““Jesus wept.” If you want to memorize a verse of scripture, you can pick this one, the shortest verse in the Bible. In fact, you’ve got your scripture verse for the day memorized already, and it’s not even 9:30 yet. Well done! But it’s actually a wonderful verse to remember, because it shows us that when we feel grief or pain, we have a God who weeps with us. Not a god of stoicism, not a god of cold remoteness, not even a god of perky smiley-face cheer-up positive attitude-ism. When we face loss or pain or struggle, we know that we have a God who weeps with us. Jesus wept.
Not only that, but Jesus is not afraid to show his emotions in public. He is not afraid of that deep vulnerability that comes with showing you are hurt, when the tears make your face blotchy and your nose runs and you lose your composure and you can’t talk anymore. Jesus wept.
So much of our lives is spent avoiding pain. The fight or flight reflex is one of our most basic impulses left over from the days when humans faced predators in the wild. And even in 21st century American society we still seek to avoid pain. We procrastinate on difficult conversations, even with people we love, maybe especially with people we love, for fear of getting hurt. Our attempts to control other people, whether those attempts at control are overt or subtle, are attempts to keep them from hurting or rejecting us. Even our anger is a hard shell we develop around the wounds in our heart, to protect our hearts from getting hurt again.
And we try hard not to notice that the longer the shell of our anger remains, the less able our heart is to heal, and the less able our heart is to love. We try hard not to notice that even when we succeed at making other people do what we want, we have not found intimacy or even friendship. We try hard not to notice that the longer we avoid the hard work of relationship, the less able our heart is to love, and to be loved.
But, as John specifically tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” And so, when Martha and Mary feel pain, Jesus is not afraid to feel pain too. When Martha and Mary weep, Jesus is not afraid to weep too. Hearts are made to be broken, as Hemingway said. I expect that only a heart that is able to be broken is a heart capable of genuine love.
And so Jesus enters the sadness of Mary and Martha, and allows himself to feel their loss and grief and pain, and allows himself to weep. We celebrate the incarnation at Christmas, and rightly so, but it takes on more meaning at this time of the year as God increasingly takes on the vulnerability of human existence, human emotion, human tears. And I have the sense that Jesus’ ability to work miracles is not in spite of this vulnerability, but because of it. As we saw in last week’s gospel of the healing of the blind man, Jesus makes miracles with dirt and spit. In this one, Jesus is willing to cry the tears of grief and to smell the stench of death.
The personal sadness of two obscure women in a little village who are dealing with something as common as death is so important that it justifies reducing the king of the universe to tears. Why? Because Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
When Jesus tells Martha “your brother will rise again,” she of course assumes that he is talking about heavenly things, and so she replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” It is a logical response and a faithful response.
But what happens next is that Jesus tells her, in effect, no, resurrection isn’t just something that’s going to happen in heaven or in the distant future on the last day. Jesus tells her, resurrection is going to happen here and now.
In some ways that may be the hardest part of Christianity to take in, the idea that God is not safely distant and remote, a benign presence that we will meet only after we die. And yet the gospels keep insisting that the most transcendent holiness does enter our world of dirt and tears and flesh and pain and grief in full humanity. This weeping Jesus with the women in Bethany, next to the stench of the corpse, is the scandal of particularity, and it is easy to reject it, as either blasphemy or a myth that’s too good to be true. If this messy scene is what intimacy with God looks like we’re not quite comfortable with it.
Rather than a remote spiritual concept of resurrection, we have a human being saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” And not only that, this Jesus goes further, to ask for a response: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And, by the grace of God, Martha responds, “Yes, Lord.”
Because Jesus is not afraid to come into the pain, he is able to say to Lazarus, “come out.” And the dead man came out. Since he has strips of cloth around his hands and feet, and his face wrapped in a cloth, Jesus says simply, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
We may think of miracles as happening with radiant light or chiming bells, as if the world Jesus lived in looked like a stained glass window. The gospels present miracles that come out of mess and pain and bad smells and tears. I expect that once you finally stop trying to flee from pain or fight against pain, and simply enter the pain with love, it loses its power over you. And those are the places where miracles happen. Because Jesus is not afraid to feel the depths of human pain, his love can go into the grave and call to Lazarus, “Come out!” He can call forth life in Lazarus, set Lazarus in motion, and then free him in those simple words, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
During my time in South Carolina, people often asked me the very reasonable question, “Why are you here?” And when I am in Virginia people often ask me, “How did you end up at St. Stephen’s Heathsville?” And I normally give them very reasonable mundane answers, which are true as far as they go. But the deeper reasons are a little harder to articulate, and don’t fit quite so well into small talk after an introduction to someone you’ve just met. The real answer to both questions would probably be, “I want to be where the miracles happen.” I have a gut sense that the places where people face their deepest fears with faith, and feel their deepest pain with love, and tell their deepest truth with honesty are often the places where God works miracles. And if I get something that looks like it might be an opportunity to attend a resurrection, I want to show up. I want to hang out with the resurrection people.
It may be that what makes us think that miracles can’t happen is our fear that they are too good to be true. We think it is our limitations that are absolute. Still, there may be a deeper voice inside each of us that says the existence of miracles is too good to be false. It is the voice that tells us the most powerful force in the universe is not the force of our limitations. The ultimate force in the universe is the power of God.
Yes, pain and grief are some of the parts of human life, and so it is good to remember:
“Jesus wept.” But that’s not the end of the story.
We can also remember the words of Martha: “I believe.” Faith.
We can remember the words of Jesus: “Come out.” Resurrection.
We can remember the words of Jesus: “Unbind him.” Freedom.