Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Jesus Wept” John 11:1-45
We all know grief. It finds us as children when our best friend forever moves far away, or when our first pet crosses the rainbow bridge, or when that grandparent who always made us feel so special dies. Grief also finds us in adulthood. We grieve the end of our college studies, the loss of a favorite job, or our move from a favorite home. We grieve the lost future that accompanies infertility or the end of a once-hopeful marriage. Nothing truly prepares us for the grief of losing a parent, even when we know the time has come. Grief accompanies us as we age. We mourn the loss of identity that comes as our years of professional work draw to a close. There is grief in our diminishing ability, when we can’t get around like we used to or we can’t seem to remember like we once did. There is the brokenhearted grief in losing our beloved to death.
Grief packs an emotional wallop. It may come upon us in intense waves of profound sadness, yearning, and tears. It can trouble us with feelings of panic and anxiety. We may find that the little things that once brought quiet joy or pleasure to our everyday living no longer move us. Food can lose its taste. Comedies no longer move us to laughter. We have no interest in playing music or going for a hike. Grief can mess with our minds, making it hard to concentrate and replacing certainty with confusion or forgetfulness. Grief sometimes looks like anger as we cast blame or lash out at those who just don’t get it.
Grief is often little understood, appreciated, or accommodated in our culture. The average length of bereavement leave from a workplace is one to three days. Just a quick break to get all that paperwork out of the way, host out of town guests, handle the phone calls, and respond to cards. Just a few days to figure out our finances and get the kids settled. Dr. Mary-Frances O’Conner, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona studies grief. O’Connor has found that grief is lingering and difficult because it calls for essential changes in our brains that can take a while to make. That old saying that when we lose a spouse or a beloved child, it is like losing a piece of ourselves is both emotionally and biologically true. Our brains struggle to evolve a new set of rules for operating in a world that is no longer complete.
Our reading from John’s gospel brings us a lengthy story of grief. As tensions had mounted in Judea, Jesus and his disciples had retreated to relative safety across the Jordan. But then a letter arrived from Mary and Martha with news that Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus was near death. Jesus needed to come immediately. If it seems that Jesus is callous in tarrying two days before heading to Bethany, it might help us to know that Lazarus was probably already dead – the euphemism that Jesus used, saying that Lazarus had fallen asleep is elsewhere used in scripture to speak of death. Indeed, when Jesus and his friends arrived in Bethany after two days delay and a long day of travel, they found that Lazarus was really dead, four days in the tomb.
The scene that John describes as Jesus arrives in Bethany is overwhelming. First, Jesus encountered Martha, sounding hurt, betrayed, and a little hopeful. Then, Jesus met Mary, who was filled with despair, tears, and “If only you had been here, Lord.” All that took place as grieving neighbors listened and professional mourners wailed. Before long, Jesus was at the tomb where the enormous capstone had sealed the beloved but decomposing Lazarus in darkness. Through all this, we witness the emotional turmoil going on within Jesus. We learn the extent of Jesus’ love for the dead man, who must have been like a brother from another mother. John says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. A closer translation of the original Greek words tells us that Jesus’ spirit groaned. He felt agitated, upset, troubled, even incensed. Jesus wept. He lamented. He grieved right along with Mary and Martha.
We affirm that Jesus is fully human and fully God, but it is perhaps only in the handful of scenes like this that we appreciate what it means for Jesus to share our humanity. Jesus knows what it is like to feel as we do, to suffer as we do. Jesus knows how it feels to be heartbroken and sad, troubled and shaken up, yearning, bereft and a little angry. Jesus’ tears and grief speak to us. Indeed, his choice to be with Mary and Martha, his deep feelings for Lazarus, his compassionate care for those who mourn, all these details are an assurance for those of us who call Jesus our friend. We recognize that Jesus is truly with us in our times of painful loss and all-encompassing grief.
When our BFF moves away and we are sure we will never ever find again a friend so dear, Jesus weeps with us.
When the love light dims, the spouse walks out, and our dreams die, Jesus weeps with us.
When we lose our job, we aren’t sure how to pay the bills, and we don’t know what to do next, Jesus weeps with us.
When we lose our ability, and we cannot do what was once so easy, and we aren’t sure who we are anymore, Jesus weeps with us.
When our beloved one dies and we feel like we have truly lost our other half, Jesus weeps with us.
In all our brokenhearted hurt and deepest grief, the Lord weeps with us.
Jesus accompanied Mary, Martha, and the mourners to the tomb. There, he commanded that the stone be removed. Then, he called Lazarus, four-days-dead, to rise and come out. We can only imagine the shock, yielding to joy, as the no-longer-dead man stood in the doorway of death and greeted the friends who unbound him. A few verses later as John 11 draws to a close, we learn the costliness of this miracle. When Jesus’ opponents heard the news, they resolved that he must be die. Lazarus rising is a miracle that anticipates and precipitates the crucifixion. It would not be long before Jesus’ friends would weep for him.
In our times of grief, we long for the sort of miracle that Jesus worked in Bethany—spectacular and immediate. Give us back our loved one, Jesus. Restore our diminishing abilities, Lord. Fix our irreparable marriages. Give us back our job with a pay raise to boot. Every once in a while, the extraordinary does happen. That new treatment works. The coach gives us a second chance. Our ex realizes they’ve made a huge mistake. We thank our lucky stars, and sometimes we may even thank God.
More often, our miracles slowly unfold. The Lord who weeps with us awakens us to hope and, bit by bit, we find renewed and abundant life, even in the presence of death. Our brains change. Those intense waves of grief come less frequently. We begin to sleep through the night. One day, we are surprised to hear the sound of our own laughter. There may still be a hole in our hearts, but we find that, with the Lord’s help, we can live around it. Just outside the edge of our awareness, we hear Jesus. He calls to us with great compassion and patience, saying, “Come out!” Somehow, we rise and begin again.
That scholar of grief, Mary-Frances O’Connor, says that the best way for us to be with people who grieve is a lot like what Jesus did for his friends Martha and Mary, the non-miraculous work, that is. We listen to them. We allow them to name their experience. We share our feelings. We weep with them. We show up and walk with them as it all sinks in, and the grief waves roll on, and their brains change. We hold onto hope when the future cannot be seen. We trust that at the right time, in the right way, they will come out. May it be so. Amen.
Berly McCoy. “How Your Brain Copes with Grief and Why It Takes Time to Heal,” NPR Science and Health, Dec. 20, 2021. Accessed online at npr.org
Adrian A. Fletcher. “Honoring Grief and Coping with Loss” in Psychology Today, August 9, 2022. Accessed online at psychologytoday.org.
Meda Stamper. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, April 10, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, April 6, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw. “Commentary on John 11:1-45” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.