November 1, 2009
When I was in Sunday School many years ago in a small country church in Iowa we sometimes had to memorize Bible verses. I wasn't very good at it and always wished I could get John 11:35 as my verse to memorize because I had already noticed that it is the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. What I didn't notice then was the poignancy of it. And of course I never considered all that it might mean. At the time it seemed perfectly natural to me that Jesus would weep. At that age there had never been a time when my life was not at home in the church and my childhood church was so warm and sweet that I always felt at home there then. And as a result of that and one excellent Sunday School teacher, Bess Riepe, who encouraged me to question the Bible stories and engaged me in lively conversation so that the characters of the Bible stories were familiar to me like old every day friends including Jesus. Of course Jesus could cry. He was one of us. Sometimes we cried ourselves (though we tried to keep that to ourselves) and we in our innocence had no idea at the time how many more tears the adventure of life would demand. We had no idea what we were getting into.
When I was in Sunday School Jesus wept was a nice short Bible verse that I could memorize. I had no idea that it would take up residence in my own heart.
There is, of course, now that we are all grown up, much speculation about this little verse. Why did Jesus weep? The narrative seems to say that he wept for his friend who died. This is what people do when their friend dies and my guess is that for Jesus, who by now was a public figure surrounded by everybody wanting to be his new friend for what they could get from him, having a friend from the old days before he was famous who was like a brother to him would have been especially devastating even to Jesus, perhaps especially to Jesus, who presumably needed the intimacy of a friend who loved him not for what could be gained from him but because he loved him for himself, for who he was before anybody knew who he was.
There is some evidence that his friends death may have been unexpected. I believe as the story goes he had been told of Lazarus' illness and had even said that his illness was not unto death. It even goes so far as to say that he lingered a couple of days, lingered, before going. Some read this to say that it was all about proving the power of God to raise the dead but that does not explain the tears.
Perhaps the question that his critics asked wondering out loud why if Jesus had such power he didn't spare his friend from dying. Why didn't he stop it? Perhaps Jesus himself is wondering the same thing about God the father, why didn't he stop it? Perhaps his tears were every death and every dying, a moment of revelation about the fact of human life that says they who live must also die. Maybe his tears were for humanity, for all who must die, for all those who depended on him to stop the dying not understanding what God was doing in his life, for the alienation he must have felt standing alone even among his closest friend, standing alone before death with what he knew of life.
Or maybe it was this death, this particular death of his friend, not every death but this one death as real as Lazarus. As Buechner put it, death not as a distant darkness that his great faith was light enough to see him through; death not as a universal condition; but death as this death and darkness which he saw written across the swollen faces of the two women who stood before him. Whatever Jesus may at other moments have seen as rising bright as hope beyond it, at this particular moment death was a darkness he had no heart to see beyond.
Some have said that his tears may also have been for himself. Perhaps he knew that in raising his friend Lazarus from death he was condemning himself to death. It is said that this was the last straw for the authorities who feared his power would undercut their own power and status. Perhaps it was the loneliness of death, his own dying and the leaving and not coming back to what he had so far known, that moved him to tears.
It seems that there may have been some doubt as well that God would answer his prayer to unbind his friend and let him go. His prayer is revealing of one who is himself surprised by what God can do. Some have even said that he did Lazarus no favors. He would no have to go through it all over again, the living and the dying, the temporary sojourn of uncertainty and grief blessed also with love and hope, what we call in a word life.
Those same people who wondered out loud why Jesus simply didn't keep Lazarus from dying would be the same voices who might cry out and wonder why doesn't God do away with death all together and save us all such grief but what would life be without death? Somebody once compared the difference between life as we know it and life with out death to the difference between plastic flowers and real living flowers. Real living flowers die but their temporary beauty cannot even be compared to the eternal plastic life of plastic flowers. When we finally get it that we will die, we also get what this life we are living is worth, the value, the beauty of it is beyond measure for we don't even know how much we have.
Perhaps Jesus wept for the beauty of life itself, wept for us and the beauty that we too often miss distracted by the concerns of existence, too busy existing to live life, the beauty of it, fragile and prone to pain but brightly shining for a moment in time with love and glory and every good thing even the hope that the dying itself is not the end of it but only something new and even more wonderful if we dare to believe it.
Jesus wept and we don't really know what was on his heart in that moment but in the end it could well have been the weight of the world in need of salvation that broke his heart because he knew that what would have to happen could hardly be borne even by him who was sent to bear it. I will give the final word to my old friend Frederick Buechner:
"If death was to be truly defeated, it was only by dying himself that Jesus believed he could defeat it. If he was to reach the hearts of men, it was only by suffering his own heart to be broken on their behalf that he believed he could reach them. To heal the sick and restore sight to the blind; to preach good news to the poor and liberty to the captives; to wear himself out with his endless teaching and traveling the whole length and breadth of the land—it had not worked because it was not enough. There had to be more. 'He set his face to go to Jerusalem,' the Gospel says, and it was a journey from which he seems to have known that he would both never return and return always even unto the end of time and beyond."
He died for all the dying, for those who have gone before us, for those we love, for ourselves, for every generation to come. No wonder he wept. And his tears join ours with blessing for if we are still and pay attention we may find as I did as a child so long ago, without even knowing what I found, the close and familiar presence of a real every day friend who is also the Savior of the world.
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