After a long Old Testament reading and an even longer Gospel, I think it had better be a short sermon!
There is one question about our gospel reading which has puzzled many biblical scholars and theologians, and that is this: why does Jesus weep at the grave of Lazarus? There is an obvious problem: if he knows he is going to raise Lazarus, what is there for him to cry about?
It is an interesting question. The verse “Jesus wept”, such economical language, so direct and so honest, the verse “Jesus wept” is one of the most pastorally helpful verses in the bible. It is pastorally helpful because it gives us a sense that Jesus shares in our sorrows. It is important that it should come in John’s gospel, because John does not have the account of the Agony in the Garden that we find in the other gospels. “Jesus wept” is an important indication of the reality of Jesus’ humanity in John’s gospel, it is a tangible manifestation of what is set out theologically in the opening of the gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. We see the extent of this becoming flesh and dwelling among us, we see how far the Word has descended, embracing not only our flesh but even our tears. “Jesus wept”; these words can be words of comfort for anyone who has cause to find themselves weeping.
And yet there are scholars who profoundly disagree with this way of understanding this verse. For them, Jesus wept not because he shares our sorrows and our griefs. The pastoral approach that I have just described they reject as sentimental. For them, Jesus’ tears are tears of frustration, even tears of anger. Jesus is frustrated at the unbelief of even those who are closest to him. Jesus is frustrated that they cannot recognise that death is not a final separation, Jesus is frustrated that they cannot recognise that He has power even over death.
Whilst there may be something in this argument – it is certainly true that Jesus is frequently depicted in the gospels as frustrated with the unbelief He encounters even among His own followers – whilst there may be something in this argument, I think it is wrong to dismiss the idea that Jesus weeps out of sorrow. It is wrong because it underestimates the extent of Jesus’ identification and solidarity with humanity in its weakness and even in its sinfulness and unbelief. This is something which has struck me again and again this year when reflecting on the gospels from the baptism of Jesus all the way through to the Cross. Jesus identifies with our weakness, He puts Himself in the place of the weak and the outcast, He puts Himself even in the place of sinners. Jesus’ tears are not fundamentally tears of frustration; they are tears of sorrow, and tears of solidarity with the sorrowful; they are the tears of one whose power over death does not prevent Him from comprehending the terror and emptiness it can hold from a human perspective.
And Jesus continues to share in our pain and our suffering and our sorrow. If you don’t believe me, just turn to the story of the conversion of S. Paul. To Paul, or Saul as he then was, Jesus says “why do you persecute me?”. He doesn’t say “why do you persecute my followers?”. He says “why do you persecute me?”. He continues to share in our struggles and our sorrows.
And so Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, and He weeps with us now. And well we may feel like weeping during these days which are hard and lonely for so many. And well we may feel like weeping when even the doors of our churches are locked, and the grace and comfort of the sacraments and the fellowship we enjoy together are unavailable to us, at least in their familiar, tangible forms. Yes, Jesus weeps with us now.
But as some of us perhaps find ourselves with a little more space and time to reflect on what we thought of as our normal life, we might also consider what else causes Jesus to weep. Maybe He weeps that it has taken the Corona virus to get parents to spend time with their children. Maybe He weeps that it has taken the Corona virus for us to behave like neighbours to those around us. Maybe He weeps that it has taken the Corona virus for us to increase the support that we give to some of the least fortunate in our society. Maybe He weeps that it has taken the Corona virus to force us to reduce the air pollution that has such a negative effect on the health of our fellow human beings and on the whole planet. Maybe He weeps that it is not only the Corona virus that closes the doors of our churches, and that as well as the hundred or so people who would normally have come to our churches today there are thousands living in the benefice for whom the locking of our doors makes no practical difference at all.
So we can and we should take comfort in the tears of Jesus. He cries with us, and we cry with Him and we cry to Him. We feel like the scattered dry bones in the prophecy of Ezekiel, fragmented, broken apart, unable to function as a body, and we long for His spirit to unite and animate us. Let’s take comfort in the tears of Jesus, let’s take comfort in His solidarity with our weakness and our sinfulness and even our unbelief. There is no depth that we can descend to and be beyond His compassion and His power to save. And so we can take comfort too in the knowledge that He has the power to bring joy out of sorrow, and good out of evil. At the grave of Lazarus He was able to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, belief out of unbelief. And so it may that His grace will yet bring new life out of the difficult situation we now face.
But let’s also be open to the challenge of Jesus’ tears. The abnormality of our current lives gives us an opportunity to notice things about what we consider to be normality that we perhaps had not seen before. Yes, He shares our sorrow, yes, He weeps with us, but it may be too that there are times when it is our coldness and indifference that brings tears to His eyes.