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"How can... the Dead Be Raised?"

Maybe Jesus’ tears were bright and determined because he was doing something worth living for, worth dying for.

by Jean Charlot, 1933
[1] by Jean Charlot, 1933

​John 11:1-45

March 26, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright Scholars have observed that Jesus often seems above all emotion in John’s gospel. Not here. Not in this passage. In this passage Jesus weeps! Do you imagine a single tear tracing its way down his cheek or sloppy, snotty, ugly crying that shakes his whole body? And what do his tears mean? Let me touch on five possibilities outlined by Karen Pidcock-Lester, a Presbyterian preacher I knew when we lived in Richmond. One or more of them may cause you to look at this passage in a new way.[2]


Maybe love causes Jesus to weep. The text says that "Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus ... " So even though Jesus knows that this story will not end in death – he has come to raise Lazarus, after all – he is moved to tears by the wrenching grief of his friends. Even when we know that resurrection will follow death as surely as day follows night, a widow’s empty bed, or a parent’s empty arms, or a friend’s empty days cause us to cry out of the depths, just like the psalmist. It is a raw moment. Jesus loves deeply...

and so he begins to weep.


Maybe Jesus weeps because he has, in some way, caused the pain. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," says first one sister and then the other. He could have come in time, but he chose to wait. He had a good reason. One scholar thinks he was praying for wisdom and guidance and courage in the face of temptation. The pull to drop everything and come running must have been as great as the temptation to turn stones into bread. But there is more going on here than the death and resurrection of one man: Jesus has the whole world to save! And yet in choosing to wait for the right moment, he has inflicted pain on those he loves. What a thought! In Jesus Christ we see God, so when Christ weeps, God weeps. God hears every ragged prayer of the grieving, every whimper of the wounded, every howl of despair. Let’s be clear. When God delays, it is not because God can do nothing, but because God wants to do something more. God delays, not because God is weak and cannot help, but because God is strong enough to resist answering one person’s prayer in order to answer the prayers of all of humanity. It is a hard truth to swallow, but in this scene, Jesus inflicts some of the pain, because he loves not just Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but the whole world... and so Jesus begins to weep.


Maybe Jesus weeps for those who do not love him, for those who grumble, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" The crowd gathered in Bethany is made up of friends and neighbors who have come to sit with the family, to share their grief, to bring a casserole. They have not been the enemies, the doubters, the ones that tried to trap him with questions. Far from it. They believe Jesus could have done something – that’s why they resent that he didn’t. Maybe Jesus weeps that they do not understand. Maybe he weeps that they do not trust God’s timing. Maybe he weeps knowing that some will eventually side with the Pharisees who see him as a threat or a sham. Some do not love Jesus the way he loves them... and so he begins to weep.


Maybe Jesus’ tears are tears of anger. The Scripture says, “he was greatly disturbed.” Every time this Greek word is used in Scripture, it carries a sense of anger. Jesus looks upon the suffering of those he loves and gets angry. Not at them, but at the forces that destroy life. Jesus looks upon the disease which kills Lazarus, upon the death which robs Mary and Martha of their brother and gets angry at their suffering. Just as Jesus looks upon the cruelty of domestic violence, or sickness that comes like a thief in the night, or the fatal grasp of destructive addictions, or the dark pit of debt, and gets angry. Jesus cannot look upon the powers that destroy life and not be moved... and so he begins to weep.


Maybe Jesus weeps because he knows his time has come. He sees his loved ones in bondage and he knows the battle he must wage to wrestle the world free. He knows that you do not defy the powers of hell without a cost – not if you are going to conquer them. He knows the time has come to step up to the tomb, the fortress of the enemy’s power, and yell! You know the only other time the gospels use this word for yell, is when Jesus, from the cross, cries out in anguish, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here Jesus yells, not in despair, but in defiance, “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” He shouts, knowing that this act of life-giving will lead to his own death. Before the chapter is finished, John will report, “from that day on [the Pharisees) planned to put [Jesus] to death.” So maybe the scene before him hits too close to home – the sound of Mary weeping, the words “Come and see where we have laid him,” the grave clothes. Maybe it is all too clear a foreshadowing of another time, another death, another stone, another tomb. But if he is to unbind the ones he loves, if he is to unbind Mary and Martha and Lazarus from sorrow and fear and desolation, if he is to unbind the whole world and set it free from the powers that destroy the life he has promised, then he himself must be bound. This is a resurrection story, but it is draped in a funeral pall. Tears signal the high price of raising the dead. Now, the time is at hand... so Jesus begins to weep.


As I said earlier, John does not usually portray Jesus as being this human, so I’m glad he does here, because tears are a sign of raw human emotion! And we need to see this side of our Savior. It draws us closer. We have all wept out of love or guilt; out of frustration or anger; or because we have fought death long enough and can fight no longer. Poet Ada Limón asks, “You ever think you could cry so hard that there’d be nothing left in you, like how the wind shakes a tree in a storm until every part of it is run through with wind?”[3] Maybe you’ve cried like that – until you were spent and empty, shaken or shaking. Maybe it helps to hear that Jesus has cried like that. Maybe it helps to know that you are not alone. Maybe it makes a difference to hear this story and know that since you are made in the image of God, your emotions have their root in God’s emotions! Limón closes her poem with a startling line: “Funny thing about grief, its hold is so bright and determined like a flame, like something almost worth living for.” Maybe Jesus’ tears were bright and determined because he was doing something worth living for, worth dying for. Consider that as you walk the next two weeks with him. Amen

[1] by Jean Charlot, 1933 [2] From “And so he weeps” by Karen Pidock-Lester in the 3/7/05 issue of the Presbyterian Outlook. [3] From “After the Fire”
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