The story of the raising of Lazarus gives us hope for the future. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, showing us that he understands the human condition of sorrow and grief. But he also raises Lazarus, and he will raise us out of whatever pains us in this life, because the compassion of Jesus gives us the ultimate hope of eternal life.
Susan and Fran were talking one day. Susan mentioned a death that had happened in the family of a woman they both knew. When Fran expressed surprise about this news, Susan said, “Oh, I thought you knew that since you and she are such close friends.” But Fran said, “No, we’re friendly but not close friends. We’ve laughed together but we’ve never cried together. But now that you’ve told me what’s happened to her, I feel for her now.”
If you’ve ever tried to figure out what to say or how to say it when someone close to you is experiencing grief, then you can relate to Fran’s reply. Our human instinct is often to try to fix the problem so we say empty, pointless things like “It’s God’s will.” Not helpful, right? Or “He’s in a better place.” Maybe and maybe not, but the grieving person still misses their loved one. Sometimes people just need someone to cry with them, to know that their sorrow moves you because you care about them. Nobody knows how to fix that kind of loss, and it’s okay to say so or to say nothing — to just be present with the grieving person.
There’s a lot to unpack in our gospel passage this morning, but we’re going to pull out two main points to take with us today.
First, one of the most important things we can take from this passage is the need for us to be compassionate in the way that Jesus was compassionate. Second, we can live well because of the hope we find in Jesus.
Let’s begin by looking at verses 33-35, where we see clearly that Jesus was moved by the grief of his friends. “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”
We live in a world in which crying is sometimes seen as weakness and weakness is not to be tolerated, but even Jesus wept. And just as if it had happened yesterday, right here in this place, there were two kinds of onlookers. The first said, “Aww ... see how he loved him.” They themselves were moved by the love Jesus had for Lazarus, and for his sisters and the others of the community who were grieving. But the second kind of onlookers said, “Isn’t he the guy who is supposed to be a miracle-worker? Why didn’t he save this person he supposedly loved so much?” Most of us can probably think of people who fit these two types: those who can accept the nature of others, and those who expect everyone around them to behave in a certain way.
That, friends, is why some people are so stoic! Just when we have felt moved by something or someone, our training since childhood tells us to step back and suck it up, doesn’t it? Men, weren’t you raised to believe that big boys don’t cry? Women, it seems, are allowed a little more emotion in our society, but there is certainly a line that shouldn’t be crossed, isn’t there? Why is that? Why are we supposed to keep our emotions in check when this scripture clearly shows us that Jesus was willing, even in the face of blatant skepticism, to show his emotions?
Be honest. Have you ever thought concerning someone who has grieved for a very long time, “Isn’t it time she got over that?” Have you ever thought, “That kind of grief belies our faith; if you really believed your loved one was safe with Jesus, you wouldn’t be so deeply grieved”? You may have heard people say these unpleasant things to each other — or more often about each other — and it’s just not right. Next time you think that about someone in grief, think about the compassion Jesus had for his grieving friends; think about the fact that he was the one person in that situation who knew what was about to happen, and he still wept.
We can all learn from this. We are so used to asking ourselves what Jesus would do when we are faced with a moral dilemma, but when we are deciding how to react to a potentially emotional situation, we still revert to what our stodgy old great-grandparents said was social protocol. Jesus knew — he knew — what was going to happen! He knew there was no reason to weep for Lazarus himself, but he still allowed himself to be moved with compassion to the point of the flowing of tears for those who were hurting, and he didn’t care who saw him do it. Jesus proves that real men shed tears! Be more like Jesus; show your emotions and be compassionate, no matter who is watching you.
The second point from our story today is that there is always hope when you know Jesus. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responded by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus went to the tomb where his friend Lazarus lay buried, asked for the stone to be removed and called Lazarus out of death, out of the stench of a body that had been dead four days — and Lazarus rose!
As you and I live with our griefs, our hurt and our pain, Jesus says the same thing to us that God said so long ago in Psalm 46:10 — “Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.”
This story of Lazarus is the story of compassion and of hope, a story that says out of despair comes hope for those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of their lives.
All of us face discouragement in life, and at those times we need to turn to the Lord, knowing that we can trust that he will make a way.
Theologian Reuel Howe tells a story about when he was 15 years old. The family home caught on fire, and they escaped with only the clothes on their backs. Where they lived, out in the country, there were no close neighbors to help, so he and his father walked to a distant village to get supplies. As they returned, Howe saw something that stayed with him for many years. Beside the charred remains of what had been their home, his mother had laid out lunch on a log. And on that log, she had placed a tin can filled with wildflowers.1 It was a symbol of hope following tragedy.
Isn’t this what our Christian life is all about? Howe’s mother didn’t try to cover up the disaster with flowers, but during that gloomy scene she had placed a symbol of hope.
Martha had the kind of hope that did not cover up the fact that her brother had died, but even in her grief, she held onto hope that Jesus would act.
Hope does not cover up what has occurred, but it gives a promise of something better to come. Hope doesn’t eradicate the fact that our loved one is no longer with us, but it gives us the beauty of knowing there is more than just this life. Martha told Jesus, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Martha had hope. She did not know exactly what Jesus had planned, but she knew him well enough to know that something would happen.
Do you know Jesus well enough to trust that no matter what happens to you, Jesus will make something good happen? The story about Lazarus is a glimpse of what was to come, a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus, and in that is the hope of resurrection for us all.
We know that the cross on which Jesus died is nothing short of a torture device, but to us know it is a tin can filled with wildflowers. The symbol of the cross doesn’t cover up what happened, but it serves now to remind us that there is hope. The Jesus who had cried with his grieving friends had so much compassion for us that he died on that cross so that we would have the same hope he knew for his beloved friend Lazarus.
This story of the raising of Lazarus gives us hope for the future. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, showing us that he understands the human condition of sorrow and grief. But he also raises Lazarus, and he will raise us out of whatever pains us in this life, because the compassion of Jesus gives us the ultimate hope of eternal life.
1 Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (Seabury Press, 1963).