This weekend’s Gospel reading contains two of the most moving words in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
It is the story of Lazarus. We hear it every year as Lent draws ever closer to Palm Sunday and the spiritual journey of the cross; after all, raising Lazarus from the dead was the tipping point for the Jewish hierarchy and set in motion the events that lead to Christ’s crucifixion. Today the story is so routine that we cease to be amazed at the miracle. Maybe that’s because with today’s medical technology, we see miracles all the time.
But not for everyone. And not all the time. Some people do die and stay dead. One such person was pastor Hutch Hutcherson. He played for the Dallas cowboys and was a self-professed racist before becoming a pastor and ultimately marrying a white woman. I recently watched an internet TV series that he’d filmed just weeks before he succumbed to his disease – prostate cancer. He talked about faith, family, and cancer. He also talked about this piece of scripture, with a perspective I had never heard before.
Most of us are taught that Jesus wept because he was human, because he had compassion for the grieving Mary and Martha, and that he himself was grieving even though he knew what God was about to do through him. Perhaps he was having doubts himself when facing the reality of death, we are told by well-meaning spiritualists.
Read the Gospel of John. The whole thing. Read the Passion narrative, and the crucifixion narrative. The Jesus of John’s Gospel never wavers in his faith. He is the picture of emotional detachment. There was a time I would have used the word “arrogant” to describe this version of the Messiah. This is not the Jesus who says, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Nor is it the Jesus who utters the ultimate in compassion while hanging from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” John’s Jesus knows exactly who he is and what the ultimate outcome will be.
Weeping is the last thing you expect John’s Jesus to do.
Hutch said (more eloquently than I) the reason Jesus wept is that he knew raising Lazarus from the dead meant he’d be depriving him from living in God’s presence in heaven.
I’ve never been in a hurry to get to heaven. I remember the first time I gave this any serious thought. I was about nine years old. I was walking to the refrigerator to get ice cubes for my drink, and I point blank asked God, “Why would I ever want to go to Heaven? It would be so boring to no longer have to work for something, or to already know everything and not need to learn.” I had conversations like this with God all the time in the silence of my mind, but this is one of the very few I remember so vividly.
God did not answer, at least not with words. But I felt His love – His personal, fatherly love – showered over me, and the distinct feeling that He was trying to communicate that I’d understand after I had a little more “life” under my belt. This is one of the reasons I know God is real. And probably one of the reasons I wasn’t in any hurry to die. I didn’t need to go to Heaven to be in God’s presence. I invite myself into His presence regularly, and that has been more than enough!
But not really. Yes, there is a certain amount of joy that comes from learning something new, and from working diligently. God made me in His image, so it only makes sense that I am happiest when I’m creating and trying to improve the world around me and learning how to love. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
But it did fall. It’s not attached to the tree. No matter how wonderful earthly life can be, it is a terminal illness. No one is immune, and some of us die a hundred spiritual and emotional deaths before we experience the final physical one.
Jesus wept because he knew he was about to bring Lazarus back to death, not back to life.
I wonder what happened to Lazarus. The scriptures are silent, although apparently the Pharisees talked of killing Lazarus along with Jesus because of the threat he represented. Church traditions have varying stories about his ultimate post-resurrection life.
One thing is certain – he did not live forever, at least not on earth. Lazarus died twice. Catholic tradition holds that he died a martyr’s death. Perhaps this is why Jesus wept.
Something else struck me when I read today’s Gospel. It is another Martha and Mary story. In the earlier story, Martha was the picture of busy bitterness, hustling about to prepare for Jesus, while her sister Mary did nothing but sit at His feet. Jesus gently scolded Martha and assured her that Mary had chosen the better part. In today’s selection, it is not Martha who is bitter, but Mary. Both of them greet Jesus with the words, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” But Martha didn’t stop there. She went on to proclaim her faith in God and in Jesus, God’s son. Unlike Mary, her faith was stronger than her grief.
What I know now that I didn’t know at nine years old is that life is grief. It is a process of letting go – of people we love, of dreams we cherish, of expectations. Life is a wonderful gift filled with great joy and pleasure, too. But it is terminal every day. In the King James translation of the bible, the phrase, “it came to pass” can be found 453 times (according to one source, anyway). Nowhere in scripture do you find the phrase, “And it came to stay.”
I think this is why the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is so powerful and enduring, even in the modern world where we have the power to make miracles every day. On a daily basis I need Jesus to assure me, “I am the resurrection and the life,” because every day, I have to let go of something. Every day, grief lingers in the background. And every day, Jesus calls me out of the tomb of my self-absorbed bitterness and says, “Come forth!”
I’m still not ready for Heaven, but one day I know that Jesus will say, “Come forth!” and call me into life that is beyond description. Until then, it shall simply come, to pass.