Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
Upon opening his new store, a businessman received a bouquet of flowers. He became dismayed on reading the enclosed card, that it expressed “Deepest Sympathy”.
While puzzling over the message, his telephone rang. It was the florist, apologizing for having sent the wrong card.
“Oh, it’s alright.” said the storekeeper. “I’m a businessman and I understand how these things can happen.”
“But,” added the florist, “I accidentally sent your card to a funeral party.”
“Well, what did it say?” ask the storekeeper. ”
‘”Congratulations on your new location'” was the reply.
We can be amused by this lighthearted approach to flowers at a funeral – in fact, I’ve shared this joke at several funerals – but to all of us who have lost someone close to us, death is rarely a laughing matter. And yet, in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ most famous sermon from the Sermon on the Mount, he calls those who mourn blessed, elaborating that they will be comforted.
Jesus calls those who have lost someone they loved blessed. Seriously?
Too often, I hear people of faith try to comfort others in the moment with words like:
“God needed another angel.”
“God doesn’t test us with more than we can bear.”
“God is doing something big in your life.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“God only gives his biggest tests to his best soldiers.”
“God does everything for a reason.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find those things terribly comfortable at a moment of loss.
A year and a half ago, as I shared the eulogy for Joanne’s grandmother, I don’t remember being comforted by any of those trite sayings – or easy platitudes.
But I was comforted. I’ll get to that in a minute.
For the time being, I want us to take a look at the story of Lazarus – and his friend Jesus – again. What does Jesus have to share with us about mourning – both through his words and his actions?
Jesus arrives in Bethany, the home of his best friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Jesus has been merely two miles away in Jerusalem but he arrives four-plus days after Lazarus died. Jesus came to pay his respects – but his arrival is met with a less than happy reception.
Lazarus’ sisters are clearly not happy. One, Mary stays home even though she knows Jesus is coming; the other, Martha, goes out to meet him. One is so sad and angry, that she stays home; one is so sad and angry, that she goes out to meet the source of her frustration head on.
In that moment, the sadness is with Lazarus’ death – but the anger is at Jesus, because Mary and Martha believe he should have been there.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “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. Do you go to God with the big stuff? Do you wade into the water of your relationship until the water is up to your ankles, or your knees, or your waist… or your neck?
Martha speaks to Jesus in a direct, and unbowed manner.
“If you’d been here earlier, Lazarus would not have died.” That’s rough, but in the midst of her mourning, Martha isn’t pulling any punches.
And then… “I know God hears your prayers.”
Interesting. Martha doesn’t appear to be asking Jesus to raise her brother – in fact, in the next exchange, Jesus says Lazarus will rise and Martha claims Lazarus’ resurrection at the end of the age. Martha believes in Jesus – and in what he can do – but her mind is not yet focused on an actual, instantaneous resurrection.
So Jesus settles in for some teachable moments – even if Martha doesn’t fully understand. Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life – and she admits to agreeing with that.
Now, Martha is the doer, right? She’s the one who wanted to work before, while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus learning. We can see our own resemblance in Mary or Martha, right? We have a tendency to either be active in doing for God or being with God – Martha and Mary are clearly demarcated.
But Jesus gets the same reaction from Mary when she finally leaves the comfort of home – she seeks Jesus out, and a whole crowd of mourners follows her. She says, again, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Do you recognize that situation where someone is saying something with a term of respect but they’re not really being respectful?
Like expressing displeasure with a referee, and ending it with “sir,” even when using choice language otherwise? Or when a term of endearment, like ‘honey’ or ‘dear,’ is used in the midst of a less-than-friendly argument?
Here, Mary is calling Jesus ‘Lord,’ but her mourning, her sadness, is overwhelming.
And let’s not miss this: her mourning moves Jesus. It says that he was moved by the mourning of Mary, and of those gathered around. And when Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus himself weeps.
While this is the shortest verse in the Bible, it’s also one of the most powerful. Jesus, the Son of God, the creator of the universe, is so deeply moved by the loss of his friend and the pain of his friends’ family, that Jesus cries. Seriously, in the midst of his agony in the garden, Jesus sweats hard enough to be like drops of blood, but the one time he cries is at the death of Lazarus.
But here, in this moment, Jesus proves to be incarnational – God with us – because he is with the community in their sadness. Jesus models what it means to be like God in the sadness and mourning of these people. He doesn’t say anything deeply provocative; Jesus just cries with them.
And yet, even as Jesus mourns, some of the crowd is still giving him the business, still asking, ‘why didn’t the guy who could perform miracles show up to heal his own best friend?’
Jesus, God of the universe, is mourning himself – and people are still trying to justify the situation. They’re still trying to make sense of the way that a fallen world continues to hurt. Friends, bad stuff happens, people die. It doesn’t make sense but it is the world we live in after the Fall, after sin entered God’s good world.
But hear this clearly: sin and death do not get the last word.
In verses 38 to 43, Jesus changes the paradigm. He presents a new solution, a wildly different ending than anyone expected. Let’s keep reading:
Jesus arrives at the tomb, where a stone has been laid across the entrance – is that familiar to us? Is that echoing another story we know? Jesus says, “take away the stone.”
Jesus doesn’t lift a finger. Given what he’s about to do, couldn’t he have moved the stone? No, he tells those gathered there to move the stone – against Martha’s objections that Lazarus will “stink too bad.”
And then Jesus prays. It’s one of the coolest prayers in the whole Bible because it moves from thanksgiving and petition to action. [Sidebar: one of the greatest issues in the world today would be forever changed if the church would pray to God and leap into action.] So 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.”
Whoa. This whole process cost Jesus something. He could’ve shown up earlier. He could’ve saved himself the sadness and aggravation. But Jesus knew what would happen if the crowd saw the miracle that was about to take place. Jesus doesn’t have to go in to the tomb because he is lord over sin and death. He instead calls Lazarus out of the tomb- even wrapped in grave cloths, wrapped up like a mummy – or Jacob Marley.
And here, friends, we see the way that God wants us to handle pain and loss. Here is the model of love that Jesus sets for what it means to mourn – and for the church to comfort.
Jesus has called Lazarus out, but he turns to the people around him and says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Jesus incorporates the community into being part of the solution. The same community who doubted him, who ridiculed him, who failed to see the way that God could work.
Sure, these people knew what I learned in ninth grade biology: when you’re dead, you’re dead.
Their belief system, their understanding of reality, rejected any notion that the natural order of life could change, or that death could be overcome. They knew better because they hadn’t seen it before.
And then Jesus showed up, and changed everything.
Even as I revised this sermon, I received the news that Anne Davis, the daughter of my mentor and a former youth group member, had died while participating in Bike & Build. She was riding across country at twenty-two years old to raise money and awareness for those without homes. She was doing good work, God’s work, and her loss leaves me without words.
We have lost loved ones – and we will again – but the Comforter has beaten death over and over again. And he calls us again and again to take the things that bind others to death, that keep them held to expectations of what God can’t do, and to fully embrace the life God wants for us in the now – and the later.
Back to the celebration of my wife’s grandmother, I remember standing in front of the congregation at Lawrenceville UMC. I am not ashamed to say, I cried. I was sad because there would be no more trips to see her, no more sitting down to share meals together, no more grandma hugs.
But I had hope – and I still have hope. I believe that what Lazarus experienced in the short term, rising from the dead, is the future of all who believe. I believe that Lazarus was raised to set the table for Jesus’ resurrection, that while Jesus’ resurrection conquered sin and death for all of us, that Lazarus’ resurrection reminds us that God didn’t just do this once. God did this again and again.
And God is not done yet.
Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.
God is with us when we mourn, but God has called us to something greater, now and forever.
And we get to participate.
This week, you will meet those who are mourning.
You will interact with those who have lost someone or are in the process of losing someone.
Will you be one of those who cries and shakes their head at the way Jesus failed to show up? Or will you be one of the ones that recognizes that God is calling us to unwrap the dead?
We don’t need to say the wrong words. We know the words that Easter brings.
“Christ is risen! The tomb is empty! Jesus is coming again!”