Isiah 25:6-9 Revelation 21: 1-6a St John 11:32-44
The lection for today is related to ‘All Saints Day’. This festival reminds us of those countless witnesses, according to the book of the Revelation, ‘who no one can number’ and who surround the throne of God with their heavenly praise of the Lamb: Who hear, know, and experience Christ’s promise, “Behold I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
The 11th chapter of the holy gospel of St John concerns the events, associated with the raising of the dead Lazarus, which foretells the newness of which the Revelation of John speaks, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This 11th. Chapter is pivotal in the plan of St John’s presentation of the evangel. For it is the event of Lazarus’ raising and its disruptive consequences for the Jewish peoples’ relationship with the occupying Roman authorities that precipitates the discussion of how Jesus may be removed from the scene through his death. The counsel offered by the High Priest is that it is better that one man should perish than that the whole people should suffer (v.48) This was in the context of the consequences of the unwelcome attention of the Romans to the Jews, caused by controversies associated with Jesus’ action in raising of Lazarus from his death.
The raising of Lazarus is not simply, as an incident in the gospel narrative, a literary device, which St John uses to introduce the question of Jesus impending passion and death due to the Jewish authority’s planned execution of Jesus. This chapter is also filled with potent meaning as to St John’s view of the relationship between Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection and Christians understanding of their life. It concerns the way God has taken with us in Christ, encompassing as He does our human life in its vulnerability to the ravages of death and decay, encompassing our life with the grace of His life-giving presence.
To put these issues into more a manageable context it is necessary to concentrate our attention on particular aspects of St John’s account. To this end I take the shortest text in the New Testament. “Jesus wept.” (v.35 Chp. 11)
In the presence of the death of Lazarus, He who had previously said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (v 26) The One who says this of Himself weeps? Why is this so?
The onlookers of this drama suggest some answers. The Jews who see Jesus’ weeping say “See how he loved him.” They understand Jesus weeping in terms of his grief at the loss of a dear friend. This would be a perfectly reasonable observation except, except, St John has already told us that Jesus deliberately put off coming to Lazarus’ aid when he heard that he was sick. “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’” Again, when Lazarus’ death is reported Jesus says, “For your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” (v.15)
These are hardly the actions of one consumed with empathy and/or grief at the plight of his friend. St John indicates an intentional delay by Jesus in his coming to the situation of need and distress. According to Jesus we must seek the reason for this delay in his statement made in (v.4) that Lazarus’ illness and death is, “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”
How then is Jesus weeping to be understood as glorifying the Son of God and thus in turn glorifying the Father? It cannot be simply in the obvious sense as an expression of human grief in the face of death.
The other comment offered by the Jews standing by is, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v.37) The inference in the rhetorical question is that Jesus weeping was an expression of his weakness in the face of the human ‘Destroyer’, death. It was a sign of his inability to help the helpless in this most human situation of family grief, weeping at the loss of their brother. Acknowledging their complete helplessness in the presence of death, the destroyer of all human hope.
It is possible that this second comment by those standing by, even though it is intended as an ironic jibe at the seeming inability of Jesus to act in the situation of distress which now confronts him, this comment draws attention to Jesus’ weakness. And it is, I suggest, precisely this, that Jesus’ weeping is about!
Not in the sense in which the Jews intended. Jesus’ weakness, and therefore his weeping, is not because of His own inability in the face of death. He has already in this chapter said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life……” (v. 25) In Himself as the Son of God the frontier of death and the negation of human existence, its hopes and dreams, has no place in Him. His weakness, his weeping is not for his own sake. Instead, we must understand his weeping as a sign of his awful humility, his accommodation of himself to our weakness and our being subject to the ravages of death in all its forms of sickness, anxiety and paralysing fear. In this way in our place his weeping is for us, for our sake he confronts the sovereignty of death in our flesh.
Here God’s glory, the glory of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is revealed as Jesus promised in (v.4 of chp. 11.) “This illness….is for the glory of God; so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” But God’s glory is revealed in that which according to the standard of our human judgment hides God’s glory, conceals his divinity. It is revealed in weakness, in weeping. Finally, in the apparent absence of God in the darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha; shame, abandonment, nakedness and death. There the glory of the Son in His obedience to the Father, his unity with the Father is to be seen. There God’s glory is revealed in the hiddenness of the cross; since His glory consists in his inestimable humility, his divine freedom to be one with us in the depths of our estrangement from God. God’s almightiness here is the almightiness of a love so powerful that it is capable of accepting powerlessness, hiddenness, in terms of what is normally perceived to be the manifestation of God’s presence in the world. We measure God against our conceptions of power and almightiness. God who is present in the world in Jesus has refuted just this conception of power. God is so free as to be powerless and weak in this world without ceasing to be God. This is how God accompanies us and the world in its history. God’s apparent powerlessness and weakness are revealed in Jesus to be God’s limitless power.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign of this limitless power of God and its effect in the alienation of the human situation subject as it is to death. Lazarus is a sign of this coming glory of God. Lazarus himself is not the resurrection and the life, he dies again. But the overcoming of his death by the presence of the humiliated Jesus, His weeping at Lazarus’ grave as a sign of the solidarity of the Son of God with us, becomes for us the sign of His victory over sin and death achieved once and for all in the cross and resurrection.
This indiscriminate generosity of God which lays claim to the world turns upside down our natural understanding of how God is present and acts in the world. We hold it as an unchallengeable fact that we live in a world in which what negates human life is sovereign. The situation in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany reflects the situation of the church in the world; anxiety, grief and unbelief.
The action of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb puts an end to this anxious view of Christian discipleship – the anxious view of the situation of the church in the world. It seeks to address a church that is always taking a tragic view of itself and its future. The inveterate pessimism of the disciples and the church that dare not to understand themselves as people who belong to the Victor of Gethsemane and Golgotha. This is the word we hear from St John in this 11th. Chapter to be read for ‘All Saints Day.’ The fact that, “Jesus wept.”
In this holy sacrament we find again the sign of the presence of Christ’s glory, His weakness for our sake. As Luther put it in his inimitable forthright manner, in the Eucharist Christ comes to us:
“Allowing Himself to be profaned and taken by hands, mouth, and belly, as if He were a fried sausage? Would this be consistent with the majesty of God and the glory of heaven? Ah, this is more than certain.” (Luther Works Vol 37 p 47.)
So, Jesus goes on His strange journey of obedience from Martha and Mary’s house at Bethany to Jerusalem in order that by sharing in what we are, we may share in what He is. He makes us one with the Father by giving us to participate in his righteousness as at one and the same time he takes upon himself our sin and death. This is Christ’s glory; this is how the Father glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father and how both are glorified in the Spirits mediation of this reality in the life of the church. It is this ‘glory’ that Jesus intends when he says at the tomb of Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”
Whether we think of our circumstances and that of the church good or bad, the decisive thing we must learn from this text which tells us “Jesus wept;” is that in Jesus Christ before darkness and death could threaten and torment us, He triumphed over them for our sake. That this One who wept in his weakness, his identification of Himself with us, this One lives as the Lord for us and all people.
Therefore, let there be, “glory to the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Amen
Dr. Gordon Watson.