A God who Weeps (an older sermon) – on John 11:33-38

October 29, 2007

I recently stumbled across this older sermon I had preached while working at the University of Georgia and was struck by it’s truth. As tragedy is not foreign to any of us, I wanted to re-post this for the rest of you to consider…

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originally delivered at Worldwide Discipleship Association UGA in 2002

There was this one particular friend I met my sophomore year of college. When we met he was going to another school, but he and a few of his friends had joined us on a weekend ministry retreat. As soon as he entered the room I bolted over to him in my usual, at the time at least, psychotically friendly style, literally scaring the daylights out of him. He was dressed grunge: goatee and side-burns, alternative rock t-shirt, an unbuttoned and un-tucked plaid flannel, and a well-worn pair of blue jeans, all rounded off by a French looking cap cocked to one side of his head, and a nice cane. He often told our common friends of our introduction; “I thought he was CRAZY!” I thought he was cool and by his look just assumed, incorrectly, that he could play an instrument (he eventually became a great percussionist, but that was some time later). That following semester he transferred to my school and we became good friends; he was even my band’s merch guy. But, as it turned out, the cane wasn’t for coolness sake – he had Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and it was slowly but surely taking away his ability to walk, among other things. By my senior year in college he rode everywhere in a buggy – a supercharged rock-n-roll wheelchair covered in bumper stickers. The chair fit him, but it got harder and harder to get him up the steps to where we regularly played. After I graduated and moved south he always wanted to visit, but was never able to. Eventually, however, he moved in to JPUSA, a Christian community in inner city Chicago. Once a year from then on we saw each other at a week-long music festival hosted by JPUSA, and it was there we always caught up with each other’s lives. Well, this summer while at the Gathering Place I got an email informing me that he had died. I was stunned. Part of me wanted to cry because I, and so many others, would surely miss him. I didn’t get to see him this year at Cornerstone because of my job and he had SO WANTED a copy of my new c.d. and I never got one to him, and for that I felt guilty. Part of me, however, wanted to jump up and down – if I’d EVER known a man who’d given himself wholeheartedly to the gospel, it was he – and his life was SO HARD, filled with so much heart-ache and hardship and pain: it was hard not to celebrate his passing. So I was torn: how do I mourn? If he’s better off, why was I still hurting? Worse yet, I didn’t find out about it until the day of the funeral, which was more than 13 hours away, so I couldn’t go. Was my pain justified, or was it to be tallied up as “lack of faith”? Many of us have lost someone close to us – if you haven’t yet, it will come – death is inevitable. With this in mind, let’s encounter Jesus.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. 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 also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for 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 lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:1-44)

For the sake of this talk we’re going to focus our attention specifically on 11:33-38, but so we understand most of what’s going on here, let’s quickly take this story apart to set the context.

First, a messenger delivers news to Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus is very ill. Lazarus lives with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany. This family is mentioned in all four gospels, each time in a different context, so they apparently had a good deal of contact with Jesus. In fact, it appears as though Jesus and the disciples may have been frequent guests — it being, according to Mark, where Jesus and the 12 stayed for the first part of the passion week. Jesus, the disciples, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were definitely what we would call “friends.” John even says that Jesus “loved” them.

Have you ever seen those war movies where a small band of soldiers barely makes it to safety alive, but then receives a call from on their walky-talky from on of their ranks who is wounded and still in the midst of battle? When the commander decides to go in after their downed man the rest of the survivors think it a suicide mission. “You want to go back into THAT?!” they think to themselves. “What good can we do if we’re dead?” The disciples had only left Judea a short time before and due to conflict with the religious authorities there left fearing for their lives. Naturally, the disciples were not terribly interested in returning so soon.

Jesus responds to the disciples objection by apparently becoming a Buddha (joke) and making absolutely no sense for the next 2 or 3 lines. Jesus says, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” Has anyone an idea as to what Jesus might be saying here? Don’t worry about feeling stupid – I’m pretty sure the disciples themselves were looking at each other with expressions of “huh?” and “say what?” (this appears to have been the norm) so you’re in good company. This is another case of where I believe Eugene Peterson brings out the true thrust of Jesus’ response: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.” This was probably a popular proverb of sorts in Jesus day, and Jesus was using it to echo what he’d said earlier in John 9:4; “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” To know the explicit will of God and be disobedient is the same as walking in darkness, but they have Jesus Christ, who knows the will of the Father like no other – as long as they have Him they should trust Him. Jesus is the light of the world, and he is RIGHT THERE WITH THEM. They need to act on the explicit will of the Father while they can. Here Jesus challenges them to TRUST HIM and return with Him to Bethany.

Still not terribly interested in going, the disciples misunderstood Jesus again. When he tells them Lazarus is sleeping, they assumed that the fever had broken and that he was now at rest, and thus will getting better on his own. I had a liberal Bible teacher back at Ohio University really confuse me about Thomas’ response. He told me this entire episode referred to some mysterious cultic practice of playing dead. Such was his explanation for Thomas’ stoic response; “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” A ridiculous notion, indeed – given that the simplest reading is also most likely the correct one, but we so easily overlook it. I think we struggle a great deal when reading the Bible because we have a hard time seeing the emotions behind the text – really imagining these scenerios and playing them out in our heads. Even when Jesus weeps here in this chapter many of us probably see it as a distant, controlled, momentary tear – performed stoicly and out of a sense of duty to mourn with those who mourn rather than of true deep felt emotion. The disciples had already said, “You can’t go back THERE – the Jews there are out to KILL you!” Now that Jesus has made his intent clear, Thomas responds, maybe even with a tone of sarcasm; “Okay, come along guys. We might as well go die with him.”

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

How would you describe Mary and Martha’s approach to Jesus? What did they think of him? What did they feel? What did they expect? First, they approached Jesus with faith, fully believing he could work a miracle, even thought they couldn’t possibly comprehend what He might do. They believed him to be the Christ – the Son of God. Just as we would, I hope. Secondly, they felt disappointment, and there’s even a hint of anger – “Lord, why didn’t you come when we asked?” Why didn’t he answer their request as they’d hoped, they wondered, as would we, I suspect. Lastly, they expected the resurrection — yet even in the face of that resurrection hope they still struggled with disappointment, anger, and sadness. For those of us who have experienced the death of a loved one, these emotions, thoughts, and expectations line up with our own. I found it very confusing, in mourning my friend’s death, that in spite of the faith I had that I would see him again and that things were better, I was still sad. Yet Jesus saw no confusion in this.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. 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 also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb.

I’m using the English Standard Version of the Bible, but let’s look at how a number of other translations render verses 33 and 38:

Amplified: “He chafed in spirit and sighed and was disturbed again sighing repeatedly and deeply disquieted”
Living: “He was moved with indignation”
Contemporary English: “He was terribly upset”
King James: “He groaned in the spirit”

The word translated “deeply moved” is a little hard to translate into English. Literally it means that Jesus made an animal-like grunt or moan in anguish. It reminds me of the movie Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they find a message in a cave stating the current location of the grail as being in the castle “Aaaaaaaaaugh!” In all seriousness, Jesus groaned and wailed from the depths of his soul out of His anger at Lazarus’ death. Why do you think Jesus did this?

Similarly, why did Jesus weep? The conventional “church” answer, putting the blame on us and minimizing the tears of Jesus, is that’s he’s frustrated by Mary and Martha’s lack of faith – which is, in fact, just not true. It is true, however, that such a response is what we white, middle-class, Americans would most like to believe. Mourning is uncomfortable for us – it feels out of control, and if there’s one thing we want as Americans its control. A Jesus that weeps frightens, threatens, and embarrasses us. Think of how we’re afraid to mention the name of the newly dead around the grief-stricken, and how uncomfortable it makes us when others near us are mourning. We want to know what we can DO to help. Well, Jesus KNEW what he could do – he could raise the dead – yet STILL he mourned with those who mourned, and was angry, and indignant towards death because, even in spite of the joy and hope of resurrection, there is something inherently wrong about death.

Look at Romans 5:12, and 1 Corinthians 15:21;

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.” (1 Corinthians 15:21)

Death wasn’t in the original plan – death came as a result of Adam’s sin: God promised that to eat of the forbidden tree would result in death, which is spiritual separation from God and as a result, physical decay and corruption. This means that, even though God is sovereign over death, death is still an enemy. Some Christians are prone to believe otherwise, but this does not reflect a full-orbed Biblical understanding of death.

Jesus was angry at death because death is wrong – we were created for LIFE, and even though he had within himself the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, he still mourned – he still felt the “wrongness” of death. Yes – even in the face of perfect faith, and full knowledge of the resurrection, Jesus mourned death. Do we need any more reasons to feel free to mourn it ourselves? Jesus is God, and displayed the full range of human emotions. We, as Christians, are to be discipled by – to pattern ourselves after and learn from – Jesus. This means that in Jesus, we have permission to feel.

There were other instanced in which Jesus displayed extreme emotions, one of which is recorded in Mark 14:32-39 (which is also paralleled in Matthew 26 and Luke 22):

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.”

When Luke reports this account, the doctor in him can’t help but add in the medical in; “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) The author of Hebrews later added; “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7a) Jesus also grieved over the coming destruction of Jerusalem as was recorded in Luke 19.

This is just to show that tears do not necessarily demonstrate a lack of faith, lest Jesus himself, as God incarnate, lacked faith. Mary and Martha were not in the wrong to mourn. Jesus, by his anger, frustration, and tears, gave them, and us, permission to grieve even in the face of the promised resurrection.

I have to be honest with you all – I still haven’t completely mourned the passing of my friend this summer. In fact, it was a couple of days before I even spoke of it to anyone, and when I did it was always quickly, in passing, to keep myself unemotional, because I felt in my heart (even though I knew it untrue in my head) that it would be unspiritual to mourn in the face of all he had been through, and all he now had coming to him. But that was untrue – there is still, in light of the resurrection, something wrong about death. 1 Corinthians 15:26 says, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is still an enemy, to be reviled, and fought against.

The good news is this; Paul says in Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death, for those in Christ, deepens our relationship with Him – we enter Christ’s presence, experiencing whole sanctification and glorification, and resurrection. This is the hope we have in Christ.

But I’m going to end this talk with a question, rather than an answer.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” I would like you all to draw out this encounter’s applications: how do you think it would look to “not grieve as other do who have no hope?”

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