We've often mentioned how the mood of this season of Lent is more serious, contemplative, and even slightly somber. Today, it's Jesus who is even brought to tears at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Most of us know that this verse, John 11:35, “Jesus wept”, is the shortest in the Bible. But let's zero in on it today, especially, and there in our Savior's tears find a message of sin and grace.
First, some context. Jesus was approaching Jerusalem. Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, is really a suburb of the Holy City. And there, in Jerusalem, Jesus knew he would meet his fate at the hands of the Jews. He knew his own death was approaching. Even his disciples seemed to sense things were reaching a turning point, for Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.
We too, know that Holy Week and Good Friday are approaching. We too should be preparing mentally, emotionally, spiritually, for the observance of our Lord's suffering and death.
But here in Bethany, it was Lazarus who had died. Jesus had been called when Lazarus was still alive, but sick. But his arrival was, it seemed, too late. By the time Jesus got there, Lazarus worsened and died.
So was Jesus crying at the grave of his friend out of guilt? Knowing that he could have saved him, had he not dilly-dallied? No, of course not. Jesus knew how this would end. He told his disciples, “for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” He tells Martha the same, “I am the resurrection and the life” and “Your brother will live”. No, Jesus knows how it ends. That's not why he was weeping.
Why then? Was he weeping in some sort of show or sham? Like the hired mourners who wailed along with the funeral procession and at the tomb? Was he faking these tears? Of course not. Our Lord is always honest, even in his actions.
Was this an example for us to follow? To let us know that it's ok for us to weep at the graves of our loved ones? It might not be why he wept but that certainly is true. The scriptures never tell us not to cry when death comes, but only not to grieve like those who have no hope. Yes, even for Christians who believe in the promises of God about life after death, paradise and resurrection, even for us death is troublesome and painful. There is grief even when there is hope.
So too for Jesus. And perhaps we are approaching the reason for his tears. Even knowing fully well that Lazarus will rise again, and shortly, Jesus is still moved by the sorrow of death. Death is no friend to God and his people. Death is the wages of sin. Death is the interloper, which does not belong in this creation but has come to stay. It is the necessary result of sinful flesh to die, and return to the dust from which it is formed. And with death comes pain, sorrow, grief, and fear. Nothing pleasant, there. This is why Jesus weeps.
So too, his soul would be deeply troubled in the Garden of Gethsemane, a few days later. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” he said. For again, Jesus would have to face death. Now, his own, but nonetheless.
And even though he knew how it would end – even though he knew the resurrection was coming afterward – still he is troubled. There is much to learn here about godly suffering.
Christianity is no trite system of positive thinking in which we are to simply put on a happy face. It is no promise of a life free from tears. Indeed, the opposite. Christians are told of the persecution, suffering and cross-bearing that goes along with our faith. And God never makes a promise that he will keep us from all pain and unpleasant experience.
There are beautiful promises about the world to come – a heavenly Jerusalem in which all suffering ends, and where God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more mourning there, for even death itself will be destroyed. And the hope of that day, the promise of that future, does give comfort to us in our earthly tears.
As does the promise of his presence. We know that he is with us always, even in our suffering, even to the end of the age. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ – not trouble or nakedness or danger or sword. He says, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” And we are comforted, even in our tears.
And we know that he sympathizes with us in our weakness, for he, Christ, was like us in every way, yet without sin. He experienced all of our human sorrow and then some. He is the “man of sorrows, and well acquainted with grief”. He even knew the pain of death – death of a loved one, death he would face for us all on the cross.
I imagine those tears of sorrow turned to tears of joy as Lazarus came out of his grave at the command of the Lord. I imagine the mourners, and the sisters, and perhaps even Jesus himself – wept tears anew, tears of joy seeing Lazarus walking and talking and alive.
So too, the empty tomb of Christ would give all of us, his people, cause for weeping tears of joy. For not only is our Lord alive again, but his resurrection means that he has conquered death for us all. He is our forerunner in death and in resurrection – going where we will someday follow. In Jesus we can see our future. In Jesus we have hope and comfort.
When life brings you to tears, remember Jesus wept. Know that he understands. And far from dismissing your tears of pain, he offers sympathy and hope. For as Lazarus was raised, Christ was raised, so we all shall be raised on that great and glorious day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.