By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Rev. 21: 1-6a
John 11: 32-44
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
― Helen Keller, 1880-1968, American Author, Newspaper Columnist and Disabilities Advocate
John 11:32-44 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.”
At my previous church, Bethesda Presbyterian in Bethesda, Maryland, one of our church families was the Nyikuli family from Kenya. Anne Nyikuli was on the Kenyan Embassy staff. Her husband Peter was an economist who worked for the Kenyan government. The entire family was very involved in the church; their children grew up there. Anne herself was a trained Stephen Minister. Some of you know what Stephen Ministers are, but for those of you who don’t, this is a group of folks from your church who go through some advanced training so that they can provide pastoral care to the sick and the grieving. Anne was a very good Stephen Minister.
But then it was her turn to need support. Her mother back in Kenya died. She returned home and was gone for over a month. When she came back, she met with all the Stephen Ministers and invited me to come as well. She said, “Americans don’t know how to grieve.” She told us how she arrived in the Nairobi airport and then was driven several hours deep into the heart of Kenya to the small village where she grew up and her mother had died. “Our process of grieving lasted a month,” she explained. She was surrounded by villagers and friends who stayed by her side. They encouraged her to grieve in public, and they grieved as well, because Anne’s mother was deeply respected. “We freely walked through the village, crying and mourning together,” she said. All of the arrangements of the funeral were handled by others so that Anne and her family were not distracted from what was assumed to be their primary responsibility: grieving. Her embassy gave her that entire month off as a matter of course. That was how Kenyan culture handled grief.
It contrasts so much, she said, to the way Americans grieve. You’re given a few days off from work. You’re immediately overwhelmed by the business of death: funeral arrangements, dealing with the estate. You’re lucky to get a few days off from work. And above all, you have to be careful about showing too much emotion: you risk other people avoiding you or advising you to get ahold of yourself. Friends will come around, but often only if you aren’t too demonstrative. And you’re supposed to get over it quickly, or there’s something wrong with you. “American grief is sterile,” Anne said, “and what happens is you really don’t get a chance to feel. People need a chance to feel. In Kenyan culture, grief isn’t a weakness. Feelings aren’t a weakness. They’re part of being human. If they don’t have expression, you only internalize them.”
Anne’s observations had a powerful influence on how Bethesda’s Stephen Ministers thought about how to handle grief, and also on how I work with families who are grieving.
Our gospel lesson today contains one of the most familiar verses of the Bible. In Greek, it says edakrysen ho Iesous: Jesus wept. On the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem stands the teardrop-shaped Dominus Flevit church. The Latin title of the church means “The Lord Wept.” It is so named because of the story in Luke of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his death, and how “his tears were like great drops of blood.”
The thought that Jesus, the Son of God, might have grieved at the graveside of his friend, or been so frightened and stressed when he knew he was to die that he shed tears, gives us pause. On the one hand, it’s an affirmation of his humanness. It makes Jesus someone we can relate to, someone who feels the way we feel and struggles the way we struggle.
On the other hand, we don’t know quite what to make of the Son of God crying. Our too-Westernized way of thinking views such demonstrations of emotion as signs of weakness. In the R&B hit “I Wish It Would Rain,” the Temptations sing
My eyes search the skies desperately for rain
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops
And no one will ever know that I’m crying
Crying when I go outside
And countless songs of every stripe remind us “that a man’s not supposed to cry.” So what’s the Son of God doing, crying? After all, when he’s crying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knows he’s going to be crucified but also resurrected, right? So why cry? And in this story, Jesus surely knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So why cry?
Context helps. Jesus has arrived four days too late to save Lazarus from dying. Mary and Martha are angry, hurt, and disappointed that he didn’t arrive sooner; they believe Jesus could have healed their brother. Mary and Martha are surrounded by friends and even Jewish leaders who apparently respect them and are doing exactly what Anne Nyikuli’s village did when she came to bury her mother: they’re supporting Mary and Martha and allowing them to grieve.
Scripture says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” There’s some discussion in scholarship whether the Bible says that Jesus was “deeply moved” or if it actually says he’s angry. Anger is another emotion we don’t often like to associate with Jesus. If he is angry, what would be angry about? The great Biblical scholar Raymond Brown gives us a clue: the word that could be translated as either “angry” or “deeply moved” is often used of Jesus when he finds himself confronting the realm of Satan—the manifestation of the evil that afflicts the world. Those manifestations of evil include sin, yes; but even more they include suffering, human sadness, and especially death. This is righteous anger, the anger of someone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, the anger of someone who sees how the people of the world suffer because of the evil that afflicts it. And in Jesus’ case, it is the anger of someone who can do something about it.
And that’s what Jesus does. He raises Lazarus from the dead. To the biblical writer, if Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead—and later, when Jesus himself rises from the dead—Jesus has fully and completely conquered Satan, conquered evil, conquered all of it. Death is the ultimate manifestation of the power of evil in the world, and Jesus has dramatically and for all time completely conquered it.
The defeat of death is not something that anyone can do. The defeat of death is an act of God. Our reading from Isaiah is a prediction of the coming “day of the Lord” when God will defeat death once and for all and prepare a “great feast” that shall be for “all the peoples”:
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of God’s people will be taken away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; …
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in the Lord’s salvation.
Listen to this very carefully: this is not just any statement about who God is. This narrows down to some specific characteristics of the God for whom we wait: The God who wipes away every tear…the God who takes away our disgrace. The God who prepares a great feast for all the peoples. This is not the God we often hear of from End-Time preachers, who warn us of God the Judge who hates us for our sins and will destroy the wicked. No, this is the God who has sympathy for the human condition; the God who knows the burden that we bear because of the shroud of death cast over all life; the God who knows our shame because of our shortcomings and flaws and who is frustrated, hurt, and angry for our sakes and wants to remove that shame, wants to comfort us by personally putting the divine hand to each of us and gently wipe every tear from our eyes. This is a God who understands our grief, who stands beside us in our grief, who even understands, as Jesus does, why we might blame God for our grief—but this God passionately loves us and passionately hates the way we suffer and God has decided to do something about it.
This is the God for whom we have waited: the God who doesn’t hate us, but grieves with us—the God who hates the burden we bear, who feels it deeply, and wants to remove it; the God who loves us, who takes deep personal delight in us, the God who cares for us. In Christ we see this God shed tears for us and shed tears with us; we see this God so moved by the human condition that God decides to do something about it.
This is the God for whom we have waited: not the over-righteous, grim-faced judge, but the sympathetic, compassionate, loving redeemer, who understands the deep scars that life and its limitations put on us, and so lifts them, once and for all, to the point of defeating death itself, forever and ever.
This is the God for whom we have waited: the Lord, who wipes away every tear.
This is the God for whom we have waited: the Lord Yahweh, who loves us. This loving God isn’t ashamed of our grief, but understands it, and shares it, and personally bears the burden of it with us; but more than that, this God has had with the weight of darkness on our lives, how it hurts and limits us and grieves us and burdens us, and has decided to eliminate that weight of evil once and for all, and so has defeated death itself.
This is the God for whom we have waited: the Lord who saves us.
This is the God for whom we have waited: Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.
 Brown, Raymond. The Gospel According to John, I-XI. Anchor Bible Commentary, Albright and Freedman, eds. Doubleday & Co., 1966. P. 435.