(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 11/1/2015, All Saints’ Day)
Scriptures: John 11:32-44; Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6
So here we are on All Saints’ Day, the day in which the church remembers those from the church family and its wider extended family who have passed away in the last year. And we do this every year for several reasons. I know for myself, it is good for me to remember those whom I love who have passed away, to remember the ways in which their story intersected with my story and the ways in which their lives have affected and changed me. And I think that’s true for a lot of us.
And I know for myself, it is very helpful that we do this in corporate worship instead of on our own. Because it seems that whenever I encounter or remember death, and I’m sure this is true for many of you, I want to be with people. Grieving alone is awful. But the strange thing is that even though I’m gathered with people remembering and honoring someone who has passed away at a funeral or on All Saints’ Day or some other occasion, I think there’s still a sense of being alone. Especially when you lose a husband or wife, a mom or dad, a son or a daughter, there’s a sense of cosmic loneliness. Part of your life has been taken from you, and you feel alone, even in the midst of a crowd. And it begs the question, “Where is God in this?” I think our Scripture today can help us with this.
The Scriptures that you heard just a few minutes are beautiful and I think very healing as we encounter death. But we’ll get to those later. Could you turn with me to John 11:32-44? I’d like everyone to turn there, so if you don’t have a Bible, that’s fine, just use one of the red pew Bibles in front of you. The page number for those is in the bulletin.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
This passage contains the shortest verse in the Bible, verse 35. The version I just read for you has translated it differently, but most other versions have it as “Jesus wept.” And that short, simple statement is vastly important here. Jesus wept. Jesus, the Word who was with our Creator God in the beginning, the Redeemer of Humanity, the One who works to bring all things and all people into relationship with God, the Son of God, this Jesus wept. Cried. Bawled his eyes out.
This story of Lazarus is pretty familiar to a lot of people. But I think even with familiar stories, we have to question them. Why was Jesus weeping? Why was Jesus crying?
Now, that might seem pretty obvious to you. He was obviously really good friends with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, and he obviously cared very much for all of them. So when he found out that Lazarus had died, he started crying. That’s just one of the things you do when you lose someone close to you, right?
But I think there’s something more here. Because we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, right? And when Jesus was on earth, we believe that he had power to work all kinds of miracles, right? Make the blind see, make the lame walk, heal the sick, cast out the demons, all of that. Now, we can see throughout the Gospels that Jesus knew who he was. He knew he was the Son of God, he knew what his mission was, and he knew what he had the power to do.
Now, if he knew all of this stuff, why in the world did he weep when he heard that Lazarus had been dead for four days? I mean, it’s a sad situation, but surely Jesus has to know what kind of power he has. I mean, of course the Son of God has to know that he can raise someone from the dead. So why did Jesus cry at Lazarus’ death? If he knew he could raise Lazarus from the dead, then he should know that he’s going to see Lazarus again very soon.
So the question this makes me ask is-what if Jesus didn’t really know if it was going to work? What if this was Jesus’ wild reaction to grief? Grief and mourning makes people do crazy things. In the summer of 2014 soon after I started here I went to Local Licensed Pastor School to receive the training I needed for my pastor’s license. During that week, we had a 2-hour session on how to do funerals as a pastor. And the guy teaching the session said that one of the things the pastor should do at the end of the funeral is stand by the casket. Part of the reason for that is certainly being present with people as they say their last goodbyes. But he said the other reason is to keep someone from throwing themselves on the casket or taking something from inside the casket in the throes of their grief and mourning. Grief makes people do wild things.
Now, here Jesus was just crying at the death of a close friend, so that’s not wild. But I think for Jesus, the divine Son of God, this show of grief is significant. God in Godself is crying.
And when Jesus goes to the tomb and asks them to remove the stone and all of that, what if this is Jesus just continuing to react, not really thinking. What if this is Jesus saying “Lazarus can’t be gone! I’ll just…raise him from the dead! I can do that, right? Right?!” What if Jesus wasn’t sure how all of this was going to turn out? And his prayer at the tomb, what if that’s Jesus saying “God, you had better show up. I just asked them to move the stone from in front of the tomb, it stinks to high heaven here, and they think I’m crazy. You had better show up and raise Lazarus from the dead, because I don’t know what else to do.”
And I think another more troubling question is raised by this story. What if Jesus had been confident that he could raise someone from the dead, but when Mary comes to him, tears streaming down her face, grieving and saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” what if when that happened, Jesus doubted, and he said “Oh my god, he’s actually dead. And he’s been dead for four days. And they expect me to do something about it. I’ve healed people, but this?! I can’t do this!”
See, I think that there’s just something about death that even makes the Creator of the Universe and the Redeemer of Humanity cry and weep and bawl their eyes out. And I think that image is at odds with the image a lot of us have for Jesus.
See, I think a lot of us still hold on to a belief that Jesus is the almighty and unknowable Son of God and sure, ok he was human but…eh…he was really God. He didn’t really suffer, he didn’t really feel love or pain or embarrassment or joy or sorrow or any of the other emotions and feelings that make you human.
But the truth of our faith is Jesus is Emmanuel, which means God With Us. And this means that Jesus has experienced what we’ve experienced. Jesus has experienced the destructive power of death, changing our lives and taking family and friends away from us too soon. And Jesus has been outraged at death’s destruction and death’s ripping apart. Jesus has grieved like we do and continues to grieve with us even today.
So what does this mean for us? Part of this is like what I said at the beginning of this. Sometimes when we grieve we just need someone with us. There’s an ancient practice of actually hiring mourners for funerals, which might seem strange to us today, but it really speaks to the human need to not grieve alone. We have a need to mourn and grieve and remember in community with others who are mourning and grieving and remembering for the same reason.
This is what this story reminds us about Jesus-Jesus is with us even in our grief, even when it hits us out of nowhere, months and years after the loss. Jesus is still with us in our grief, experiencing it with us. Jesus is not just some impersonal and distant God, Jesus is with us in the mess of human life and knows what we’re going through.
But more than that, this story of Lazarus being raised from the dead reminds us that death is never the end. The story didn’t end with Jesus weeping or collapsing in front of the tomb in sobs after he asked the stone to be rolled away. Jesus said “Lazarus, come forth.” And what happened? Lazarus came forth, out of death and into life.
In the passage you heard earlier from Isaiah, it called us to remember that a day is coming when the alien, destroying force that is death will be swallowed up forever. Tears will be wiped away forever. A day is coming when the total salvation that we long for will come, and we will be glad and rejoice in the Lord.
The passage you heard from Revelation asks us to remember that the day is coming when God will dwell among us, removing the alien and destructive force of death from the picture, taking away the need for mourning and crying and pain.
This is what we hope for. This is our future that is coming. While we wait for it, there will be pain and grief and questions and doubts. And the amazing truth of our faith is that Jesus is with us in that pain and grief and questions and doubt, offering healing and comfort. And Jesus will bring us into this new life that we hope for and wait for.