Weeping in the Wilderness, and Living Again

Service on March 29, 2020
by Paul Simpson Duke

The shortest verse in the Bible has two words: “Jesus wept.” As a kid in Sunday School, when the teacher asked us to pick a Bible verse and memorize it, since I was a smart aleck, I chose “Jesus wept.” But lately I’ve been thinking just how fitting it is that those two words are given one whole verse all their own. It’s like the headline for a story of monumental importance. Or the title of a book telling the whole Jesus story. “Jesus wept” isn’t just a small narrative detail; it’s a lens for seeing a central truth about him, and about the infinite Mystery we call God.

The story that contains those two words begins in a disturbing way. Jesus refuses to help a friend who is suffering from a deadly illness. The man, Lazarus, has two sisters, Martha and Mary, who send urgent word to Jesus, far away, so that he’ll come and do something. But he doesn’t do a thing. Then, on his own schedule, days later, he goes—to a corpse four days buried and a family crazy with grief.

Martha gets word and runs out to him: “Lord, if you’d been here, he wouldn’t have died.” Can you hear the anger? “We told you he was sick, and you didn’t come, and he’s dead! If only you had come!” Grief often says, “If only.” If only you had, if only I had, if only the doctors had, if only God had! Grief can be a wound bleeding questions, speculation, accusation. “Christ, where’ve you been? We cried to you. Our brother begged for you and turned to the wall and died asking why you didn’t come. Whereve you been!?

He offers no defense, and he doesn’t give her a lecture. He just takes it, because where there is cruel suffering and death, anger has a rightful place. And if we’ve prayed our hearts out and it makes no difference, why not feel anger? The striking thing is that in a moment Jesus will seem to share Martha’s feeling. Our translations say he was “deeply moved,” but the Greek word means something closer to “he was groaning with rage.” Jesus has his own fury against death.

The other sister, Mary, has remained in the house. When Martha tells her, “The Teacher is calling for you,” she runs and falls to the ground with the same words: “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died.” The quiet ones feel it, too. He asks, “Where have you laid him?” and someone answers, “Lord, come and see.” On hearing those words, he weeps. See it: his eyes red, filling to the brim with tears that spillover and stream down his face. Does he bow his head and sob?

Why does he cry? The crowd sees it simply as his grief for his friend. They say, “See how he loved him,” But since the crowd always misunderstands him, it seems likely that they’re missing something here. Think of what triggers his tears. It’s when somebody sais, “Come and see.” This is the fourth time these words are spoken in this Gospel, and always with the same implication. When the first two would-be disciples come tagging along behind Jesus, he turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They say, “Where do you abide?”; he says, “Come and see!” Later, a man named Nathanael says of Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The answer? “Come and see!” Then a Samaritan woman invited her neighbors to discover Jesus for themselves, and she says, “Come and see!” In the Gospel, the words “Come and see,” are a beckoning to get inside an experience yourself, to enter it fully yourself so that the knowledge of it is personally, intimately, deeply your own. So now when the people point to a grave and tell him, “Come and see,” what his heart hears is: “You—come to the knowledge of death for yourself. The grave is opening its mouth for you. Come and see your final suffering and death.” And he weeps.

Some would call it pathetic. He shows up four days after the funeral and cries for himself? You’d think he’d go bravely striding toward this tomb, not breaking down. Except for this: that in his tears are the tears of everyone—for all the death, all the cruelty, all the vastness of our grief, and for the fact that people plead to the heavens for help, and help doesn’t come. The world has gone mad. No wonder he groans with rage. No wonder he cries.

And one thing more. Maybe what is streaming from his eyes are the tears of God, God’s grief for creaturely suffering and death, and for all the times humanity cries for rescue that never comes, and for God’s own part in creating a world where so much cruelty and pain and unfairness will happen? In this graveyard, a curtain is pulled back to show the Creator weeping. This would be the only grief great enough to get up and move to remake the world.

Which is why Jesus now goes to the tomb, tells them to open it, and cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” The story says he cried out those words in a loud voice.

I’ve seen people jump at that cry. A British actor, Paul Alexander, was giving a performance of John’s Gospel, word for word. When he came to this moment, he paused, drew back, and let loose at the top of his lungs, “LAZARUS, COME FORTH1” Heads jerked back, children covered their ears. Thinking of it now, it seems to me that this very loud cry represents the sheer force of God’s Love battering down the power of death, Love crying out to be heard across the abyss of all suffering, God crying for every last one of us by name to come forth and live.

And Lazarus emerges into light. Still wrapped in the shroud they’d buried him in, he walks out, alive again. And as he made his way toward that circle of light where his friend was waiting with open arms, I can’t help but imagine that the brightest gleam of light was reflected from the tears still shining on that welcoming face? Jesus then says to the loved ones—and they’re all crying too— “Unbind him, set him free.”

Look at Lazarus. Could that be you and me, called out of deathliness to take up our lives again? We’ve known grief, death, suffering. We’re surrounded by it, and we know that more will come. We feel the suffering in ourselves, not just ours but of multitudes. Maybe we need to cry. But maybe what we need most is to know this: that all the world’s suffering is held in the suffering of God with us in love, that God is weeping through the eyes of the grieving and the fearful—and that most of all, from such a love as this comes the crying out of our names to come forth from deathliness and claim our living again: the freedom to act, to choose well, to love well, to serve and give and speak out and seek what is right and just and true—and over and over to lift up our hope, and yes, our joy. He says, “Lazarus!”—insert your own name—“come forth and live again.” We can. And we can thank God for the beloved community of friends who are all invited by the love of Christ to help unbind one another and set us all free to live again.