John 11:1-44

March 6, 2022
Joanna Harader

On Wednesday, after the morning Ash Wednesday labyrinth time, I ran into Dillons to pick up a few things. The lady behind me in line noticed the ashes smeared on my forehead (they were kind of hard to miss) and said, “Oh, is it Ash Wednesday already?” I assured her that it was, and in response to her surprise that it was Lent again already, I commented that it’s kind of felt like two years of non-stop Lent. “Yes,” she replied. “I guess you’re right.” 

COVID time has been heavy. The darkness, the grief. It seems especially heavy right now. We are surrounded by death:

–Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are dead, thousands more wounded, thousands of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes, thousands of Russians protesting their country’s violence against Ukraine have been arrested. And, of course, we know that Ukraine is not the only place in the world experiencing warfare and violence.

–Many of you have experienced the death of a loved one recently, by COVID or other means. Many of you have loved ones who are ill; you are sitting in fear of their death.

–For me, personally, our cat Christina died a couple of weeks ago; Ryan’s Aunt Cindy died one week ago; the anniversary of my Dad’s death tomorrow (9 years).

So somehow slipping into the story of Lazarus this week feels right, or comfortable, or at least familiar: “Now a certain man was ill.”

There it is. The shadow. The hint of death.

“So the sisters sent a message to Jesus.”

And we are there: taking the call from our sibling, reading the text from our friend, coming up short when we see the Facebook post.

“After having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

The writer of John throws in a lot of theological dialog here; we can get lost in the wordiness. But when we focus just on what Jesus does, it is achingly familiar. I imagine most of us have been in that agonizing position, when we get the message about the illness and we wonder: How bad is it? Is this really it? Should I go? Should I leave now or after that meeting tomorrow? How long will I be there? What should I pack?

When Jesus finally heads to Bethany, he seems to know that Lazarus is already dead. But it says that when Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. So maybe Jesus didn’t know the full story? Lazarus is really, truly dead—in the tomb for four days. And some—many—of “the Jews,” Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ church family, had come to console the sisters.

It can be disorienting to show up to a scene like this. To land in the middle of other people’s grief. When we got to the church for Aunt Cindy’s funeral on Thursday, we walked right into it: Ryan’s uncle, grieving his wife of 50 years; Ryan’s cousins whose mom had just died; teenagers who had lost their grandmother. And friends. Friends grieving her death. Friends there to support the family. Friends there to just be. To bear witness. To honor Cindy’s memory and hold space for all of the grief.

And grief definitely needs a lot of space. You never know how it will show up. There may be lots of jokes, lots of laughing, repeating the same stories over and over. There may be tears—thin streams leaking from the corner of your eyes or heaving sobs. Some people will be angry, others will be numb. Some people in grief frantically do all the things and others can barely move. Different people experience grief differently, and the same person experiences grief differently from one day—even one moment—to the next.

Jesus and the disciples walk into all of this. It is an emotional scene. Martha comes out to Jesus and says, “If you had been here . . .”. It’s hard to read her tone across these thousands of years, but it seems realistic to hear a hint of anger in these words along with the sorrow, the regret, the weariness.

Martha goes to get Mary, whose grief has kept her in her house, with her friends who are consoling her. Mary quickly goes to Jesus and says the same words: “If you had been here . . .”.

Mary is weeping. Their church friends are weeping. And Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” He is distressed. Troubled. There are hints of anger in the original Greek.

And who is he angry at? The Pharisees who are threatening his life and making it dangerous for him to travel? Himself for not coming sooner? Mary and Martha for saying he should have come sooner? Lazarus for dying?

So often anger is mixed with our grief. We are angry at ourselves, at the person who has died, at the doctors or the other driver or the insurance company that wouldn’t pay for the treatment. We are angry at everyone and at no one.

The emotions that surround death are intense. And for all of the theological language in the Gospel of John, for all of John’s insistence that Jesus is eternal and divine and of the Spirit, John presents Jesus here as excruciatingly human. When Jesus sees the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he weeps.

And then the Jews—the church friends who are there to comfort the sisters—they say something beautiful. Something that is maybe the deepest truth of all; they name what is under and around and overshadowing all of the anger and fear and sadness. When Jesus weeps, they say, “See how he loved him!”.

See how he loved him.

We know, of course, that Jesus loves Lazarus. When Mary and Martha send the message to Jesus, they refer to their brother as “he whom you love.” And just two verses later, the narrator tells us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” We know Jesus loves Lazarus. And now, as Jesus weeps at his tomb, we see it.

Grief is sacred because it comes from love.

From love for the person who is in pain; the person who has died.

From love for others who are grieving.

From love for people around the world that you have never met, but who are kindred humans on this earth with you, suffering unimaginable violence.

Our grief comes from our love. And it is sacred.

In this image of Jesus weeping, we can know God’s presence with us in our own grief. In all of our grief.

When we are aware of the pain in the world, it is tempting—I am tempted–to feel guilty about our own personal grief. Because what is a dead pet, an Aunt’s funeral, compared with the terror that is going on in the Ukraine? And then I think of Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb.

The only other time in the Gospels we see Jesus weep is in Luke, when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He weeps for the state of the world; for the injustice that is done to and by his people. He weeps for the Ukraine. For children in poverty. For racial injustices done in the past that continue to today. In Luke, Jesus weeps over the big stuff.

And here, in John, Jesus weeps because his friend is dead. Because his other friends are sad, and possibly a little angry with him. Because he’s overwhelmed with his own emotions.

All of Jesus’ weeping, all of his grief. All of our weeping, all of our grief. It is all sacred. Because it is born out of our love. There is not a hierarchy. There are not “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” when it comes to grief.

I think the best line I came across about this story this week is that it’s hard to read it when you’ve read it. Meaning that when you know the end, it’s hard to really experience the full story. It’s hard not to jump ahead. We know that Jesus calls Lazarus and he walks right out of the tomb. Alive again!

That is the promise we hold. That we have life through Jesus. We have life on both sides of death. I in no way want to diminish that hope. That promise. I believe it is true. It is our foundation.

Isn’t it interesting, though, that in this forty-four verse story, only the last two verses tell of the resurrection. There is a lot of space given here for grief—for Mary’s grief and Martha’s grief and Jesus’ grief.

It is a space God allows for us and a space we must give each other—and ourselves. Because the grief . . . the grief is about the love.

The grief and the love are, somehow, part of the life that Jesus offers. And it is all sacred.

Thanks be to God.