So That You May Believe, November 4, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Rev 21:1-6a; Ps 24:1-6; Col 1:9-14; John 11:32-44
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’”
Perhaps one day you will be a contestant on Jeopardy and the final Jeopardy question will be “This is the shortest verse in the English Bible.” When you answer correctly, (“What is ‘Jesus wept,’”), I hope you will share some of your winnings with the church.
There are some technicalities, of course. Which translation are you talking about? Is it New and Old Testaments that we’re considering?
And I’m sure that most of you realize that the verses as we have them in our modern-day scriptures were not in the original books as the early Christians collected them. Somebody, hundreds of years later, divided the text into chapters and verses to make it easier for us to refer to them.
For that person, the words “Jesus wept” stood out. It was a complete idea that couldn’t be combined with the sentence before or after.
And yes, I do realize that in the translation that we have today, it is actually translated as “Jesus began to weep.” Minor distinction, really.
But the significance of the sentiment is not at all minor. Jesus cried. Tears fell from his eyes. He wept. This is not just the single tear that crept out of the corner of his eye as he was watching a particularly moving scene at the end of a movie. Jesus’ emotions broke out. He was distraught.
It is worth paying attention to this for a number of reasons. It is important to acknowledge that it is not completely clear why Jesus wept. A number of theories have been proposed. It might have been his frustration at how slow his followers were to understand what he had been saying all along—why would they be surprised that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead? Hadn’t they been listening?
But that explanation isn’t satisfying—to me, at least.
But, he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew it too. If you look back earlier in the same chapter, Jesus hears that Lazarus is not well and he still deliberately delays. He knows that this will result in his death but waits anyway. He tells his disciples “’Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’” And just in case you missed the euphemism, his disciples say “‘If he has “fallen asleep” he will be okay,’” to which Jesus replies, “‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’”
So, Jesus weeping is strange. He knew Lazarus had died, and he knew that he was going to raise him to life (which he did). So, where does the weeping come from?
If Jesus had some doubt about his ability to raise him from the dead, this might make more sense. If Jesus was unable to raise him from the dead, Lazarus’ death would affect him the same way the death of a loved one affects us: we can do nothing to bring them back and they are gone. We miss them and we mourn them.
So, what is it that brings Jesus to tears?
Jesus is a complicated person. We talk about Jesus being both “fully God” and “fully man.” Some have tried to explain these two natures at this point by saying that the human Jesus felt the emotions of loss that humans do while the divine Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. But Jesus can’t be subdivided like that. Jesus’ natures are combined into one person. So why would the same person who had the ability to restore life weep at the loss of it?
To me, the weeping Jesus is a great source of comfort. The God who mourns is much easier to relate to than the immutable God to whom acknowledging pain would mean being less powerful than the thing that caused the pain. Death is not greater than God. Jesus, sent by God, demonstrated this, twice, at least. Here, with Lazarus, and later, after his death on the cross. Death itself was overcome.
That Jesus weeps speaks to me not of the power of death, but of God’s understanding of God’s creation. WE are not greater than death. We can cause death—but we can’t undo it. We have no control over death—we may delay it a while, but we can’t entirely prevent it. We are all subject to death. It is the great equalizer—our chances of dying are 100%.
But not God. God is the master, even over death.
And this is what Jesus wanted his disciples to know. Not even death is greater than God. But God knows how it affects us. God knows the impact on us when someone we love dies. Even though God has the power to undo death, God is right there with us, in the midst of our suffering. Jesus is not aloof and patronizing, scoffing at Martha and Mary in their unbelief, knowing full well that he is about to bring their brother back to them. And even though he is about to bring him back to life, before he does, Jesus feels the emotions of one who dearly loves someone who has died. Jesus weeps. Jesus mourns. Jesus feels pain and loss. And Jesus doesn’t immediately jump to something else—to problem-solving or focusing elsewhere. Jesus sits in those emotions and feels the pain that we all feel.
And we all feel this pain, at one time or another. None of us is exempt. People still suffer. Our loved ones still “fall asleep.” We, ourselves, will one day be no more—and it is those that we leave behind who will have to deal with the consequences of our loss.
It is to people struggling with this uncomfortable reality that the author of the letter to the Colossians writes. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
We will experience the darkness, but we have been enabled to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. We have been rescued. We have been transferred into the kingdom of the son of God, in whom we have redemption—and so, may we be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power.
The rules have been rewritten in our favour. The end is not the end. Lazarus was called out of the tomb so that we might believe that it was God who sent Jesus—and that he had authority even over death and life.
In this reality, everything is different. Our lives here on earth are not the end of the story. And when you believe that, you live differently. You behave differently. You interact with others differently than those who are waiting for the end (which we all know is coming), with resignation and defeat—not realizing that Death has been defeated and the door is opened to us to receive new life.
When you believe this, deep down in the core of your being, if affects all aspects of your life. As we are in the second week of our Stewardship Campaign, I ask that you look at the ways in which you live your life. Are you living as though your end is coming—or as though you know that the end is not the end? Where are your time, your talents, and your treasures directed? Toward a recognition of this reality and toward sharing it with others? This is Good News, indeed, for all—but all need to hear it and all need to nurture their faith in loving community. At St. Paul’s we gather together every week in thankfulness for the gifts we have received and to give glory to the one from whom we have received it. When you truly believe that you have been given new life then you will seek to share that new life with others, supporting the ministry of the church and bringing others into a life of faith. That is what makes the community of St. Paul’s engaging.
We are not the people we once were. We are not confined to our earthly bodies anymore. The same God that spoke the world into existence—the God who called the dead back to life—calls to us today—to respond. To come out from the death and darkness we’ve been entombed in, and to live a life that is full of joy and peace—where all things have been made new. Where there is no longer any need for the sun, as God is our light.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”