READ : John 11:17-37
Given the kind of world we live in, it is not possible to be fully human unless you allow your heart to be touched by the sorrows of life. Jesus shows us that grief is an unavoidable part of a truly human life.
Every Sunday school child knows the shortest verse in the Bible. It’s John 11:37, “Jesus wept.” What an astonishing thing he did – the man Jesus who was also God. Jesus had been waiting with his disciples on the far side of the Jordan River, laying low while the Jerusalem authorities were trying to track him down so they could arrest and kill him. While there he received an urgent message from two sisters named Mary and Martha. They, together with their brother Lazarus, lived in the little village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples stayed with this family when visiting Jerusalem, and Mary, Martha and Lazarus were among his closest friends.
But now there was shocking news. Lazarus was sick – desperately ill, in fact. His sisters sent the messenger to report this to Jesus, urging him to come immediately before it was too late to save their brother. Unaccountably, Jesus delayed. Instead of setting off at once to be at the bedside of his dying friend, Jesus waited for several days before traveling with his disciples to Bethany. By the time he got there, it was all over:
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. . . . When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him . . .
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” . . .
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. . . .
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:17-36, NIV
A MAN OF SORROWS
Seven hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah had foretold something like this scene. When the Messiah came, wrote the great prophet, he would be “a man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3). God didn’t just become a man when Jesus entered the world; he became a man of sorrows. Jesus wasn’t one of those carefree folks who laugh and joke their way through life and who never seem to be deeply touched by anything. He was not one of the favored few who somehow miss the various tragedies that produce so much suffering in our lives. No, he was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He knew what it was like to experience pain. He felt the suffering and hurt of a broken heart. It is interesting that the Bible never says Jesus laughed, although I’m sure he did. But it does say that he wept. And it shows him doing so more than once.
Think about this: Jesus Christ, the perfect human being, lived a life of tears and grief. Suffering is a mystery to me. I don’t understand why and when it strikes. Some people seem to be spared most of the pain and sorrow that life can offer. For them the sun is always shining. It’s always springtime, never bleak mid-winter. They live and love and work and play and laugh and are scarcely touched by trouble or loss. But Jesus was not so fortunate. He was one of the others, one of the many whose souls are rubbed raw with suffering. When the prophet named him centuries before his birth, he called him “a man of sorrows.” He could have called him a man of eloquence; no one ever spoke like Jesus did. He could have called him a man of love because love motivated every act he performed. He could have called him a man of holiness, for Jesus’ life was perfect and pure in every way. But he didn’t. Isaiah called Jesus a man of sorrows.
What a comfort it is to know that this is what Jesus is like. It means that whenever sorrow comes to any of us, he both cares and understands. Jesus is able to sympathize with us because he knows exactly how pain feels. It also means that if your life is suddenly shattered, you don’t have to put on a brave front and pretend that everything is okay. Nor do you have to think of yourself as a failure. You don’t have to deny your sorrow, or try to drown it in a flood of alcohol or tranquilizers, or attempt to forget it by plunging into a round of feverish activity. God is blessed by our happiness. But he also hears and understands our laments, our cries, our pain, our questions.
AN ACT OF LOVE
Let’s look at Jesus for a few moments, standing there weeping at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Some people are puzzled by this emotional response from the Lord at the grave side of his friend. Why should Jesus be filled with grief? After all, he’s about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Several early church fathers suggested that Jesus was crying out of pity for Lazarus, who had to come back to earth from the delights of heaven! But this is speculative and fanciful in the extreme. We have no information about what was happening to Lazarus while his body lay in the grave. The first and most obvious explanation for Jesus’ tears is the one mentioned in the story itself. Jesus cried because his heart was broken. He wept out of genuine human love.
Jesus had a special feeling for the family from Bethany, who were not only his followers but his friends. The Lord reveals his heart through his tears at the mouth of the grave. One rule of biblical interpretation is that the best explanation for a verse is the simplest one. Jesus wept because he loved. He loved Lazarus. And his tears also flowed out of deep love for Mary and Martha and sympathy with their grief. Jesus wept with those who wept. He still does. Christ is no stoic, untouched by human pain, cold, indifferent, unfeeling. As Jesus stood and thought of his friends, both dead and alive, he grieved with genuine tears. Love is the dominant feeling in the heart of God. God is not stern, impassive and uncaring. He doesn’t view us with cold detachment. Our sorrows are not meaningless, nor do our cries simply echo in the emptiness. They move the very heart of God.
RESURRECTION AND LIFE
But if Jesus does truly love Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we have to admit he shows it in a rather strange way. Yes, he does raise Lazarus from the dead, but before that happens there are some facts that are difficult to reconcile with a loving nature. Lazarus, Jesus’ great friend, falls sick and dies. When Jesus is notified he doesn’t do anything. He seems to intentionally delay setting out for Bethany. He follows his own schedule, keeping his own counsel and working out his own purpose. Though his love is undeniable, his actions do not seem loving to the people around him. Instead his response is baffling and incomprehensible. We know better, of course, because we know the outcome. But that didn’t help Mary and Martha during those four long days as they first sat by their brother’s bedside and watched him die, and then buried him, all the while wondering, “Where is Jesus?” We often share the sisters’ feeling: “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Don’t we say the same thing? “Lord, if you had been here, that terrible, horrible thing would never have happened to me.” We hurt, we suffer, we cry out, we weep. And all too often it seems as if God isn’t there.
But he is there, even when we can’t see or hear him. Something inconceivable is about to happen at the grave of Lazarus. When Jesus weeps in the face of life’s tragedies, he is just like us. But he is also very different from us. He can do something about those tragedies. Jesus Christ has the power to dry our tears, to undo our suffering, to reverse our losses, even to conquer death itself. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” That is what he told Martha outside her brother’s tomb. And then he proceeded to back up his astonishing claim with an even more astonishing act.
Grief wasn’t the only emotion Jesus felt at the grave of Lazarus. As he approached the tomb Jesus reacted violently (v. 38). John reports that Jesus was “deeply moved” (niv) or “greatly disturbed” (nrsv). His emotions at the grave of his friend were so strong that they actually triggered a physical response, a kind of shuddering or groaning. His reaction in the face of death was intense, combining anger with revulsion. Jesus hated death. He loathed it with an intensity that made him shake. And when he came face to face with death Jesus felt rage at this horrible negation of God’s intentions. So he acted. He attacked death itself and the enemy who has the power of death; and he defeated them both.
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (vv. 25, 26). All our hope for the future rests on that promise of Jesus Christ. If we believe in Christ, if we put our hope for all time in him alone, then his promise is also for us. Someday he will raise us from death. In Christ we will rise to perfection, with God’s work finally and forever put right in us.
Our bodies are fighting a losing battle. We care for them, work on them, erasing a little bit here, changing something there. We use diet and exercise, cosmetics and dyes, medication and therapy and surgery, all trying to fix the mistakes inflicted by accidents and disease, trying to hold back the relentless assault of time. We cut out diseased tissue, we transplant organs, we splice new arteries, we replace worn-out joints. And in the end, all we can do only delays the inevitable outcome. We die, and our bodies return to dust.
But God is going to do what we cannot. Someday he will take up our bodies again and recreate them whole and glorious, then give them back to us. His kingdom will come to earth. He will fashion a new heaven and a new earth, where sorrow and sighing will flee away, and God himself will wipe away every tear from every eye (Revelation 21:4).
Our ultimate hope for the future is not in science, or technology, or medicine. We humans will never achieve immortality on our own. We will never conquer disease and death. We will never put an end to sorrow and grief, not if we know the secrets of the stars, or solve the riddle of our own genetic code. No. The answer will only be found in the truth of Jesus’ promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” There is the only healing for the grief we know too well. Do you believe this?