Reflection 10th March: Lent 4 – John 11:17-35

Regulars here will know that this year we are doing a series on John. We have read and reflected on the beginnings of Jesus ministry in this gospel – the calling of the first disciples and the wedding at Cana. Then we turned to two of John’s long dialogues the first between Jesus and Nicodemus and the second which we read last week between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.


This week we are jumping forward 7 chapters to chapter 11. In this gospel, chapter 11 and the raising of Lazarus marks the end of what is now called the book of signs which begins in chapter 2 with the first sign, the turning of water into wine at the wedding. In the book of signs John narrates 7 miracles which he calls signs (hence the name). The focus is never the miracle itself but what it points to. Chapter 12 begins the second half of the gospel which narrates the last week of Jesus life.


There is never enough time between Christmas – when Jesus is born – and Easter – when Jesus dies to cover the whole story and so we have had to skip over a lot so let me give a very quick summary.


Last week we left Jesus in Samaria on his way back to Galilee from Jerusalem. He is only in Galilee briefly. There he heals an official’s son – the second sign. Then he returns to Jerusalem for the third sign – the healing of a man who was paralysed. Then back to Galilee for the fourth and fifth signs – the feeding of the 5,000 and walking on water. From there he returns again to Jerusalem where he heals the man born blind. The 6th sign. Clearly, the geography of this gospel is different to the Synoptics.


With each of these so called signs Jesus fame grows but so too the controversy surrounding him. The religious leaders are growing increasingly concerned about him and hostile towards him and try to arrest him. And so he leaves Jerusalem and heads out across the Jordan to where John had been baptising people, presumably to get out of the limelight for a bit. And this is where he is when he get news of Lazarus death.


Those familiar with this story will know he does not leave immediately. Rather he waits two days before heading to Bethany. Bethany is just outside Jerusalem and so Jesus is heading back into public view.


On his arrival Martha goes out to meet him.


This is the first time we are meeting Martha in the John’s gospel but John says that Jesus loved her, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus so we can assume he has met them before and that they are probably the same sisters from Luke’s gospel. In Luke’s story Mary sits and listens at Jesus feet whereas Martha is the sister who is distracted by her many tasks. Sermons on this passage often urge us to be a Mary, not a Martha, a name now synonymous with being a bit of a whinger.


I do love that Luke recounts this visit of Jesus to the home of Mary and Martha and that he absolutely affirms that it is good for women to also sit and listen to Jesus. But the work of hospitality, of creating space and preparing food is also important. This work over the centuries and perhaps even now has mostly fallen to women (though not always of course), women like Martha. And  I love that in today’s passage Martha is affirmed. Jesus has a lengthy discussion with her and she is the one in this gospel, not Peter, who first declares, “you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


After this declaration, Martha then goes and gets Mary who also come out to meet Jesus. The passage says that when Jesus saw her and the others there weeping he was deeply moved. He asked, “where have you laid him?” And they say, “Lord come and see.” Again this phrase, come and see. And upon seeing Jesus wept.


Jesus wept. These two words make up what is the shortest verse in the Bible. And it is where we left our reading today. This is of course not the end of the story. Most of you know the end story and we will read that next week. But this week I want to stay with Jesus weeping.


It seems a very strange thing for Jesus to do at this moment. Throughout this narrative Jesus does not appear to believe this is the end for Lazarus. On hearing of the illness he say, ““this illness does not lead to death.”


When, he finally decides to go to Lazarus he says to his disciples, “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”


And then on arrival he says to Martha, “your brother will rise again.”


And so given this confidence why is Jesus weeping? As always we cannot know but Debie Thomas puts forward some possibilities that I have found helpful as I contemplate this story, particularly this week.


  1. When Jesus wept, he legitimized human grief. Despite Jesus trusting that resurrection is around the corner, this promise of joy doesn’t cancel out the grief. His brokenness in the face of Mary and Martha’s sorrow negates all forms of Christian triumphalism that leave no room for lament. 2


  1. When Jesus wept he assured Mary and Martha, not only that their beloved brother was worth crying for, but also that they are worth crying with. Through his tears, Jesus calls all of us into the holy vocation of empathy, co-suffering, and lamentation.


  1. When Jesus wept, he respects the necessity of silence, the sanctity of the wordless and the unsayable. We should pay careful attention I believe when the Word himself stops speaking.  Sometimes there is nothing to be said in the face of loss; sometimes tears are our best and most honourable language.  In the face of grief we often feel a need for lots of  words, to wrap other people’s pain in platitudes, Bible verses, condolences, promises. This mostly comes from a good place and of course these can be deeply comforting at times. Jesus speaks a lot at times too. But through his wordless tears, Jesus cautions us to pause.  He shows us that at times silence and weeping, too, is faithful.


  1. When Jesus wept, he acknowledged the pain of death. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the precipitating event that leads to Jesus’s own arrest and crucifixion. Given this perhaps Jesus’s tears are an expression of grief over his own pending death. He knows that the end is imminent, he knows that his time with his friends is almost over, he knows that it’s nearly time to say goodbye to the lakes and skies and hills and stars he loves.  And he is sad about that. When Jesus weeps, he asserts powerfully that it is okay to yearn for life on this side of eternity as well as the next.

When Jesus dies on the cross and rises again he overcomes death. He shows us that death does not have the last word. There will be new life.

None the less death remains. And it still hurts. Jesus tears in the face of it show us that it is okay to feel a sense of wrongness and injustice in the face of it while also holding onto the hope of resurrection.


When I planned this series on John and decided to include John chapter 11 over these two weeks before Palm Sunday I did not know that I would literally be writing this particular sermon on the same day of David Hewitt’s funeral. What a special funeral it was.


None the less funerals are hard.


Jesus wept.


But I love the words of the church that we say at funerals,


Now that earthly life has come to an end we commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust trusting in the infinite mercy of God and hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ.


These simple, limited words hold our connection to this beautiful life and this planet, our pain at it ending but also our faith and our hope that it is not in fact the end.


We also use some of these words on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent. And as we journey through lent toward Easter we continue to hold the sufferings of the cross and the joy of resurrection that are both part of this beautiful thing we call life.


So let’s end this sermon today with a time of silence, a time to hold all that. As we discussed sometimes this is our most faithful response to all this.


And after a few moments the musicians will come and lead us in the song “Let the Son of God enfold you.”

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