Title: Jesus wept
Date: Nov. 1, 2009
Texts: Wis. of Sol. 3:1-9, Rev. 21:1-6a, Jn. 11:32-44
Author: Isaac Villegas
Jen has been writing online about her life with her child Martin who is autistic. Jen was one of the founding members of our church. She and her husband were here from the beginning, but now they live in Ohio. I want to read something she wrote on her blog this past Friday. I think it has everything to do with our passages from the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John—especially the parts about weeping. Here’s what Jen wrote:
Last night, I stood in the kids’ room…thinking about all the stuff I had to do… My eyes came to rest on the crib and then the quilted wall hanging above it. Log cabin pattern. Bright blues and yellows. Seeing it made me start to cry. The wall hanging was a gift to us from our church in North Carolina on the occasion of Martin’s birth… I miss the folks in NC in the moments where Martin’s autism hurts the most. They knew him and loved him from the beginning. They were a community willing to try new things, usually shirking formality. Their openness to others proved itself in its gathering of students, people without permanent homes, professors, prison inmates, health care workers, and anybody else that wanted to come by. I have a feeling that if we still lived there, those folks would not only tolerate Martin’s goofiness, they’d see it as a potential gift to the church… a gift that offered them the chance to reach out to those with problems. A gift that let them interact with yet another strange and beautiful—yet struggling—person on this planet.
It sounds like Jen thinks the world of our little congregation. And I hope she’s right about us—that we would do anything to show people that they are gifts to us, gifts to our community… that we would do anything to show people that they are gifts of God. Jen has a wonderful vision of what church is about. As she put it, we develop relationships “with yet another strange and beautiful—yet struggling—person on this planet.” Church happens in way we welcome the beautiful and strange.
I like Jen’s vision of the church, but I am also interested in her longing, in her tears. She remembers us—and when she does, she cries. She cries because her separation from us hurts. The separation hurts, and so she longs for reunion, for restored communion, for our companionship.
I imagine that’s what Jesus feels when he cries in or passage from John’s Gospel (Jn. 11:32-44). The story starts with the death of Lazarus. Jesus sees Mary, Lazarus’ sister, crying and he can’t help but join in her tears. They feel the painful separation of death. Lazarus has been torn from the fabric of his community—from his family and friends.
At this point in the story, Mary and Jesus can do nothing to bring him back, so they cry together. It’s all they can do. All they have is each other, and the memory of Lazarus. At least they can remember his presence. They can keep his memory close as they long for him together. And so we have the shortest verse in the bible: verse 35, “And Jesus wept.” We have to take those tears seriously. Jesus really feels the loss of his friend. Jesus isn’t pretending. Those aren’t fake tears. His tears and Mary’s tears are the same—they come from the same place, from the place of profound loss. They both feel separation; they feel the permanence of Lazarus’ death.
At this point in the story, we may feel a temptation to say that Jesus has two natures—human and divine; and this fact means that Jesus knows Lazarus won’t be dead for very long, that Jesus knows his death is temporary, that all of this mourning will end in a few moments. We may be tempted to think that the divine nature of Jesus means he is omniscient, and so he knows that Lazarus will be back in a few minutes. If all this is true, then his tears can’t be the same as Mary’s tears—they are not truly human tears. Jesus can’t cry like Mary cries if he knows what will happen next. If Jesus is all-knowing at this point in the story, then his tears don’t make any sense. Besides, that would ruin the movement of the story. His experience of separation wouldn’t run as deep as Mary’s experience. The death would not sting Jesus like it does Mary. For Jesus, Lazarus went on a short trip and would be back soon enough. No reason to get all worked up.
I don’t think that’s a good way to read what’s going on in our passage. In the story, Jesus really does cry, and there’s no reason to think that his cry is any different than Mary’s cry. He is as human as Mary—and that means Jesus feels the loss of Lazarus as a real loss, a real absence. The tears aren’t part of a show. No. Instead, his cry comes from the depths of his soul, from the convulsion of his spirit. His body shudders—that’s a better translation of the Greek word in verse 33: tarassein, Jesus shudders.
For Jesus, at this point, the death of Lazarus seems in some sense permanent. To say otherwise, would be to give into a Gnostic tendency. Gnosticism argued that Jesus was divine, but only seemed to be human like the rest of us. Jesus only seemed to know the depths of loss and emotion; but he really didn’t because he was divine. For the Gnostics, the problem is that this world is unsuitable for God’s real presence. God doesn’t belong in our material world. For God to really be present in our physical world, would be for God to slum it with the rest of us—and God doesn’t go slummin’. That was a completely repulsive idea for them, absolutely disgusting. They wanted to protect the purity of God: God is up there, and the rest of us are down here. Their hope was that we would be rescued from this physical world and journey up into heaven—and we would leave behind all the physical stuff of this world.
That’s why the vision of heaven in the book of Revelation is so striking. It’s the opposite of the Gnostic hope. Instead of salvation being our escape from earth into heaven, heaven comes down to earth. That’s what verse 2 says: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). Heaven comes down to earth. God doesn’t find us repulsive; our world isn’t disgusting to God. Instead, God comes down and enters the mess of our lives and our world. Verse 3 makes this clear: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (v. 3). Salvation flows from the power of God’s love for us, from the depths of God’s longing to be with us: to make with us a home. That’s what God longs for—to be at home with us, on earth, here.
This longing is as real as the longing Jesus has for Lazarus. All of it flows from the same passion. God longs for us, to make a home with us down here on earth; and it’s a real longing, from the depths of God’s being. This longing is internal to God’s identity; it’s the heartbeat of God’s life. We worship a God who cries for us—that’s what we see at Lazarus’ grave, when Jesus weeps.
The best way I know how to think through the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, is to say that Jesus shows us what and who God is—that the human life of Jesus is a picture of the divine life of God. Jesus is our window into God. So, when we read the stories about Jesus, we discover how “the action of Jesus is God’s action; what Jesus suffers, God suffers;” the tears of Jesus are the tears of God. (McClendon, Doctrine, p. 276).
So, the question for us is: what does it mean to worship a God who cries, a God who weeps, a God who longs for us? What does it mean to worship a God who looks a lot like our friend Jen, who stands by her child’s crib in Ohio and cries because she also longs for us? I think that’s what God looks like. I know Jen probably wouldn’t like being compared to God—so I guess it’s good she’s not here to protest. But I think it’s true. God feels that same longing; God cries with those same tears.
In the story, after Jesus weeps with Mary, he approaches the tomb of Lazarus. His longing for Lazarus pushes him towards the grave, towards the place where his friend is buried. Jesus seems to be moved by his longing for another chance at communion with Lazarus. He wants the pain of loss and separation to go away. So he stands by the tomb and prays to the Father: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me,” Jesus says (Jn. 11:41b-42a). Jesus knows that the father hears him, that the Father hears his cries. After all, Jesus and the Father are one; they are intimately related to one another, inseparably in communion. And we call this intimacy, this union, the Holy Spirit.
So Jesus, speaking the word of the Father, through the Holy Spirit, cries out again; this time into the cave where Lazarus’s dead body lays: Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43). And, the text says, “the dead man came out” (v. 44). Jesus now experiences restored communion. At the end of the story, Jesus gets another chance at communion with Lazarus.
This is also our story. This is also a story about how Jesus saves us from death, and how Jesus restores us to fellowship—with God and with one another. Sometimes it takes a while—maybe a lifetime. And sometimes all we can do is stand by a crib and cry—like Jen does. But we cry as those who have hope because Jesus wept too, and the longing that flowed in those tears was the same longing that raised Lazarus from the dead. The longing of Jesus will be fulfilled. God’s desire for us will be satisfied. And the book of Revelation shows us what it will look like when that longing is fulfilled. It looks like a city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven to earth, where God will dwell with us, and all of us will live together, as homemakers with God.
Here our longing and God’s longing flow into one another. At the center of our lives, and at the center of the world, is a deep desire for companionship. Jesus longs for us like he did for Lazarus. And that desire is the pulse that sets the world in motion. All of life is transfused with God’s longing—moving through us, drawing us together, and reminding us of the hope of renewed communion. This is what it means to see Jesus’ love for Lazarus as what lies at the heart of the world.
As our passage from the Wisdom of Solomon says, “the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones” (3:9). You are his holy ones, you are Lazarus, you are the one he longs for.