The sisters sent to a message Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “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.”

John 11:3-4

We have another long gospel reading in our lectionary today – John 11:1-45 – recounting one of the great moments in Jesus’ earthly ministry: The raising of Lazarus. This story can be looked at in many different ways. And I have preached on it a number of different ways. But today, I want to approach this story with an eye toward what it can teach us about prayer. Because I believe that there is a lot we can learn from this story about our life of prayer. 

A very simple definition of prayer is that it is talking to Jesus. And if that is the case, then those who talk with Jesus in the gospels can teach us about prayer. And the way that Jesus talks with them can teach us about prayer, too. So let’s walk through this story today with this particular focus in mind. And as we do so, let me share with you six moments in this story that teach us about prayer.

One – “Lord, he whom you love is ill”

The first prayer-moment in this story is from the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, who send this message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 

Now, think about that as a prayer. What does it teach us? It is an interesting prayer, isn’t it? Obviously, Mary and Martha are hoping that Jesus will heal their brother, but their prayer leaves room for Jesus to address their concern in whatever way that he sees fit. It is a prayer that simply invites Jesus into what is happening in their lives. 

It reminds me of a similar prayer back in John 2, when Jesus was at a wedding with his mother, Mary. When the wine gave out at this wedding, Mary found Jesus and simply said to him, “They have no wine.” Again, a statement with an obvious intent, but one that also leaves room for Jesus to respond in many different ways. Mary simply let Jesus know what the need was, and trusted him to figure out how best to meet it. And we can learn from that to do the same. 

So what is happening in your life that you want Jesus more involved in? How can you begin a conversation with him that makes clear your needs, but that leaves room for him to answer in different ways?

Two – “Though Jesus loved …” 

The second moment in this story that teaches us about prayer is found in how Jesus initially responds to their request. “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” the story tells us, “he stayed two days longer where he was.” He let Lazarus die, knowing that he would raise him up and reveal God’s glory. In other words, Jesus intentionally delayed answering their request because he had a plan that Martha, Mary and Lazarus could not have imagined. 

So, has God ever delayed answering a prayer of yours? Maybe he is doing that now. Could it be because he has another plan in mind? Lazarus’s illness and death is going to be used for God’s glory, Jesus tells those around him. And that is why he is delaying going to him. When God is delaying answering a prayer,  it is worth thinking about how God might be using that delay for a higher purpose. 

Three – “Even now I know …”

Jesus eventually arrives on the scene, of course, but it is after Lazarus has died. Martha went and met Jesus, and said to him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 

Isn’t that an incredible prayer? It is the third thing we can learn from this story about prayer. Martha’s prayer teaches us the importance of faith, and of persistence with our prayers. Martha could have easily given up on this prayer when her brother died. But she didn’t. She persisted in prayer. And by doing so, she teaches us to never give up on prayer, and to never give up on God. 

Four – “Jesus began to weep”

Sometimes, of course, our prayers will not be answered in the miraculous way that this one is. Our world is filled with sadness, and brokenness, and death. And until Jesus returns in glory, that will be the case. But that brings us to the next moment in this story that can teach us about prayer. It is when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his dear friend, Lazarus. He is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, we learn, and he begins to weep. 

Have you ever imagined Jesus weeping with you when you are weeping in prayer? I believe that he does. When we weep, Jesus weeps with us. I believe that it breaks his heart to see the pain and sadness in our world. It is why he gave up his divinity, and lived among us, and died for us. He went through all this to become for us the resurrection and the life. He went through all this so that even when we die, we will live. He went through all this so that one day he could return in glory to put an end to all suffering and pain, so that one day he could wipe every tear from our eyes, and live among us forever. 

Yes, he has delayed returning to us, and we don’t know why. Just like when he delayed going to his friend, Lazarus. But we are invited through this story to believe that his delay is also for God’s glory. And we are invited to pray, in the meantime, and to weep, and to hope, and to love, and to live with the faith that death is not the end of our story; that even though we die, when we die in Jesus, we will live with Jesus. For Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

Prayer doesn’t take away all of our sadness or our tears, but it does help us to see that our sadness and tears are just one part of a much bigger story. And it helps us to remember that when we cry, we never cry alone. That our loving Savior cries with us. 

Five – “Father, I thank you”

Well, so far I have shared with you four specific moments in this story that teach us about prayer. First, that prayer begins when we simply share with our heavenly Father the needs in our lives, and trust him to answer these needs in creative ways. Second, that delayed answers are often for a purpose that we cannot initially see, but that we are invited to trust in. Third, that persistence and faith are important to our lives of prayer; that Jesus never gives up on us, and wants us to never give up on him. And fourth, that when we weep in prayer, Jesus weeps with us. Jesus wants us to share our deepest sorrows with him, and to simply invite him to be with us when we are crushed in spirit. And that brings us to the fifth moment in this story that can teach us about prayer.  

Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he “looked upward,” John tells us, “and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me.’” This is a pretty amazing prayer, when you think about it. Jesus is actually thanking his heavenly Father for answering this prayer before it is even answered! Again, it shows us how much faith is wrapped up in prayer. 

But this simple prayer also shows us the importance of being thankful in our prayers. “Father, I thank you,” Jesus said. And shouldn’t we say the same? There is so much that we can be thankful for, and we don’t always remember to do so. Do you remember the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19)? Only one returned to thank Jesus. And when he did that, he found a healing that was much more than physical. His physical healing led to a deeper relationship with Jesus. And being thankful in our prayers does that. It leads us from prayer simply being a list of requests, to prayer being an intimate conversation with a God who loves us, and a God whom we love in return. 

Six – “Unbind him and let him go”

And that brings us to the sixth and final moment in this story that can teach us about prayer. And it is found in Jesus’ last statement, which he makes after Lazarus has come out of the tomb, still bound and wrapped in strips of cloth: “Unbind him,” Jesus said, “and let him go.” 

When you think about it, Jesus could have done this himself. He probably wanted to. Lazarus, whom he loves, is no longer dead. He surely would have wanted to be the first to see his risen face. Or, Jesus could have had Lazarus come out of the tomb without these strips of cloth binding his hands and feet. Wouldn’t it have been better for Lazarus, and for everyone, to see him come out without him looking like a mummy?

So, why did Jesus perform this miracle in this way? And why is he asking the community to unbind Lazarus and let him go? I think that it is because Jesus wants to involve the whole community in this miracle. Jesus wants Mary and Martha, and the others who were there to participate in answering this prayer. When we pray, we should always be looking for ways that we are being invited to join in answering our prayer. Jesus can work alone, to be sure, but he often chooses not to. He often wants to involve us in his work. Through our prayers, of course. But also through our words and deeds. That is what Jesus is teaching us through this final request, to unbind Lazarus and let him go: That prayer often involves community, and invites our participation in what Jesus is doing. 


The raising of Lazarus is an amazing story, in so many ways, and a powerful lesson in the wonderful ways in which Jesus wants to be involved in our lives. And one of the ways to invite Jesus to become more involved in our lives is through prayer. And my hope is that by looking at this story through this lens, you will be more inspired to take all your needs to God in prayer, and to trust in God even when your prayers are delayed. That you will persist in prayer when these delays come. That you will be comforted by Jesus’ tears when your eyes are filled with your own. That you will give thanks to God when you see prayers being answered. And that you will always be open to involving yourself and this community in answering the prayers that you bring to our Lord. To the glory of God. Amen.

5 thoughts on “Learning to Pray with Mary and Martha: My Sermon on John 11:1-45

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