If you attended our All Saints’ Day service this past Monday, you heard three scriptures read aloud: Isaiah 25:6–9; Revelation 21:1–6; and John 11:32–44.
Each text refers to weeping. In Isaiah and Revelation, God wipes away humanity’s tears; and in John’s gospel, we hear that “Jesus began to weep” when he saw the distress of Lazarus’s friends and family.
Isaiah and Revelation speak of a coming day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And the gospel lesson also points us toward the future—to the promise of resurrection which lies at the heart of Christian faith.
But, the future is not here yet. The promise of resurrection for ourselves and our loved ones has yet to be fulfilled. And so, for now, we watch and wait; we hope and remember.
On All Saints’ Day, we commemorate those who have gone before us. We remember all of the giants of faith—from Peter and Paul to Teresa of Ávila to John Wesley to Fanny Crosby to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Chief John Snow ... and thousands more. But we also recall some who were personally close to us. And while we look back with fondness and thanksgiving, the remembrance is mixed with grief over their loss. They are no longer with us, and their absence hurts. All Saints’ Day brings tears as well as rejoicing.
We followers of Jesus have had a somewhat uncertain relationship with grief and tears. Some will tell you that it is not appropriate to grieve over the death of a Christian.
“Those who die in Christ have gone to be with Christ,” they say. “The dead have passed into everlasting joy, so we should be happy and rejoice in their victory over death.”
That’s an attitude with a long history in the church. In ancient times, one of the most obvious differences between Christian and Roman funeral practices was that, in a Christian funeral procession, everyone wore white instead of black and sang hymns of praise to the God who triumphs over death. And I get that. I understand that Christians who die are—as the Salvation Army says—“promoted to glory.” But should our faith in Christ’s victory over death truly banish all our grief and tears?
Some would answer, “Yes!” And those who make that argument can find support in our readings from Isaiah and Revelation. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,” and John’s apocalypse tells us “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
On the other hand, we have our reading from the gospel according to John, where Jesus bursts into tears at the funeral of one of his closest friends.
If you think about it for a moment, you will realize that—for most of us—grief has nothing to do with what we think is happening to the person who is gone.
Have you ever spent time in the international departure lounge at a busy airport? Families who are bidding farewell to a loved one are not all smiles and happiness. If the person is leaving forever—even for a better life—there is grief everywhere. Mothers and daughters and sisters are crying. Fathers and sons and brothers are fighting back tears. Why is there so much weeping? Why is there such loud wailing?
Why? Because grief is about loss—our loss. And no matter how wonderful the life they are going on to is ... we are losing them! And our lives are going to be poorer for their absence.
Even if we can celebrate their good fortune, our grief is still real and raw and worthy of tears. A hole has been left in our world, a hole we will live with for the rest of our lives, and we will grieve over that hole.
Certainly, Isaiah and Revelation speak of a day when tears will be wiped away, but they don’t tell us when that day will come. It may be on the horizon, but it is a promise yet unrealized. That’s why—along with Jesus—we begin to weep.
Yes, Jesus wept—and so do we. But I think there is a bit more to the story of Jesus weeping—something that is both related to our experience of grief, but also something more and different. John’s account of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus makes it clear that Jesus already knew what he was going to do. Nearer to the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus tells his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” Then we read:
The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe ...”
So, here’s a question: if Jesus knows he’s going to raise Lazarus, what’s he crying about? There is no Lazarus-shaped hole that he is going to have to live with for the rest of his life. He knows Lazarus will be up and about in a few minutes.
The simplest answer is that Jesus is grieving over the continued intrusion of death into God’s good creation. Death wasn’t part of God’s intention when he made human beings. Even though this particular death will be reversed—at least for a while—Jesus still grieves the existence and continued impact of death. He feels the pain it causes people. He’s angry that death is still able to break human hearts and bring devastation wherever it visits.
But maybe there’s something else, too. In this situation, I think there’s something that’s unique to Jesus—a grief that was his alone. Chapter 11 of John is a long chapter. And if you keep reading past verse 44, you will find a troubling and tragic report. In direct response to this incident—this raising of Lazarus to life—the religious authorities hold a council meeting; and, at that meeting, they decide that Jesus has to die.
“What are we to do?” they ask. “For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48).
Raising Lazarus to life was the trigger for the chain of events that led to Jesus being killed. And I’m sure Jesus could see it coming. As he stood outside Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus knew how much this miracle was going to cost him.
Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? If you have read it, you’ll remember that after the Lion, Aslan, has committed to offering himself to be killed in place of Edmund, he becomes sad and moody and depressed. He goes off his food and becomes withdrawn and morose.
Just because you’ve accepted your fate doesn’t mean you welcome it. Aslan was saving Edmund from death, but only by resigning himself to dying in Edmund’s place. I think our Gospel lesson tells us the same story. Jesus is saving Lazarus from death, but only by resigning himself to his own death.
Now, maybe I’m reading too much into the shortest verse in the Bible. In the King James Version, all verse 35 says is: “Jesus wept.” But I wonder: in this little story, are we seeing a snapshot of a bigger story? Jesus is saving us all from death, but only by accepting death in our place. I wonder: is that why Jesus wept? Well he might. And well might we. As the Letter to the Hebrews asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3)
Yes, there is a promise of a day when tears will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Clearly, on that day we will be reunited with our loved ones and with all the saints who have gone before us. This must be so. Otherwise, how could every tear be wiped away? How could every grief be banished?
Yes, great will be the rejoicing when that day comes. But between here and there—between now and then—there is still a road of tears that we must tread. The good news is that, in Christ, our griefs are gathered into his grief. Our griefs participate in his grieving. In his redemptive weeping, in his offering of himself for the life of the world, Christ stands in solidarity with us.
Remember that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). All the saints—and we, ourselves—stand upon his broad shoulders. Therefore, with all the saints—and even through our tears—let us forever say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.