Death had long left the inmates an unbroken circle. Can it be that the unwelcome intruder is so nigh at hand? -- that their now joyous dwelling is so soon to echo to the wail of lamentation? We imagine it but lately visited by Jesus. In a little while the arrow hath sped; the sacredness of a divine friendship is no guarantee against the incursion of the sleepless foe of human happiness. Bethany is a mourning household. The sisters are bowed in the agony of their worst bereavement -- the prop of their existence is laid low -- "Lazarus is dead!"
At the very threshold of this touching story, are we not called on to pause, and read the uncertainty of earth's best joys and purest happiness; that the brightest sunshine is often the precursor of a dark cloud. When the gourd is all flourishing, a worm may unseen be preying at its root! When the vessel is gliding joyously on the calm sea, the treacherous rock may be at hand, and, in one brief hour, it has become a shattered wreck!
It is the touching record of the inspired historian in narrating Abraham's heaviest trial -- "After these things, God did tempt Abraham." After what things? After a season of rich blessings, gilding a future with bright hopes!
Would that, amidst our happy homes, and sunshine hours, and seasons of holy and joyous intercourse between friend and friend, we would more habitually bear in mind "This is not to last!" In one brief and unsuspected moment Lazarus may be taken. The messenger may now be on the wing to lay low some treasured object of earthly solicitude and love. God would teach us -- while we are glad of our gourds -- not to be "exceeding glad;" not to nestle here as if we were to "live alway," but rather, as we are perched on our summer boughs, to be ready at His bidding to soar away, and leave behind us what most we prize.
It tells us, too, the utter mysteriousness of many of the divine dispensations.
"LAZARUS IS DEAD!" What! He, the head, and support, and stay of two helpless females? The joy and solace of a common orphanhood, -- a brother evidently made and born for their adversities? What! Lazarus, whom Jesus tenderly loved? How much, even to his Lord, will be buried in that early grave! We may well expect, if there be one homestead in all Palestine guarded by the overshadowing wings of angels to debar the entrance of death, whose inmates may pillow their heads night after night in the confident assurance of immunity from trial, it must surely be that loved resort -- that "Arbour in His Hill Difficulty," where the God-man delighted oft to pause and refresh His wearied body and aching mind. Will Omnipotence not have set its mark, as of old, on the door-posts and lintels of that consecrated dwelling, so that the destroyer, in going his rounds elsewhere, may pass by it unscathed? How, too, can the infant Church spare him? The aged Simeon or Anna we dare not wish to detain. Burdened with years and infirmities, after having got a glimpse of their Lord and Saviour, let them depart in peace, and receive their crowns. These decayed trees in the forest -- those to whom old age on earth is a burden -- let them bow to the axe, and be transplanted to a nobler clime. But one in the vigour of life -- one so beautifully combining natural amiability with Christian love -- one who was pre-eminently the friend of Jesus, and that word profoundly suggestive of all that was lovely in a disciple's character. Death may visit other homes in that sequestered village, and spread desolation in other hearts, but surely the Church's Lord will not suffer one of its pillars so prematurely to fall!
And yet it is even so! The mysterious summons has come! -- the most honoured home on earth has been rudely rifled! -- the most loving of hearts have been cruelly torn; and inscrutable is the dealing, for "Lazarus is dead!"
"He, the young and strong, who cherish'd
And worse, too, than all, "the Lord is absent." Why is Omniscience tarrying elsewhere, when His presence and power are above all needed at the house of His friend?
The disconsolate sisters, in wondering amazement, repeat over and over again the exclamation, "If Jesus had been here, this our brother had not died!" "Hath He forgotten to be gracious?" "Surely our way is hid from the Lord, our judgment is passed over from our God."
Ah! the experience of His people is often still the same. What are many of God's dispensations? -- a baffling enigma -- all strangeness -- all mystery to the eye of sense. Useless lives prolonged, useful ones taken! The honoured minister of God struck down, the unfaithful watchman spared! The philanthropic and benevolent have an arrest put on their manifold deeds of kindness and generosity; the grasping, the avaricious, the mean-souled -- those who neither fear God nor do good to man, are suffered to live on from day to day! What is it but the picture here presented eighteen hundred years ago -- Judas spared to be a traitor to his Lord, while -- Lazarus is dead!
But let us be still! The Saviour, indeed, does not now lead us forth, amid the scene of our trial, as He did the bereft sisters, to unravel the mysteries of His providence, and to shew glory to God, redounding from the darkest of His dispensations. To us the grand sequel is reserved for eternity. The grand development of the divine plan will not be fully accomplished till then; faith must meanwhile rest satisfied with what is baffling to sight and sense. This whole narrative is designed to teach the lesson that there is an undeveloped future in all God's dealings. There is an unseen "why and wherefore" which cannot be answered here. Our befitting attitude and language now is that of simple confidingness -- "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" -- Listening to one of these Bethany sayings (we shall by and by consider), whose meaning will be interpreted in a brighter world by Him who uttered it in the days of His flesh -- "Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldest believe thou shouldest see the glory of God?"
"O thou who mournest on thy way,
Our duty, meanwhile, is that of children, simply to trust the faithfulness of a God whose footsteps of love we often fail to trace. All will be seen at last to have been not only for the best, but really the best. Dark clouds will be fringed with mercy. What we call now "baffling dispensations," will be seen to be wondrous parts of a great connected whole, -- the wheel within wheel of that complex machinery, by which "all things" (yes, ALL things) are now working together for good.
"Lazarus is dead!" The choicest tree in the earthly Eden has succumbed to the blast. The choicest cup has been dashed to the ground. Some great lights in the moral firmament have been extinguished. But God can do without human agency. His Church can be preserved, though no Moses be spared to conduct Israel over Jordan, and no Lazarus to tell the story of his Saviour's grace and love, when other disciples have forsaken Him and fled.
We may be calling, in our blind unbelief, as we point to some ruined fabric of earthly bliss -- some tomb which has become the grave of our fondest affections and dearest hopes -- "Shall the dust praise thee, shall it declare thy truth?" Believe! believe! God will not give us back our dead as He did to the Bethany sisters; but He will not deprive us of aught we have, or suffer one garnered treasure to be removed, except for His own glory and our good. Now it is our province to believe it -- in Heaven we shall see it. Before the sapphire throne we shall see that not one redundant thorn has been suffered to pierce our feet, or one needless sorrow to visit our dwelling, or tear to dim our eye. Then our acknowledgment will be, "We have known and believed the love which God hath to us."
"Oh, weep not though the beautiful decay,
Be it ours to have Jesus with us, and Jesus for us, in all our afflictions. If we wish to insure these mighty solaces, we must not suffer the hour of sorrow and bereavement to overtake us with a Saviour till then a stranger and unknown. St Luke tells us the secret of Mary's faith and composure at her loved one's grave: -- She had, long before her day of trial, learned to sit at her Redeemer's feet. It was when in health Jesus was first resorted to and loved.
In prosperity may our homes and hearts be gladdened with His footstep; and when prosperity is withdrawn, and is succeeded by the dark and cloudy day, may we know, like Martha and Mary, where to rush in our seasons of bitter sorrow; listening from His glorified lips on the throne to those same exalted themes of consolation which, for eighteen hundred years, have to myriad, myriad mourners been like oil thrown on the troubled sea. Jesus is with us! The Master is come! His presence will extract sorrow from the bitterest cup, and make, as He did at Bethany, a very home of bereavement and a burial scene to be "hallowed ground!"
Is the absent Saviour not to be sought? Martha and Mary knew the direction He had taken. The last time He had visited their home was at the Feast of Dedication, during the season of winter, when the palm-trees were bared of their leaves, and the voice of the turtle was silent. Jesus, on that occasion, had to escape the vengeance of the Jews in Jerusalem by a temporary retirement to the place where John first baptized, near Enon, on the wooded banks of the Jordan. It must have been to Him a spot and season of calm and grateful repose; a pleasing transition from the rude hatred and heartless formalism which met Him in the degenerate "City of Solemnities." The savour of the Baptist's name and spirit seemed to linger around this sequestered region. John had evidently prepared, by his faithful ministry, the way for a mightier Preacher, for we read, as the result of the Saviour's present sojourn, that "many believed on him there."
If we visit with hallowed emotion the places where first we learned to love the Lord, to two at least of those who accompanied the Redeemer, the region He now traversed must have been full of fragrant memories; there it was that Jesus had been first pointed out to them as the "Lamb of God;" there they first "beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and of truth." (John i.28.)
On His way thither, on the present occasion, He most probably passed through Bethany, and apprised His friends of His temporary absence. Lazarus was then in his wonted vigour -- no shadow of death had yet passed over his brow; he doubtless parted with the Lord he loved happy at the thought of ere long meeting again.
But soon all is changed. The hand of sickness unexpectedly lays him low. At first there is no cause for anxiety. But soon the herald-symptoms of danger and death gather fast and thick around his pillow; "his beauty consumes away like a moth." The terrible possibility for the first time flashes across the minds of the sisters, of a desolate home, and of themselves being the desolate survivors of a loved brother. The joyous dream of restoration becomes fainter and fainter. Human remedies are hopeless. There was One, and only ONE, in the wide world who could save from impending death. His word, they knew, could alone summon lustre to that eye, and bloom to that wan and fading cheek. Fifty long miles intervene between the great Physician and their cottage home. But they cannot hesitate. Some kind and compassionate neighbour is soon found ready to hasten along the Jericho road with the brief but urgent message, "Lord! behold he whom thou lovest is sick." If it only reach in time, they know that no more is needed. They even indulge the expectation that their messenger may be anticipated by the Lord Himself appearing. Others might doubt His omniscience, but they knew its reality. They had the blessed conviction, that while they were seated in burning tears by that couch of sickness, there was a sympathising Being far away marking every heart-throb of His suffering friend. Even when the stern human conviction of "no hope" was pressing upon them, "hoping against hope," they must have felt confident that He would not suffer His faithfulness now to fail. He had often proved Himself a Brother and Friend in the hour of joy. Could He fail -- can He fail to prove Himself now a "Brother born for adversity?"
Although, however, thus convinced that the tale of their sorrows was known to Jesus, a messenger is sent, -- the means are employed! They act as though He knew it not; as if that omniscient Saviour had been all unconscious of these hours of prolonged and anxious agony!
What a lesson is there here for us! God is acquainted with our every trouble; He knows (far better than we know ourselves) every pang we heave, every tear we weep, every perplexing path we tread; but the knee must be bent, the message must be taken, the prayer must ascend! It is His own appointed method, -- His own consecrated medium for obtaining blessings. Jesus may have gone, and probably would have gone to restore His friend, even though no such messenger had reached Him: We dare not limit the grace and dealings of God: He is often (blessed be His name for it!) "found of them that sought Him not." But He loves such messages as this. He loves the confiding, childlike trust of His own people, who delight in the hour of their extremity to cast their burdens upon Him, and send the winged herald of prayer to the throne of grace on which He sits.
Would that we valued, more than we do, this blessed link of communication between our souls and Heaven! More especially in our seasons of trouble, (when "vain is the help of man,") happy for us to be able implicitly to rest in the ability and willingness of a gracious Redeemer.
Prayer brings the soul near to Jesus, and fetches Jesus near to the soul. He may linger, as He did now at the Jordan, ere the answer be vouchsafed, but it is for some wise reason; and even if the answer given be not in accordance with our pre-conceived wishes or anxious desires, yet how comforting to have put our case and all its perplexities in His hand, saying, "I am oppressed; undertake Thou for me! To Thee I unburden and unbosom my sorrows. I shall be satisfied whether my cup be filled or emptied. Do to me as seemeth good in Thy sight. He whom I love and whom THOU lovest is sick; the Lazarus of my earthly hopes and affections is hovering on the brink of death. That levelling blow, if consummated, will sweep down in a moment all my hopes of earthly happiness and joy. But it is my privilege to confide my trouble to Thee; to know that I have surrendered myself and all that concerns me into the hand of Him who 'considers my soul in adversity.' Yes; and should my schemes be crossed, and my fondest hopes baffled, I will feel, even in apparently unanswered prayers, that the Judge of all the earth has done right!"
"It is said," says Rutherford, speaking of the Saviour's delay in responding to the request of the Syrophenician woman; "It is said He answered not a word, but it is not said He heard not a word. These two differ much. Christ often heareth when He doth not answer. His not answering is an answer, and speaks thus: 'Pray on, go on and cry, for the Lord holdeth His door fast bolted not to keep you out, but that you may knock and knock.'"
"God delays to answer prayer," says Archbishop Usher, "because he would have more of it. If the musicians come to play at our doors or our windows, if we delight not in their music, we throw them out money presently that they may be gone. But if the music please us, we forbear to give them money, because we would keep them longer to enjoy their music. So the Lord loves and delights in the sweet words of His children, and therefore puts them off and answers them not presently."
Observe still further, in the case of these sorrowing sisters of Bethany, while in all haste and urgency they send their messenger, they do not ask Jesus to come -- they dictate no procedure -- they venture on no positive request -- all is left to Himself. What a lesson also is there here to confide in His wisdom, to feel that His way and His will must be the best -- that our befitting attitude is to lie passive at His feet -- to wait His righteous disposal of us and ours -- to make this the burden of our petition, "Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?" "If it be possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt."
Reader! invite to your gates this celestial messenger. Make prayer a holy habit -- a cherished privilege. Seek to be ever maintaining intercommunion with Jesus; consecrating life's common duties with His favour and love. Day by day ere you take your flight into the world, night by night when you return from its soiling contacts, bathe your drooping plumes in this refreshing fountain. Let prayer sweeten prosperity and hallow adversity. Seek to know the unutterable blessedness of habitual filial nearness to your Father in heaven -- in childlike confidence unbosoming to Him those heart-sorrows with which no earthly friend can sympathise, and with which a stranger cannot intermeddle. No trouble is too trifling to confide to His ear -- no want too trivial to bear to His mercy-seat.
"Prayer is appointed to convey