By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 11:1-44
Catholic priest and mystic Richard Rohr writes that for some Christians, the title “Christ” seems to be simply a last name for Jesus. The gospel of John is emphatic in reminding us that the one whom this gospel proclaims is both fully human and fully divine. Sometimes Jews and Muslims have remarked to me that, from their perspective, Christianity does not seem to be a monotheistic religion. It appears, to some at least, that Jesus and God the Father function as two different, though cooperative, gods.
But that is not the faith that we Christians proclaim. Among disciples of Jesus, the historical Jesus and God Almighty are one in the same and if that essential tenant of our faith has never given you pause, or baffled you, or seemed a mystery beyond your ability to explain; well, then it is likely you’ve never given it much thought at all for the implications of that belief change everything.
Now, no story within John’s gospel more powerfully reveals Jesus as God and human than this morning’s story of the dying and raising of Lazarus. Jesus seemed to have had a special relationship with this family. Their home seems to have been a place where he went to relax and unwind. It was his “home away from home;” or perhaps, more truthfully, his home… since all of our gospels reveal Jesus as being continually on the move and never in one place for long. So this was the place Jesus could circle back to for rest and renewal and the simple blessing of food, friends and fellowship. It’s significant also that Bethany, the home of Lazarus, was located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In John’s gospels, Jesus is in and out of Jerusalem multiple times. And, with each trip, he’s getting himself into more and more trouble with the religious establishment. But this morning’s story will be the straw that broke the religious establishment’s back, so to speak. Bringing a dead man back to life is too sensational and controversial to simply ignore. After Lazarus is raised, the religious leaders finalize their plan to put Jesus to death. In fact, they gave considerable thought to killing Lazarus as well; burying the evidence, one might say.
So with that additional background let me return to the theme of this gospel story and this sermon series. We’ve been talking about spiritual practices that have their roots in Judaism. Now a spiritual practice is something we do to strengthen our relationship with Jesus. The title of this morning’s sermon is “Good Grief” and that might seem like an oxymoron. If you have ever lost a loved one, your grief likely wasn’t a very “good” feeling. And even more bizarre might it seem to consider the experience of grief as an opportunity to grow in our relationship with God. But, it is. Painful though it is, grief can draw us closer to God because there ought to be something distinctive about the way Christians grieve. I believe that Christians can grieve in a way that honors their relationship with the deceased and with God and even honors themselves. And this gospel story provides a beautiful model for that.
Jesus, if we take this story seriously, never lost sight of who he was and what he could do; yet that did not prevent him from feeling or expressing grief. While in the presence of Martha, Jesus speaks with strength and courage the truth of our faith: that he is the resurrection and the life and that those who trust in him will never die. Jesus knew his power; he knew his power was greater than the grave. He is one with God the Father and he remains faithful to that relationship. His gospel words that affirm life eternal honor who he is and honor who he is in relationship to God the Father; that they are one and one in their purpose of Jesus coming to grant life to those who are his friends.
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?[i]
Jesus grieved. We see it revealed in his encounter with Mary. His power over death doesn’t diminish the sorrow and the pain he feels within this story. Jesus cries. One word in this story is a rarely occurring Greek word that is not easily defined. It can mean to be upset or agitated, or even angry; a word that spans the semantic gamut for feelings we all experience in the midst of grief. Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Jesus wept… He wept tears for his friends Martha and Mary in their grief; tears over the loss of his friend Lazarus; tears about the frailty of life and the randomness with which it was snuffed out; tears that no one seemed to understand what he was about, much less believe it; tears over the enormity of what he had been given to do and how alone he was.”[ii] Now, I don’t know if Jesus had ALL of those feelings Taylor attributes to him. But one can’t deny that, within this story, Jesus is a bundle of emotions that he doesn’t try to stuff down; he lets them loose in all their messiness to such a degree that he is criticized for it. Preacher Kendall McCabe writes that such weeping “means to identify with another’s pain and sorrow and to admit it as our own. When Jesus wept beside the tomb of Lazarus he was weeping with every person who has ever lost a loved one to the power of death.”[iii] The tears Jesus sheds honor Lazarus and Mary and Martha and the friendship the four of them shared. Jesus’ display of emotions cause some to remark about how much he must have loved Lazarus while others criticize him for not doing more. I mean, he’d made a lame man walk and opened the eyes of a man born blind. Surely Jesus could have done more; could have come through for them a little better and a little sooner.
Friends, the grieving of Jesus provides a pattern for us. When we grieve, we ought never to stuff down our emotions or be influenced by criticism from others. That is, perhaps, an important message for the whole church. Sometimes we try to tell people how they should feel or act in the midst of grief; what they are ready or not ready to do. And sadly, sometimes we use their relationship with Jesus as ammunition to lop at people, telling them how happy they should be that their loved one is now with Jesus. That is good news; but it is good news they might not yet be ready to hear. I have a poster called “Lessons from a Dog.” One of the lessons is this: “When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.”[iv] Now, the nuzzling part might not always apply or be appropriate. But, when someone we love is grieving, perhaps the best we can do for them is to be silent and sit with them.
The experience of Jesus affirms for us the good-ness of grieving. People need to be free to express any and all tangled emotions when someone they love dies. And those emotions, even expressions of anger, are a way for them to grow in their relationship with God. After all, no relationship can grow if we can’t let it all out and speak our minds and our feelings truthfully.
Friends, Easter is coming soon. But first we must journey through Holy Week. It begins next Sunday. It begins with a parade and palms; it concludes with betrayal and death and grief. But Easter is coming; a day when we celebrate not only the power of Jesus over death but when we find comfort in remembering that Jesus knew our grief and our sorrows; that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our journey through the lonesome valley of loss and grief can draw us closer to God; closer to the one who became one of us; the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.[v]
[i] Lyrics from “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” #526 in The United Methodist Hymnal; United Methodist Publishing House; 1989.
[ii] Mixed Blessings by Barbara Brown Taylor. Cowley Publications; Cambridge, Mass; 1998; p. 120
[iii] Dr. Kendall McCabe was my seminary Homilectics Professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton. I had these notes on this story and am certain of their origin; only that they were part of a sermon or lecture given by Dr. McCabe.
[iv] Taken from All I Ever Learned from a Dog by Roger Knapp. http://www.rogerknapp.com/inspire/ilearned.htm
[v] See John 1:14
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