A Meditation on John 11: 33 – 44
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church All Saints Sunday
As followers of Jesus we believe that life is interrupted by death, never ended by it. Still, that doesn’t always help when you are in the moments or seasons of grief.
You’ve heard those before: the five stages of grief.
Originally defined by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as the progression of emotional states experienced by terminally ill patients, we know these to be the natural responses to grief. We know that everyone experiences these stages differently, and that these five emotions cycle back around, leaping up to bite us on the backside in unsuspecting moments.
The Jesus whom we follow, the human divine one, knew these emotions, too. The God who loves us, who created us to live in love, created us with the capacity to experience all of these feelings. They are the reflections of our ability to love, and we hear them echoed in the depths of Jesus’ love for his friend, Lazarus.
Denial. “Lord, the one whom you love is ill,” was the message Mary and Martha sent to Jesus. Jesus’ response? “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God…” If we weren’t paying attention before, we are now…Even Jesus wants to avoid painful realities? Even Jesus needs to live with some denial because the truth is too painful? Even Jesus needs to know that God does not send suffering down upon humanity? Yes, to all of this and more. Jesus’ questions assure us that it is okay to question life’s sorrows, okay to have doubts. Denial. “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up,” Jesus says. We can’t help it. It is our nature – and Jesus’ too – to hold on tightly to those we love.
Jesus had seen death, and the threat of death before. He had witnessed weeping parents, and in response, had restored their child to them. But this time? This time death has come to Jesus’ door; death has come for his dear friend, and his denial becomes anger. Martha questions him, and Mary collapses at his feet, exhausted from grief. Look at Jesus now, as he becomes “deeply disturbed and troubled.”
Ginger Barfield, Professor of Theology at Lutheran Southern Seminary, writes:
The first verb [disturbed] has a connection to anger. It is not simply a strong feeling, but it is more of a passion and pain that comes from anger at the situation…
The root of the second verb [troubled] is tied to a stirring up of oneself on the insides. It can be used in a physical sense for stirring up water, disturbing the calmness of the still water. In a more personal sense, it signifies both mental and internal disturbance that is akin to almost being physically sickened and disturbed.[i]
Anger? With whom is Jesus angry? Is he angry with himself for not arriving sooner? He could have prevented his friends’ suffering if he had only come when they sent word. Is he mad at Mary and Martha or the mourners, for not trusting him? Is he angry with God, as he knows that his own time on the earth is nearing its end, and there will be no one to call the dead from their graves? Anger. Yes. Anger. An angry Jesus.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. For Jesus the bargaining will come later, and the bargaining will be for his own life. We will be reminded again of Jesus’ humanity when we meet him in the garden before he is arrested. He will pray; he will weep; he will ask God to open a way other than suffering and death. He knows what type of death awaits him: it is merciless and cruel in its design. There is no one who could face it without longing for escape. Even a criminal does not deserve a death like this, but an innocent man? No, Jesus will not have to bargain with God to restore Lazarus, but he will try to bargain with God over his own.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Here is Jesus, outside Lazarus’ tomb. His stomach is twisted. His head hurts from crying. He is shaking from anger and sorrow. We come to the infamously brief statement: Jesus wept. ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς. That word for “wept,” “δακρύω,” is only used in this one pithy sentence. Nowhere else in the Bible will you find this word. There are, of course, other words for crying and weeping throughout the Bible. John chose this unique verb to describe the tears of Jesus.
(There is a name for this: Hapax legomenon: a word that occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text.)
This rare verb choice is the perfect metaphor. Jesus’ weeping is unique; it is unlike the weeping of humans. Of course this is so! Jesus’ heart breaks more easily. Jesus’ sorrows are not only his own but the sorrows of the world. Jesus’ tears are not solitary tears. They are the tears of the entire grieving community. Jesus wept. For Mary and Martha. For Lazarus. For the world, that we must experience death and dying.
Do you remember what supposedly follows depression? Acceptance. Jesus accepted Lazarus’ death, and in acknowledging it, he could transform it. Not only will Lazarus be transformed, returned to life, but a community also has the opportunity to experience renewal. Jesus will teach the community how redemption happens.
Here is how it happens:
Jesus calls to the people gathered, even as they are crying, to roll away the stone that seals the tomb. They must work together. One person alone cannot do this, and without Jesus it would be impossible. They move the stone, which allows the light to flood the dark space. The terrible odor of death they so feared? Not present. Instead, they catch the scent of anointing oils and spices. Still, Lazarus is bound in the burial cloths and there is no real sign of life. Jesus speaks, calling his friend out into the light. It’s a bittersweet story, isn’t it? How we wish Jesus were here to do the same for our loved one.
Bittersweet for us, but rather ridiculous for those gathered. Shocking and comical. Here comes Lazarus, stumbling forward. Shuffling along, his legs bound together. Hopping a bit, almost falling. With his face covered, he can only peer through the fabric, following the light, following the sound of his name.
As Lazarus moves awkwardly forward, Jesus continues to teach them what redemption looks like. He calls out to the former mourners, frozen in place by their amazement, fear and disbelief, to untie Lazarus. Which they do. I imagine the sounds of laughter, that the musicians’ tunes became light and cheerful. I hear shouts and whoops of joy, but I also imagine that Jesus may have shed a tear or two. Redemption does not come without a price, and this whole experience was overwhelming for everyone, especially Jesus.
I have preached before on this text that I believe Jesus needed this resurrection moment as he prepared for his own death. I believe his followers, even though they still lost hope, had the potential to look back on this moment to sustain them in the dark hours of Jesus’ death. But I believe this entire passage is as much a metaphor for how we are to live as it is a story of the promise of resurrection.
In its honesty, we see the face of God, who experiences denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We see a God who weeps, God’s own unique and mysterious tears. Never forget that.
But there is a greater truth. Jesus could have rolled that stone away himself. Jesus could have unwrapped the cloths that bound Lazarus’ arms, and legs. He could have removed the covering over Lazarus’ face. But he didn’t do any of those things. He offered new life to Lazarus, but he also offered new life to everyone gathered there by inviting them to participate in reuniting Lazarus with the world.
In this story we meet a God who teaches us how to be life givers, life bearers. You know someone who is trapped in a tomb. Addiction, abuse, depression, fear, unemployment, illness, oppression…those are just a few of the many tombs in our world. We can’t just walk by them and pretend we do not see.
God through Christ, calls us to be unafraid to confront the ways that we have tended to death instead of to life. God, through Christ, calls us to be the ones who roll away the stones from the tombs of our own creation. God, through Christ, calls us to recognize the burial strips that bind our neighbors. God, through Christ, needs us to remove those bindings from one another. I cannot remove mine. You cannot remove yours. Christ is calling to us, to each of us, to come out, to allow ourselves to be unbound and free. We may stumble a bit on the way out…but then we could all use a bit of a laugh to balance the tears.
Thanks be to God, who calls us into life…interrupted! Amen.
[i] Ginger Barfield, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2660