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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

April 27, 2007

Does Jesus Care?

When I was growing up in the church, I remember singing a hymn called “Does Jesus Care?” This hymn was not in the EUB Hymnal, which my church used up until the merger with the Methodists in 1968. Nor was it in the United Methodist Hymnal that my church adopted somewhat begrudgingly in that year and used thereafter.

No, it was #33 in the nondenominational Hymns of Praise Numbers One and Two Combined, published in 1952 and stashed in quantity, kind of like contraband, in a cupboard in the back of the sanctuary. If you only came to our 10:30 worship service, you'd never know they existed. But if you wandered into our 9:00 a.m. adult Sunday School, you'd see them in everyone's hands. They'd been used so hard they were held together with black tape.

This hymnal was the favorite of the older people in our church. And the songs they loved to sing most were the ones that told of hardship and endurance and God's faithfulness and heaven to come. As a child and a teen I didn't understand why that was the case. I only knew these were the hymns that were most often requested and sung with the most gusto. And they worked their way inside me, as good hymns do.

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth and song;
As the burdens press, and the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

I didn't appreciate the comfort in hymns like this until I hit middle age some years ago. My body developed chronic disease. I got heavier even though I still led an active life. People close to me began to die. After some unexpected layoffs where I worked, I began to wonder what kind of job I could possibly get at age 50. I became more sensitive to the never-ending parade of sin in people I knew who weren't making good choices in their lives. I became more involved in my aging mother's life, and a caretaker for my father-in-law, who moved into our home. Living with him, watching his decline over the years, helped me develop compassion, but also filled me with dread for my own advancing years.

*****

Does Jesus care when my way is dark
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep night shades,
Does He care enough to be near?

At some point I started to get the night terrors.

I'd always been one who could fall asleep quickly and stay asleep soundly. Now I was having nights where I'd wake up suddenly, filled with dread, staring into the dark abyss, thinking of pain, loss and death. I could pray my way out of it, but not without tremendous concentration and a sustained effort to believe God's promises.

I began to better understand those older people from my childhood in my home church: what they lived with, how they were dealing with multiple fears and a sense of their own decline, and why they clung to the promises in Hymns of Praise Numbers One and Two Combined.

Now I could see why “Does Jesus Care?” was such an important hymn for them—I was asking the same question myself. When your quality of life is decreasing and sorrows are increasing, it's an important question to have answered in the affirmative.

One of the most basic truths about life on this earth is that you come into existence, you mature, grow old, and die. The cycle of life really is a set-up to lose in the end. Even people who seem to win for a while with a comfortable, interesting life lose in the end as they decline and die. As I write this, a dear older lady's cancer has advanced to the point where she has had to leave her home and be placed in a nursing facility. She was one from my home church who sang “Does Jesus Care?” all those years ago. Soon she will be gone, and will have suffered a great deal on the way out.

*****

Does Jesus care when I've said goodbye
To the dearest on earth to me,
And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks
Is it aught to Him? Does He see?

I imagine that if this hymn had been around in Jesus' day, it's what Mary and Martha would have been singing for most of John 11, the chapter where their brother Lazarus is seriously ill, and then dies. Does Jesus Care?

At first, the answer must have seemed like “no.” The sisters knew Jesus had the power to heal and He was a special friend of their family. So when they sent word to him in a nearby village about their brother's illness— Lord, he whom you love is ill —it was with the faith and confidence that their great friend could and would respond with all haste, doing something about the grave situation.

But that's not what Jesus did. He stayed away until after Lazarus had died. On purpose. Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Imagine if you were Mary or Martha at this point in the story. They were miles away and didn't know what Jesus had told his disciples— This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. All they knew was that as things got worse and worse for Lazarus, and then he actually died, Jesus never showed.

What possible reason could Jesus have for not coming quickly to their aid and doing what they asked? “Does Jesus Care?” Apparently not.

*****

I have wondered “Does Jesus Care?” a lot in my life. I suspect you have too. Did he care that my father died a slow, suffocating death in his mid-60s? Did he care that my grandmother spent her last years with Alzheimer's Disease, first burdening my mother, then being moved to assisted living, then finally to a nursing facility, filled with fears, her mind almost gone, until she finally passed? Did he care when a church I served tore itself apart? Did he care as over the years people I knew chose badly and made messes of their lives and deeply wounded others around them?

Jesus could have prevented these things from happening, but he didn't. I find myself resonating with what Martha said to Jesus when he finally showed up: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. We asked you Jesus, but you didn't respond. We told you what was wrong, but you didn't fix it. Where were you when we were hurting? Didn't you care?

Like Martha, I also find myself adding that second part: But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him. Some day I'd like to ask her why she put that in there. Could it be because she, (like I) knew who she was addressing? She didn't want to be disrespectful. She (like I) no doubt knew the story of Job, and the way it ends, with God telling Job he has no clue as he's complaining about what's happened to him and the lack of justice in the world.

There is a part of us that knows God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts and his ways higher than our ways. It's just that when we're in pain it's hard to hang our hats on that. We want to believe it, but we just can't see through the suffering to it.

I think Jesus knows that. He reassures Martha, 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. Then he asks her whether she believes this.

Notice that Jesus hasn't done anything yet. Instead, he's told Martha what she needs to believe about him— despite her brother's very real death and before she sees any change in the circumstances. To her credit, Martha immediately answers, Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world .

What Jesus expects of those who would trust in him today is the same thing he expected from Martha: believing despite what we see, believing before what we hope for occurs.

*****

As the story progresses, Martha's sister Mary also walks out to where Jesus is, and says the same thing to him Martha did: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Does Jesus care? In this part of the story we realize the answer is an emphatic yes .

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.

So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Well, exactly. I've felt this way myself at times. Could not he who healed that woman over there from cancer have healed my loved one as well? Could not he who is the Prince of Peace not stop all the wars? Could not he who cared about the poor change the living conditions in Africa?

Some people feel that God really doesn't care about us. That he is so distant and uninvolved that he could not possibly understand what it's like to be us. But the Jesus in John 11 is nothing like this.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

*****

Does Jesus care? His yes that is so strong it goes beyond the immediate situation. His yes resonates out to the mourners with Mary and Martha, beyond them to all the people Jesus met in his time on earth, and to those who lived and died before and after them. It's a profound yes that encompasses everything humans must endure: disease and sin and poverty and dysfunction and disaster and misfortune. It's a yes that looks the greatest enemy, death, in the eye, and has the power to defeat it.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Jesus' outcome is so much greater, so much different, than what the sisters hoped for. We ask for the immediate situation before us, for a stop to suffering, for a change of circumstances. Sometimes Jesus may act as we hope he will, but other times he responds quite differently, even seemingly with silence. John 11 tells us that not only does Jesus care—look at the number of references to him being greatly disturbed by what he witnesses—but he is also able and willing to change things beyond what we can hope.

Refrain
O yes, He cares—I know He cares!
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary,
The long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares. (He cares.)

Jesus cares. And at some point Jesus will respond beyond our imagining. May we rest our cares in this chapter of God's Word.


Note: The lyrics to “Does Jesus Care?” were written in 1901 by Frank E. Graeff, a Methodist pastor who grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. As he served some of the leading churches in and around Philadelphia, he was known as the “Sunshine Minister,” for his optimistic attitude. But like everyone, Graeff went through difficult trials. The period before he wrote this song was one of great despondency, doubt and physical pain. One day he turned to 1 Peter 5:7 and read the words, “Cast all your cares on Him, for he cares for you.” After meditating on that truth, Graeff wrote the hymn.

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Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?

—John 11:40