Tears of Action: All Saints’ Day
Jackson Snyder, based on William G. Carter
John 11:32-44, 1 Corinthians 15:47-48
Teens Attend a Bible Study?
The middle school youth group was going “good.” The advisors, Bob and Bettie, planned a full calendar of events to keep them busy. The youth went bowling, roller-skating and to retreats, sleepovers, ball games and lock-ins. They played a lot of sports, talked about a lot of movies, celebrated every holiday with a party. But when it came to leading the teens to faith, Bob and Bettie were frustrated. They really didn’t know much about the faith-life themselves, much less how to lead others Heavenward.
After church, Bob announced that the group was going to study the Gospel of John. “It’s a good book and we think a church youth group should read it,” he said. Bob’s news was greeted with sighs and boos. But Bob persisted. He gave each kid an assignment. “During the next week, we want you to flip through John until you find a verse that means something to you. Memorize the verse. Next week, you’ll recite it for the rest of the group.”
Attendance the next week was way down, but the few who dared come were prepared. They went around the circle, starting with Diane. “My verse is John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Bettie asked why she picked that verse. Diane said, “My grandmother said it was important.”
Mark was next. He quoted, “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” When Bettie asked him why he picked that one, Mark said, “I opened my dad’s Bible and saw the words printed in red ink. I figured they must be important.”
Whether they knew it or not, the kids in the group were doing something important. The Gospel of John is full of terse, pithy sayings, like “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” and, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Every page has three or four important truths compressed within the narrative like brilliant diamonds ready to spring forth when the book is opened. In each chapter, the eternal Word of Yahweh is revealed not only in stories but in one-liners. By memorizing these verses, these teens were learning the gospel.
At least it looked that way. Soon it was time for Brad, the preacher’s kid, to recite. Bettie asked him, “Now, Brad, what verse have you memorized?” Brad said, “ John 11:35.” He cleared his throat like he’d heard his old man do. He stood straight up and looked around the group with the stern eye of a midget preacher. Then with a gravity of great importance, he orated, “Jesus wept.”
That about did it. In making fun of his dad with such an insignificant reading, the rest of the kids cracked up while Bob and Bettie tried to get back in control. Bob said, “Brad, why’d you pick that verse?” With perfect logic, Brad replied, “It’s the shortest verse in the Bible.”
Two words only: “Jesus wept.” These two words seem insignificant compared to other verses. The Gospel of John often reveals it’s gems in single sentences, but the sentence “Jesus wept” doesn’t seem too profound, even when the New Revised Standard Version expands it to four words (“Jesus began to weep”).
“Jesus wept” occurs in the story of the death of Lazarus, a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus. Lazarus was the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 11:5). More than a servant or an acquaintance or a disciple, Jesus calls him a “friend” (John 11:11). Yet now his friend is dead. He was neither sleeping nor hiding out of sight. Lazarus is stone cold in a tomb. Had Jesus come sooner, Lazarus might’ve been healed. But by the time Jesus reaches Bethany, it’s too late.
The death of this friend prompts Jesus’ tears. His tears look just like ours. You and I’ve shed such tears during recent committal services in the cemetery right behind this building. (In the last year, we’ve put two beloved members to ‘rest’ with tears. On All Saints, we rejoice in knowing that we’ll see saints like Flora Stuckey and Louise Kelly on the great day when tears of grief become tears of joy.) Yet it’s comforting to know that, at graveside, Jesus is as human as the rest of us (and sharing our grief on those days).
We want to know our Father in Heaven is compassionate and that the Mighty One of Israel suffers with us. When people gathered outside the tomb of Lazarus, some see these tears and say, “See how Jesus loved him” (John 11:36). At the point of human brokenness, and we have each reached that point many times in our lives, it should be a comforting thought to know the Holy and Almighty One sympathizes and suffers with us. And hopefully we’ll stay attune to his presence during such times. Hopefully. . .
But wait a minute. His tears have led lots of preachers to the assumption that Jesus was overcome by grief. Others outside the same tomb said, “Couldn’t Jesus have kept his friend from dying in the first place? If so, isn’t there something mighty curious about his tears?” The answers to the questions are “yes” and “yes.” Both Martha and Mary knew. Each came to Jesus and said exactly the same thing, “Master, if only you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” They knew Jesus’ ability. They knew he could do whatever he wanted. But he didn’t prevent their brother from crossing over, though he could have.
That suggests a second explanation for his tears. According to the story, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Literally speaking, “he was over the top with righteous anger and churning inside.” His tears may have been from anger! ¿Was he mad because he was disgusted with human unbelief? No, Martha said she believed. Was he mad at himself for not arriving soon enough? No, Jesus acts on his Father’s timetable. Maybe he was beside himself at the destructive, demonic forces that brought Lazarus down. For elsewhere in John, Jesus says, “I have come to bring life, and to bring it in abundance.” Yet people still die. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus wept tears of righteous anger as well as of grief.
In a little town in Pennsylvania, a twenty-year-old man drank a little too much one Saturday night. While driving home, he flipped his Jeep and it burst into flames. The young man died horribly. Four days later, the funeral was subdued. At the graveside service, however, his two brothers suddenly began to weep and wail, then they began to pound their fists on the casket. One of them shouted at the top of his lungs, “Jesus Christ, it ain’t right! It ain’t fair! It ain’t right at all!” In the name of the giver of life, the dead man’s brother spoke the absolute truth. Death is never right and seldom fair.
In this light, “Jesus wept” sounds more like words of resistance than grief. His tears announce how wrong it is for loved ones to die prematurely. His tears, as it were, shake an angry fist at the forces of evil and destruction, and cry out for justice and divine restoration. When Jesus wept he stood tall against the ways of death in an act of holy resistance. William Billings, the famous eighteenth century hymn writer, put it this way:
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
In mercy flowed beyond all bound;
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
Seized all the guilty world around.
The world was put on notice when Jesus arrived in Bethany that day. He wept tears of sympathy, choosing to associate himself with those who mourn. He wept tears of indignation, affirming death as a common enemy. Yet the good news is that Jesus wept tears of action. It was not enough for him to weep over the world’s pain or to distinguish between Yah’s way and the ways of the world. Jesus committed himself to making a difference in the face of death – the greatest amount of difference that he could possibly make. He arrived in Bethany to offer a way out for those who don’t know any way out. And he proved his offer to be good by this enduring sign – the sign of the Beloved Lazarus.
The Gospel of John says Jesus acted, but only on his terms and only according to his timetable. When he heard Lazarus was ill, Jesus didn’t drop everything and rush to his bedside. Instead he worked for two days longer to finish the job his Father had assigned him. By the time he went to Bethany, Lazarus had been in the grave four days. Jesus seemed strangely free from gushy sentiments or emotional entanglements. He went on his own initiative, not in response to an announcement in the paper or to a personal request or out of duty to the family or respect for the dead. Rather, he went to embody the gracious initiative of the Creator Yahweh, who moves us-ward even before we ask his help, who loves us even before we love him, who comes to bring abundant life even before we’re taken captive by Death.
What’s more, the writer of John insists Jesus already knew what he was going to do. He knew Lazarus would die. He knew his Father’s power would be revealed by raising Lazarus up. Most of all, Jesus knew the resurrection would set in motion the events leading up to his own death. In Jerusalem, the high council huddled in fear, terrified of Roman “involvement.” The high priest even prophesied, “It’s better that one man die so we might be saved.”
Jesus knew this, too, and he chose death so that we might never taste its finality. As he says elsewhere:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:11,18).
It was Jesus’ choice to give or withhold his life.
Tears to Blood
When he wept, his tears anticipate that pitiful moment before he himself was led to slaughter -- that Gethsemane moment -- when he sweat great drops of blood. By choosing to bring Lazarus out, Jesus chose to go in. The One who invited disciples to “come and see” supernatural works “came and saw” within that tomb the inevitable consequences of such works –fatal consequences! With tears of action, Jesus gives the gift of his life for you, for me, for the world. Through the tears of his crucifixion, we’re baptized into the eternal life of his resurrection. Hallelujah! I know I shall be saved from the finality of death because he lives. Eternal life is a free gift. We participate in eternal life by trusting Jesus and living our earthly life in his footsteps, yoked together with him in his joyful service.
Reflecting on Lazarus’ resurrection, Episcopalian priest Robert Capon writes:
Jesus never meets a corpse that doesn’t sit up right on the spot. They all rise not because Jesus does a number on them, not because he puts some magical resurrection machinery into gear, but simply because he has that effect on the dead. They rise because he is the Resurrection even before he himself rises -- because, in other words, he is the grand sacrament, the real presence, of the mystery of a kingdom in which everybody, everybody, everybody rises. (The Parables of Judgment)
You Only Live Twice
Lazarus died. Jesus raised him back to life. Lazarus died again later on at the hands of those who killed Jesus, but Jesus raised him up once again. This is the good news: in all of our deadness and death, Yahweh in Yahshua raises us up and fills us with the life of eternity – he makes us like one of the stars – a burning immortal light in the firmament of his eternal sky. Our hope is not merely a dream of resurrection on the last day, but a kind of life that begins today in faith and continues on, far beyond the tomb – for, my friend, you will never see your own tomb. Trust me; when your old body is dying, your tombstone is the last thing you’ll think of. It will be of absolutely no importance to you whatsoever. Hopefully, your final thoughts in this body will be in regards to eternity.
Receiving the gift of everlasting life is pretty easy. All we need is to take it from the One who told Martha and Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.” (Rodney Nance is taking that step today in being baptized. This is his show of commitment to following Jesus to the cross and beyond. It helps us to remember that Jesus insisted, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3)).
“Believest thou this?” Then take your gift and go your way without worrying about death or the demise of your loved ones who already have this gift. If they’re truly saved, please quit worrying. Yahweh has a hold of them – they’re in his charge. Instead, take your gift and unpack it, then spend your days marveling in its great value with tears of joy rather than tears of grief or indignation or distrust of G-d. For now with the saints of all ages you have the right to address death personally:
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55).
“Believest thou this?”
November 1, 2003,