A God Who Grieves

5th-sunday-lent-purple-wh-ds1To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on John 11:1-45

Over 20 years ago I had an opportunity to visit the traditional tomb of Lazarus in Israel. In Bethany, some two miles from Jerusalem, we saw the beautiful present church and explored the ruins of churches built on that site to mark the tomb of Lazarus since the 4th century. Taking a flashlight, I went down the twenty-three steps into the tomb of Lazarus. It was just a small, dark room, but a room tied to one of the most powerful passages in all the New Testament.

Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and has been known traditionally as Passion Sunday. On Passion Sunday the church focuses on the passion of Jesus Christ. Passion in this case, means suffering. Passion has to do not so much with pain one experiences personally, but rather with the anguish and pain of caring deeply about others who have passed away. In today’s gospel lesson we learn of the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from death to life again. We see in our passage that word comes that Lazarus is extremely ill. Jesus waited two days before setting out for Bethany. By the time he and the disciples arrive, Lazarus is dead. Martha and then her sister Mary greet Jesus with these words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” At first glance we are led to believe that this is a statement of faith from the sisters. Yet when we examine these words on a deeper level, perhaps we can sense the underlying hurt and anger the sisters were experiencing at that time. What they might had the desire to say was the following, “Where were you, Jesus! Where were you when we really needed you?”

We see that Jesus offered them words of encouragement saying that Lazarus would rise again. Jesus went to the tomb, and prayed, and then calls for Lazarus to come out. Lazarus does come out of the tomb, and the strips of cloth binding him are removed. As a result, many people believed in Jesus as the Messiah, as God’s chosen one. This is an impressive story one of Jesus’ great if not greatest miracles. Despite this miraculous event that took place, we must ask the question, “Where is the passion in this narrative?” Where was suffering on the part of Jesus as he chose to raise Lazarus from the dead?

That answer is that the passion is buried in within an English translation of the Greek text. The passion is within these words of John. However when we listen or read the gospel sometimes that passion seems to all but disappear. In verse 33 it said that when Jesus saw Mary and her friends weeping, that he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Then Jesus asked where they have laid Lazarus, and the people offer to take him to the tomb. At that point Jesus began to cry. Jesus wept as our translation shared. The Greek word for crying is a different word from the word used to describe the weeping of Martha and Mary. In fact, it is the only time this word ever appears in the New Testament. Perhaps when we hear the words Jesus wept that it really is describing a sobbing. All we can be certain of is that Jesus’ crying at this point expresses passion, and it is unique. While it would be tempting to try to explain Jesus’ passion more thoroughly that is a temptation we must resist. Concerning Jesus’ passion, it is enough for us to know that Jesus obviously feels strongly about Lazarus’ death and his sisters’ grief.

It’s interesting to note that society today has a tendency for avoiding genuine emotion by trying to explain it away. For example, try walking around with either a smile or frown on your face. Invariably someone will come up and ask us, why we are smiling or frowning? It is as if people do not understand why we experience a variety of emotions and why for some among us we wear our emotions upon our sleeves. People often feel that we need to justify our happiness or unhappiness. This morning we are to encounter and receive Jesus’ passion as a gift. This gift is the recognition that we believe in a God who grieves. We believe in a God who cares so much for us and for our world that God can shed tears for us and with us. While Christ was moved in emotion, we see his emotions moved him to action. As we think of how Jesus’ emotions moved him to action we can see that Jesus was very concerned about the death of another person named Lazarus. By contrast, some might say that Jesus did not express the same sort of passion when he faced his own death. It is true that not one gospel writer tells us that Jesus wept, or was deeply moved when he was arrested, tortured, ridiculed, or put to death. Scripture shares even that just before he died upon the cross, he spoke gently the words, “It is finished.” He did not cry them out. On Good Friday Jesus’ passion was evident in his quiet obedience to God. But here in Bethany his passion was evident in his emotional response. Clearly, Jesus’ passion for others exceeded his passion for himself. We also can see in this story that Jesus was moved to action by demonstrating that not only did he have authority but also the will to raise people from the dead. It is not only Lazarus, who receives life again, but also Martha and Mary and the people who came to believe through Jesus’ miraculous act. Together they were raised to a new life.

As we speak of new life, when the late Edgar Guest, the American poet and writer was a young man, his first child died. An encounter he had with the neighborhood pharmacist demonstrated what it meant to care more for others than our own selves. Guest once wrote the following: There came a tragic night when our first baby was taken from us. I was lonely and defeated. There didn’t seem to be anything in life ahead of me that mattered very much. I had to go to my neighbor’s drugstore the next morning for something, and he motioned for me to step behind the counter with him. I followed him into his office at the back of the store. He put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Eddie, I can’t really express what I want to say, the sympathy I have in my heart for you. All I can say is that I’m sorry, and I want you to know that if you need anything at all, come to me. What is mine is yours.” He was just a neighbor across the way, a  passing acquaintance. Jim Potter (the druggist) may long since have forgotten that moment when he gave his hand and his sympathy, but I shall never forget it, never in  all my life. To me it stands out like the silhouette of a lonely tree against a crimson sunset.

While this passage this morning highlights the power of Jesus Christ to bring new life into our midst, we also see a portrait of Christ’s humanity. We see that God is moved by human pain and sorrow. Today through John’s account, we see a shadow of what is to come in the life of Jesus.

  • Like Lazarus, Jesus will die, leaving close friends weeping; like Lazarus, Jesus will be laid to rest in a tomb.
  • Like Lazarus, Jesus will rise to new life, walk past a gravestone, and emerge into the bright sunshine with no need for burial cloths.
  • Like Lazarus, Jesus will be given new life so that all will be able to see the glory of God.

This story in many respects is a preview of Easter that we celebrate in a couple of weeks. However this passage of Scripture is even more. John’s gospel directs us to our destiny as well. Remembering these words of Jesus who said,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, (John 11:25)

As God grieves with us through illness, sin, suffering, and death, may we take comfort knowing that we too will be raised to new life and into an eternal relationship with our Lord.

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

April 2, 2017