This week’s readings are dominated by images death; dry bones, not-yet-animate corpses, the stink of decay, and weeping mourners parade before our eyes. If we have lived any time in this passing away world, these are images with which we are all too familiar and if our grief has been recent or particularly poignant, these passages may be difficult to hear… to evocative for the composure of typically staid Lutheran worshippers in North America.
Even Jesus weeps, and this is perhaps the most arresting image in this series of texts. Jesus weeps? Doesn’t He know how the story will turn out? No, that can’t be true; He tells us in a few verses that He knows His Father “always hears Him,” and He is going to call the dead man forth from the tomb. Why does He weep?
At the Bible study I lead for high school students, most of the participants are from non-liturgical, Pietistic churches. As we studied Jesus praying in the Garden of the Gethsemane on the night before His passion in the Gospel of Luke, I was surprised at the strong visceral reaction my comment that Jesus seemed to be afraid evoked from them. Both youth and their parents objected that for Jesus to fear would have been sin, so He could not have been afraid; fear would have meant that He didn’t trust His Father.
I confess, I don’t see it that way. I have complete trust that on the last day I will be raised by God, but if I were tasked with charging a machine gun nest on a field of battle, my pulse would still quicken, sweat break out upon my brow, and I would be… afraid. Sometimes fear does not mean the absence of faith, only a realistic assessment of the pain about to be engaged.
How “truly human” was Jesus? Could He experience fear? He could certainly experience grief. It unclear from the text whether His compassion was for Lazarus (certainly how the crowd interpreted His tears) or those gathered to grieve for the dead man, but in any event, He grieved. He grieved for real pain, real emotion, and the very real death experienced by people He really loved.
We worship a God who weeps, for His beloved creatures truly suffer. The resurrection of Jesus portended by His raising of Lazarus does not eliminate suffering, it puts it in perspective. The Apostle Paul does not exhorts us not to grieve, only not to grieve as others do, who have no hope.
It is some comfort that in Jesus, God weeps too. It is even more comforting that the God who does not forebear experiencing the same death His creatures are doomed by their own sin to experience rises again. God does not eliminate death from the human picture (at least, not yet), but He does promise resurrection in the wake of the death we must endure.
How many “little deaths” do we and those we preach to experience on the way to the biological death that will usher us into God’s unmediated presence for judgment? The path of spiritual growth most often leads not around the conflicts, losses, and afflictions that constitute those “little deaths,” but instead directly into and through them. The good news is that the God we serve will weep with us in the middle of them and bring resurrection on the other side of them.
Will that preach?