It’s nearing the Passover. The Passover was the time where faithful first-century Jews celebrated the rescue of their ancestors from their tyrannical overlords. The story of the Passover was that of the death of the firstborn of all in Egypt, with the exception of those who butchered a lamb and smeared blood on their doorposts. The Passover was the eve of the great Exodus, where God led his people out of captivity and into the wilderness, before entrance into the Promised Land.
This Promised Land is where Abraham once walked; the land of promise that God pledged to Abraham’s descendants, who were to be a blessing to the world.
This land has at its heart the city of Jerusalem, the city of peace; a harbinger of the peace that is to come. Jerusalem had known war and captivity, and its people could now live in “peace.” But this peace is the peace of Rome, an uneasy peace held firmly under the heel of the Emperor, and his proxies.
Jerusalem, the city of peace, has become a mockery of its name. The peace of Jerusalem is an uneasy peace. Instead of the peace known in life, it has become merely the simmering tranquility brought by threat of Death. Death for all appearances is looming large in his reign over the city.
This is where our story of Lazarus takes place, just two short miles from Jerusalem in a place called Bethany.
Lazarus is dying. His sisters send a message to Jesus, asking that he come. Their message is short, and poignant. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Death is at Lazarus’ door. The devourer is about to have yet another helping at the buffet of humankind.
Our familiarity with this story can allow us to miss the oddness of Jesus’ response. He says, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Jesus loved Lazarus. He loved him deeply. Our first hint of this is seen in the sisters’ message: “He whom you love is ill.” And in case we miss it, our Gospel writer adds it explicitly, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Then Jesus waits two days. Two days for Lazarus to die. Death comes in that interlude.
Jesus then tells his disciples they are returning to Jerusalem, the city that almost took their lives; The city which, as the epicenter of the religious, took up flints and stones to crush life; the very life out of the Messiah and his men. The city named after peace, with the promise of life for the world, is the city where Death still reigns.
The disciples know to return is to face Death. Death lies in wait.
And Jesus returns. The truly human and truly God, Jesus arrives at his dearly loved friends’ house, where there is now a funeral in full tilt. (Funerals in those days lasted for days.) It has now been four days since Lazarus died. I encourage you to read the story. The scene of grief is gripping. Martha and Mary are almost inconsolable. Mary in her grief cries out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus is stirred in his soul. The horror of Death is there in front of him, and he experiences deep grief, the kind of grief that releases the explosive and guttural cry of anguish. Deep from his soul he cries out. Jesus weeps. Shoulders heaving, sobs, tears mixed with the anger of grief. These are the things we know as well. Jesus, a man of sorrows and acquainted with much grief does not stand in stoic indifference to the horror of Death. Jesus wept.
What do we gain by the tears of Jesus? What do we gain by Jesus weeping? We gain insight into the character of God. We gain an insight in what being truly human should be.
To be truly human, to be made in God’s image and live truly in our calling, we will grieve death like Jesus. We will grieve the loss of loved ones like Jesus. We will be overcome by the wave of grief.
When we are faced with death, the death of others, as we have known Jesus’ we will grieve like Jesus grieves.
Jesus wept because Jesus loved. To love is to open ourselves to pain. If we do not experience emotional pain, the opposite is true; we cannot love.
As followers of Jesus, we can grieve full tilt, like Jesus grieved. We can grieve with this abandon, because we know this is not the end of the story.
When we say we do not grieve as those without hope, we say this with the universal church throughout the ages. When we say we do not grieve as those without hope, by this we do not mean we do not grieve. We do not mean our grief is muted and lessened: that would be denial of death. We grieve with full-throated grief, the kind of grief that is sorrow and anger mixed together.
Yet we grieve with hope.
We grieve with the hope Jesus had. The hope that Jesus spoke—and Lazarus awoke. Jesus said come forth, and Lazarus heard. Corpses don’t hear. Graveclothes aren’t worn by the living. Jesus calls for those around him to unbind him. To cloth him. The dead arose. This will not be the last grave Death forfeits to this truly human Jesus. This Jesus, whose very word spoke life into the grave. Death’s overcoming comes not with a warrior’s bearing, but after the weeping of the Son of God.