Waiting, Weeping, and Wiping

5th Sunday of Lent
John 11:1-45
6 April 2014

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                                   
Richard and I had the wonderful privilege of being exchange students to Cambridge at the same time that three of our seminary professors were there.   One of them, Shirley Guthrie (a man, yes kids, men used to be named Shirley) wrote a classic book called Christian Doctrine.   I don’t remember the book as well as I remember those days in the coffee shop in the city centre of Cambridge.   Richard had already taken Shirley’s class, and I was due to take it when we all returned from England.   I got pregnant, and Shirley kept telling me to stay in seminary.   He would get a rocking chair for the classroom.   In fact, our Emily born on the first day of fall semester, attended Reformed theology class for a whole semester, first going when she was about ten days old.   I am grateful for Shirley’s encouragement to stay in seminary, but even more grateful for the way Shirley taught me about the importance of the dialectical tensions in a healthy Christian faith.

So we talk about God’s judgment and God’s love, God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, Jesus’ humanity and his divinity, Christ’s majesty and his lowliness.  We value social justice and personal transformation.  We hold in tension our need to feel guilty and confess our sin, and to hear the good news of our forgiveness and God’s steadfast love.   We hold Tillich’s “You are accepted despite being unacceptable” in tension with Bonhoeffer’s call to “costly discipleship” Whenever we let go of one side of the dialectical tension, our theology and practice errs.
Today’s text from John is a great story of the dual nature of Christ – how he transcends our finite ability to see how things that appear bad are really opportunities for the glory of God and how despite his ability to bring life out of death, Jesus still weeps and is greatly disturbed by our suffering and grief, even though he knows he will make us triumph over it.

Watch in this story how Jesus waits to come to heal, how he weeps with the people, and how he finally wipes away all tears by bringing life from death.

John 11:1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

So Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were close friends of Jesus.   Luke tells us the story of Jesus visiting them – how Mary was listening to every word and Martha was busy being hostess.   According to John, Mary was the one who gave Jesus the extravagant gift of perfume all over his feet.   Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ illness and he is not troubled by it, but sees the illness as a means by which God will be glorified.   He waits two days to go.   He waits until he has some transcendent awareness that Lazarus has already died.   Jesus reassures everyone who is fretting over this.   He is both strong and weak.   He is not worried about the ultimate outcome, but disturbed and weeping with the people.   It seems like Jesus would be either powerful and untouched by Lazarus’ death or emotional and upset, if he does not have the power to affect change over Lazarus’ death.   So Jesus is equally powerful and triumphant, and he identifies with their sadness and is himself disturbed and weeping.   He rises above their grief, able to see and to make sure that death does not get the final word, but he still grieves with them or at least grieves that they cannot see what he sees – that Lazarus will live.   Paul says in the first letter to the Thessalonians, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  (NRSV)

We grieve as those who do have hope.   Like Christ in this story.   We are not anxious about death as it is approaching.   We wait for it, knowing death will come.   When it happens, we are deeply disturbed and we weep over our loss, but we do not weep as ones with no hope.   We know that Christ is the resurrection and the life.   We know that our spirits never die, though our bodies do.   We believe our resurrected bodies will somehow be united with our never dying spirits one day.   This belief keeps us from despairing.   Jesus demonstrates for us how to face death with hope.   Wait for it, weep over it, and know that it will be wiped away in the end.   When Jesus walked this earth, he was able to show the people that he had the power to wipe away death – in Lazarus’ case, even physical death was wiped away.    That’s why this story gives us hope.   We see what God in Christ can do.  

We see it in this story, which anticipates the resurrection of Christ himself after three days in the tomb.  
Presbyterians have a high view of the sovereignty of God.   Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”   That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who… protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head.

In the Study Catechism of 1999, we ask, “If God’s love is powerful beyond measure, why is there so much evil in the world?”   Evil is a terrible abyss beyond all rational explanation.   Its ultimate origin is obscure.   Its enormity perplexes us.   Nevertheless, we boldly affirm that God’s triumph over evil is certain.  In Jesus Christ God suffers with us, knowing all our sorrows.   In raising him from the death, God gives new hope to the world.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is himself God’s promise that suffering will come to an end, that death shall be no more, and that all things will be made new.”