The God Who Weeps

John 11:1-45

The raising of Lazarus is a familiar story for most of us.  We hear it often, or at least parts of it, at funerals and memorial services, usually with special emphasis on verse 25 where Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

But through all the rich symbolism and open questions in this familiar story,  there are two things that really resonate with me as I come back to it in this time of pandemic when we’re all quarantined in our homes as the world tries to contain the Corona virus.  The first that strikes me is how much isolation there is in this story.  The second is that Jesus weeps.

The isolation in this story might not be something you notice at first glance, but it’s there.  No one is physically isolated unless you count Lazarus who is sealed in his tomb, a foreshadowing of where Jesus, himself, will be a week later.  But there is a good deal of spiritual, psychological, and emotional isolation in this story.

This chapter perhaps more than any other in the Gospel of John portrays the humanity of Jesus.  We see him dealing with intense moods and deep feelings, yet he still seems to stand apart and slightly above everyone else.  While it’s clear from the beginning of the story that he knows what he is going to do, it’s also clear that he is paying an emotional price in doing it.  And who is going to minister to Jesus?  And so he is by his very nature isolated from his friends and disciples. He stands apart.

Jesus isn’t the only one who stands apart.  Thomas, the only disciple who is named in this chapter, stands apart from the other disciples when he is brave enough to goad them into going with Jesus to Bethany even though in the very act of nudging them into making the journey he restates how dangerous the trip could be for them.  After the resurrection Thomas will be isolated from the others once again when the risen Christ appears to the disciples in the upper room, but when his turn comes to see the risen Christ, he will also be the first to call Jesus “my Lord and my God.”

The grieving sisters, Mary and Martha, seem to be emotionally isolated from each other and the other mourners gathered around them.  They go out to meet Jesus separately, not together.  The only words that pass between them are when Martha goes back to tell Mary that Jesus wants to see her.  Neither one of them wastes any time getting away from the other mourners. And I think we can sympathize.   Grief is an isolating, lonely business.  Even if you know that someone you love dearly, someone right next to you is grieving just as deeply as you are, you also know that they can’t feel your feelings and you can’t feel theirs.  And that’s part of what makes grief so hard to endure.  It isolates us from each other.

I know a lot of us during this time of pandemic and quarantine have been feeling a kind of restless uneasiness, a feeling that’s been hard to name or pin down.  In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Dr. David Kessler affirmed that this feeling many of us have been experiencing is, in fact, a particular kind of grief.  He calls it Anticipatory Grief.  Here’s what he said in the interview:

“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”[1]

While Mary and Martha are obviously experiencing the grief of losing their brother, Lazarus, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus isn’t experiencing some anticipatory grief, even though he seems to know what lies ahead.

And where there is grief, there are tears.

There are only two places in the gospels where Jesus weeps and both instances happen just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time.  One of those passages is Luke 19:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  (Luke 19:41-42)

The other instance, of course, is in this gospel lesson, just before he raises Lazarus.  Jesus wept.  Or as the NRSV translates it, “Jesus began to weep.”  But for the real emotional impact of the Greek, I think the William Mounce translation captures it best: “Jesus burst into tears.”

In so many ways, that’s an uncomfortable picture, and yet I can’t remember a time when those words meant more to me.  Jesus weeps.  As I sit here working from home day after day with all the rhythms of normal life disrupted, trying to deal with my own anticipatory grief, I find more comfort than I would have imagined in knowing that Jesus weeps.

Yes, I believe in the resurrection.  Yes, I believe that life is eternal and love is immortal.  Yes, I believe in the power of God to overcome and to heal.  Yes, I believe that Jesus conquered death.  But as we sit here in the midst of a quarantined life, isolated together—such an odd truth of life for us now—isolated together, wondering if our friends and family will be safe, wondering if we might lose someone we love to this virus, wondering if we, ourselves might accidentally become infected through some moment of carelessness, maybe not even our own carelessness, it’s not the triumphalism of resurrection or eternal life or God’s ultimate power that I find most comforting, it’s the tears of Jesus standing by the tomb of his friend.  Yes, the book of Revelation tells us that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  Someday.  But when I have tears welling in my eyes, when I’m mourning and crying and in pain, it’s the tears of Jesus that comfort me.

Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  Jesus weeps for his own all-too-brief life.  Jesus weeps with us.  Sorrow and grief are part of the fullness of human life and Jesus is totally immersed in it.  Jesus knows sorrow and grief, too.  Lament is part of the human experience, and Jesus shares that experience.

Jesus weeping by the side of his friends saves us from the shallowness of triumphalism.  The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us experienced every part of our reality just as we do.  And tears are part of our reality.  When we are up to our necks in pain or confusion it’s right and just and fair to take a moment to feel the depths of that pain and confusion.  There’s nothing particularly faithful or pious about leaping to an announcement of victory even if you truly believe that victory is coming, especially when you know you still have to walk through the valley of shadow to get to it.  Jesus wept.

The tears of Jesus show that he understands the tides of faith.  He is patient with Mary and Martha when they chide him with “If you had been here.”  He understands their frustration, their disappointment, their anger.  He doesn’t expect false piety when emotions are raw.  That, too, is part of reality, and the tears of Jesus honor that reality.

Finally, the tears of Jesus show that he understands the power of death and uncertainty as we experience them.  They show his deep empathy with those around him and his pain at what they were experiencing, what we all experience.  Perhaps he also weeps for his own mortality, knowing that his time with his friends is short.

And maybe he weeps for a world where even good deeds of the most powerful kind can have unwanted consequences, knowing that raising Lazarus will lead directly to his own crucifixion.

During this last week of Lent as we continue to make our way through this time of isolation together, may the tears of Jesus remind us to be gentle with each other, to be compassionate, to listen to each other.  May the tears of Jesus bring us comfort and remind us that Christ is not only with us, but that Jesus knows our fears, our grief, our anxiety.  May the tears of Jesus keep us from rushing too quickly or ill-advisedly to declarations of victory when we’re still deep in the battle.  Yes, the day will come when God will wipe every tear from our eyes.  But first let’s take time to see what our tears and the tears of Jesus have to teach us.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.







[1] Harvard Business Review, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,  Scott Berinato; March 23, 2020

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