John 11:1-37

Waiting and Weeping

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John 11:1-37

Waiting and Weeping

By Dr. Mickey Anders
Our text for today is a lengthy section dealing with the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  It is filled with many possibilities for sermon and for discussion, but I am struck by two aspects of our text—waiting and weeping.

First, the waiting.

The story begins with the message sent by Lazarus’ sisters, “Lord, behold, he for whom you have great affection is sick.”  They didn’t even have to say who it was.  They were such close friends that they knew Jesus would know who they were talking about.  But this closeness makes what happens next very hard to understand.

Jesus waits.  He doesn’t seem to be moved at all by the information that his good friend is ill.  He downplays the importance of the message.  He says,

“This sickness is not to death,
but for the glory of God,
that God’s Son may be glorified by it.”

That’s not the kind of message that would make Lazarus feel any better.  The idea that Lazarus’ sickness would merely provide a sermon illustration for Jesus must have blown Mary and Martha away.  It was as if Jesus said, “Lazarus is sick.  So what, it’s no big deal.  It’s just something that God will use for his own glory.”  And Jesus waits for two full days before beginning the two day journey to Bethany.

This is really puzzling behavior.  How can Jesus be so calloused?  How can he jump into philosophy and theology about the illness of his beloved friend?  Why in the world does he wait?  I must confess to you that I don’t have ready answers for those hard questions.

When we look closely at this text in John, we find no real explanation for why Jesus waited.  Theologians have speculated and supposed, but in the end, we must simply conclude that John does NOT say why Jesus waited.

Whatever the reasons were for waiting, we can readily see that the sisters of Lazarus didn’t appreciate Jesus’ attitude.  They were looking for Jesus to be the kind of friend who drops everything to come stand with them in their pain.  They didn’t want a lecture, they wanted someone to suffer with them—to help them.

But Jesus didn’t drop what he was doing.  Jesus didn’t respond to the emergency note.  He didn’t rush to the bedside of the sick man or to the aid of the concerned sisters.  John says, “When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days in the place where he was.”

Each sister in turn took Jesus to task for his tardiness.  They wanted to be kind to Jesus whom they loved, but they just couldn’t help themselves.  They both blurted out the identical words, “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”  Surely, they had both rehearsed what they were going to say when Jesus did finally appear.  Martha says exactly the same words in verse 20 that Mary says in verse 32.

While I can’t explain the waiting of Jesus, I can certainly identify with the waiting of Martha and Mary.  Can’t you?  How many times have we waited just like they did?  “Why isn’t Jesus here when we need him?” “Why doesn’t God hurry up and do something?”  “Where were you, Jesus?”  “Where was God on September 11?”

We hear their pain, and we share it because in too many of our homes Lazarus has died.  For some it is not the literal death of a loved one.  It may be the death of a dream, the death of an ideal, or the death of hope.  Where has Lazarus died in your heart or your home?  Where has Jesus disappointed you?  You’ve prayed, but no answers have come.  You’ve pleaded, but God has delayed.  You’ve waited, but he hasn’t arrived.  You’ve held the funeral, but he didn’t attend.  Or so it seemed.  Where are you waiting for God to show up and be God for you?

We don’t know why Jesus waits, and we don’t know why God waits.  No amount of theologizing and explaining can satisfy us while we wait.  And wait we do.

My only conclusion is that something critically important happens to us while we are waiting.  Life is lived while we wait.  Faith is proved while we wait.  Hope is tested while we wait.

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Mary and Martha were not the last to wait for Jesus.  And neither will we be the last.

And now comes the weeping.

When Mary broke down in tears before him, Jesus asked, “Where have you laid him?” And when he stood in front of the tomb, according to the King James version, “Jesus wept.”  He must have wept out loud and long, and those who saw it were moved to say, “See how much affection he had for him!”

We knew immediately why Martha and Mary were weeping.  Their brother had been dead for four days now.  Theirs were tears of grief.  Those tears we all understand.  We, too, have stood by the graveside and poured out our heart in great tears.  We have cried because we can’t help but cry.  Our emotions seem to take over our bodies, and the tear ducts open and the waters flow.

But what about that shortest verse in the Bible—”Jesus wept.”  Why?  Why did he cry?

There is no shortage of answers to this question.  I believe your answer to this question says a lot about your Christology, your theology of Jesus as Christ.

Why did Jesus cry?  Here are some of the reasons offered by various theologians:

1) Some argued that Jesus was crying for the crowd because of their lack of faith.  He looked deep into their hearts and realized that they did not understand him or his mission.  They didn’t understand the matters about life and death the way he did.  They didn’t understand that he had the power to bring Lazarus back to life.  He was weeping for the crowd because they didn’t believe in him.

2) Some say Jesus was weeping because he hated to bring Lazarus back from heaven.  He knew that heaven was a wonderful place, and he was crying because he had to bring him back to earth to show his glory.

3) Others say Jesus was weeping tears of rage at the evil of death and sin.  He grieved because of the sinfulness of humans and the death that followed that sin into the world.

4) Many say that Jesus was weeping for himself.  He was crying in anticipation of his own death.  He knew that the miracle he was about do perform would inflame the situation in Jerusalem and turn the Pharisees against him.  And, in fact, John says that’s exactly what happened after this miracle.  He was weeping because he was thinking about his own coming death on the cross.

All of these are suggestions, and we must remember that they are only suggestions because John does NOT make clear why Jesus wept.  Certainly any of these could be the very reason that Jesus cried.  But I want you to notice that all of these suggestions rely heavily on the divine nature of Jesus.  They all assume that Jesus had special knowledge of the future, of heaven, or of the inner thoughts of the crowd.

Personally, I reject all of these proposed reasons.  I reject them because no human being would ever cry for any of those reasons.  If he cried for any of those reasons, then none of us mere mortals can really understand or identify with the tears of Jesus.  I will never cry because I can see the future.  I will never cry because I understand all about heaven.  I will never cry because I can read other people’s thoughts.  If that’s why Jesus was crying, then he is far, far from being like me.  He is not a high priest with whom I can identify.

Do you picture Jesus as human like us or divine like God?  I think it is impossible for our tiny minds to perfectly balance the creedal statement that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  Our little brains automatically tilt to one side or the other.  We make Jesus a little more divine or a little more human.  I think the Gospel of John tilts toward the divine side much more than do Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Personally, I prefer the views of Jesus that I find in the synoptic gospels.  That’s because I prefer to think of Jesus’ humanity.

I want to believe that Jesus experienced this life as much like me as possible.  Hebrews says,

“For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I lean heavily on Philippians 2 for my Christology.  There Paul writes of

“Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).

5) That’s why I believe he cried for a fifth reason.  I believe he cried because he cared.  He cried for the same reason that we cry at funerals.  He grieved with Mary and Martha.  Jesus loved them and Lazarus.  He grieved that Lazarus had died. He identified with their pain and he understood their tears.  That’s what friends do.  They cry when you cry.

And I can take great comfort in this reason for Jesus’ tears.  It tells me that God still identifies with people who are hurting.  When we cry, God cries too.

There’s a story of a little girl who came home late from school one day.  Her mother was furious and went on and on for about five minutes ranting and raving at the girl. Finally she stopped and asked, “Why were you late anyway?”

To which the girl replied, “I was helping another girl in trouble.”

“What did you do for her?” asked the mother.

“Oh, I just sat down beside her and helped her cry.”

I believe those simple words, “Jesus wept,” reveal as much about Jesus as all the other words ever said about him.  He weeps for all who pray for God to come and nothing happens.  He weeps for all who face the tragic experiences of this life and thrust their painful, “Why?” toward heaven.  He weeps for those who have hard questions. He weeps for those who do not walk quietly to death’s dark door.  He weeps for those who ask for a miracle and do not get it.

Here is not a picture of a god who is immutable, immovable, unemotional or uninvolved.  Here is a God with a weeping heart.  Here is the Lord of the universe with tears in his eyes.

For me, it is important to believe that Jesus understands what life is like for me.  He knows my temptations.  He knows what it was like to be fully human just like me, yet he did it without sin.  He knows my suffering, my disappointments, my problems, my questions.  And more importantly, he not only knows, he understands.  He has literally walked in my shoes.  And because Jesus knows and cares, then I know that God knows and cares.

Suffering has a way of isolating us.  When we cry, we cannot help but think that we are the only ones to ever experience such pain, and we feel alone.  We think no one else feels our pain or knows our grief.

But Jesus tears tell us that there is someone we can lean on for strength, for wisdom, for comfort.  In our confusion, Jesus is there for us.  While we wait, he waits with us.  In our sorrow, he will hold us.

Across the street from the bombed out Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where 168 people died needlessly and senselessly, there stands a memorial. At the heart of that memorial is a nine foot statue of Jesus. But this statue is not one of a stony Jesus with arms out wide like you may have seen in the Ozarks or in Brazil.  No, this is a nine foot statue of Jesus with his face in his hands, turned slightly away from where the acts of terror took place, and the plaque reads, “And Jesus Wept.”

For thousands and thousands of mourners and survivors that image of Jesus has brought resurrection and hope and new life. It is a pillar of comfort for all who pass by.

What does God do for us?  He sits down beside us and helps us cry.  And sometimes that’s all we really need.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2002, Dr. Mickey Anders.  Used by permission.