A WEEPING GOD
Sunday, March 26, 2023 – Lent 5
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her 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. 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?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
In seminary, I used to love a good theological argument – the more esoteric, the better! My friends and I would gather for some food and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning, debating the minutiae of all we thought we knew. -- But then I got called to a parish and started to deal with real people’s problems; started to deal with my own real problems. And suddenly, arguing about what one cannot possibly know just seemed silly or insulting or completely out of touch. It was in dealing with real people’s lives that I began to see faith in God, not as a collection of answers and doctrines and theories, but TRUST, especially when one is not rescued.
But trust is a hard sell. Many people come to faith precisely because they are looking for an answer; or better said, THE ANSWER. They want a God they can understand, but more than that, they want a God who intervenes and saves us from all that frightens us. But eventually, that expectation is bound to disappoint.
One day, Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was desperately ill. Lazarus lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha in a village called Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem. Lazarus had developed an odd cough, and at night a fever shook him. With each passing day, he got weaker. Finally, in full-blown panic mode, his sisters sent for their friend, Jesus. Surely, he would have an answer. Surely, Jesus would rescue them.
But Jesus delayed going to Bethany. He delayed and said something odd about the illness of Lazarus being an avenue for the glory of God. – And Lazarus died waiting for his friend. Now, that’s hard enough to accept, but then this is harder: once Jesus heard that Lazarus had died, he didn’t rush to get there to comfort Mary and Martha. Instead, he stayed where he was for two more days while the sisters grieved and wondered where their answer was.
When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. And that’s a significant detail because the Judaism of the time taught that the spirit of the deceased lingered on earth for three days before passing the point of no return. But this was the fourth day and that meant that all hope was gone.
When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching the village, she ran out to meet him on the road. She ran, powered by grief and anger. She ran, and as she ran, she wept. When she got to Jesus, she erupted: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” And then perhaps, in much quieter voice, she speaks words that can break your heart: “But I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”
And Jesus replied: “I am the resurrection and the life…”
Martha latched onto those words and ran home to get Mary. They sisters returned to Jesus, but now with a group of people. And Mary collapsed at his feet and sobbed: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw the depth of their pain; when he saw the hole that death rips out of human lives, he was deeply moved. The Greek word implies not only that he was moved, but that that he was angry. And I like that detail very much because it is my own experience that grief is often experienced as anger; that fear is often fed by anger. And seeing what death did to his friends; seeing what death does to us, Jesus began to weep.
“Jesus wept.” That is one of the most profound theological statements in the New Testament, for if you take the Incarnation at all seriously; if you believe that somehow Jesus is Emmanuel “God with us,” then that means that the Sovereign Creator of all that is, is deeply moved by our pain. But God is more than just an observer of our pain. God enters our pain. What else can the cross mean? And God weeps - great, copious tears.
Some people don’t like to talk about God like that. They want a God who is a superhero: all powerful and far removed from the human condition. They want a God who is THE ANSWER to all human pain. But that is not the way we experience life or God. And quite frankly, a weeping God is the only way that this Christian can make any sense of the pain of the world. Theological arguments about God’s power and glory cannot comfort me in the graveyard of my life. But a weeping God who stands beside me; a weeping God who hung on a cross, that is an image that I can grasp onto.
Of course, this story doesn’t end with weeping. The story of God-with-us never does. Jesus asked that the stone be rolled away from the opening of the cave. And then he cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come forth!” And Lazarus did, still wrapped in his grave clothes, hands and feet tied, face covered with a grave cloth. People gasped and mouths fell open. And Jesus said: “Unbind him and let him go.”
I have loved this story for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I loved it most because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, showing his power. But the longer I live; the more grief I experience; the more that God does not rescue me from everything that frightens me, it is a more profound truth that I see. This is the story of a God who often seems late, but a God who always comes.
In the mid 1990s, I worked at a large suburban church in New Jersey. Like lots of churches back then, this one had a softball team. And one of the star players was a young husband and father named Doug. – One day, Doug hurt his knee sliding into home base. It didn’t heal so he finally went for surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. I went to visit the day after surgery, but when I entered the room, the energy was dark and strange. Doug and his wife told me that the doctors had found a malignant tumor on his knee. And not just any tumor, but a rare and virulent form of cancer with no know treatment. It took all of two weeks for Doug to die, leaving his family and parish in complete shock
During those two weeks, I made a number of trips to the hospital. One day his wife asked me to step into the hallway, and without warning, asked me: “Why do you believe in God?” I knew this question was coming directly from her suffering and from the despair of this hopeless situation. She wasn’t looking for some esoteric theological argument. She wanted to know what I thought and why I believe.
I can no longer remember the specifics of what I said to her, but it was something like this: “I don’t believe in God because of anything I have ever read or been taught. I don’t believe in God because of the Bible or because of doctrine or theology. -- I believe in God because when I have been in the depths of despair, I have known a companioning presence. Sometimes it comes in people. Sometimes it comes in words spoken, or in silence. Sometimes it comes in my bittersweet longings or in my hot, angry tears. And sometimes, God even comes by way of a felt presence that defies explanation.” She held my gaze for a long time, and then, very quietly, she said: “Me too.”
It is absolutely normal for us to want to be rescued from our pain and fear. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died; my sister would not have died; my husband, my wife, my partner, my dreams, my health, my faith would not have died.” And we weep for all that is lost. But the one who catches all our tears in a bottle, stands weeping beside us. This weeping God wraps us in the everlasting arms, and will never let us go.
But more than that, the weeping God stoops down to gather up all the broken pieces of our lives, all those things we count as lost, and from them fashions something new and unexpected. We call that Resurrection.