Our homeschool Bible lessons have led us now to John’s gospel. The girls and I are taking this beautiful book in small, savory bits. We’re listening carefully to the Spirit-inspired voice of an insider, a bosom buddy of our Lord. And we’re hearing reminders and encouragements that address deep issues of aching human hearts.
We’ve imagined the reality of walking with the Lord, eating with the Lord, wiping his feet with our own hair. We’ve re-enacted reclining against God incarnate and sharing a whispered exchange. John makes Christ’s physical presence so prominent, personal, and appealing. Oh, how we long to see him face to face!
And yet, John makes sure we hear how the physical presence is not always as important as physical distance. He is careful to prime us first, in Chapter 11, for what is coming, knowing we’ll need the reassurance. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet…”
Don’t miss that preface: Jesus LOVED the sisters and Lazarus. YET. Believe he loved them before you read on.
The one Jesus loves is sick. The sisters have sent for him. Their confidence is in his presence. After all, he told Martha—in gentle rebuke—that Mary had it right when she planted herself at his feet for his earlier visit. Now they need him. And he loves them.
But he doesn’t go.
Can’t you taste Mary’s shock and sense of rejection as she sits in the house, four days past her brother’s death? The Lord has let her down. She called, and he didn’t come. And when he did finally come, she is too numb, paralyzed by disappointment, to go at first to meet him.
The Lord doesn’t take this lightly. There is no patronizing pat on the head, no smug “watch and see.” No. He knows full well that his delay, though for everyone’s greater good, has been deeply painful. It causes him great anguish in his own spirit to see Mary and the others weeping. I believe he also knows her grief is not just over the death of her brother, but the death of her expectations as well.
While the sisters wait and Lazarus dies, Jesus tells his disciples “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” His absence will be more valuable than his presence. In hindsight, we can see why. It is good for all who wait on the Lord to have this example before us.
Fast-forward to Chapter 16, where we hear something like this again. Jesus tells his friends that he is going back to the Father. The disciples grieve. (Whisper it in our ears again, John, as we get the bad news. Remind us that he loved them.)
“I tell you the truth,” he says. “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you.”
How is it, I ask the girls, that the presence of the Holy Spirit can be better for the disciples—and by extension, better for us—than the bodily presence of Christ himself? To my small mind, it is difficult to grasp—and grasp is exactly what I want to do!
Oh, how I long for a God with skin on! I want to cling to him in the garden. I want to crawl into my Abba’s lap. I don’t immediately care so much about the omnipresence of the Spirit.
I long for the tangible in part because I am still immature. But to walk by sight and touch alone is to stay little. My heavenly Father who loves me does not want me to stay little. It is for my progress toward maturity that I live now outside Christ’s physical presence. It is for greater things—greater glory, greater knowledge of the fullness of his power—that he left in body. But he did not leave us alone. He left us indwelt with the one who will guide us into all truth. Believe it! And yet his physical absence is only for a time. He will return, in bodily form.
Remember, John says: He loves us. And it is for our greater good that we learn to walk by faith, and for his greater glory that our maturity comes to completion.
From November 2010.