Coming Forth with Lazarus

Understanding the Sabbath in light of God's sovereignty

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Spiritual Disciplines for Busy Church Leaders.

I've a new Bible hero of late: Lazarus. Not Luke's scabrous beggar, but Mary and Martha's ill-begotten brother. Most of his story is told in John 11—Lazarus's sickness, Jesus' reposeful delay, Lazarus's death, Mary's and Martha's upset with Jesus, Jesus' own upset ("Jesus wept"), and then the piece de resistance: Jesus' command to a corpse, "Lazarus, come forth!"

What follows is a miracle of power and wonder: a man three-days dead, pungent with rot, rouses to the voice, obedient even in death. Death must loose its grip and give up its prey. Lazarus comes forth. That's the story most of us know.

Resting in God's Sovereignty

But it's the story after that one that I've cottoned onto. Afterward, next time Jesus is in Lazarus's town, the family hosts a banquet in his honour. As they should. It is a gala event, a hullabaloo of food and festivity and, I should think, endless and dramatic retellings of the story—"…and then Jesus started crying, and I thought, Oh no, what could this mean? But next thing he's standing up above that sepulchre like Moses on the mountain and in a voice like thunder…."

Everyone wants to be there. And not just to see Jesus. They want to get a peek at Lazarus, too. To wit: "Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him" (John 12:9–11).

I think it was Nietzsche who said that if Christians wanted him to believe in Jesus, they'd have to start looking more redeemed. Well, Lazarus here is looking more redeemed, and it's having its effect. Three, in fact: Lazarus has become as interesting as Jesus, Lazarus has become as effective as Jesus, and Lazarus has become as dangerous as Jesus.

People want to see Lazarus every bit as much as they want to see Jesus, and some want to trust in Jesus every bit as much as Lazarus trusts in him, and some want to kill Lazarus every bit as much as they want to kill Jesus. Lazarus has become a kingdom magnet—a firebrand evangelist, a holy menace. That's why he's my hero. He's what I aspire to be.

But here's what I really came all this way to tell you: Lazarus does all that by doing nothing. Watch: "Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him" (John 12:1–2).

If we're going more redeemed, maybe what's needed most is to simply recline more with Jesus. I wrote a book on Sabbath a few years ago called The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. I was at pains, writing it, to avoid two things: a Pharisaical legalism, where the glory of Sabbath gets ground down to a dust-pile of rules; and a post-modernist vagueness, where the practicality of Sabbath gets lost amidst blog-like musings.

Along the way I made several discoveries, both theological and personal, but this was the keystone: Sabbath-keeping is rooted in, and gives rise to, a conviction that God is sovereign. Either God is in control, or he's not. If he's not—if I am, or you are, or George Bush is, or the UN and the World Bank are—then who can rest? We ought to be worried, and very, very busy. If matters are in the hands of anyone other than God (or in no one's hands), then there is no rest, not just for the wicked, but for the righteous, too. There's just no rest altogether. The only sensible pose in such a world is wariness and fretfulness and Mad Hatter franticness. If God be not God.

But if God be God, then there's time enough. If God be God, then in repentance and rest is our salvation, in quietness and trust is our strength (Isaiah 30:15). Philip Malancthon once said to his friend Martin Luther, "Today, Martin, you and I will discuss God's governance of the universe," to which Luther replied, "No, Philip. Today you and I are going fishing, and we'll leave the governance of the universe to God."

Here are a few practical things that might help you to know the rest of God.

  • Reorient. Sometimes we need to change our attitude, not our activities. Resentment feeds weariness, and so begrudging the time you spend doing something is sure to make the doing of it long and dreary. For me, thinking of the church as Christ's bride, not an organization, changed my attitude: I want to serve her. Fairy tales have told us that radiant beauties sometimes wear the disguise of ugly crones. The Bible tells us that the bride of Christ sometimes does the same—and, indeed, that Christ himself sometimes wears the disguise of "the least of these." Believing this—that serving ordinary people is a way of serving Jesus and his bride—renews my motivation.
  • Refocus. Often in the midst of overwhelming busyness, I stop—not for hours, but long enough to catch my breath, regain perspective, and fill my lungs with fresh air. Sometimes I write a poem—an astonishingly effective way to rediscover, with wonder and thankfulness, what I've grown deaf and blind to in my mad rush. Or I go for walk and pay keen attention to sounds, colors, and stillness. Such pauses are mini-Sabbaths that replenish me and send me back to my tasks with fresh energy and creativity.
  • Reconnect. Busyness, unrelieved, kills togetherness. A vicious irony of ministry is that those of us who build and serve community often have no time for it ourselves. Jesus and his disciples were often going full-tilt at ministry. But in the midst of that, he knew when to pause just so these friends could spend time with one another. So I do that.

Restoring the Soul

Maybe King David pulls all this together for us. Ever wonder when David wrote Psalm 23? What was the occasion? I have a theory—the day his son Absalom overthrew the kingdom. It's a wild guess, to be sure. But there are two clues, one in the Psalm, one in the account of Absalom's overthrow and David's evacuation, that David turned that evacuation into Sabbath.

The clue in Psalm 23 is verse 5: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."

In the presence of enemies, with an insurrectionist son sitting on his throne and a bitter old rival throwing curses and dirt on his head (2 Samuel 16:5ff), could David have reflected back to those early days of shepherding and remembered that, even here—especially here, in the valley of the shadow of death—God watches and protects, and puts goodness on his tail, and leads him finally to something far better than an earthly palace: the very house of God?

The clue in the account of the overthrow is 2 Samuel 16:14: "The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself."

And there he refreshed himself. This was arguably the worse day David ever had. But in the throes of it, he didn't simply collapse. He refreshed himself. The word in Hebrew for refreshed is nephesh. It has another meaning: the soul. Literally, David "restored his soul" (see Psalm 23:3).

David, I think, did more than take a shower, put on fresh clothes, barbecue a steak, play a game of pool. David, I think, practiced the sovereignty of God. He reoriented, refocused, reconnected (and maybe, just maybe, he wrote a poem).

And left the governance of the universe to God.


  1. Can I think of a time when I have "reclined with Jesus"? If so, what was it like?
  2. How does the sovereignty of God impact my life as an individual?
  3. How does the sovereignty of God impact the mission and ministries of our church?

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