When Jesus walked into Bethany, almost a week after Lazarus had fallen sick and later died, one of the first persons He met was Martha, Lazarus’ older sister. According to the narrative, because Bethany was about two miles from Jerusalem, “many of the Jews had come to see Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning [the loss of] their brother” (John 11:19, AMP), and so the arrival of Jesus was not unexpected. However, instead of waiting for Jesus to get to their house, as soon as she got word that He was on His way, Martha went out to meet Him (v. 20). We are not told that they exchanged greetings or that Jesus said anything to the grieving sister. Instead, she went straight to the matter that was on her heart and said unto Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). Bible scholars have long debated whether this was a gentle criticism or an expression of regret. Given that Jesus was expected to come when He got news his friend was sick and was only now doing so after he had died, I submit that her expression was a bit of both.
Waiting on God is not easy. Sure, the Bible has much to say on the subject, including the benefits, but spending time in God’s waiting room can often be a frustrating experience. As the sisters watched their brother’s health deteriorate over two days, the brother whom Jesus loved, they would have anxiously kept looking out for Jesus – their friend, the prophet, and healer. He had received the message they had sent (vv. 3-4) and He was not far away. But He had not come and Lazarus had died. Those 48 hours would have been very difficult for the family. For some of us, we have been waiting much longer than two days. In some cases, it has been months. In others, years. Still, Jesus has not come; God has not delivered. There are no easy answers as to why some people, loved by God, go through difficult times and face moments of disappointments as they wait, and continue to wait, on Him. Yes, we know the arguments about His sovereignty and that He does things in His time (e.g., Psalm 115:3). We know that “they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31, KJV). We could repeat Romans 8:28 in our sleep. That doesn’t mean it is easy. Martha spoke for all of us when she uttered the words, “Lord, if you had been here…” If you had come earlier, things would have been different.
Martha was not the only one who felt that way. John tells us, “When Mary came [to the place] where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32). That she said the same thing as her sister suggests that it was a topic of conversation among them as they waited. It is instructive that Jesus did not spend any time lecturing the sisters on the matters of faith and doubt. Instead, He spoke directly to the place of Martha’s emotional wound: “Your brother will rise [from the dead]” (v. 23). As they stood at the tomb of Lazarus, the crowd and the sisters shocked at Jesus’ request that they roll away the stone covering the entrance (vv. 38-39), He spoke words that are important to everyone in the waiting room: “Did I not say to you that if you believe [in Me], you will see the glory of God [the expression of His excellence]?” (v. 40). In her moment of doubt, He reminded her of His promise.
We know how the story ended. However, at that moment, the sisters had no idea what was going to happen. God had a plan and He did not tell them what it was. He simply executed it. It is the not knowing that often frustrates us; that often wears us down. Some of us have walked out of God’s waiting room, believing like Martha that the situation is hopeless (v. 39); others have taken matters into their own hands believing that “God helps those who help themselves” and relying on His grace to make up where they fall short; others continue to wait – patiently and impatiently. If you are like me, at some point you have done all three. The wait would be more tolerable if we knew what the divine plan was, but God is not in the business of explaining Himself. He simply asks us, you and me, to trust Him that He knows what He is doing. That can be very difficult. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” There and then, Jesus reminded Martha of His promise. In our moments of frustration, anger, and disappointments, let us remind Him of His.