It’s a bizarre text – a segment of a text really – that leaves questions and holes and unsatisfying feelings, and ends, prematurely, on this strange happy note.
It reminds me a lot of the realities of funerals. The realities of death.
Death is never easy for the living. I can’t speak for those who have gone before us. I don’t know what it is like for someone once they are dead. We perhaps come close to some explanations or feelings in those who have experienced what we have come to label ‘NDEs’. Near-death experiences are often shared in order to explain what it is like “on the other side” – but though there may be similarities in the sharing of these stories, I find it fascinating that there are sometimes incredible differences and nuances in each of them.
I read an incredible story of a near-death experience that tied into this Lazarus story in a way that I hadn’t thought before. Suzanne Guthrie shared this article with The Christian Century in March of 2005. She wrote:
I didn’t want to come back. My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney. It was all over, I thought. The last sensation I remembered had been incomprehensible pain, then a tunnel, and a grinding noise as described in other ‘near death experiences.’ But unlike other people who tell of ‘NDEs,’ I saw no lights, no angels, no dead relatives, no friendly saints; rather, I found myself very much awake in a weightless, imageless, gray hyperreality. I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind.
How did Lazarus feel about coming back? How far had he travelled along the way of clarity, truth and reality in those four days? How deeply had he journeyed into eternal life? How transformed had he become as time and space separated soul from the prison of blood and bone and brain?
I think we all know that death is a reality that stings personally and without remorse. There is a very in-your-face kinds of personal pain and grief that come up, both for the people in this text and for a number of people around us as the text was read this morning. Today can be a difficult day for many people because of what it represents. Today we celebrate All Saints Day; and the names of those who have died that we will read later in the service, the candles that are lit in remembrance, are all representation of serious and real voids for those who have lost loved ones this year and in years previous. Death hurts.
The comfort that I find in today’s text is found in the shortest sentence: Jesus wept.
This seemingly small sentence packs in so much meaning and importance. Because Jesus, despite knowing that he could raise Lazarus from the grip of death… God, breaks down over the death of his friend and weeps very real human tears. Jesus was broken open, groaning so deep inside of himself, and so stirred up with emotions that it all comes bubbling up and over and these tears pour down his face.
Even God cried.
God gets broken in heart and spirit, and death affects Jesus just as much as it does us.
But Jesus came to the tomb, not just to grieve at the loss of a friend, but to share the power of God and God’s ability to overcome even our greatest brokenness and sadness. Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you would trust in me, you would see the glory of God?”
Jesus prayed and thanked God, then reconnected and restored Lazarus to this earthly life. He commanded the people to unbind him, and let him go.
How I think we sometimes wish the story simply ended there! The miracle of raising the dead – some might say, the most impressive of Christ’s actions. But then, I imagine that some people are left with a number of questions like Suzanne and I. How did Lazarus feel about the whole thing? What did Lazarus get let go to do?
I must admit that I have always disliked that the gospel lesson ends here, because it paints a false picture. The story didn’t end there.
What Jesus did in raising Lazarus and sharing with the world that God is so powerful, that Jesus, the Son of God is so powerful, was incredibly dangerous. Jesus showed the world that his power was the power of God –
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this one his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So form that day on they planned to put him to death.
So the chief priests planned to kill Jesus; they perhaps believed that his death would be the end of the whole stinking mess.
The power of God said otherwise.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.… It is done”
They may have thought that a death on a cross would break Jesus. They may have thought that sealing Jesus Christ in a tomb would contain him.
But it didn’t. Christ rose from a death offered to the whole world, all of creation, and all of God’s children.
It is done.
And yet, here we remain: life lived out full of that promise of God’s love – a time and place full of suffering and tears. Of hatred and pain and death and crying.
It’s an in-between time of sadness and hope, of tears and of joy.
And like a fairly stereotypical Lutheran pastor, I find that I like this in-between place.
We know that there are many beautiful and good things about our world. But we also live with the reality that this world is seriously broken, and in some cases, downright evil. Our reading from Revelation proclaims that there will come a day when everything will be put right and we will all be made whole again, and God will be with us. But for now we contend with days that bring pain and scars and wounds that we carry, waiting to be healed. And we cry.
“In the in-between time there are tears. No matter how sure we are of God’s promises and how strong our hopes are, God’s people will still be moved to tears.” When it says in our gospel reading that Jesus wept, that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled – it means that Jesus was wracked with pain, that Jesus was shaken to the very core of his being. It is okay to cry.
Now, I’m not a polite crier.
I am a messy, messy, crier. I am fond of telling people that: “It’s not pretty, and I don’t like doing it,” because I don’t like to cry in public. It unsettles people, and that makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable for other people’s discomfort.
I think we get uncomfortable when people cry. And we aren’t really sure what to do. We mutter under our breath that it’s too bad that those people can’t keep it together. We tease people who seem to tear up at the drop of a hat. Crying makes us uncomfortable.
But, you know, there are many times when I am moved to tears. And I am comforted in the knowledge that Jesus, upon arriving at this scene of mourning, wasn’t uncomfortable and didn’t admonish the tears. Jesus wept. He cried with them.
Maybe we should weep more. Weep for the sacrifice of Jesus. Weep for the love of God. Weep for our sin and our forgiveness. Weep for the poor, the dying, the dead. Weep for the frightened, the lonely, the lost, the ignored and oppressed. Weep for our world, that we are taught to feel shame at showing such a strong emotion.
Because I think if we were to open ourselves to this kind of emotion, we would find that our hearts and souls, which we may normally keep close and tightly guarded, would be filled with something much stronger than pain, and crying, and mourning. We would be filled with God. Then we could really live in trust and hope and anticipation of the coming of Christ and the promise of that tangible relationship, and maybe even live that out.
Here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t go and lift Lazarus up and lead him out into the world. Jesus stood at the entrance to the tomb and called out to Lazarus. It was Lazarus who acted, who moved, who came out of the tomb to join Jesus.
God’s action in our lives is only part of the equation. A really, really big part, and the most incredible and amazing part, no doubt. But our belief, our trust in God, is active – requiring action on our part.
Part of that action is to have a day like today where we spend some time thinking about all those who have gone before us and their trusting relationships with God. We celebrate and lift up countless saints of old and of our modern times, who have not died in vain. And acknowledge that even though they have died, they are alive with God.
And the other part of that action is to recognize that in some small way we act out the life and death of our realities in this in-between time daily. We rise, as Luther said, to a new day, freshly borne into life, free of sin and ready to live anew. And we die, as Suzanne Guthrie says, in significant ways: we die to sin, to shame, prejudice, opinion, stagnant ideas – we consciously practice rising from whatever tomb we have holed up into at any given time.
The repetition of this living and dying through our lives is helpful for reminding us of the preciousness of life, the need for us to weep, and the promise to move into a time of great joy and very present, tangible relationship with the one who weeps with us, the one who died for us, and the one who calls us all to live out reconnected and restored lives in a world of in-between time.
Let us pray:
Dear God, we place our hope in your word and promise that one day all things will be made right, that you will dwell with us, and that there will come a day when death will be no more, nor will there be pain and suffering. Until that time, enable us to rise each day to new life, empower us to walk faithfully with you, and encourage us to trust in your call. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 Suzanne Guthrie. “Back to Life (John 11:1-45)”