On Thursday, Nanci and the kids went to the high school state basketball tournament in Oklahoma City. Basketball players from across the state were there trying to win a state championship and reach their ultimate goal. To get to state, you have to make it through three levels of tournaments, working through district, regional, and then area tournaments. It takes years of hard work and endless hours of practice to reach this level. High school players dream about winning state, and yet only one boy’s team and one girls’ team from each class can say they attained that dream. Every other team in the state falls short of that goal, and has to learn about disappointment. That’s where my high school basketball experience comes into the story. Even after those same years of hard work and endless hours of practice, my high school team finally made it to the Area tournament my senior year…only to lose out. But don’t worry; I’m over it. There’s no bitterness about being beaten by even though I can remember Turner beating us in the gym at EOSC….thirteen years ago!
We learn about disappointment from situations like these, but as we get older far too often our disappointments go with us. It seems that no one is immune from disappointments, and some of the most famous leaders and artists from history lived and died with disappointment: Alexander the Great was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and undefeated in battle. Yet, after Alexander conquered Persia he broke down and wept because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India. The most powerful man in the world was broken by disappointment. Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author, only had these words for his own epitaph, “”Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.” John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States, but in his diary he recorded these words, “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something beneficial would result from my existence.” All of this goes to show us that disappointment is no respecter of persons. Even the most powerful, popular, and prosperous people in the world are subject to the same experience of disappointment as anyone else.
In today’s Scripture passage, we see the incredible miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead – an unbelievably amazing event. However…I want to draw your attention to how this miracle came about. This incredible miracle wasn’t born out of the soil of fulfilled expectations and joy; it was forged in the heart of disappointment. Let me show you what I’m talking about.
Jesus and his disciples had just left Bethany when they received word that Lazarus was deathly ill. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were three of Jesus’ best friends, and this was terrible news. Of course, they sent for Jesus because they believed he could heal him. For the disciples, this wasn’t good news for more reasons than Lazarus’ health. In fact, it put them in quite a bind because just a few days earlier, the people in that area tried to kill Jesus!! The sisters wanted Jesus to come back immediately to heal their brother Lazarus, and the disciples were worried that if Jesus returned he would be attacked and killed.
I think Jesus’ response to this situation teaches us something very, very interesting. Somehow, Jesus’ managed to disappoint both groups! The Scripture tells us that after hearing about Lazarus’ illness, he stayed where he was for two days, which of course disappointed the sisters. And then, after waiting two days, he got ready to go back, even though there was a serious threat of danger, thus disappointing the disciples!! In a situation where he could have chosen a way just to disappoint one of the two groups, he ended up disappointing them both!! The disappointment of Mary and Martha and the disappointment of the disciples really teaches us what disappointment is all about.
Disappointment is the feeling of dissatisfaction that comes when our expectations are not met. The sisters expected Jesus to come back and heal Lazarus immediately, and they were disappointed when he waited two days. The disciples expected Jesus to stay out of danger, and they were disappointed when he decided to return after two days even though Lazarus had already died from his illness.
In a way it’s easy for us to relate. We offer similar requests to God. Many times we pray for people to be healed, only to be disappointed when our expectations aren’t met. Sometimes we pray to be kept from danger and difficulty, only to be disappointed when we end up going through the very thing we hoped to avoid. When Jesus got to Bethany, he was met by Mary and Martha. Martha came first and said, “”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary came later and said the exact same thing, “”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The words if only are the two essential words in the language of disappointment. If only I had done things differently. If only I had worked harder, prayed harder, tried harder, and on and on.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not ours. In the middle of disappointments and doubts, even in the very face of death, Jesus words ring loud and true, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Only Jesus has the power to overcome disappointment. Only Jesus has the power to transform any situation. In these words, Jesus shows us that the power of death can only be defeated by Jesus. So standing in front of the tomb of one of his closest friends, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!” And then we see the most amazing thing: Lazarus, dead for four days, comes walking out of the tomb.
Even though the disciples and the sisters were all disappointed, by trusting in Jesus and staying by his side, they ended up seeing something incredible. Only Jesus can overcome and transform the “if onlys” of our lives. We all have disappointments, regrets, and unmet expectations, and “only Jesus” can overcome them all. We all have “if onlys” in our lives. “Only Jesus” can transform them into something far better. Even though Lazarus was dead, his death became an opportunity to see the amazing power and ministry of Jesus. Instead of being a tragedy, Lazarus being raised foreshadowed the ultimate resurrection of Jesus himself.
These things are still going on in our lives and in our world today. In 1920, a young man went before an examining board for selecting missionaries. Oswald Smith had dreamed of being a missionary for years and years. He had prayed over and over, “Lord, I want to be a missionary for you. Please open a door of service for me. Now, at last, his prayer would be answered. Yet when the examination was over, the board turned Oswald Smith down. He didn’t meet their qualifications, and he failed the test. Oswald Smith had expected to be departing for the mission fields, but instead he was met with total disappointment. What was he going to do? Surely the “if onlys” flooded his mind. If only he’d done things differently, if only he’d been more prepared…but as Oswald Smith prayed, God planted another idea in his heart. If he couldn’t go as a missionary he would build a church which could send out missionaries. Only Jesus could transform disappointment into a new mission, a life-giving purpose. So that is what he did. Oswald smith pastored a large Church in Toronto, Canada which ended up sending out more missionaries than any other Church at that time. Just as Jesus transformed the tragedy of Lazarus into the miracle of new life, only Jesus could transform the disappointment of Oswald Smith into something far better. The life-giving Church that Oswald Smith helped begin sent far more people into mission than if he had been approved by the board.
Do you have “if onlys” and disappointments in your life? Have you looked back and wondered how things might have been different? How does God want to use these for something far greater? How does God want to transform your disappointment for his greater purposes? Let Jesus enter your situation. Hear Jesus’ announcement that he is the resurrection and the life. Listen to him calling Lazarus out of the darkness of the tomb. Hear him calling you out of all the darkness, disappointment, and “if onlys” you’ve ever faced. Only Jesus can transform you. Only Jesus can bring new life out of disappointment. Only Jesus can give us the hope and life we all so desperately need.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.