Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 28, 2014
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; John 11:32-44
This line from John’s gospel is famously known as the shortest verse in the bible.
(For centuries, when told to pick one verse from the Bible to memorize and recite in front of the congregation, savvy Sunday School children have chosen this verse…for obvious reasons).
Two simple words that say so much - about grief, about anger and frustration, about the experience of being human, about the nature of this man whom we call Jesus - Lord – Savior - God.
When he lost his beloved friend Lazarus, Jesus wept.
When he felt the brunt of Mary and Martha’s anger because he had allowed their brother to die, Jesus wept.
When he saw the pain etched in the faces of the mourners surrounding Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept.
Grief. Anger. Empathy.
We’ve all wept in their presence.
And while the culmination of this story involves a divine intervention – with Lazarus resurrected and retuned to the living – the fact that it takes awhile to get there is where many of us find meaning in this gospel story.
What happens before the miracle – before Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb - is where we find God intervening in our world in a very real and visible way.
This morning we heard the last 12 verses of the story of Lazarus, but the writer of John’s gospel takes 45 verses to tell the whole story.
In verse one, we’re told that Lazarus is sick.
In verse three, Mary and Martha send a messenger to inform Jesus.
In verse four, Jesus hears the news.
Yet it isn’t until verse thirty-eight that Jesus finally arrives at the tomb.
In between we encounter erroneous assumptions, unmet expectations, unacknowledged pain, and misplaced blame.
In other words, a typical family gathering for many of us.
Jesus receives Mary and Martha’s message, and two days go by before he tells his disciples that Lazarus is ill.
At that time he very cryptically tells them,
“Let’s go to Judea for Lazarus has fallen asleep.”
To which the disciples reply, “Have you forgotten that they tried to stone you in Judea? Why on earth would we go back? To rouse a sleeping man?”
Finally, Jesus reveals that Lazarus is not sleeping, he is in fact dead, and they must travel back to Judea to witness his miraculous resurrection all made possible by the glory of God.
But while Jesus and his disciples argue over travel plans and get bogged down in semantics, back in Bethany, Mary and Martha are burying their brother.
The miracle they had prayed for did not happen.
Jesus did not come.
So they wrap their brother’s body in clean white sheets and anoint him with oils as their tears rain down and their chests heave under the weight of their sobs.
Four days later, when they finally see Jesus coming up the road they are not happy to see him.
We might imagine them running headlong into him, their fists pounding on his chest as they scream, “Why! Why did you not come when we called?
If you had been here, Lord, our brother would not have died.”
How many of us have said the same in the face of loss?
“Why God? Why did you let this happen?”
When something in our life has gone horribly wrong we want the God we read about in the Bible to intervene and make things right.
The God that parted the Red Sea and brought forth water from a rock.
The God that appears in burning bushes and pillars of dust.
The God that heals the sick and raises the dead.
That’s the God we want by our side. The God of miracles.
Not the God of platitudes.
Not the God who “needed another angel in heaven.”
Not the God who “closes one door and opens another.”
Not the God who “never gives us more than we can handle.”
When Mary and Martha meet Jesus on the road and cover him with tears of sadness and frustration they’re no longer looking for a miracle.
It’s too late for that.
They’re angry that their guaranteed connection to God – this prophet called Jesus, their beloved teacher and friend - has failed to come through in their hour of need.
As they pound on Jesus’ chest and then fall to their knees, we might imagine him taking hold of their flailing arms and pulling them into his embrace… holding them tightly and calming them as he asks them where they have laid their brother to rest.
In this case Jesus knew God had a plan, and everything was playing out according to that plan.
But when he saw Mary and Martha – with their unrestrained rage and pain, and their lack of awareness that he had the ability to set things right –
Jesus began to weep.
The tears flowed out of him just as they flow out of us.
Tears of sadness, frustration, and empathy.
This is the ball of entangled emotions that rises up from within us when we grieve.
Anger, denial, depression, bargaining, guilt, blame –
These emotions spill out of us and our loved ones as we come together in the wake of a loss, and as each of us comes to terms with the loss in our own way and in our own time.
There is no avoiding it.
If we choose to love in life, we will experience grief.
Even Jesus, who supposedly knew that Lazarus would soon walk out of the tomb fully alive, succumbed to the pull of his humanity… and he wept.
This is the Easter story – the Christian story - seen through a human lens.
We believe resurrection is coming, we believe new life awaits us all in the end, we believe death is not a period, but a comma, marking the transition between one life and the next…
...and yet we still grieve, we still mourn what we have lost.
The culmination of this outpouring of emotion and many hours, months, years of grief work, is acceptance – a personal resurrection of sorts – where we walk out of the tomb, shake off our shroud, and gradually open our eyes to the light of day.
When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, Jesus said,
“Unbind him and let him go.”
In much the same way, our grief eventually loosens its grip on us and we feel freer in our ability to function and move about in the world.
This kind of resurrection is not instantaneous, it’s not miraculous, and it doesn’t involve God swooping down to part the expansive sea before us or raise our loved ones from the dead.
But it does involve God’s unyielding and unwavering presence in our lives.
God is in the fiery cloud and the burning bush.
But God is also in the tears of those who grieve with us,
in the arms of friends who embrace us, and in the quiet presence of those who simply sit with us, knowing that there are no magic words or pithy platitudes that can take the pain away.
If Jesus is God’s presence here on earth, it is telling that BEFORE he raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead - before he did anything - Jesus wept.
The GOOD NEWS of the Gospel is that no one stays in the tomb forever.
The GOOD NEWS is that while we’re in there we’re not alone.
God weeps with us.
Take a look around, at the faces and arms and bodies of those sitting next to you.
God has brought us together – with all our gifts and all our flaws.
God moves and acts through us.
We are the burning bush.
We are the pillar of fire.
We are the rock that brings forth water for the thirsty.
We are the hope of the resurrection -
living, breathing proof that love brings new life where it once was lost.
Thanks be to God.