The Good News of Human Tears
A sermon on John 11:1-45.
[and audio recording of this sermon is linked here. Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash.]
When I was in college, I had the chance to take a 3-week study trip to Israel as part of a course on the Geography and History of the Holy Lands.
I got to see so many amazing archeological sites and read scripture stories while looking out on the landscapes where they took place. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
But there was one location I longed to see that was not in our curriculum: the town of Bethany, where today’s story takes place.
We spent a good portion of the trip in Jerusalem, and Bethany is just a short bus-ride away, so I decided I was going to rectify this omission in the itinerary.
On a free afternoon, I nagged a classmate into joining me on the bus journey into Palestinian territory and we went in search of the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
And we found it… or at least the location that claimed this distinction with a dingey plaque in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
It was a rough doorway in a small stone building on an otherwise unremarkable street.
And that was it.
I don’t know why I expected more.
Perhaps because there is such a tourist industry around Holy Land sites associated with Jesus – even if their historicity is usually a bit questionable - and so, I expected more of the same.
More of the manufactured awe and designed reverence that is so easy to catch at the church of the Holy Sepulcher or at the purported location of the manger in Bethlehem.
Even without the more grounded solemnity of the wailing wall or the power of sunrise communion on the Mt. of Olives, I thought I would feel… something at this site associated with one of Jesus’s deepest friendship, the setting for such meaningful acts of love.
But it was just an old stone doorway. It didn’t feel special. It didn’t feel sacred. I understand why our class skipped the trip.
For the longest time I thought it had been a mistake to go in search of that “nothing-special” site.
I had wasted one of my few free afternoons in Jerusalem to take a hot & dusty bus, through a nerve-wracking check-point, so I could feel NOTHING standing in front of a non-descript low stone doorway.
But I don’t think it was a wasted trip anymore. I now think it is a perfect illustration of just how real this story of Jesus and his friends really is.
It’s perfect because, for me, the power of this story is not in the miracle of resurrection… it’s in the incredibly human and mundane details that surround the miracle.
It is those details that ground this story in a familiarity that gives it meaning for my life, because they don’t have all the awe-inspiring splendor of the miracle. They are relatable.
Details of the rush of anxiety that comes when news arrives that a loved one far away is desperately ill.
Details of the sense of confusion and helplessness the disciples experienced at not understanding what Lazarus’s condition actually meant.
Details of the frustration the sisters felt at Jesus not doing the needed thing that was so clear to them, and the painful anger underneath the surface of their rebukes, because their grief is complicated by disappointment in the one they thought they could trust.
And that one, most powerful detail: Jesus wept.
I’ve often clung to this two-word verse in my own moments of grief.
I have held onto the sureness that Jesus understands mourning.
Jesus knows the way that an aching tightness in his chest pushes at the water pooling behind his eyes.
Jesus knows the way that the enervating weight of grief settles on his shoulders, curling him in on himself and his pain.
Jesus knows the itch of drying tear-tracks on his face even after all his tears are spent.
Yet, for all the comfort I have found in knowing that when I cry I do not cry alone, I also think I have often romanticized Jesus’s tears… or at least I have oversimplified them.
In light of the foreknowledge he expresses in this story – the indication that he knows before he even begins the journey what he will find and what he will do – I have explained his tears to myself as tears of empathy…
I have assumed that he is pulling into himself the grief of his friends and grieving for the realness of their pain in that moment, even though he knows it will soon be replaced with joy.
I’ve assumed that his tears are more for others than for himself.
But what if it’s a bit more prosaic than that?
What if Jesus is also crying because he’s exhausted?
Because he has just undertaken an anxious journey, knowing what he will find at the end.
And for days he has been navigating the fears, and queries, and confusion of his disciples who can’t help questioning his actions and his explanations.
And he knows the sisters are fair in their implied accusations that he has failed them, and even though he knows the end of the story he still bears the weight of that guilt.
What if Jesus weeps because the stress of all the feelings, and expectations, and even the logistics of it all is just too much and he breaks down.
What if his tears are tears of weakness? What if they are really the same kinds of tears that we cry?
It can feel a little bit scary to imagine Jesus feeling weak, because he is supposed to be the one who is always strong for us, right?
That is the essence of the rebuke that Martha and Mary offer to Jesus when they first encounter him:
“You were supposed to be here. You were supposed to intervene. You were supposed to interrupt the painful, human story of illness and death that is all too familiar, and give us something shiny, and other-worldly, and awe-inspiring instead.”
That’s the whole point of having a Messiah, right? The divine is supposed to shoulder aside real life and make us feel safe and joyful and other than how we are used to feeling.
Just like I thought my visit to Bethany was supposed to make me feel connected to a powerful, sacred story that looks nothing like my actual life.
But, maybe, what we really need is a story that looks a LOT like our actual lives.
Because our actual lives are where we need Jesus to show up.
In the reality of anxiety, and illness, and confusion, and frustration, and exhaustion, and anger, and stress, and even death.
We need Jesus to belong here, with us, in the messiness of our lives, because that is the only thing that can make the hope of resurrection anything more than a far distant dream.
The far distant dream is where Martha thought her hope was to be found in her conversation with Jesus… before she saw him weep.
When Jesus assured her that her brother would rise again, and she said the equivalent of, “yeah, yeah, I know. Resurrection is the eventual promise. I don’t really need a theology lesson right now. I’m grieving!”
I think Jesus probably felt the sting of those words. I think they added a few tear drops to the pain he spilled out in front of the tomb once they got there and he could finally release everything he had been holding.
But the real, human, relatable Jesus who could cry like that, is also the Jesus who could understand exactly why the future promise of resurrection wasn’t enough for Martha in that moment… so that’s not what he offered her.
He didn’t point her to the future, not even to the very imminent future when he would perform the stunning miracle and literally bring her brother back from the dead.
Instead, he pointed to himself.
“I AM the resurrection and the life,” he said.
“Right now, in this moment where the grief is welling up in me to spill out of my eyes, I am the hope not just for the future, but also for now. For LIFE. For the everyday, dusty, painful, unimpressive reality of life.”
“I am here in it with you so that you never again have to think that your hope lies in escaping this reality. I am the Son of God who comes into the world. I bring the distant hope of heaven here.”
For me, that is the real miracle in this story, because that’s the miracle I need.
The raising from the dead sounds incredible, but I don’t expect I’ll ever see one… not before the “last day.”
But the resurrection in real life?
The discovery of hope and joy and sacredness in the mundane details of my reality, because I have a Savior who is truly with me in this life?
Because I have a Savior who can make this existence an abundant life even without the showy, jaw-dropping, reality-interrupting miracles that I think I want from Jesus?
This everyday kind of resurrection and life is, indeed, a life-giving miracle.
It is the miracle of a God who comes into this world to share all of it with us – the tears, and the joy; the resurrection and the life.
Thanks be to God.