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Finding Jesus in Tears

Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

A Sermon on John 11:1-45

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

[photo credit: Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash]

When I was in college, I had the chance to take a study trip to the Holy Land. It was amazing to get to see with my own eyes so many of the places that had witnessed the great events of scripture, and to walk on the same ground that Moses, King David, and Jesus and his disciples had walked. But one biblical location was left off the itinerary: the town of Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had lived.

This bothered me. I wanted to see the place the Jesus had raised his friend from the dead! So, with all the confidence of a sheltered, 19-year-old college student, I made arrangements for my own visit. I researched which bus to take from our student housing in Jerusalem, talked another student into using a rare free day to make the trip with me (for safety’s sake), and off we went.

I was excited… and a bit naive.

Travelling on public transportation in Israel was very different than travelling on our student tour bus. At one point the bus stopped in order to be boarded by Israeli soldiers, with machine guns slung over their shoulders, who checked the documents of everyone on the bus. As I fumbled for my passport, I couldn’t take my eyes of the guns. I felt exposed and unprotected. My bubble of unquestioned security had been abruptly popped, and it was deeply unsettling.

So, when we finally arrived in Bethany, I was primed and ready for a powerful spiritual experience. My emotions were keyed up by the confrontation with my own vulnerability. I wanted to justify the trip and experience the solace of finding God at the grave side.

Instead, what we found, was a generic stone courtyard with a dingy orange sign for “Lazarus tomb” and a dark doorway into an even darker underground room. There was no profound echo of the power of the resurrection there. There were just old stones, and shadows, and a vague sense of disrepair.

It was NOT what I had been looking for. I had been looking for transcendence, not for the unexceptional. I had wanted an encounter with the Divine, not with my own vulnerability.

But looking back at that experience from the context of our current encounter with physical, social, and economic vulnerability, I think I missed an important lesson in that unimpressive memorial. There is value in an un-curated encounter with the very mundane REALNESS of the places that Jesus has done exceptional things. Because that’s where we most need God to work in our own lives, in the mundane, real places of our own lives.

I think that, perhaps, what we need most from the story of Lazarus is a connection to the utterly human parts of the story… to the raw grief … to the unadorned gravestone … to the worries about how bad the dead body would smell. In fact, those are the parts of the story that felt comforting to me this week, as I re-read this familiar story from the new perspective of preaching in the midst of pandemic. From this new perspective, all of the theological language about Lazarus’ illness “leading not to death but to God’s glory,” and about “walking in the light, so that we don’t stumble” and even about Jesus being “the resurrection and the life”… it all feels a bit disconnected and unhelpful.

To be frank, I even got a little irritated with Jesus this week, for spouting all of this unintelligible and emotionally-distant teaching while people are begging him for help and crying out their grief. The first half of the story felt a little TOO divine… sure Jesus has the perspective of eternity to reassure him, but the people he was talking to – the disciples, and Lazarus’ sisters – they were just human beings facing the devastation of mortality. They didn’t need a theology lesson in their midst of their crisis! They needed a human connection. They needed God to recognize and respond to their pain and fear.

In the same way, I suspect that what we need in the middle of escalating death tolls, and inconsistent protective protocols, and uncertainty about when this nightmare will finally be over… is the assurance that God is NOT standing at a distance pontificating about theoretical resurrection. What we need is a God who is draws near to our fear and joins us in our isolation.

We need a Jesus who is a little less transcendent and a little more accessible.

Thankfully, despite all of the flowery theological language of John’s gospel, in the end, that vulnerable, close, human Jesus IS here for us in this story: When we finally get to the heart of the story – it’s not the theology that matters… it’s the tears.

“When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him,” Lord, come and see.’” And then…”Jesus began to weep.”

The tears of Jesus are what I need this week.

The tears of Jesus invite me to stop railing against my vulnerability, and the vulnerability of the people, and the church, and the country that I love.

The tears of Jesus wash away the lie that everything is fine, or that it’s a failure of faith to feel anxious, or overwhelmed, or afraid.

The tears of Jesus open up the space to admit that where I really need God to show up for me is NOT in some profound, mystical, spiritual experience – where I need God to show up is in my real life!

I need God to be there for me in my grief for the loss of my routines and sense of safety, and in the frustrations of zoom calls, and in the challenges of suddenly home-schooling, and in the unpreparedness of our health care system, and in the horrors of people hording and price gouging, and in my mourning that I don’t get to hold your hands, or see your smiles, or feel your hugs.

I need God in the unspectacular but oh-so-real moments of daily life.

I need Jesus to cry, so that I can cry too. Because naming the pain – letting myself feel it - is an ESSENTIAL part of healing.

When we decided to focus on the four-fold-path of forgiveness as our Lenten theme this year, I had NO IDEA how much we might all need the wisdom of that practice to face an unprecedented global crisis. But now that we are here, it feels like God’s blessed provision for our community. The four-fold path is a guide to healing – even to resurrection, in a way. But that path recognizes that we can’t skip any of the steps on the way to new life. We have to be willing to feel our pain before we can move past it.

I don’t think anything illustrates that truth more clearly that the image of Jesus weeping before Lazarus’s tomb. He knew the end of the story. He knew that in just a moment, he would pray and God would raise Lazarus from the dead.

But still, he wept. Still he joined in the vulnerability of all those who grieve. Still he faced the pain that is an essential part of what it is to be human. And that, more so, even, than in Lazarus’ resurrection, is where I find hope in this story this week.

In Jesus’ tears I have the connection with God that I was looking for all those years in Bethany, albeit in a very different form. In Jesus’s tears I have the absolute assurance of God’s presence in the vulnerability of my real life. I have the assurance that I can face the pains and the fears that make ME cry.

Because I have the assurance that - even in social isolation - I will NEVER be alone.

Thanks be the God.

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