So, my sister is in town today. You may have noticed this random woman hanging out with my wife over there. That’s my sister Jessi. She’s in town from New York visiting for a few days. I’ve told some stories before about my sister and I as kids. But this past week, as I was preparing to preach, I earnestly searched my memory for a story which would allow me to throw Jessi under the bus. Unfortunately, though, I came up short. But reflecting on both our cliché this week – “too blessed to be stressed” – and my upbringing with Jessi, I couldn’t help but remember something my dad used to do.
You see, some parents are…normal. They employ normal disciplinary measures with their children. I like to think Amy and I are normal – a little awkward – but mostly normal. We use timeouts with our kids; we take away toys when they are misused. Jessi and I’s parents? No no no. They went straight to psychological warfare, and this took the form of a werewolf mask. My dad had this werewolf mask that he knew I was terrified of as a kid. And so, anytime I acted out or talked back to my parents, they would threaten me with the mask. And if I didn’t straighten out, my dad would put it on and chase me around the house.
And it scarred me for life! My childhood was like the Shawshank Redemption except I didn’t have a kind, older, soft-spoken, gentle black man to share my struggle with. Now, I share all of this for two reasons: 1) This never happened to my sister. She was daddy’s little girl, he would never do something so horrific to her. This is the way of the world. I get it. And when I say I get it, I really do get it. I love Boston with my whole heart. But, if push came to shove, I wouldn’t hesitate to use Boston as a human shield to protect Oakley. And 2) I tell you this because it kind of illustrates our cliché this morning. “Too blessed to be stressed.” I grew up in a wonderful home with parents who loved my sister and I and wanted nothing but the best for us. All things considered, I had a great home life as a child. But that doesn’t change the fact that, at times, I had to deal with mildly stressful situations which were less than ideal: Case in point – werewolf mask.
This is kind of what’s going on in our passage today. It’s a story about living amidst the end times, living in the time of the messiah, and yet still feeling the pain which comes from living on this side of glory. It’s a story which not only forces us to come to terms with our own frailty, but Jesus’s as well. And, in this story, we see the first representatives of human frailty in the characters of Martha and Mary. Both of them have extremely similar reactions to seeing Jesus. They both come up to him and say “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
And this speaks to something radically existential about ourselves and about our lives in this world, doesn’t it? I mean, this is often the first reaction of someone when a loved one gets sick or passes away, right? “If God actually cared, if God actually loved us, then this wouldn’t have happened.” And this is nothing other an individual grappling with what it means to have faith in someone who is supposed to be the way, the truth, and the life while experiencing pain and despair and death. And this is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?
The #1 thing which prevents people from coming into the fold of the Christian faith is the problem of evil and suffering, and what’s even worse is that we demonize people for that. We often make claims about a God who is seemingly perfect, who seemingly has a grand plan for everything that happens in the world, and then get upset when people claim that this isn’t a God worth worshipping. There are popular Christian authors and apologists, people like John Piper, who claim that God is the agent behind everything that happens in the world and that everything is for God’s glory. So, we’re supposed to somehow believe that God orchestrated the holocaust and that the holocaust is somehow for God’s glory. And I’ll tell you right now that, if that’s the way I thought we had to understand the Christian God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. I would much rather be an atheist than believe in a God who’s a tyrant.
But I don’t think we have to understand the Christian God as a tyrant. I don’t think we have to believe that God orchestrates suffering and evil in the world. Experiencing pain, experiencing fear and anxiety and existential despair – this is just part of what it means to be human. And that’s important for this next part of the passage: “Jesus said, ‘where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.” Most bibles translate this as “Jesus wept.”
This passage often confuses us, and for two reasons, I think: 1) we have too high a view of Jesus. And I don’t mean that we make him out to be more important than he is. He’s infinitely important. But our minds, when we think about Jesus, are often stuck in the first century and the idea that God was up in the sky, came down and became Jesus, and went back. So, we often ascribe omniscience, or “all-knowingness”, to Jesus. If Jesus is all-knowing then why is he weeping? If anyone should be “too blessed to be stressed,” it’s Jesus. Well, one question to ask is whether or not we could consider Jesus “fully human” if he didn’t experience pain and fear and anxiety. I would say no. Jesus is God but he’s also a human being, full-stop. And that necessitates the need to feel. And 2) The placement of this passage is weird. Jesus doesn’t weep when he hears the news of Lazarus’s passing; he doesn’t weep upon seeing Lazarus’s dead body. He weeps when they say “come and see.”
In John’s gospel, this phrase “come and see” is an invitation to discipleship. It’s used by Jesus and the disciples over and over again to call people into the fold, into relationship. But now the tables have turned and it’s being said to Jesus himself, but instead of being summoned into discipleship, Jesus is being summoned to his death. At the end of the story, Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave and that’s the ammunition the Pharisees needed to pursue Jesus’ death. In John’s gospel, Jesus was crucified because of this miracle. Perhaps the reason Jesus wept was because he knew he would soon have to take Lazarus’s place. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb meant that he would have to enter it. This, for John, is Jesus’ testing; for John, this is the equivalent of Jesus praying in Gethsemane and asking the Father to let the cup pass.
Now, a lot of people are uncomfortable with a weeping messiah. A lot of people would rather Jesus have been stoic in the face of suffering and death than weep. How can we pray to a God who weeps? How can we thrust our lives into the security of a God who weeps? If this God weeps, then who’s to say that this God has even conquered death in the first place? If it were up to me though, I would rather worship a God who weeps. I would rather follow a God who goes with us into death and suffering than worship a God who stands on the outside and looks in. Death is conquered in death. Fear is conquered in fear. And pain is conquered in pain. A God who doesn’t suffer, a God who doesn’t weep, a God who doesn’t die, isn’t God at all – it’s an idol of what we think God shouldbe instead of what God is.
There’s a wonderful preaching scholar named Fred Craddock who talks about this famous verse, “Jesus wept”, like this:
“Is there any place where this text does not fit? Spray paint it on the gray walls of the inner city…Scrawl it with a crayon on the hallway of an orphanage…Embroider it on every pillow in the nursing home… Nail it on posts along a refugee road leading out of East Timor…Flash it in blinking neon at the bus station where the homeless are draped over pitiless benches…Carve it over the door of a mountain cabin at which a fifteen year old girl stands with a crying child…Sky write it over every greed-raped landscape: ‘Jesus wept.’ There seems no place where this text does not fit.”
Perhaps there seems no place where this text does not fit because there is no place where the weeping messiah doesn’t fit. He belongs to every refugee floating in the ocean. He belongs to every person who’s made it out of a sexual assault alive. He belongs to every child separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. He belongs to every person of color who is wrongfully killed or imprisoned by the criminal justice system. The weeping messiah came into the world to bear their pain, and he bore it when he took Lazarus’s place in the tomb.
And if this man weeps, the messiah, the Son of God, then we have all the more permission to weep. It doesn’t mean we’re not blessed, it doesn’t mean we’re not thankful for what we have. It means that this world isn’t the only possible world. Saying that we’re “too blessed to be stressed” is basically a way of sweeping the world as we know it under the rug, and that’s not what we’re called to do. We’re not called to justify this world and make peace with it – we’re called to change it. And we can only change this world by doing for others what Jesus did for Lazarus – we change this world by being willing to participate in the suffering of others – by loving those who need love, by caring for those who need care, by being Jesus for a world that is desperately in need of Jesus. Like Jesus himself, each one of us is called to offer our lives as perishable testaments to imperishable grace.