Text: John 11
If you’ve never memorized any verses of scripture, I want to offer you a gift today. It’s John 11, verse 35. I bet every one of you can memorize it before you leave today. I’m going to say it to you and see if you can repeat the whole thing back to me. Are you ready: Jesus wept.
Good job! I knew you could do it. But here’s the thing… it’s not just a cool thing that you now know the shortest verse in the Bible. It’s also one of the very, very significant verses of the Bible, and that’s what I want to talk about today. Have you ever thought about it: the significance that Jesus wept… that he had deep feelings. We often say that he is fully God and fully human, but I think it’s easy to gloss over what it means that he is fully human. He’s been where we are; he’s felt all the feels. And that’s really important.
Today I want to look with you at the extended story in John 11. There is much there we could look at; in fact one year I took 4-5 sermons to go through this chapter. But today we are going to look at the whole thing, focusing in on Jesus’ humanity and what that shortest of all verses can teach us. First I want to remind you of the overall story and the main characters in it. But then I want to spend most of our time talking about Jesus and what his deep feelings mean within the story as well as for us.
Let’s start with the disciples. As the chapter opens, Jesus is some distance away from Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived. Bethany is also pretty close to Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples have gone away to put some distance between them and Jerusalem, where Jesus got trouble healing and teaching near the Temple. (Remember previous weeks, healing the man at the pool on a Sabbath, comparing the Pharisees to robbers and thieves of God’s sheep?) Jesus gets word that Lazarus is sick, but then stays put for two more days before heading to Bethany. The disciples are at once concerned that he doesn’t rush back to heal Lazarus, but then concerned when he does decide to go because they will be facing risk in going near Jerusalem again. Jesus explains to them why he has delayed and why he is going. And that really provides the key to understanding all that will follow. It’s there in verse 4, spoken to the disciples: “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” As we move through the story, keep God’s glory in focus.
Martha is the responsible and duty-focused sister, the one in a different story who worked in the kitchen to prepare food when Jesus came to visit. She is the one who comes out to welcome and receive Jesus as he comes into town now. She is the “doer.” Here Martha seems to have her faith and theology right as well, even if we can’t quite peer into her soul. She asks where Jesus has been, but trusts in Lazarus’ resurrection on the last day. And even as the story unfolds she knows that Jesus can do anything. She acknowledges Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.” (v. 27) And with that, she goes to get Mary, who is still in the house mourning.
Mary is the one who sat at Jesus’ feet… the relational one… the emotional one. In another story she extravagantly poured perfume on his feet and wiped them with her hair. Now she is holed up in the house, halfway through shivah, the Jewish period of mourning. It was customary for friends to sit with those grieving and come alongside them in their grief. Thus they were weeping loudly together (v. 33).
Martha had met Jesus outside of town and now goes to get Mary. In fact, there is no indication that Jesus went to the house at all. Perhaps this is again an indication of the risk in coming back near Jerusalem. Interestingly, Martha also speaks “secretly” to Mary, saying that “the Teacher” is asking for her. It is unclear whether Martha was just giving her privacy at this news or trying to not announce Jesus’ arrival in the presence of so many neighbors, but when Mary left the house in a rush, the group followed after her thinking she was going to grieve at the tomb. We will read later in chapter 12 that some of this crowd reported Jesus to the authorities (but also that some believed). So that risk for Jesus is ever-present.
But then Mary comes to Jesus and throws herself, weeping, at his feet. This is her own version of what Martha did, indicating that she recognizes him as the Christ and Son of God. It is at this point she speaks the exact same words that her sister, Martha, had spoken: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 32) They are the same words, but somehow sound different from Mary’s lips.
I should note that I don’t understand Mary or Martha to have been blaming or accusing Jesus. The timing indicates that Lazarus died very soon after the messenger was sent for Jesus. Rather, they are both grieving his absence and recognizing that he could have done something about sickness though death now seems a final reality.
We don’t really hear from Lazarus in today’s text because he is dead, but we might ponder what he was thinking as he grew increasingly sick to the point of death. Was he hoping Jesus would make it? Did he share his sisters’ faith in Jesus’ power? Was there a point when he realized Jesus wasn’t going to make it and how did that play out in his faith and emotions?
Between Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we have a broad range of human response to suffering and death. Sometimes we call out to God out of faith, sometimes grief, sometimes life and death need. What was going on with Jesus during all this? Remember… keep your eye on the glory of God!
When Jesus took all this in – Mary at his feet wailing in grief, the crowd of neighbors now gathered around and also wailing, and Mary’s statement – he snorted. Yes, I said ‘snorted.’ There’s a whole bunch of underlying vocabulary in this verse and it’s an interesting puzzle to piece it all together. What our text translates as “deeply moved in spirit” comes from words that literally mean “snort like a horse.” It is a phrase or figure of speech that is trying to describe that kind of emotional response that wells up from deep, deep within and takes you off-guard. And the particular emotion it is describing is one of anger or indignation. It’s not a calculated “harrumph!” but a sudden burst of anger. Adding to that, we read that Jesus was also “troubled.”
What caused this response? Well John tells us. It is “when Jesus saw Mary and the crowd wailing.” That’s his response. For most of my life I had in mind that this is where Jesus puts his arm around Mary and says, “There, there; it will be okay; I’m going to make everything better.” But that’s not his response at all. He, who IS truly the compassionate one, SNORTS in anger at the scene.
Another clue to his response is in what happens next. He snorts in anger and is troubled and then asks, “Where have you put Lazarus?” (v. 34) They – the crowd – answer, “Lord, come and see.” (v. 34)
And as they go to the tomb where Lazarus is buried, we get to our memory verse for today: “Jesus wept.” (v. 35) Now it seems out of place. Is he angry or sad? Maybe now he’s grieving along with Mary like we might have expected. Well, no, I don’t think that’s what is going on. For one, he’s on the move. And though you don’t see it in English, there is a different word used for his crying. In fact, that’s the difference. Mary and the neighbors were wailing, a public and almost ritual grieving. Jesus cried tears, a more private and personal emotional response. It is encouraging that Jesus, who is God in the flesh, can cry tears. But what is he crying about? It doesn’t seem to be a “there, there” moment with Mary. And, in fact, he is walking toward the tomb where he is about to raise Lazarus back to life, so it doesn’t even seem like it would be over the death of Lazarus. Let’s hold that question.
I hold it because Jesus snorts in anger one more time before getting to the tomb. Seeing his private tears as they walk, the crowd has two responses, commenting out loud. Some say, “See how he loved him!” (v.36) They are right that Jesus loved Lazarus, but I don’t think that’s why he is crying. Others say what Mary and Martha said, but with a little more doubt and accusation: “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” (v. 37) Maybe he’s crying because he blew it and didn’t get here in time. And then, again, Jesus snorts in anger just as they all arrive at the tomb. (v. 38)
Jesus is angry, troubled, and tearful. I love that he is that emotional. It’s not something you expect from the God-man. You expect love and mercy, but those are a little more lofty or something. I don’t expect a Jesus that laughs or gets angry, much less one that giggles or snorts. And yet, here he is: angry, troubled, and tearful. So, we can get that much out of it; when we say Jesus was fully God and fully human, we shouldn’t short-change the fully human part. He has emotions and feels things deeply. But why, in this situation? Why was he so emotional?
Keep Your Eye on the Glory
This is where I go back to the glory. Keep your eye on the glory. All that is happening is for the glory of God and so that the Son of God will be glorified. He told us so. It is so God will shine and be shown to be the weightiest, most solid, THERE, powerful, eternal, reality of all. And Jesus as well.
This is not a self-contained story or miracle. All the miracles were about the glory of God and Jesus being glorified. There is a trajectory here and it doesn’t end with Lazarus being raised, but with Jesus being crucified and raised and being the Son of God. Jesus has been public for three years. He has taught about the Kingdom of God and he has done countless miraculous signs to point people to the Kingdom of God. He has faced increasing risk and knows with certainty where he is now headed. He knows that sin and death will not win, and he knows that God will have victory through his own obedient sacrifice. And he knows that raising Lazarus will give those watching one last great sign that it’s all true, that even the strongest thing they know – DEATH – is not stronger than the love of God.
But they haven’t seen it yet. Martha was close; she affirmed her belief in the future resurrection and the power of God in Jesus the Son of God. But Mary couldn’t see it. She was grieving, as Paul would later write in Thessalonians, as “do the rest who have no hope.” The neighbors were grieving as those who have no hope. At most, some thought that if he had just arrived sooner, he could have healed Lazarus of sickness. Sickness can be cured, but death is final.
I don’t think Jesus was angry AT Mary or the others. I think he was that whole mix of emotion – angry, troubled, tearful – because God’s glory was SO close and all they could see was a cave with a stone lying against it. Death was a cave with a stone lying against it, with decaying flesh hidden behind it. It was only a few months at most until his own resurrection, and only moments until he would shout, “Roll away the stone!” but the time was not yet come and he had taken a long look at the hopelessness of humanity without God’s intervention.
It should have enraged him and made him weep. He was God’s champion sent to vanquish sin and death. I believe his emotion was stirred up by the immediacy of the battle he was about to fight and the stakes of that battle. These were indeed people he loved deeply; they and the whole world were at stake. And the deep emotion welled up within him.
And so, Jesus, the Son of God, the Light and Hope of the world, came to the tomb. “Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.” But then the power and glory of God was revealed, pointing to something greater yet to come.
What’s the Point?
I don’t know if you feel this way or not, but I think the Lazarus story can be one of the hardest stories to relate to in the Bible. It’s all well and good until Lazarus gets raised from the dead and then you are left wondering, “How come God’s never done this for me?” What are you supposed to take away from this? Is it that if you have strong enough faith, like Martha, then God will come through on the big miracle or answer to prayer? Or is it that if you are grief-stricken enough, like Mary, then God will have compassion and mercy and give you the big miracle or answer to prayer? There are some that think those are the lessons, but I think nothing could be further from the truth. God is not ours to manipulate or control through either faith or grief. Not only is that missing the point of this story, it’s not the way God works at all.
Instead, I believe these events were meant to point us to God’s glory. That’s the reason Jesus gave after all. At the Thanksgiving service last Tuesday I told people that God’s glory is a combination of who God is and what God has done. It’s His mighty deeds, but it’s also His character. That’s what’s on display here, not just raising a human being once from death, but anticipating the once and for all death and resurrection of Jesus for the world.
It’s a similar dynamic to worship music. It’s meant to point us to God and God’s glory, but it’s easy to take our eye off of that and focus on the music or the musician. Did I like it? Was Levi tearing it up on the drums? Weren’t those basses fantastic? Those things aren’t non-existent, but they are not why we do worship music. Or let me use another example from just a few weeks ago in the Gospel of John.
It’s the same dynamic as the Feeding of the 5,000. The crowd wants another miracle, wants to be fed magic bread. But Jesus is claiming more than that. He IS the Bread of Life. Mary and Martha (and presumably Lazarus) want to be well, want to live another day. But Jesus isn’t just bringing a resurrection; he IS THE Resurrection. He says that to Martha in verse 25: “I AM the resurrection and the life.” That’s the point… not what he did for Lazarus, but who He is.
We’ve been seeing all the ways Jesus spoke and lived out the invitation to “Come and See.” Here he not only does resurrection; he IS resurrection. What do you make of him? “I AM the resurrection and the life.” What do you see and hear in that and in his demonstration of God’s power with Lazarus? What difference will that make with you?