The Consequences of Waiting Upon the Lord
The story of Lazarus—it’s one of the most fascinating in the Bible.
I love this story for so many reasons.
I love it for its place in the unfolding of the tender and devoted friendship between Jesus and the siblings of Bethany.
Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha—we might call them the Fantastic Four!
We know there were many more encounters between them that we don’t see recorded in the gospels for the level of friendship they express for each other to be as real and deep as it appears.
After all, the message from the sisters to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
That is not a reference to a casual acquaintance.
No doubt there were occasions of Lazarus and Jesus out roaming across the hills, talking of spiritual topics for hours, while Mary and Martha prepared the feast they would enjoy together later at home.
Or perhaps vice versa—maybe Jesus and Lazarus took their turn in the kitchen as well!
Late night dinners, hours of conversation, thinking and praying together about God’s work in the world—they were intimate spiritual companions.
They might even have been friends before Jesus began his ministry, or at the very least, from very early on in it.
Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus grow into his ministry.
As he has ranged farther and farther afield to heal and teach, still the little house in Bethany remains a home base, where he returns for his own healing and renewal.
Drained by his work, he can always recharge with his three dear friends.
Because while they are his followers, they are always first and foremost his friends.
In fact, their friendship is so well-known among the disciples and other followers of Jesus that the whole community is aware that Jesus would want to hear of Lazarus being gravely ill.
The message from Martha and Mary reaches him quickly, and here we have the first jarring note in the story.
John tells us, “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Jesus did not rush back to heal his friend, or at least be with the sisters and brother as they faced this difficult time.
He stayed away. He waited.
As I struggled with this question, I read the psalm for today.
It’s Psalm 130, De profundis in Latin, which means “Out of the depths.”
I pictured Lazarus’ long, lonely four days in the tomb waiting for Jesus, while Jesus waited to come to Bethany, and I heard Lazarus’ voice speaking this psalm:
“Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you;
therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD,
for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption,
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.”
I have been absolutely haunted all week by the thought of that psalm in Lazarus’ voice.
It expresses a deep despair, an ebbing hope, a desperate need for God to come, to help, to save.
And yet from the pit, from the tomb, comes this voice of quiet confidence: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”
Why do watchmen wait for the morning?
So they can return to shelter.
So the seemingly endless darkness and threat of the night, where beasts and enemies stalk the perimeter, will finally be over.
This is the voice of Lazarus in the tomb.
He pleads for Jesus to come to him, because Jesus is truly his last hope.
What I find so remarkable about Lazarus in this story is that it seems clear, without getting too far into the fuzzy metaphysics of the afterlife, that he had not transitioned completely to heaven after these four days in the tomb.
Some remaining shred of consciousness or echo of soul was still there.
How do we know? Because he heard Jesus cry out to him!
He heard Jesus say, “Lazarus, come out!” and he came out, alive again!
If he had fully departed the earthly plane, number one, how would he have heard Jesus, and number two, what possible motivation would he have had to leave Paradise and return to his feeble earthly body in this messy, painful physical realm?
Of all the people in the Bible, I feel Lazarus, along with Jesus’ earthly father Joseph, is one of the greatest unsung heroes of faith.
We never hear him speak. We don’t get the sibling byplay that we get between Mary and Martha, or even the details of giftedness and temperament that we get about his more out-front sisters.
He is simply there in the background, but in this moment, his faith shines out like the blazing sun.
He just knew that Jesus, his dear friend Jesus, would not leave him to die alone.
And so he waited upon the Lord.
“I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope,” the psalmist says in what seems to be the voice of Lazarus in this story.
Perhaps Lazarus even had these very words in his heart as it began to beat more and more slowly.
Perhaps he breathed these very words as his breaths became shallower and shallower, further and further apart, until they stopped, and his sisters’ tears overflowed.
“I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.”
The old language for “wait for the Lord” was “wait upon the Lord,” and this brings up a fascinating connection.
What does it mean to wait upon the Lord?
Well, it really has two interconnected meanings.
The first one is obvious: remaining as and where one is until God acts, until God arrives.
The second one adds a new depth to our understanding: “to wait upon the Lord” also means “to serve the Lord.”
In fairy tales and other texts with older style language, including Shakespeare, in fact, you will hear people say things like, “I wait upon your pleasure, my Lord,” and what that means is that the person will not just wait until he or she is needed, but then will be ready to serve when called upon.
This is why we call the people who serve us in restaurants waiters and waitresses—they wait upon us.
This makes sense from Lazarus’ point of view.
He is waiting upon the Lord in the sense that he is willing to be patient with the slow passage of time until Jesus comes to him.
But he also waits upon the Lord in that he is willing and ready to answer Jesus’ call.
When the voice of the Lord commands him, he leaps to fulfill the task, even from beyond the grave! That is dedicated servanthood!
We could see evidence of Lazarus’ devoted service to Jesus even if we theorize that he had transitioned completely to heaven.
He had such a high commitment to fulfilling Jesus’ any need or desire or directive, that he may have given up even the eternal glory and peace of heaven, reentering his broken down earthly body, in order to wait upon the Lord.
This interpretation enriches our relationship with Lazarus, but consider how it opens up our understanding of what Jesus was doing in this story.
We remember our discomfort when we read, “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Jesus waited, and Mary and Martha clearly fault him for it as much as we do. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both say.
The anguished albeit unasked questions ring out all the same, “Why did you leave us alone? Why did you let him die? Why did you wait?”
Here we realize how that second meaning of “wait upon” can break open this whole story.
Jesus waiting in chronological time was also him waiting upon this family in order to serve them.
His waiting to come to them resulted in his waiting upon them, serving them and answering their need for his healing and resurrection.
He also was waiting upon his disciples in both senses—he was serving them by teaching them via the miracle, and he was also waiting on them to catch on to what he was teaching and doing!
Lazarus and Jesus waited upon each other, Lazarus inside the tomb and Jesus two days’ travel away from it.
And then they waited upon each other again, Lazarus answering Jesus’ command and Jesus raising Lazarus to new life.
And so we must ask, how are we and Jesus waiting upon each other right now?
In what areas of your life are you waiting for God to step in and help you or change you or raise you up?
And in what areas of your life is God waiting for you to catch on or open up or think bigger?
For we know that we are called to wait upon the Lord in the sense of being always ready to serve.
We read elsewhere from the psalmist, “As the eyes of servants look to the hands of their master, and the eyes of a maid look to the hands of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.”
What does it do to your heart to know that the Almighty and Living God is perceiving and responding to your every need in exactly the same way, with the same obsessive attention and focus?
It gives Lazarus’ voice in the psalm right back to us: “I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.”
Suddenly waiting upon the Lord is no longer an exercise in futility, strained patience, and frustrated expectation.
It is a mutual giving of love and service between ourselves and God, undergirded with faith and confidence that all goodness will unfold in the right time and place.
We understand with new depth that Jesus has done for us, for Mary and Martha, for the disciples, what he did for Lazarus.
Jesus said when Lazarus emerged from the tomb, “Unbind him and let him go.”
Lazarus’ faithful waiting upon the Lord has brought him not just new life but new freedom, and he is unbound from everything that ever held him back, even death itself!
We too are unbound by Jesus waiting upon us, no matter how long it takes for us to respond.
When we hear and respond to his cry to come out of the tomb, we too are free.
We are free to live a new life of shared outpouring with God, no longer controlled and limited by our small ideas of when grace must appear, confident that we are in eternal time, eternal life.
After a lifetime of waiting, we are free to wait upon the Lord.
We waited “more than watchmen for the morning.”
Now the morning is here.
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