Dead or Alive
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 9, 2008
Jesus began to weep.
Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Does it feel like Lent to you? It does to me, I can tell you, as I look over the events of Holy Week to come, the Last Supper, the trial of Jesus, the crucifixion. Most years in Lent I have found myself running through scripture dealing with death, its anticipation and its aftermath. Last week I read where the Psalmist encouraged us to “number our days” so as to recognize that they will eventually end. Today we have the story of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whose day numbering appeared to be finished, an extended story taking place all around tombs and mourners and sounds of weeping. It’s Lent for sure in a passage like the story of the death of Lazarus.
There are so many striking things about this story, but here is something that strikes me about our gospel reading today. It is the connection between two verses that stand side by side; we often read them as though the first belongs to the material that went before, and the second belongs to the material that comes after, but that’s not the only way to read them:
When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the people 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.”
Jesus began to weep. So the people said, “See how he loved him!”
We most often connect his request for directions with the phrase “come and see.” Then we connect “Jesus began to weep” with the comment “See how he loved him.” But there is a good chance Jesus’ weeping is brought on by the phrase “Come and see.” Here’s why:
“Come and see” is a phrase used four times in John’s gospel. The other three times they were words used to invite others to join in the call to discipleship, to take up that calling. In the first chapter of the gospel,1 Andrew and another person -- some say it could even have been Lazarus himself, others say it might have been John -- anyway, Andrew and another person approached Jesus for the first time, calling him rabbi, asking where he was staying. Jesus responded “Come and see,” and they were brought by that phrase into their calling as disciples. Then, the next day, after Peter and Philip had joined up, Philip ran into Nathanael and told him about Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael uttered the famous “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to which Philip replied “Come and see.”2 And he did, and he entered into the circle of discipleship with Jesus. The third time happened when Jesus had been speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar, and she ran back into the city saying to everyone who would listen, “Come and see...!”3 and John says that many people from her city believed. Discipleship was breaking out all over.
So “Come and see” is an invitation-to-discipleship phrase that in the story of the raising of Lazarus turns the invitation back to Jesus. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked, and the people replied, “Come and see.” And he wept. They took it as a sign that Jesus loved Lazarus, which I am sure is true, but John invariably operates on two or more levels of meaning in his gospel. I am equally sure that another reason Jesus began to weep, perhaps the main reason, was that a tomb containing a dead man along with an invitation to “come and see,” that is, to complete his calling, was for him a concrete realization of the coming death and entombment that he would face. And he began to weep. It is, as one great preacher once said, as strong a commentary on “And the Word became flesh” as can be found.4
Anyone who wonders if God knows what it is to be frail dust need only reflect on the Christian assertion that Jesus was God in the flesh, who wept at the tomb of his friend, and wept at the prospect of his own coming death. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ time, the psalmist recognized this quality in the very nature of God:
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.5
he remembers that we are dust.5
God knows. God remembers. The old translations made John’s famous phrase even more compact than we find it in our modern version. Where most newer translations say something like, “Jesus began to weep,” the old versions said simply, “Jesus wept,” instantly providing every English-speaker on earth with at least one scripture verse we could quote from memory. And if we can know only one verse, this one isn’t a bad choice. “Jesus wept.” Just think how broadly applicable it is. Jesus was reminded that he too must one day die: “Jesus wept.” On a sign at a roadside location where a loved one perished in an automobile accident: “Jesus wept.” Painted on the side of a building that burned, claiming the lives of those inside: “Jesus wept.” Nailed on posts along the roads homeless refugees must take when fleeing from fighting or famine or both: “Jesus wept.” A note included along with the latest college or job rejection letter: “Jesus wept.” Alongside empty streams once filled to the banks with fish, now poisoned by human carelessness or greed: “Jesus wept.”
But Jesus’ weeping was about something other, or at least more than his grief over the death of a friend. Remember, he delayed an additional two days going to see him. Is that what a friend does, wait until days after a friend has died and then go to the tomb in order to weep for him? Something else is going on here.
It is typical of John’s gospel to use stories as signs, events pointing to truth larger than the stories themselves. Jesus wept immediately after those all-important words were uttered, “Come and see.” The very call to trust that had been extended to others, to those who became his disciples, to the people of Samaria, is now extended to Jesus himself. Jesus truly became as we are, aiming to live in faithful obedience amid the overwhelming presence of suffering and death. Lazarus is in the tomb, actively decaying. Come and see how you too will be one day, dead and decaying. At the prospect, Jesus did what any human person would do. He wept.
For Jesus to call Lazarus out of the tomb, for him to call any of us out of death, is for him to enter into it. A few verses later he will say of his coming trial and death. “And what should I say —‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”6 It is for the tomb that Jesus came. Come and see, Jesus, come and see how it will be for you. He was invited to consider his own tomb, and Jesus wept.
The death of anyone we know is an unhappy, even tragic circumstance. But the death of the obedient Jesus is a gift of God to the world that “received him not.” It is the gift that has made our faith possible. And it was born in tears, Jesus’ own love-filled tears. He went to raise Lazarus knowing, as John discloses a few verses later, that the raising of Lazarus from death was the last straw for the religious authorities, who determined after that that they would have to have Jesus killed. And possibly Lazarus too,7 lest he tell the tale more broadly.
Once, years ago in another city, I was called on to do a funeral service for a non-church member. The circumstances surrounding this death were horrible, each worse than the one before as I heard about them one by one. A young woman, mother of two small children by her former husband, had found the grief of living too overpowering to bear for whatever reasons, and had chosen to take her own life. She died with a photograph of her two children in her arms. That is how her current husband found her. He not only was robbed of his wife, but also of her two children whom he had cared for as if they were his own, since the court returned them to the custody of their father who had abandoned them in the first place. Tragedy compounded.
The grief of that family was overwhelming. How could it not be? Not even knowing what a church really was, they nevertheless turned to the church in abject need of some ministry, some word of hope however bare that hope might turn out to be.
And Jesus wept. He did. I believe he wept as he received that woman in the loving embrace of heaven, and I believe that no matter how strong their grief, it could not surpass the grief of Jesus over the tragic loss of that life. Why did he not spare her? Why did he not go to Lazarus two days earlier and prevent his dying in the first place? Why doesn’t God step in front of speeding cars before they run people over, fix all the illness and death we see in the world around us?
We don’t know. We do know that God created a world in which people are at liberty to do what they will do without God stopping them, and a lot of what we do to each other is not very pretty. We may sometimes question the wisdom of this plan for our free will; still, it is the world we live in whether we question it or not. Yet we also know something else. We know that Jesus’ own life was a total and perfect gift he chose to give, his crucifixion providing the bridge by which we may cross into the life of his resurrection.
Apart from trust in God, wrote one preacher,8 the world is a cemetery. But because of the gift of the life of this one man, there is in the world the power of resurrection to eternal life.
Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 John 1:39
2 John 1:46
3 John 4:29
4 "Jesus Wept," by Fred Craddock, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, p. 36, source of several core ideas behind this sermon.
5 Psalm 103:14
6 John 12:27
7 See John 12:9-11
8 Fred Craddock, John Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982), p. 85.