“Why Does Jesus Weep?”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
29 March, 2020
Lent 5A
John 11:1-44

I hardly need to state the obvious as all of you are sitting in your homes and I am preaching toward a computer screen.  What we’re going through right now is unsettling, disorienting, and for many people, deeply distressing.  We’re being reminded in new and increasingly profound ways with each passing day that we are not in charge.  God alone is sovereign, even over the ravaging power of a virus that is shutting down entire economies and grinding communities to a standstill.

But now, ponder the wonder of this truth: God has called and equipped us well to look after each other in this time, in ways that extend much further than we’ve been taught to do in our society, which often ignores the Biblical teaching that we belong to each other.  Remember, we are many members of one God-beloved body.

We haven’t hit the apex of the Corona virus crisis in this country yet.  Anyone who’s watching the mushrooming numbers of sick and dying – especially anyone who has a friend, neighbor, or loved one who’s among the rapidly growing statistics – will probably identify easily with Martha and Mary in today’s gospel lesson, who suggested that none of what they were experiencing would have happened if Jesus had been there.  But I wonder whether we aren’t meant to understand that we are Lazarus: Jesus does come to him, though he ministers to others as well.  Everyone knew that Jesus loved his friend, and the timing of his visible response was not an indication one way or the other about the fact of the Messiah’s love and faithfulness toward Lazarus.

I think this passage also challenges us to be more like Jesus in our response to the needs of others: rejecting the fear of death and paying attention to which we are called to tend to in this moment, but also feeling true compassion and empathy with those who mourn or live in fear.

The scene opens in the village of Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived with their brother, Lazarus.  Although we know something about Martha and Mary from an earlier story, we don’t know much of anything about Lazarus.  Except, that the Lord loved him, and that he was ill; John 11:3 says, “So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”  To which Jesus replies, “‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory…’” And, the narrator continues, “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”[1]

It’s a bit of a disconcerting story; one where Jesus appears to be awfully nonchalant about the fact that his good friend Lazarus was about to die.  But before I get too deep into the story, let’s look at some of the beautiful layering John does in writing his gospel account.  First, as in other Biblical stories, the names of individuals and places contribute to the meaning and texture of the drama.  Lazarus, interestingly, means “God helps.”  He’s from a place called Bethany, which means “House of Affliction.”  So, the theological idea built into this story is that God helps someone from a place of affliction.  Lazarus, the ‘one Jesus loves’, represents all those whom Jesus loves, including you and me.  Likewise, “God helps” any Lazarus who lives in a place of affliction.  This story is about our own coming to life from death today, as we respond to Jesus’ call today – not just in a future, afterlife event.[2]

John’s gospel repeatedly uses the physical realm as a metaphorical pointer to the spiritual realm.  For example, water is a metaphor for the quenching of our spiritual thirst through Jesus’ presence; remember, Jesus tells the woman at the well that he offers living water that leads to eternal life.[3]  The bread he multiplies to feed the crowd is a metaphor for the nourishment and satisfaction Jesus provides for our spiritual hunger; as we testify in our communion celebration, Jesus is the Bread from Heaven.[4]  Sight is a metaphor for the spiritual vision and clarity that Jesus brings; Jesus is the light of the world, as we heard last week from Chapter 9, where Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. [5]

Here in chapter 11, the restoration of physical life is a metaphor for being liberated from the bonds of spiritual death into the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings here and now.  In verses 25-26 Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

When Jesus first hears about Lazarus’ illness, he seems not to be very bothered.  He comments that the illness does not lead to death, but rather is for God’s glory.  As we pay attention to the rest of what plays out, it becomes clear that for Jesus, the death that terrifies most people is not something he fears; he knows that our final human breath does not represent the end of our life.

But his apparent nonchalance leads to some convoluted conversations, mostly because his disciples – like most of the characters in John’s gospel – operate at the physical, literal level.  Eventually, they begin to understand, but they still depict a sort of spiritual confusion.  Thomas, the one who eventually gets a reputation for doubting, demonstrates understanding and courage in today’s story.  But next week, we’ll see how quickly that resolve evaporates along with everyone else’s.

As Jesus approaches Bethany, Martha runs to meet him first, bemoaning his tardy arrival.  It’s not uncommon following a tragedy or trauma for people to look for someone to blame; that’s surely one reason medical malpractice insurance is so expensive and so necessary.  In fact, it’s what both sisters do.  Lazarus was young, and they know that Jesus was in the business of healing people.  Both sisters exclaim, “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.”

Jesus has a complicated conversation with Martha about resurrection, which demonstrates her confusion about the nature of eternal life.  Jesus tries to make it clear to her that the assurance of resurrection and eternal life belongs the living even as we are yet alive: eternal life is not just about what happens after we take our last breath; it is something we can claim and participate in even here and now.

Next, Mary comes to Jesus’ side and levels her complaint, “If you had but been here…”  Jesus is affected by the sisters’ weeping and distress and he asks the crowd: “Where have you laid him?”  They say, “Lord, come and see”.[6]  Here’s another example of John’s story-telling brilliance in layering.  In John Chapter 1:38, his would-be disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you staying?”  And he responded, “Come and see.”  So, in this scene, Jesus’ invitation is for his disciples – for us – to show him where our tombs, are.  What are our places of death, those aspects of our life in need of Christ’s light and life?  He is willing to come and see death face-to-face, up close and personal, unafraid.  But, John tells us, when they brought him and showed him, Jesus began to weep.

Why does Jesus weep?  Is it because he regretted waiting so long after receiving a message of distress before returning?  Because he comprehends the pain that Mary, Martha, and the other friends are feeling, as well as the complex emotions around human mortality?  In this scene, Jesus sees and understands the things that bind us in shrouds of death; Lazarus’ burial clothes are at least as powerful metaphorically, symbolically, as they are materially.

Does Jesus weep because people continued to doubt him saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Does he weep because he didn’t wish to bring Lazarus back from wherever he was?  Because, of course, Jesus knew that death was not an affliction for Lazarus so much as it was for those who remained.  That’s why he had been able to say, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.”

It says that Jesus wept before ordering the stone to be removed (foreshadowing his own resurrection).  Then he called Lazarus, he calls us, forth from whatever entombs or imprisons us.  Are they tears of vexation with our lack of understanding?  Was he was frustrated that the people around him didn’t understand that death was not the worst thing that could happen to them—but that their fear of death was—and he simply couldn’t make it clearer to them that their fears were misguided, that he couldn’t make the people less afraid unless they’d truly trust him that all would be well?

John doesn’t say.  You and I, the audience and followers of Jesus, are left to ponder.  Because remember, Lazarus is us; we are the ones whom “God helps”, we are the ones who live in places of affliction.

Surely, at a minimum, they are tears of compassion and empathy, feeling the pain of those who were grieving the loss of their beloved brother and friend, Lazarus.  One of the many layers of meaning I am sure we’re meant to see here is that in Jesus, God weeps with us in our crisis, in the traumas we experience.  But one thing is certain: his are not tears shed in fear.  Remember, the story does not end with Jesus weeping, but rather with him ordering the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  You and I, we are Lazarus, released from all that binds us, including our insecurities.

Here’s another feature of this story, and it’s also Gospel truth: As Christians, we are also the recipients and vessels of Christ’s spirit in the world today.  Christ Jesus entrusted to all who believe in him and seek to follow his Way, Truth, and Life, the same Holy Spirit that healed and restored life to those whom he knew and loved in first-century Palestine.  We are the living, active resurrected Body of Christ Jesus in our world today.

Friends, as the crisis that is enveloping the globe and is gripping our nation continues to unfold and evolve, we are Lazarus: afflicted, yet helped.  At times, we are Martha and Mary, traumatized by the pain of suffering and loss, wondering why God didn’t show up sooner or in the way we would have preferred in our troubles.

We are also the hands and feet and human faces of Christ to the word right now: we are the ones called to bring the compassion, the concern, the healing and love of Christ to the Lazarus’s, Martha’s, and Mary’s all around us.  We are both: the afflicted ones God helps, and the ones embodying Christ’s spirit today through whom God helps other afflicted souls.

There is force at work in the world today, a virus just doing what it does to live its life, that is not mindful of us.  It does not care about geography or national boundaries, status or wealth, or race, or any other category we’ve devised to separate and discriminate as human beings.  It is presenting a humbling reminder, shattering any illusions we may have had that we are the masters of this universe.  But the God who gives life to all things and invites us not to fear, but to embrace life’s fullness, and life eternal, even in our frail mortality, this God is with us and for us through all of it.

May our wise and loving Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer help us understand this moment, with all its fear and suffering, as an opportunity to re-establish our trust and confidence in the One who loves and helps the afflicted; who demonstrates healing and compassion toward those who suffer.  Even through the likes of us.  Amen.

[1] John 11:3-5.

[2] Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, “Lazarus Is Us”, 10 April 2011, Patheos Lectionary Reflections: https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/04/lazarus-is-us-alcye-mckenzie-04-04-2011.aspx?p=2

[3] John 4:14

[4] John 6:35

[5] Alyce McKenzie, “Lazarus Is Us” in Patheos Lectionary Reflections for April 10, 2011.

[6]  John 11:34


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