A sermon about those whom Jesus loves (Lent V, Year A)

Text:  John 11:1-45.

When I was growing up, I belonged to the Southern Baptist Church in my  town, and one of the things we young Southern Baptists were supposed to do was to memorize Bible verses.  Not whole passages, no context, just individual verses.  Of course we made our choices as a way to broadcast to the world important things about us as individuals.  Our choices would show everyone what kind of person we were.

Some people chose John 3:16, which we read right here a couple of weeks ago, because they felt that verse summed up the Gospel, plus it was famous and easy to learn.  Others, particularly us girls, chose passages from one of Paul's letters, where one could, completely out of context, make the Bible sound so romantic.  "Love is patient, love is kind," we'd begin.   "And the greatest of these is love!" we would end.  Or, skinny legs and all, we could assert a maturity that perhaps only we could see by quoting,  "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child, but now I have put away childish things."

But one of the smart alecs chose this one.  "Jesus wept."  The shortest verse in the Bible.  It felt like cheating of the most outrageous kind, like sheer and utter flippancy to the rest of us who labored long and hard over our verses from Paul or the Sermon on the Mount, when Billy Johnson *(a pseudonymn) came along smugly quoting, "Jesus wept."  (If only he would have read the whole passage through - just think what fun the boys would have had with the King James translation of Martha's graveside admonition to Jesus:  "But Lord, by this time he stinketh.")

Although I have obviously moved away from the church tradition of my youth and experience frustration that so many of us only know "key verses" from the Bible without reference to their context, it is true that  a memorized verse can provide the portal through which we can step into the Scriptures, into the stories that place us at an intersection between ourselves and God.  Learning a verse ought to be the beginning, not the end, of our study; it provides a jumping in place, a place to  wonder anew, what is God up to here, and what does it mean to me?

And so, let's take my smart alec middle school friend's suggestion to heart and enter into this long, complex, beautifully rendered story of the death and raising of Lazarus through the shortest verse in the Bible, King James Version:  Jesus wept.

Why is Jesus weeping?  For whom is he weeping - Lazarus? Mary and Martha? all the people?  himself?  What caused all this weeping, given that in the Gospel of John Jesus already knows everything  - he knows who people are, what they are thinking, what they have done, what's going to happen. He knows he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead.  He knew Lazarus was dead before he even left for Bethany! 

Which brings us to another question: Why did Jesus not go to Bethany when he first heard about Lazarus's illness?  Why did he tarry when he knew how grieved the sisters would be? What's all this business about this death being for God's glory?  It says that Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha!  The people ask, understandably, if Jesus could make the blind man see, why couldn't he have healed Lazarus from his illness and kept him from dying?

Which leads us to Jesus's conversations with Mary and Martha.  Were they justified in their admonishment of Jesus: If you had been here, our brother would not have died?  Is that the way you talk to Jesus, ladies?  And yet they have a point! Is that the way you treat those you love, Jesus?

Which leads me to reflect that this passage shows us, in the midst of a Gospel that often has an unreal quality about it, a  basic reality about what it means to love and be loved by God.

We are not promised that nothing bad will happen to us or to those whom we love.  Thirty years ago,  Harold Kushner wrote a book called "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."  Almost everyone who references that book calls it "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People."  Because that's what we want the book to be about.  We want someone to explain why bad things happen.  Sometimes we blame God, crying out like Mary and Martha, why did you let this happen? We want God to come immediately and interrupt, pre-empt, bad stuff.  That's not the book Rabbi Kushner wrote, however, and that's not the story we get with the family in Bethany whom Jesus loved, either. 

And we can spend time and energy kicking against that... why doesn't God keep us from grief, from sorrow, from trouble, from death?  Why didn't Jesus heal Lazarus instead of letting him die?  What kind of God do we have anyway?

And yet here, we can see what kind of God we do have.  We have a God who weeps with us in our anguish, who is present to us in our body and soul shaking grief, not skipping right over to part about how it's going to be all right and pie in the sky by and bye.

Death comes to Lazarus, grief comes to Mary and Martha, all of whom Jesus loved.  This death and this love is real, too, and particular and special.  Jesus loves this family - this same Jesus who all throughout this Gospel is such a mystery - he always calls his mother Woman, he speaks in long discourses using specialized vocabulary  (what's up with "glory" and "hour" and "I am bread?").  He seems to  play with words, perhaps even deliberately to mess with or confuse those who come to talk with him.  He knows everything and he suffers no agony in the Garden, no overt suffering on the cross - John's Jesus is always in charge of every situation.

But in this situation, we see what having Jesus love you looks like.  Jesus does know  that Lazarus is going to die and also  that Lazarus is going to be resurrected, but in the meantime, he stops and grieves with those whom he loves in their sorrow.  This is not the portrayal of an aloof, all-knowing God up in the sky somewhere.  Jesus comes to them where they live, and stands with them in their sorrow, even though he knows it's not the really the end.  That's what a God who loves us does.  That's what this story is about.  That's why Jesus weeps.  Because we weep, and Jesus loves us.

But at the same time, make no mistake, this is not Buddy Jesus, incapable of doing anything but weeping in the face of death.  Jesus the good shepherd calls to his dead sheep Lazarus and Lazarus, unbelievably, comes out of the tomb, alive again.  Jesus is not just a friend, come to console friends; he has been given power over death, and he uses that power to show us that love is stronger than death.  This is not the fluffy romantic love we teenaged girls wanted to import into Paul's letter.  This is a fierce, powerful love that, fueled by anguish, takes on death and overrides it with life.

I am the resurrection and the  life, he says to Martha before he raises Lazarus.  Many of us focus on that first part, that Jesus is about what happens after we die.  That Jesus is about life after death, overcoming death,  rising on the last day - through Jesus, death is no longer  a barrier to our being in the blessed presence of God all our days. 

But  Jesus is also about life.  This life, now, before the physical death that will come to all of us - this matters to Jesus; this matters to God.  I came so that you might have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus says elsewhere in this Gospel.  I am the life. Wholeness now; physical and spiritual well being now; reconciliation to God and to neighbor now.  Don't worry about what happens after death - you will always be with God, no matter what, he says. 

And he shows, in this story, by the fact that Jesus - God incarnate - wept,  that while there are cosmic implications of the incarnation, of the salvation and restoration of the entire creation, our life every day is also what Jesus is about.  God with us, Emmanuel, weeping with us in our grief.  Both Isaiah and John the author of Revelation write that at the end, God will wipe away every tear.  We need to know both these things - that our tears now are precious, our grief now is shared by the one who loves us and calls us by name - and also that when all is made right, there will be no more need for tears.

One does not cancel out the other.  Eternal life is not just about after we die, it is all of life, on either side of the grave, lived out in the presence of God.  Our hardships and our sorrows now are not to be brushed aside, counted as nothing because in the end they won't matter.  They do matter, to us and to God.

And so, John says, Jesus wept.



Perpetua said…
What a super sermon, Penny! Thank you. I was at a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) service this morning, which didn't use our lectionary readings, so it's good to be able to read such a good sermon on the text.
Thanks, Perpetua! I offered this sermon at a small but lovely and friendly parish in Macon, GA today. I'm glad to be able to offer it to the virtual community as well.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Penny! It is a fascinating passage, especially for those of us who have traveled from a more-Baptist background to the Episcopal Church. Jesus is the Life and the Light of the World, and sees in ways that we miss. The ways Jesus sees sometimes move him to pray, sometimes to teach, sometimes to ask questions, sometimes to weep.
June Butler said…
Penny, your sermon is lovely. I came to the same conclusion as you about why Jesus wept - because his friends whom he loved were grieving.
Thanks Mimi - I guess great minds think alike, huh?