32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” 38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” 40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
I’ll never forget the first time I really saw my dad cry. I was a little girl sitting in my living room and I could see my parents talking through the door that led to the kitchen. Just a week before, my cousin, Kyle, a 6 month old baby, had died suddenly of crib death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. My dad had just come back from Michigan where he had been at the funeral with my aunt. I was old enough to realize that we had had a death in the family and I was sad that it was my baby cousin whom I had never met. However, I was not prepared for the effect it would have on our family, and my dad in particular. I overheard him telling my mom about the funeral, and he started to weep. Not just a few tears here and there, but really cry out loud as he was talking. I could see and hear the heartbreak in his voice- for his sister, for the loss, for the life that would never be. It was almost too much for me to handle.
This moment has remained with me throughout my life because it seems to be a turning point for me and probably for many of us to realize at a young age that even our parents experience grief, anger, and sadness, and things that are out of their control. As a little girl, I tended to think that mommies never got sick and daddies don’t ever cry. Then there comes that point when you realize that they are human, too, and your perspective changes. Seeing my dad cry that day made me feel small and helpless. I thought to myself that if my dad could break down like that, then the world is certainly not as it should be.
When I read this text of Jesus going to visit with the family of Lazarus as they mourned their brother and friend, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mary and Martha felt the same way as I did that day as a little girl- that upon seeing the tears of Jesus, they, too felt small and helpless, and felt that the world is not as it should be- that if Jesus, who heals the sick and gives sight to the blind, weeps over his friend, then where is the hope? Where is life to be found?
“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in scripture, yet it is also one of the most powerful in the biblical text. The Greek words used in this context tell us that Jesus simply shed tears, and the meaning is more ambiguous from the words used for the tears of grief shed by Mary and Martha. So the reasons behind Jesus’ tears are wide open for interpretation. Why did Jesus weep? What did his teardrops mean? And what can they tell us?
First, they can tell us that Jesus was human. Just as we cry when we are sad, angry, or hurt, so we see in this text that Jesus joins us in our human pain, frailties, and grief. Twice in this text, we read that Jesus is deeply disturbed and troubled. The first time is when he sees Mary for the first time and sees her crying, along with the Jewish leaders who are with her. The second time he is deeply disturbed is when he approaches the tomb where Lazarus is buried. His tears are shed in between these two recorded incidents of his disturbed and troubled spirit.
Once again, the Greek text gives us a further glimpse into the true emotion that Jesus may have been feeling. Our English translation of “disturbed” is too weak. The wording here is used more to describe an emotion of anger toward the reality and wounds of death. It is not simply a strong feeling, but is more of a passion and pain that comes from anger at the situation. It is a stirring up of the insides, a wracking of the soul, a physical and emotional blow to our very being. The fact that we are told that Jesus is deeply disturbed not just once, but twice within a few sentences tells us that even the incarnate God is broken in his heart and soul by the death of his friend. Death grieves God. Death also breaks our own hearts and stirs up our souls and disturbs our insides (workingpreacher.org). We are deeply troubled and disturbed when death touches our lives. Jesus’ tears are first and foremost tears of anger. Anger at the wounding reality of death, anger at the pain of life and grief, and anger at perhaps even himself for not coming to see Lazarus right away when he was still alive.
This is not helped by the fact when Jesus approaches, Mary comes out to him and says, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This also deeply disturbs Jesus. How many times in our own lives have we said something similar? “God, if only you cared more for me, then she wouldn’t have gotten sick.” “If only he had done this one thing, then she would still be with us.” “If only I had said this to her, then maybe she would have not taken her own life.” When grief or tragedy strikes, it seems that it is in our nature to place blame on someone or something, and sometimes even ourselves, when the reality is that sometimes, terrible things just happen. There are no good explanations for them, no one to blame, and nothing good comes from accusing God or someone we love for a bad or tragic outcome of a situation. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but does promise to be present in the midst of pain, working for good.
In this situation, Jesus’ tears speak volumes about who he is and what he does for us. And that is to say that sometimes in life, things cannot be fixed, but they can be carried. Mary didn’t know what was about to happen. She didn’t yet know that Jesus could bring someone back to life. She only knew and had faith that he could heal the sick as she had seen and heard. So she just assumes that Jesus had failed her. When in reality, his tears show her, as they show us, that our pains, our grievances, and our hardships cannot always be fixed, but they can be carried by Christ. They can be carried by those who love us and are willing to sit with us in our grief. Jesus shows us how to do this when he sheds tears for his friend. His tears whisper upon our lives still today to say: “I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.”
A few weeks ago, I had several friends post on social media about the fact that it was infant loss and miscarriage awareness month. Many women, some of whom are very close to my heart, shared their stories of infant loss or miscarriage. Some stories I already knew about, and some I did not. As a pregnant person, some of these stories were particularly hard to read or re-visit. But I found it to be very important that I acknowledge the pain and loss of these women as they were willing to bear their souls and share their difficult stories. In fact, just this past weekend, I had a friend who let me know that she had lost her baby. She and her husband were told that it was gone, but she still had to go to the hospital and deliver the child. They got to hold the child for a few moments before it died. It was still too early to even determine what the gender was.
In the midst of this, my friend was able to share her story of loss and lean on the people she trusted the most. She was overwhelmed with kind thoughts, offers to help in some way, and people who were willing to sit with her in her time of grief. At the same time, when a death occurs, when grief overtakes us, when tragedy touches our lives, we sometimes find that people have the best of intentions with their words, but end up doing more harm than good by saying things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” or in the case of women who lose an unborn child, “You will be able to have another baby.” The reality is that not everything happens for a reason, and God doesn’t give us tragedy or loss to teach us lessons about ourselves or about how the world works. Sometimes things just happen and life can be full of hurts and pains. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot always be fixed or healed, at least not right away, and tragedy does not always bring answers, as much as we may want to understand the reasons behind things.
This is why it is so important to understand that Jesus’ tears for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus come from a place of anger at first, and then from a place of compassion, sadness, and hurt for their loss, and for the pains of this life. When there were no words to be spoken, Jesus wept. When there was nothing to be done in the moment, Jesus carried their pain. When Jesus saw their tears, he shed his own and stood in solidarity with them. He walked with them in their grief. He acknowledged their pain and said, “I am here with you.” This is why I believe that in many ways, we could say that within this short phrase of “Jesus wept,” the entire gospel is contained. In the teardrops of Christ, we catch a glimpse of the divine love of our Lord and Savior. Jesus wept. And in these tears we see a God who is not detached from the pains of this life, but has drawn near to them. He has taken our flesh and blood. We suffer no pain that he was unwilling to carry, no grief he was unwilling to bear ((http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/jesus-wept–2).
In the death of Lazarus, perhaps Jesus saw a foretaste of his own suffering and death, and his tears were also a reality check of what his future was going to be. This text allows us to confront the gritty, messy, harsh reality of death, and it was almost more than Jesus could bear in that moment. With the death of Lazarus, nothing is left to our imaginations. We feel the pain of those who mourn, we see the tomb come into view, and we can even imagine the stench of death that is pointed out to us by Martha who says, “Uh…Jesus…he’s been dead for 4 days…the smell will be awful!” Yet this is the reality of death, isn’t it?
On this All Saints Day, as we remember and honor those who have left an empty space in our lives, what should we say in the midst of loss and the reality of death? Is it enough to light candles and read names? Maybe not. Instead, what if we are to proclaim the truth of the sting and stench of death? What if we are to acknowledge the grief and anger that may never totally depart those of us who are left in this life? What if we are to state the reality of the disturbing fact of the brutality of death? What if we are to continue to shed our tears, and acknowledge the tears of Jesus and know that he joins us in our journey of grief?
Jesus’ tears are tears of love, sadness, grief, compassion, and even anger. Yet his tears also lead to action. We know the end of the story- that he will raise Lazarus! This particular death will be overcome, this life will be spared. But it doesn’t mean that it is not mourned. And the miracle and good news of this story is that smelly, dead for 4 days, dead man Lazarus comes walking out of the tomb at the words of Jesus: “Lazarus, come out!” He will need to clean up and peel off his death clothes, but he gets another chance at life.
And so do we.
When death touches our lives, when the pain seems too much, it is Jesus who sheds tears with us and opens our lives to those who will walk beside us in our times of darkness to bring us out of the tomb and into the light of day. And on this All Saints Sunday, we celebrate the fact that Lazarus, who was just an ordinary and normal person, had value and significance enough to be brought back to life and given a chance at new life. So there is hope for each of us, and there is more than enough hope for those who have already departed this life. Lazarus gives us a foretaste of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who reminds us just verses before this story that he is the resurrection and the life, and promises everlasting life and peace in his name.
So let us not turn away from the tears of Jesus or let them bring us hopelessness, worry, or doubt. Instead, may we see in them a promise of salvation, grace, and hope, and that within the tears of our savior, the entire gospel- the good news- is contained and then shared for all who have ears to hear. May we also see in them a call to action- a call out of the tomb and into new life, just as those who have gone before us. Praise be to God who shares even in our tears, who has the power to turn our sorrows into great joy, our mourning into dancing, and who calls us forth out of death into new life. Amen.