My Dad was diagnosed about six weeks before we were to move. We suspected for a while that he was sick, but didn’t know just how sick he was until he was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. There was also cancer in his bowel and in his lung.
My family had planned and announced a major move from Canada to the USA and could only move forward by faith. “God, this process of discernment has been centered on you. You could have unfolded things in a different way. We are proceeding by faith that you have unfolded with reason and intention.” That was my attitude. My words of prayer weren’t always quite so clear.
To say we were shocked would be an understatement: it was like living in a foggy dream. There was a constant blur and thickness to the world that made navigating difficult, even though in the moment you thought you were coping quite well. After moving, I coped by hauling my family back and forth across three or four states and provinces (and not the small ones) to visit my parents several times in a 12-month period.
I coped by visiting my Dad.
Thanks be to God, my Dad is doing very well. And my family is recovering from the burst of travel. After two years, I think I am emerging from the fog. I am starting to reflect on what God may have done in those visits.
Visiting the sick has a profound impact on the soul. John Wesley, in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick,” said that visiting the sick was a work of mercy, a “plain duty” for all in health, though “almost universally neglected.” The sick are those in some kind of affliction—whether in body or mind.
One of the reasons that Wesley encourages visitation is because it produces empathy. He warns that the rich do not understand the poor because they so seldom visit them. Those of us who are well might not understand the ill if we do not visit them.
Perhaps this notion of visiting the ill can illuminate the incarnate visitation of our Lord by reflecting on John 11:45-57. Let me start by asking: What would you do for a loved one who was sick? In John 4, the official begged Jesus to heal his son. Don’t miss his desperation! Whereas Jesus said that he had no honor in his hometown, the official acts as if Jesus is the most important person in the world. The official holds nothing back! Now, in John 11, we read about the sickness of Lazarus, a sickness that results in death before Jesus raises Lazarus up. The story ends in triumph, an affirmation of Jesus’ identity—“I am the resurrection and the life”—but hidden in the story is a sinister plot and a beautiful love; a story of what one might do for the loved one who is sick.
Before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps (11:35), is deeply moved (11:38), and is troubled (11:33). I do not think these are expressions of sorrow at Lazarus’ death. If they are, they are oddly timed. Why would Jesus express sorrow when he’s on the cusp of raising Lazarus from the dead? Some remark, “See how he loved him!” (11:36), but, as has been frequent in John’s gospel, the observers are only half right. They think it’s a sign of sorrow, but they don’t know what’s coming next! They only get a surface read of the situation.
On the contrary, I do not think it is Lazarus’ death that troubles Jesus; it is his own. For what he is about to do—raise Lazarus—will lead to his own death. Jesus is troubled and Jesus weeps because if he does for Lazarus what he has come to do (11:11b), then it will lead to his own death.
This sacrifice becomes clear in 11:45. Did you see the word that started it off? “Therefore” (v. 45)! Because of this miracle, some go to the Pharisees, who, along with the chief priests, call a meeting of the Sanhedrin (11:47). Raising Lazarus is the final straw for them!
Notice that they see what is happening. Yet while they see the miraculous signs (11:47), they do not respond in faith, but in fear. They fear a continued uprising around Jesus will result in the trampling of their temple and the destruction of their nation (11:48). So, Caiaphas cuts to the chase: Jesus needs to die. “It is better…that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (11:50) and so they plot to take his life (11:53).
That is the sinister plot. Where is the beautiful love?
Before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps and is troubled because there will be no turning back from the cross. He was called the lamb of God and now he will become the slaughtered lamb (Isaiah 53:7). He will sacrifice his life for Lazarus’ life. Jesus raised a sick man who has died from sickness and we can say, remembering the prophet Isaiah, that Lazarus’ healing led to Jesus’ wounds (Isaiah 53:5).
Which brings me back to our earlier question. What would you do for a loved one who is sick?
Ultimately, the question is not about us. The question really isn’t about the official and his son (John 4); it isn’t about Martha and Mary and their brother. It is about God and his Son. In Isaiah, upon seeing the plight of his people and the Lord’s desire to send a prophet, Isaiah steps forward: “Here am I. Send me!”
With Isaiah in mind, I start to hear the word that comes to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” not simply as word from Mary and Martha to Jesus. It is also the word that the Son carries to the Father. “Lord, the one you love is sick” is the word of the Son to the Father along with the Son’s obedient attitude: “Here am I. Send me!”
This word is prompted by the Father’s love and results in the Father’s delighted sending. Both are giving for the one who is sick.
What would God do for the loved one who is sick? He would take on flesh, go to a cross, and die so that the loved one would be healed. Yet, praise God, while Lazarus’ sickness would yet end in temporary death, Jesus’ death was followed by resurrection.
Perhaps that can be our ministry of visitation to the sick: Those with life visiting those whose life is under distress as a ministry of the Son of God visiting all of us, the loved one of God who is sick. Perhaps, then, we learn to identify not just with the sick, but in the resurrection of Christ, as well.
Note from the Editor: Today’s featured image is a painting by Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child.”