Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.–Matthew 5:4
There’s an old joke about humanity that goes something like this:
After God created Adam, and Adam had been in the Garden for a really long time, he started to get a little lonely. So, Adam went to God and said, “This Garden is amazing, but I’m starting to get a little lonely; is there anyone that you can send to keep me company?”
God answered, “I have the perfect person. She will help you with almost everything. She’ll clean, cook, wash you clothes, be your friend, and even rub your feet after a long day. She really is perfect in every way!”
Adam said, “That sounds great! How soon can you send her?”
God replied again, “I can send her right away, but there is one thing. It’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to get her.”
Adam thought for a moment, and then said, “What can I get for a rib?”
The truth is that we often want the trappings but we want the easiest route, the short cut, the painless way that doesn’t cost us much. But as we navigate through the Beattitudes, the attitudes that are earmarks of being the disciples of Jesus, we recognize that the life of a disciple comes at great cost. As always, Jesus cuts to the chase, to something deep and meaningful: our relationships in life and death.
In John 11, we are brought back to Bethany, to the hometown of Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. We may remember the story of Mary and Martha, how the first is more focused on sitting and being with Jesus, while the other thinks that the work of preparation, of hosting, of feeding Jesus and his disciples is most important. We know less about Lazarus, merely that the gospel of John says that Lazarus was “the one you [Jesus] love.”
Word arrives in Jerusalem that Lazarus has died, Jesus says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” His disciples try to dissuade him from going because of the fear of the plotting Jews, but he shows little reluctance to go, making it all the stranger that he stayed for two more days in Jerusalem before going to see the family.
Jesus knows his friend is dead, and that his friend’s sisters are mourning. And still, he delays the two-mile trip from Jerusalem to Bethany.
Jesus lets the mourning process go its course; he allows the friends of the family to assemble, to comfort Mary and Martha, to mourn.
Imagine what’s going on in the minds and hearts of Mary and Martha. They know who Jesus is, or at least, they know something more about him than most people have acknowledged so far, and they know Jesus loves Lazarus.
Why would he delay? Why would he allow this suffering? Why would he allow their loss? Why… wouldn’t he care?
Mary stays home but Martha goes to meet Jesus. Martha wants “a piece” of Jesus; she wants to speak her mind. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Whoa. Yes, she’s angry. “You could’ve prevented this.” But there’s something else: “I still believe you can fix this. I believe you can bring him back. I believe…”
Jesus goes through the same, at least similar, thing with Mary. She meets him at the tomb, and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus is really taking it on the chin! But there has to be part of us that thinks he deserves it. There’s part of us, who have lost people, who have suffered loss, who have watched others struggle, who want to know why God would allow this.
Isn’t that the question: “why would God allow suffering?”
But here, Jesus doesn’t answer the question, he doesn’t respond to the accusation. It says that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” that he was empathetic and he mourned the loss of Lazarus himself.
“Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Bible, right? But maybe one of the verses that shows us the depths of God’s heart, that shows us what God really thinks of us. That God, who has watched the lives and deaths of millions of people; that God, who has seen the birth of planets, stars, and whatever Pluto is; that God, who knows how this whole string will play out. That God, weeps at the loss of one soul.
Notice what Jesus says when he experiences someone frustrating. Go back and look at it again. What does Jesus say?
Think about all of the times you’ve experienced someone’s tragedy, their mourning, their anger. Think about the things people say.
“It happened for a reason.” Bad stuff always has a reason? Can you really explain something that happened away like death or cancer or the loss of a job?
“God needed another angel.” Really? God couldn’t make an angel, so he decided cruelly to take a kid?
“God won’t test you with more than you can bear.” Again, really? What can I bear exactly? And even if God does provide a way through it, does that mean God wanted to try me out, see if I could make it?
That’s not how I understand God. No, I think we get an image here of God that’s different than the way a lot of people see God.
You know when you cry and it gets ugly? You know when your belly and your shoulders shake? When you think of someone or something related to them and you tear up, and the tears become a river? And it ends… with a snot bubble?
I think Jesus is snot bubbled here. I think when it says “Jesus wept,” that it wasn’t like, “I’ve got something in my eye.” I think Jesus felt with all he had the extreme pain of someone who’d lost a family member or a friend.
And yet, there’s a diversity of response to Jesus weeping by the people standing around. Some notice him crying and think, “his grief is deep.” Others see it, and ask, “why didn’t he stop this?”
Again, we can relate, right? Even among ourselves who are here worshipping and believing, we feel torn between the truth, the hope, and the other, that sense of loss and pain and suffering.
But for a second time, Jesus doesn’t respond directly.
Instead, he tells those gathered at the tomb to roll the stone away. Does that give you chills? I know it moves me. It’s a foreshadowing of the way that the stone is miraculously rolled away that first Easter morning, how Jesus’ resurrection puts in place a different way, an eternal way, a life-giving way.
Here is Jesus previewing, hinting at, a great and miraculous day when death shall be no more, when loss will no longer be our reality, when life will overcome death forever.
But before there can be a resurrection, there has to be a death.
Before a seed becomes a new flowering plant, something has to die.
John 12:24 says, “I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Jesus knows this. Jesus understands the realities of death and life, and the realities of new life, forever, that is coming. He knows Lazarus has to die because he is sick and broken, but he knows that it doesn’t have to stay that way. Jesus knows that Lazarus living like that in the midst of sickness just brings more suffering for Lazarus and his family. And so, in the midst of mourning, in the midst of loss, in the midst of the ridicule he can hear murmuring around him, Jesus prays.
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
Jesus places his grief, his struggle, his request squarely in the presence of God and for God’s glory. In the midst of his own sorrow, Jesus goes to God. Jesus’ suffering brings him even closer to God than he already is. Jesus reframes the death of Lazarus as a moment where God will shine through and everyone will know who God is.
And then he tells Lazarus to get up.
Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that my wife tells me to wake up when I’ve fallen asleep on the couch and it’s time to go to bed.
Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that you try to rouse a teenager from sleep when it’s time for school.
Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that a porter comes to wake you up so that you recognize it’s your stop on the train.
Jesus makes the death of Lazarus a temporary thing, one complete with pain and suffering and struggle, with a happy ending.
I know empirically that a seed is a dead part of a flower or tree or plant that has to be dead to grow something new. I get that, just like Mary and Martha knew that Jesus was the Messiah and that they got that he loved Lazarus.
But that doesn’t make the suffering go away. That doesn’t make the loss go away. That doesn’t make the pain go away.
It does mean that God alone holds the end of the story, which isn’t over yet, even in John 11. And it does bring the community together with purpose.
Jesus tells those gathered there, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Jesus includes the people around Lazarus in being part of the solution. Jesus uses the crowd to make it happen. Jesus says that suffering and the glory of God both happen in community. Jesus makes sure that the people who were mourning are part of the resurrection of Lazarus.
Because resurrection happens in community.
Close your eyes for a minute. Imagine yourself driving. Now, “crash!” That’s how so many people see death. Keep your eyes closed! I see you peeking.
Now drive a little bit farther… and hit a speed bump.
That’s what life after death is really like (really simply). Death is part of the trip, and it’s inconvenient, and sometimes, in a small car, it really really hurts. Wait, that was the speed bump. Okay, so the analogy doesn’t work forever.
But death is not the end. We know it wasn’t the end for Lazarus, and it’s not the end for Jesus, and because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the way that God raised him from the dead, death is not the end of the story.
There’s more to the Beattitudes than death. It doesn’t end here. Discipleship doesn’t end here. Jesus doesn’t end here. We don’t end here.
But those who mourn, they’re to be comforted, in community, as part of the kingdom of God.
By weeping. By silence. By hugs. By prayer.
Because one day, those who mourn will be comforted, and this will be their story: death is not the answer, but merely a chapter; death is not forever, but merely momentary; death is a speed bump.
Yes, Jesus wept. We weep. And then Jesus prayed that God would use even his suffering to show God’s glory.
Can we pray that? Can we comfort those who mourn? Can we acknowledge that life hurts sometimes, that our relationships aren’t meant to be terminal, but that the reality of life is that sometimes, we feel broken?
There are no shortcuts, no easy ways through life. But Jesus shows up, and says, focus on joy. Your happiness will come and go, but your joy, your joy in the Lord and the truth we believe in through Jesus’ resurrection, that is forever.
We don’t have to understand. We just have to follow Jesus.
Cry. Mourn. Pray. Trust. Come together.
Be like Jesus.