically experience? Why?
Abba, make Brother Lawrence’s prayer mine, from deep in my bones: “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates” – and let me hear your voice in the clatter and chatter of it all. Through Jesus.
34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
John 10.34-36 | ESV
Jesus nearly snickered. “Why does such a statement have you so riled up? Your own Scriptures, right there in your own law book, say the same thing, ‘I said (God speaking here to human beings!), ‘You are ‘gods’ – awesome beings clothed with immense power!” What, are you going to stone the Psalmist now? If we find that kind of language used about human beings receiving a divine charge right there in Scripture – and Scripture is unbreakable, is it not? – then why freak out about the same kind of language being used for the unique Entity that the Father set aside and sent into the world to accomplish his unique task? But no, all I have to say is ‘I am the Son of God’ and accusations of ‘blasphemy!’ start flying right and left – with stones not far behind the accusation. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
They were using the wrong organ.
They needed ears, but all they could do was keep sniffing at Jesus.
He didn’t smell like their system or their assumptions, so it mattered precious little what they actually saw or heard from him.
So Jesus tries again to engage their ears with one of their own Scriptures frequently heard chanted in synagogue and temple. It was a Psalm directed to the judges, the “movers and shakers” on the human scene, the power brokers, the string pullers, the “gods.” Human powers entrusted with the divine responsibility of governing in this world.
The basic Hebrew word for God we transliterate into English as “El” and “el” is essentially power. The plural is “elohim.” Used of the Ultimate Power through whom heaven and earth and all that is within them were made, it is “Elohim” – God. Used of lesser powers in heaven (angelic/demonic) or powers on earth (kings/presidents) it’s “elohim.”
Jesus’ point to his detractors who are ready to stone him to death, again, is simply “If human judges can be called ‘sons of God’ or ‘gods’ – awesome beings clothed with immense power,” then why balk at such a label on me – the One and Only from the Father?”
I suspect that thought makes us chew a bit too.
And while we’re at it, how about we chew on the whole Psalm, not just to get the context for this one statement, but to get the point of the entire Psalm – a Psalm that could easily be addressed to all of us in this powerful, wealthy nation of ours:
God calls the judges into his courtroom,
he puts all the judges in the dock.
“Enough! You’ve corrupted justice long enough,
you’ve let the wicked get away with murder.
You’re here to defend the defenseless,
to make sure that underdogs get a fair break;
Your job is to stand up for the powerless,
and prosecute all those who exploit them.”
Ignorant judges! Head-in-the-sand judges!
They haven’t a clue to what’s going on.
And now everything’s falling apart,
the world’s coming unglued.
“I commissioned you judges, each one of you,
deputies of the High God,
But you’ve betrayed your commission
and now you’re stripped of your rank, busted.”
O God, give them their just deserts!
You’ve got the whole world in your hands!
No more head in-the-sand judges. Lord, we would hear.
When have you really been impacted by hearing the voice of God? How did you hear it? What happened?
Abba, you do have the whole world in your hands, so when I see everything falling apart and coming unglued, let me not sit clueless like a head-in-the-sand judge. Let me see and hear and engage in this world defending the defenseless and standing up for the powerless. Empower me to do what you do. Through Christ.
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” John 10.31-33 | ESV
That got them looking for rocks again to stone him.
“Wait a minute!” Jesus yells at them, “I put so many beautiful, wondrous deeds straight from the Father’s heart on display right before your eyes. So…which one of those are you stoning me for, again?”
“It’s not about anything you’ve done it’s what you’ve said,” they snarled. “Miracles are one thing, arrogant, presumptuous talk about a mere man being God – you making yourself out to be God on earth! – well that’s something else entirely, and no amount of ‘good works’ erases such blasphemy!” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
I love this.
They think Jesus has crossed the line when they’re the ones whose lines are crossed.
We can be such blockheads.
We listen to the snake hanging from the tree, totally biting on his sales pitch as if it were wisdom personified, and then we threaten to stone Divine Wisdom truly personified when he stands before us in temple courts.
“Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food?” queried Job as he sat in the ashes of his life with three friends who tried to comfort him in his loss by telling him what a sinner he was. They were so certain they were in and Job was out; that they were on the right frequency while Job was tone deaf.
With ears as effective as tastebudless tongues.
In any communication, any message, any presumed hearing, how do we know?
How do we know it’s God?
How do we know it’s not just us, just our imagination, just our “hearing” what we want to hear?
How do we know it’s not just our culture, our generation’s deeply ingrained voice within us?
How do we know it’s not in fact a message with a point of origin from darker realms?
It’s enough to paralyze us at each intersection of communication.
Is it this? or is it that?
“Prove all things,” says the apostle, “hold on to what is good, keep your distance from anything that turns up rotten.”
And that’s precisely what sheep do, Jesus tells us.
Unfortunately he doesn’t provide us with a formula that tells us how to go from blockhead to sheep in ten easy steps.
He provides us with a painful, long process of ears being dug in our blockheads, and then of hard hearts of stone amazingly, agonizingly removed from our chests and a fresh, malleable heart being inserted in its place.
But through it, comes hope.
Recognition begins to dawn upon us.
We begin to look beyond the appearance of the tree to the actual nature of the fruit.
We look beyond the face of things to His heart in all things.
And like the sheep, we begin to know.
We begin to hear.
We smell wolf breath through a draped over fleece.
And however he may come to us, however he might look this time, when the Shepherd appears, we hear and we run.
Right into his arms.
How do you personally discern the difference between what is God’s voice and what is merely mans? Between what is light and what is darkness? How do you know?
Good Shepherd, anoint me with sheepish wisdom that never hears the Shepherd in the wolf, or the wolf in the Shepherd. Dig me ears, O God. Dig me ears. Through Christ.
25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” John 10.25-30 | ESV
Jesus coolly replied, “I already did – and you wouldn’t hear a word of it. I showed you my credentials: every deed I’ve done with the Father’s blessing and authority speaks plainly enough, but you aren’t going for it – not a bit. Why? Because you’re not one of mine – you’re not my sheep. My sheep recognize my voice, and I recognize them right back, and there they are, following right on my heels – and talk about green pastures, their pasture is life to the full forever! And never in a million years will they lose that – no prowling predator will snatch them away while under my care! And it isn’t just my care. Every last one of them is a gift from my Father who is unequaled, unrivaled. No one messes with my Abba – and no one can lay a finger on one of his sheep while under his care. To talk about me is to talk about him. We are one.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.”
It’s Psalm 40:6.
And it’s our most desperately needed divine surgery because it’s what must happen before anything else can.
We need God to dig us ears.
That’s the literal rendering of the Psalmist’s word.
It’s not that he has ears that are just plugged with wax.
They were non-existent.
Big, ear-less, blockhead.
But then “ears you have dug for me.” The word means to dig, dig through, excavate, as in digging a well or a pit. That’s about what we need, isn’t it? We need ears dug for us. This is an operation we can’t perform on ourselves. We need such self-surgery like another hole in our head.
We can only wait for it.
And as you contemplate that, receive this reading from Psalm 40:
I waited and waited and waited for God.
At last he looked; finally he listened.
He lifted me out of the ditch,
pulled me from deep mud.
He stood me up on a solid rock
to make sure I wouldn’t slip.
He taught me how to sing the latest God-song,
a praise-song to our God.
More and more people are seeing this:
they enter the mystery,
abandoning themselves to God.
Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God,
turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,”
ignore what the world worships;
The world’s a huge stockpile
of God-wonders and God-thoughts.
Nothing and no one
comes close to you!
I start talking about you, telling what I know,
and quickly run out of words.
Neither numbers nor words
account for you.
Doing something for you, bringing something to you—
that’s not what you’re after.
Being religious, acting pious—
that’s not what you’re asking for.
You’ve opened my ears
so I can listen.
So I answered, “I’m coming.
I read in your letter what you wrote about me,
And I’m coming to the party
you’re throwing for me.”
That’s when God’s Word entered my life,
became part of my very being.
What would you identify as your greatest challenge in hearing the voice of God? In what ways do you feel that deep need to have God “dig you ears”?
Yes, Lord. Do this. Dig us ears so we can listen. It’s the one thing that sheep have going for them. It’s the one thing we desperately need to have going for us. Dig me ears. Through Jesus.
22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” John 10.22-24 | ESV
It’s now three months later. In Jerusalem. Mid-December. The winter “Light Up the House!” celebration. Jesus is walking in the temple through Solomon’s long colonnaded porch (a hot-spot for teaching rabbis to gather a crowd). Suddenly he found his way blocked in each direction as the local religious crowd closed in and began prodding him, “Enough is enough! Stop playing games and holding us in suspense. If you’re the Messiah, just say so plainly already!” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Several months have passed, though what we read in the second half of John 10 picks up the same “shepherd thread” from the first half.
The occasion is the Jewish winter celebration we know as Hanukkah, also known as the “Feast of Dedication.”
This celebration didn’t have its origin in ancient Levitical law and tradition but in more recent events during what we call the “Maccabean Revolt” nearly two centuries before Jesus was born. The Jewish people successfully threw off the yoke of foreign oppression, liberated their holy city and rededicated their holy temple (circa 165 BC).
The story goes that when the Temple services were restored, the oil for the lamps in the temple was found to be unfit for use – except for one container that was sealed with the High Priest’s ring. There was just enough oil there to feed the holy lamp stand for one day – but to their surprise and delight, much like Elijah’s cruse of oil, this container was found filled with just enough oil for the next day, and the next, and the next – for eight days – until a fresh supply of oil was brought from Tekoa.
In memory of this miraculous supply, it was ordered in the following year that that temple be illuminated for eight days on the anniversary of its “Dedication.”
And so it continued for generations.
And so Jesus during that winter celebration of light and life and liberty found himself strolling through those illuminated courts. And then he found himself surrounded, pressed, prodded.
“Stop the games. Stop being so elusive. Just spit it out. Tell us plainly who you are!”
I so hear my own voice echoing in their question!
How I long at times for God to come out of hiding, to stop being coy or downright silent. Just one moment of clarity, please!
It was said by ancient rabbis that God had to have his people take a three day journey into the wilderness to meet with him, just to get away from the noise of Egypt so they could hear the voice that is always speaking. They said the only remarkable thing about the Sinai experience was that for that one moment the world without and especially within was quieted enough (at least for Moses!) that the voice of God that is always speaking could actually be heard.
What an excruciating irony.
Turns out we’re the ones who are elusive and in need of learning to listen plainly.
When has God seemed elusive and difficult to pin down? How have you handled that? What would you say is the key to hearing God’s voice in our world today?
Abba, thank for your grace that pardons me when I surround you with my insistent demands for clarity, demonstration, and proof. Still my heart long enough to hear what you have been singing over me since the day I was ushered into this world. Ears to hear. Yes. Give me those. Through Christ.
There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” John 10.19-21 | ESV
End of word picture.
And instead of rave reviews and thunderous ovation, there was once again a significant split in the religious comment thread following this public post. Many were snarky. “He’s demon possessed!” “He’s nuts!” and “Why does anyone give this loser the time of day?” Others were more positive: “You’re nuts if you think he’s demon-possessed because demons don’t talk like this!” and “Demons are now in the ‘restoring-sight-to-the-blind’ business, are they? Right!” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Often, after viewing an inspiring video on YouTube, out of curiosity I’ll scroll down and view the comment thread. It’s amazing how many see beauty and wonder while so many at the same time see only things to pick at or ridicule.
This comment thread was no different.
Some saw profound beauty and truth – even if they couldn’t connect all the dots (but since when is that what it’s about anyway).
Others only heard noise roughly the equivalent of fingers on a chalkboard.
God may not change, but neither do people in all of our glorious peopleness.
So much can get lost in translation from God’s heart to ours. But there be rich green pastures here, and he would have us lie here a spell, and breathe deeply, in one such as this (the crescendo we know as Romans 8:31-39):
So, what do you think?
With God on our side like this, how can we lose?
If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us,
embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son,
is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?
And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen?
Who would dare even to point a finger?
The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way!
not hard times,
not bullying threats,
not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:
They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us.
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—
living or dead,
angelic or demonic,
today or tomorrow,
high or low,
thinkable or unthinkable—
absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love
because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
Talk about a cup brimming over…
So what would your contribution be to the comment thread on Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” word picture?
Good Shepherd, let nothing today be lost in translation from your heart to mine. As your beauty and goodness pursue me this day, let me be found by them unfazed by whatever calamities might surround me at the moment. Let me rest in your embrace that will not let me go and from which none can snatch me. Through Christ.