Readings: John 11:32-44 (the death of Lazarus), Hebrews 2:10-15
“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
There are many ideas in Christianity that are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to understand. These facets of our faith that are the most difficult, though, also happen to be some of the most critical. One of these is the nature of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is not merely favored by God, or God-like, but is God. John declares him to be “the Word”, eternal and unchanging. Jesus is also, scripture tells us, fully human. He ate, slept, bled, and probably had toothaches, stubbed toes and everything else that comes with life. Not only that but he felt as we feel: he got angry, cried, laughed, admonished, and as we see here in the Gospel, grieved.
The passage from John is remarkable for many reasons. The story is very common but is pivotal in John’s consideration of who Jesus is. Often preachers focus on the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. Other times they will hone in on the reactions of Mary and Martha, or the Jews. All of these are worth considering, but I want to focus on Jesus and his reaction to the death of his friend.
Jesus’ actions don’t make a whole lot of sense. They don’t to us today, and they didn’t to anyone back then either. Jesus held off going to Lazarus’ side for reasons that only become apparent at the end of the story. It would have been less painful for all those involved for him to say “don’t worry, I’ll fix it when I get there”, or to run to Lazarus’ side, heal him and save the day, or even to heal him from afar. Yet he doesn’t.
When he does arrive, he isn’t unaffected by the scene. The people gathered are sad, mourning, confused and angry. John is concerned with the emotional reactions of the crowd to Jesus, and also with Jesus’ emotional reactions; he is “deeply troubled”, some translations even say “angry”. It’s also written that Jesus “weeps”, which is a bit tame for the translation. Jesus was not just tearing up or crying, he was wailing. The same term is used when Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. It’s clear then that Jesus was extremely upset by the death of his friend.
Stop then and consider this: the Son of God, the creator of the universe, who knows everything that has happened and will happened, who can control the forces of nature, who is the exact image and reflection of God, grieved the loss of a single friend. Just as we do.
Often I see images of Jesus, especially the more “classic” images of him, portraying him as a placid, unemotional, and unaffected semi-human. Sort of a zen Superman. This is because the classical artists, sponsored by the church, wanted to focus on reflecting Jesus’ divinity, which in turn dimmed the view of his humanity. Jesus was real and was God, but he was not like us. The story of the raising of Lazarus should change any idea we have of Jesus as being far removed from us, someone who is far off and unapproachable. As the writer of Hebrews affirms, Jesus calls us brothers and sisters. He knows the pains and struggles we go through, because he has gone through them himself. In fact, Jesus’ path on earth is characterized by pain and suffering. We can be comforted by the knowledge, then, that he understands our own losses and pain. He knows our grief because he has grieved. He knows not like one who says that they understand just because they want us to feel better. Jesus has lost, and does understand.
If Jesus mourns and weeps, is it not right and fair and good for us to mourn and weep? Sometimes I’m confronted by people who say “I should be happy, not crying” or “there’s no point in crying anyway”. I think that’s unfair. If Jesus wept at the death of one that he loved, then we are free to weep as well. What would Jesus do? He would cry.
But as Paul said, even though we grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Jesus grieved and he had the greatest hope of all locked away inside him. Today, in the same way as the classical artists made Jesus to be more divine than human, the pendulum has swung the other way. Artists and scholars focus on Jesus the teacher and rabbi, but strip him of any vestige of God. Our picture must be more “realistic”: free of miracles, free of prophecy, free of anything that isn’t just like us. This also is an incomplete picture.
Both passages that we heard speak of Jesus as both fully human and fully God. He suffered and was tempted just as we are, but unlike us he did not give in to them. Being fully God, he transcended the pain and suffering he endured on earth, working it out toward our salvation. As we read previously, Jesus shared our humanity not only so that he might understand us, but primarily so that the Father’s perfect love can become real through him to us in a way impossible on our own. Jesus’ resurrection broke the yoke of the worst fear that we have, that of death and the ultimate separation of God from man and man from each other.
This is our encouragement in the midst of sadness, that the God who made us knows our suffering and calls us through that suffering as a brother. Jesus has been there, but has gone ahead, forging a new path where the eternal has overcome the fear of ending.