Sermon for Sunday, March 29, 2020 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
Here we are. Week three of our church dispersed to the four corners of our community. The pews that you normally inhabit are empty, but we still gather together in prayer and worship of God this day. When my daughter was smaller than she is now, she couldn’t quite make her fingers do the “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the people.” Her fingers wouldn’t interlock inside the church, so when she did the motion along with the rhyme, the people were outside the doors of the church. Appropriate for today, I think. We are still the church, even when we are unable to gather in a particular building.
I’m reminded of our distance from each other today, not just because of the empty pews, but because of the beginning of our long Gospel story. Jesus receives a message from Martha and Mary about Lazarus being ill. Then Jesus waits where he is two days worth of social distancing for two days before heading to Bethany, where he finds Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. After meeting with Martha and then Mary, the Gospel says this: “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.” Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus began to weep. You might know this verse in its even shorter form from the King’s James Bible: “Jesus wept.” We might be tempted to ask why Jesus weeps considering he’s about to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead. Even the onlookers wondered about his tears: “Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
But the question shouldn’t be, “Why did Jesus weep?” The question should be, “How could he not?” Martha and Mary are in pain over their brother’s death. The whole community of Bethany is in pain. Jesus would have to be a pretty heartless person not to empathize, and we know Jesus cared – cared so much that he would go to the cross for these people and for us.
I think the question, “Why did Jesus weep?” comes from a very unhelpful strain of Christian thought that goes something like this: “Because I believe in Jesus, nothing bad will ever happen to me.” Ever heard that notion before? It tends to crop up around the time something bad happens. This unhelpful strain of thought runs rampant through the less well-written modern Christian rock music – the kind that says if I just believe hard enough, if I love Jesus oh so much, then my life will be perfect. When I was a camp counselor, we derided this kind of music as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music.
The trouble is, clinging to a thought like, “Because I believe in Jesus, nothing bad will ever happen to me” – clinging to a thought like this leads us astray because Jesus never made this claim. Not only did Jesus not make this claim; he actually made the opposite claim. Jesus says, ““Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Jesus says, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death” (Luke 21:16). Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Nowhere in the multiplicity of voices in the Bible does the thought exist that nothing bad will happen if we believe in Jesus. The hope for nothing bad to happen exists, but the reality is always something else, something much truer. And we find this reality in Jesus’ tears.
Jesus began to weep. The God made known in our Lord Jesus Christ lives in the midst of pain, brokenness, calamity, and death. Even though Lazarus was soon to rise, the grief was palpable. And Jesus was there, feeling it too. This is the reality of the cross. Jesus may have felt abandoned – in those agonizing hours, God may have seemed far away – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” And yet, when our pain keeps us from noticing God’s presence, it does not stop God from being present. And so Jesus is also able to cry out (in another account of the Gospel) “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” God was there, God was weeping for God’s son on the cross, even as God was bringing the whole of creation into something new – the reality of the resurrection on the third day.
While Jesus never claims that nothing bad will happen to those who believe, there are some things he does promise. And they all have to do with being with us and us being with him, no matter what. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Last week, I talked about finding God’s presence in my deep breaths in the midst of overwhelming anxiety while I listened to the Renaissance music of Palestrina. Today I find God’s presence in the promises of Jesus – the ones he actually made in the Gospel, not the ones from the mediocre music of my teenage years. God’s most persistent promise throughout scripture is the promise of presence in the midst of the storm; the promise of walking through the valley of the shadow of death; the promise that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
In these promises, I rest my soul. Still I weep, and that’s okay, because Jesus wept and weeps anew whenever one of his own faces pain like he bore on the cross. Today, we do not share this space where we usually meet. Yet we are together in our pain, our loss, our anxiety, and yes, our hope. We are together because nothing can separate us – us – from God’s love. God’s love connects us one to another and all to the promise of God’s presence in the midst of the storm.
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