I recently heard a sermon on the text in John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, and what angle the preacher took with the story has sat in my mind for some time now. I cannot shake the truth of it and feel a need to gnaw awhile on it in hopes to have it become a part of me, to shape me and transform me into a more godly man. The preacher taught on the attentiveness of Jesus in the story as a key aspect of his ministry. Let's explore here together the importance of being present in the moments and events we find ourselves.
Why would Jesus weep over Lazarus' death when He knew the end of the story, that Lazarus would live? We know from earlier in the story (11, 14-15) that Jesus deliberately postponed going to Bethany where Lazarus was ill, in order to allow Lazarus to die, so that He could revive him four days after passing (truly a miraculous display of Jesus' power and glory). If Jesus knew the end game, should he have shed tears for such a loss that ultimately would be reversed? Imagine you had the supernatural ability to foresee when a loved one would die, and this person got in a horrible car accident. Would you doubt whether they would survive this trauma if your vision of their real death was still far off? No. It is not their time to die, so you would trust they'll pull through. The emotional charge of that moment, due to the uncertainty of what's to come, becomes neutralized by the foreknowledge. You know, now that I think about it, it is quite wonderful that we cannot know the fate of our lives, for I think we would be tempted to further disengage in our lives, being distracted by what is to come and preoccupied so heavily with the future that we miss the present. But I digress.
Why was Jesus "deeply moved and greatly troubled"? This gospel account reports that Jesus was violently agitated on two different occasions within this scene, first upon Mary's lament and weeping at their meeting, then upon going to and seeing the tomb. This word in the Greek has connotations of the act of a wild beast snarling and growling in anger. I can think of only three options to explain it: the author could be wildly dramatizing Jesus reaction, Jesus could be a fantastic actor and puts on a show (because let's be honest, if He knew what was to come, this behavior seems a little bit over the top), or Jesus was having an authentic response to the death and emotion of the event and what impact it was having on the community. Of course, the first two options are false in that it's completely out of character for both the author and Jesus to compromise the accuracy and authenticity of their account and character (respectively).
But why was Jesus so upset? It's simple yet profound. He fully entered the moment and allowed Himself to experience and feel the present. In seeing the grief and sorrow of Lazarus' sister Mary, Jesus wept with those who wept. He had and expressed empathy. In seeing the grave - the tomb - Jesus angrily groaned over the reality of death. I am reminded of the Genesis account where God created life, and breathed life into humanity. The fact that death exists, that sin entered the equation and mettles with His good plan for life and flourishing, greatly angered Jesus. Death and decay is not good. In God's plan in creating immortal beings, death is abnormal and contrary to His intentions for us.
I cannot help but think about my Grandpa, who after recently falling and cracking his top vertebra, has had complications and returns to the hospital. His recovery is very slow; it is uncertain whether he will recover, if he has the strength to pull through. He is, after all, ninety one years old; he has had a fantastic run, living an honorable life, full of sacrificial service to country and family, a model of steadfast devotion and loyalty. I admire Grandpa George immensely.
I also cannot help but think Grandpa George despises death too. I have picked up over the years how frustrating the aging process has been for him, needed new knees, keeping up with dozens of daily medications, worrying about whether his wife will fall again and do more damage than before. I don't blame him. I think this account of Jesus here in John 11 gives us permission to loathe death. It is, in a weird, paradoxical way, unnatural.
What should we learn from this story? For sure, physical death is not the end. Martha was right that there is a resurrection on the last day, when all will rise again (11:24). Whether you arise an "immortal horror or an eternal splendor" (C. S. Lewis), depends on whether or not you know and are known by the Almighty.
But there is more: I think Jesus shows us by example how we are to engage the trials of this world. He is not absent in thought and emotion, constantly preoccupied with shame of the past or anxiety for the future; nor does He flee all consciousness with distraction, intoxication or escapism. No. He fully engages every moment and experiences it all. He is present with people and prepared to offer Himself fully to all present. His relationships are rich. His interactions have significant and transformative impact on others.
What would it look like to embrace the present as the people of God, a Holy Nation? What if our attentiveness to the present was a key aspect to functionally becoming set us aside to be different and significant for God's purposes - His purposes of ushering in a new order to this existence? I pray this for my Grandpa, that in the midst of his pain, frustration and fear, he may press into the rawness of his experience and find there the Gracious God who knows the pain of death because He walked through it Himself and came out the other side, and in finding Him there, find the gift of His comfort and peace through the Holy Spirit to eventually enter this temporary death boldly and joyfully. I pray he knows God to be that loving and caring and gracious, that he can trust God to be enough for all that temporarily ails him. I pray it for my dad and my uncle, who face losing their dad, and in the meantime, need to figure out what to do for their mom so she receives the support she needs and will need. I pray it for my Grandma Janice, that she can boldly face the severity of their state - how awful it is - and that she can lean on the promises of the newness of life in Christ that's available even now in part (and fully after death) and be comforted, knowing a peace that surpasses all understanding.
And I pray it for you and me, that in all of our lives' circumstances, we courageously embrace the moments we've been given and cease to cheat those in our lives of the gift of our whole beings. It takes a radical reliance on the presence of God and His power in us to operate this way... that was God's intent all along. I look forward to the day when the people of God learn to walk in this holy way, more fully trusting God and themselves with what power we've been bestowed as bearers of His Spirit to share ourselves with the world and recreate new life in the broken and dying world. This is the Kingdom of God that is advancing. This is the Good News which is changing the world.