The following reflection is taken from a sermon entitled “Jesus Cried” based on John 11.32-44, delivered on October 30, 1994 at Cochranton Presbyterian.
Our faith lives on the conviction that in Jesus Christ, God enters human life, transforming it forever. The spirit of God inhabits human flesh. Jesus Christ: fully human, fully God.
Our faith has struggled when we have failed to affirm these two truths. Some lean too heavily on the human side of Jesus, claiming he was a great moral teacher, a model for our lives, a human example for us to follow. They fail to respect the power of God in him. Some lean too heavily on the divine side of Christ, pointing to his miracles, his healing touch, his victory over sin and death. They overlook his pain, his joy, his laughter and his tears.
Our Gospel lesson provides a wonderful illustration of Jesus Christ as fully human, fully divine.
First, Jesus is sent a message that his friend, Lazarus, has died. At first he denies it, and goes about his business. Finally, he arrives at Bethany. He discovers the truth. Lazarus is dead. His sister, Martha goes to meet Jesus and, with the rage of grief, yells at him.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Still, she has faith, “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha professes her faith in Jesus, her absolute trust that the power of God in him can conquer anything, even death.
Jesus continues towards the village. Mary greets him with the same words as her sister, only with more sad disappointment than rage, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus sees her crying, along with others. Our text reads, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
“Greatly disturbed” is a loose translation for a word that appears only two other times in reference to Jesus. On both occasions, it is used as a verb to describe what Jesus does to prevent word about his healing touch from spreading. Barclay translates this as “straightly charged.” It is “giving a stern command.” It is a verb which connotes anger.
But why would Jesus be angry?
This anger, I think, is an expression of the grief Jesus feels over the death of his friend. Grief has a way of moving us through a wide range of emotions. First we try to deny it, then we become angry. Jesus, fully human, struggles through these stages of grief, just as we do.
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. They show him. The sight of the open cave with the body of his friend laid out was too much for him. His stern expression melted and he cried.
For some, these tears were an expression of care, the compassion Jesus felt for a friend. For others, they were an expression of weakness which confused them. How could this powerful healer be overcome with emotion?
Here is the place where the human and the divine meet. The human Jesus is overcome with sorrow over the loss of a friend. The divine Christ enters the cave and restores life to Lazarus.
This miracle poses two great challenges for believers today. First, there is the challenge of belief. We don’t understand how this happens. The Gospels record three resurrections God performs through Jesus. The two others happen immediately after death. Given the way ancient people viewed life and death, these could have been resuscitation rather than resurrections. But the raising of Lazarus leaves no doubt. Lazarus was certainly dead. Jesus entered the cave of his dead friend and restored his life.
This is a hard truth to accept. It is even more difficult to explain, in a “Culture of Disbelief.” No scientific or historical explanation is possible. We simply present the mystery of the resurrection, knowing that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not limited to the laws of nature. God lies beyond our capacity to understand. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
A deeper challenge, I think, is the challenge of a faithful response. I have said to some of you that I think the church, in practice, often fails to believe in the resurrection.
If we believe in the resurrection, we would not feel the need to maintain programs long after they’ve ceased to be useful. We could let them die, confident that God brings new life.
If we believed in the resurrection, we could let go of brothers and sisters in faith who have left and found a new church home, confident that God brings new life to them, and us.
If we believed in the resurrection, we could give up our hopes of bringing back glory days and look forward to God doing a new thing in our midst.
When we cling to our past, when being keepers of tradition gets in the way of doing mission, we fail to believe in the resurrection.