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Tears at the Tomb

On the surface, the junior high youth group at First Church was going well. Bob and Betsy, their two enthusiastic advisors, planned a full calendar of events to keep them busy. The youth went to roller skating parties and winter retreats. They played a variety of sports, discussed a lot of movies, and celebrated every holiday with a party. When it came to leading the young teens into the deeper waters of faith, however, Bob and Betsy were frustrated.

One Sunday afternoon, Bob announced the group was beginning a study of the Gospel of John. "It's a good book," he said, "and we think a church youth group should read it." To begin the study, he gave the kids an assignment. "During the next week," Bob said, "we want you to flip through the Gospel of John until you find a verse that means something to you. Memorize the verse. Next week, come back and recite it for the rest of the group."

Attendance the next week was spotty, but the few who were present were prepared. They went around the circle, starting with Diane. "My verse is John 3:16," Diane said. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Betsy asked why she picked the verse. Diane said, "My grandmother said it was important."

Mark was next. He quoted, "Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (John 3:3). When the advisors asked him why he selected it, Mark said, "I opened my dad's Bible and saw these words were printed in red ink. I figured they must be important."

On around the circle they went. Whether they knew it or not, the kids in the group were doing something important. The Gospel of John is full of pithy sayings, like "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14), or "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). Every page has important truths compressed like diamonds. In the fourth gospel, the eternal Word of God is revealed not only in stories but in memorable one-liners. By memorizing these verses, in some sense those Junior Highs were learning the good news.

At least it looked that way. Soon it was time for the minister's son to speak. Betsy turned to him and said, "Jonathan, tell us what verse you have memorized today."

Jonathan said, "My verse is John 11:35."

Bob said, "How does it go?"

Jonathan cleared his throat and looked around the circle. Then with a note of sobriety he said, "Jesus wept."

The rest of the kids burst into laughter. "Tell us, Jonathan," Betsy said, "why did you pick that verse?"

With perfect teenage logic, Jonathan replied, "Because it's the shortest verse in the Bible."

At first glance, that brief verse looks like a lightweight compared to other verses. The Gospel of John often reveals the eternal Word in single sentences, but the sentence "Jesus wept" does not sound like one of them. Even when the New Revised Standard Version expands it to four words ("Jesus began to weep"), John 11:35 doesn't seem to carry the full freight of the Gospel.

That brief verse occurs in the story of the death of Lazarus, a significant event in the ministry of Jesus. Lazarus was a disciple whom Jesus loved (John 11:5). Yet he became sick and died. When Jesus arrived, it was too late.

According to the story in John 11, the death of this beloved friend prompted the tears of Jesus. His tears looked like our tears. This fact had led some commentators, and a lot of preachers, to assume Jesus was overcome by grief, sentiment, and sadness at the loss of a loved one. At the tomb, Jesus appeared as human as the rest of us.

Many people are comforted by that sight. We want to know God is compassionate, that the Lord of Israel suffers with us. When people gathered outside the tomb of Lazarus, some saw those tears and said, "See how Jesus loved him" (John 11:36). At the point of human brokenness, it is comforting to know the Holy One sympathizes with us.

But wait a minute. Others outside the same tomb said, "Couldn't Jesus have kept his friend from dying?" The answer, of course, was yes. Both Martha and Mary knew it. Each sister went up to him and said, "Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died." They knew Jesus could do whatever he wanted. But he did not prevent the death, just as he still doesn't keep people from dying.

That suggests a second possible explanation for his tears. According to the story, Jesus "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." Quite literally, "he was brimming with indignation and churning inside." Was he upset at human unbelief? No, Martha said she believed. Was he angry for not arriving soon enough? No, Jesus acted on his own timetable. What was the reason for his tears? Perhaps he was indignant at the destructive forces in creation that killed Lazarus. Elsewhere in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "I have come to bring life, and to bring it in abundance." Yet people still die. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus may have wept tears of indignation.

In my first church, a young died tragically one Saturday night. He was driving hom from a bar and flipped his Jeep. The vehicle exploded into flames and he never had a chance. Four days later, the funeral was muted and full of quiet tears. At graveside, however, his two brothers suddenly cut loose. They began to wail and pound on the casket. One of them shouted, "It's not right!" In the name of Jesus Christ, the giver of abundant life, the man's brother spoke the truth.

In that light, the words "Jesus wept" sound like a cry of resistance. It is wrong for loved ones to die to early. It is right to shake an angry fist at the forces of destruction, and cry out for divine justice. When Jesus wept, therefore, he also stood against the ways of death.

The world was put on notice when Jesus arrived in Bethany that day. He wept tears of sympathy, choosing to associate himself with those who mourn. He wept tears of indignation, affirming death as our common enemy. Yet the good news is Jesus wept tears of action. It was not enough for him to weep over the world's pain or denounce the ways of the world. Jesus committed himself to make a difference in the face of death. He arrived in Bethany to offer a way out of death for people who don't have any way out.

The most striking thing about this story is that Jesus acted only on his terms and timetable. When he heard Lazarus was ill, Jesus didn't drop everything and rush to the bedside of his sick friend. Instead he remained where he was for two more days. He went on his own initiative, not in response to human demand or personal request. He embodied the gracious initiative of God, who moves toward us regardless of whether we ask for help, who loves us before we loved him, who brings abundant life even when we are captive to the ways of death.

What's more, the writer of John insists Jesus already knew what he was going to do. He had known Lazarus would die. He knew God's power would be revealed by raising Lazarus from the dead. And he knew that by raising Lazarus, he would set in motion the events leading up to his own death. In Jerusalem, the high priest concluded, "It is better that the one man Jesus should die, so the rest of us will not be destroyed."

Nevertheless Jesus chose to undergo death in order to give us life. As he says elsewhere: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father" (John 10:11,18).

The raising of Lazarus would lead to the death of Jesus, and Jesus knew it. When Jesus wept, he faced the inevitability of his own death. This was the Gethsemane moment in the Gospel of John. By choosing to bring Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus chose to move toward his own tomb. The One who invited potential disciples to "come and see" the works of God made known in him was invited at the tomb of Lazarus to "come and see" the inevitable consequences of his life-giving works in a world of death. With tears of commitment, Jesus gave the gift of his life to the world. Through the tears of his impending crucifixion we were baptized into the life of his resurrection.

Lazarus died. Jesus raised him back to life. Lazarus died again, quite possibly at the hands of those who killed Jesus. And the promise of the resurrection is that the Lord raised him once again. This is the good news: in all of our deadness and death, God-in-Christ raises us up and fills us with the life of eternity. Our hope is not merely a dream of resurrection on the last day, but eternal life that begins today in faith and continues on the other side of the grave.

Life like this is a gift, and receiving it is simple. All we need to do to trust the One who says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die."

Do you believe this?

An earlier version of "Tears at the Tomb" appeared in No Box Seats in the Kingdom, William G. Carter, published by CSS Publishing Company, Lima, OH, 1996. Used by permission.