Sunday Morning Greek Blog

May 19, 2021

What Makes God Weep?

Filed under: Greek — Scott Stocking @ 6:00 am
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Sermon preached by Scott Stocking, Wheeler Grove Rural Church, January 17, 2021. All opinions are my own.


This past year has certainly been a challenging one for the world. Many of us know people affected by COVID, whether testing positive without any more symptoms than a few sniffles, to those who unfortunately lost loved ones or their own lives to the disease. My wife works in a skilled nursing facility in Omaha as an occupational therapist, and had to put on her “protective armor” to work with residents who tested positive for the disease.

Jill and I also have two friends who went to death’s door with the disease, but have or are making what seems to be full recovery. One friend’s wife had actually gone to talk to the funeral home before he rebounded. Another friend, just in that last few weeks, had been on a ventilator. Those who go on a ventilator have a 10% chance of survival. He eventually got off the ventilator and beat the odds, and at last report, he was doing quite well in rehab, just having his trach removed and talking up a storm with his family members.

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, as I’ve never had two friends in one year come this close to death, and it reminds me both of how fragile life can be, and also how precious life is. In Jesus’s day, life was considered cheap. The philosopher Aristotle said, in so many words, you were born to either be an elite-class ruler or part of the masses of the lower-class ruled. There really wasn’t much of what we call the “middle class” in that day and age, socially or economically.

In the passage we’re looking at today, we see Jesus’s countercultural attitude toward life, at least countercultural in his day and age. Jesus did not think life was cheap. He valued the individual, regardless of their rank in life, and even regardless of the type of life they led. We will also see perhaps the most intense display of Jesus’s humanity as well as glimpses into his divine nature.

What Makes God Weep?

As we come to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11, we will see the full range of Jesus’s human and divine natures. Even though “all the fullness of the Deity dwells within him,” he is still fully human as well, so much so that the Gospel writers record Jesus using the title “Son of Man” for himself.

The story starts at the beginning of chapter 11 when Jesus learns that Lazarus, perhaps his best friend outside of the circle of the apostles, is sick. Jesus doesn’t seem concerned however, and like the good friend he is, he intentionally delays going to see Lazarus. Wait, wha? [Pause for effect, pretend to be confused and reread that sentence.] The apostles don’t under Jesus’s delay, but only because he knows “this sickness will not end in death,” but “is for God’s glory.” He eventually says cryptically a few verses later that “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” but the apostles don’t pick up on the subtle reference. Jesus must tell them plainly a few verses later that “Lazarus is dead.”

Now it should not surprise us that Type A Martha, the control freak of the two sisters, is the one to go out and meet Jesus at the gate. Since it took Jesus four days from the time he got the news (at least from a human source) to go the two miles from Jerusalem to Bethany, Martha had plenty of time to think about what she’d say. Martha is chomping at the bit to make sure Jesus knows that because he wasn’t there, it’s all his fault that Lazarus died. Pretty harsh, right? In fact, Martha is so focused on getting these first few words out, that we get no indication in the story that she’s in mourning. I think most of us know that feeling: we get our adrenaline going about something peripheral such that we forget how we’re supposed to feel or what we’re supposed to say about whatever the core issue is that is truly impacting us emotionally.

But either Martha knows she’s stuck her foot in her mouth after that first statement, or she really has been thinking about what her second statement would be: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Does that statement represent genuine concern, or is it more like a backhanded control freak statement? “I’ve waited four days for you to get here, Jesus, so you owe me big time!”

But Martha does prove to have a heart of gold, a heart full of faith, and a desire for great theological conversation when she goes on to say, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” If there were other people within earshot of that statement, I’m sure it would have turned heads, especially if any of the crowd were Sadducees. This is exactly the reasoning Abraham used, according to the author of Hebrews, to not hesitate to obey God’s command to him to (almost-) sacrifice Isaac. As such, Martha is the personal recipient of one of Jesus’s seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

So to this point in the story, what do we see of Jesus’s divine and human natures? Someone brings him the message that Lazarus is dying, but Jesus is most likely already aware of this given what he says to his disciples about it. He doesn’t seem to be concerned about Lazarus dying, which, from a human perspective, might make him appear cold, matter-of-fact, and uncaring. If this were you or I, we’d want to make every effort to go see the friend on their deathbed. But his divine nature knows the end of the story. Jesus implicitly trusts in his heavenly Father that the end result will be for his glory.

So here we have Jesus, quite stoically handling the news of Lazarus’s death and just matter-of-factly stating that he is the resurrection and the life. That last claim, by itself and at face value, would have been absolutely astonishing to his listeners. Most 30-year-olds in Jesus’s day were typically closer to their death than their birth, and the cultures around the Jewish people had little regard for the sanctity of life, as my opening illustration revealed. So keep that and Jesus’s initial response in mind as we look at vv. 32–39 here. We pick up the story after Martha has gone to bring Mary back to see Jesus.

Read John 11:32–33a.

Notice that Mary’s first response to Jesus is identical to Martha’s, except that Mary is making no pretense about her sorrow. She’s bawling, and everyone with her is bawling. The text doesn’t say, but I’m pretty sure Martha is standing there trying to be the strong one: “I’m not going to cry in front of Jesus! I’m not going to cry in front of Jesus.” Truly there is great sorrow here, and this is one of the few times in the Gospels where we see Jesus come face to face with not just mourners, but mourners who are most likely among his closest friends outside his inner circle. In the next few verses, we get a profound insight into the depths of Jesus’s human nature. Back to vs. 33:

Read John 11:33-35

There it is: “Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in our English Bibles. Nine letters. Six consonants and three vowels in three syllables. Yet nothing is more poignant, nothing more revealing of the depth of human sorrow than weeping. And this isn’t some Hollywood zoom-in shot of Jesus’s face where he sheds one dramatic tear. Oh no! Jesus is in full-on weeping mode with his friends. And even though the story doesn’t say it, I think it’s safe to say that, to the extent Martha was trying to be the “strong one,” Martha’s floodgates open up here; she can’t hold it in any longer, and she begins to weep as well, perhaps precisely because Jesus wept. How profound it is when we see first hand that Savior of the world feels AND shows the same emotions that you and I feel at the death of a loved one. How profound to know that our God does NOT turn a blind eye to our sorrow and pain.

Now Jesus’s weeping is not a sudden outburst that isn’t expected in the story. John, in fact, is building up the tension in the story to that climax. Look back at the end of vs. 33: John says Jesus is “deeply moved” and “troubled.” In the original language of the Scripture, that word is perhaps the strongest expression of “negative” emotion one could have. In Matthew 9:30, Jesus “sternly warned” the blind man not to say who healed him. That would have been akin to Jesus saying something like, “Don’t you dare, in a million years, tell anyone who did this to you.” At Jesus’s anointing in Bethany, where the prostitute broke an alabaster jar over Jesus’s head and let the perfume run down him, we’re told that those present (except for Jesus) “rebuked her sharply,” probably even to the extent of cursing her or reminding her in no uncertain terms about her profession.

Some commentators here go as far as suggesting that Jesus may have “snorted” (their word, not mine) here. On the one hand, he could have been choking back the tears in light of all the weeping. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, Jesus may also be on the verge of cursing death itself here. The one who is the resurrection and the life, the one who knew he himself must suffer horribly and die on the cross, and who knew God would thus give him ultimately victory over death, must face the death of a friend nonetheless. He shows himself to be the great high priest, as he’s called in Hebrews 4:15, who is not “unable to empathize with our weaknesses,” who has been tempted as we are, and yet was without sin.

Now I want to suggest something here that has probably never occurred to you: The main focus of John’s account of this story here is NOT that Jesus raises someone from the dead eventually. Jesus has already done several amazing miracles to this point, building up to the raising of Lazarus as the greatest of his miracles. Another miracle? I’m impressed of course, but not surprised. John has already hinted to us that that is going to happen in the story, with Jesus’s “I am” statement and Martha’s statement. Keep in mind that John, in his short epistles toward the end of the NT, is fighting against Gnosticism, a belief that nothing done in the body matters at all for eternal salvation. When John says, “Jesus wept,” he’s acknowledging that God considers human life precious and valuable; that the body does matter for our earthly existence. That’s why “Jesus wept” is at the center of this whole story. He intends this show of Jesus’s humanity as the highlight and climax of the story.

This is all pretty intense, right? So if we’ve hit the climax, where do we go from here? Well, there is “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say. There is, as literature professors would put it, the “anticlimax.” Note a further expression of Jesus’s humanity in vs. 36: “See how he loved him.” That word for love there typically implies a brotherly or familial love. It’s not the self-sacrificing agape love, and it’s certainly not any kind of romantic love. It reveals the deep friendship that Jesus had (and will have again) with Lazarus.

Even some in the crowd in v. 37 echo Mary and Martha’s sentiment that Jesus could have kept him from dying. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Read John 11:38–40

Once again, we see that word for “deeply moved” that we saw in v. 33. Jesus has still got some fire in him at this point. So when he asks for the stone to be taken away, I think he’s not just making a polite request here. I think he spoke it like I read it, with that “I’ve-had-enough-of-this” indignation. “Let’s get this over with; he’s been dead long enough.” Of course Martha, the rational one, has regained her composure in the time it took to walk over to the tomb, and isn’t too thrilled about consequences of removing the stone. That just stokes Jesus’s fire all the more. “I’m going to raise your brother and you’re worried it might stink a little bit?” I’m pretty sure that the “glory of God” at that point was not going to have any stink associated with it.

Read John 11:41–44

Now when I set out to write this sermon, I had intended to do the three shortest verses in the NT and tie them together in a neat little package. But the more I got into, the more the Spirit led me down the road I followed today, focusing on “Jesus wept.” One of the three shortest verses is “Pray continually,” or more literally, “pray without ceasing.” Jesus offers his prayer here. He doesn’t need to do this, because he knows God is always listening to him. But as he’s said all along in this story, his goal is to make sure God is glorified. He wants to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that what is about to happen is not some magic trick or sleight of hand. This is God-power all the way, the “incomparably great [resurrection] power for us who believe,” as Paul tells the Ephesians.

In v. 43, Jesus’s fire is still going. Again, it’s not a polite request or, “Hey, Lazarus, ollie ollie ots and free.” Jesus booms with a loud, commanding voice, loud enough to literally wake the dead, “Lazarus, come out!” I think it’s interesting that the NIV here says “The dead man came out.” Umm, looks like he’s not dead any more. The more literal translation here is “the one who has been dead came out.” Can I get an “Amen”?

The third short verse precedes “pray continually” in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always.” In the last part of v. 44, Jesus loses all the tension he’s been feeling to this point. I’m sure he’s got a huge smile across his face at this point, as do all those who’ve seen Lazarus rise from the dead and walk out of the grave. Jesus’s happiness, smile, and dare I say laughter are all additional profound insights into Jesus’s human side. The savior who weeps with us in our time of sorrow rejoices with us in our time of joy.

Conclusion/Call to Action

John 11 is a powerful story about Jesus’s love for a friend and his disgust with death and the seeming cheapness of life in the world around him. But how does that impact us today? What are steps that we can take as believers to promote the value of the individual, especially in this time when we’ve had to be isolated from ones we love?

In the ancient world, at and before the time of Christ, there were two practices that absolutely cheapened life. One of them was known as exposure. At that time, if you gave birth to a child you didn’t want, or the child was conceived in, shall we say, ill repute, it was legal, and in certain situation expected of you, to expose that infant to the elements and let the Fates decide what would become of the child. As Christianity took hold, Christians began to rescue these innocents. As Christianity grew and the concept that all life mattered began to take hold culturally, Constantine eventually outlawed the practice all together in the Roman empire.

The second practice was, in certain Greek democracies where they did not have the concept of freedom of speech, the casting of the ostraca. Ostraca were simply pieces of clay pots on which the voters (usually only “citizens”) wrote the name of a person whom they thought was not worthy of participating in their society any longer. The person receiving the most votes was “ostracized,” or banished from the city-state democracy. As you might imagine, the ancients had their share of folks on all sides who spread lies and misinformation about political enemies in order to influence who got voted off the island, so to speak.

In this day and age when our country is so divided on so many issues, it’s important that we learn how to not only respect our differences, but understand why each of us believes what we believe. Jesus’s disciples were a diverse group, from a hated tax collector to the lowly fishermen. My prayer is that we see the value in each and every individual and in what they bring to the table for the good of our Lord and our country. Peace to you all, and thank you for letting me share with you today.

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