Henri Nouwen, one of the most influential writers on prayer and the spiritual life in this generation, once said that when we let God’s love “speak within us, we are led into places where we often would rather not go.” That is exactly where we find Jesus in the eleventh chapter of John. He is on the way to Bethany, to stand beside the grave of his friend, Lazarus. John records that Jesus loved Lazarus, along with his sisters. When Mary and Martha, the dead man’s sisters, meet him along the way, the scene is filled with the full range of human emotions.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. I picture her falling into Jesus’ arms, pounding on his chest, sobbing “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” A few minutes later, Mary comes with the same words: she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is the anguished cry of every broken heart that feels the absence of God at the place of death. It comes up out of the broken places within us when love takes us to a place we’d rather not go.
And listen to the way John describes Jesus’ response: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
The Greek words are very visceral terms. They describe the gut-wrenching emotion that ties your innards in a knot. It’s the kind of feeling that grabs you in the pit of your stomach and won’t let you go. It is the kind of sorrow that goes too deep for words. And Jesus felt it all. Then Jesus asked: “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Come and see.”
We’ve encountered that phrase before in John’s gospel. Back at the very beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus’ first invitation to his first disciples was, “Come and see.” We heard it again when the woman at the well told all of her neighbors, “Come and see the one who told me everything I had ever done.”
In John’s gospel, “Come and see” is the invitation to every one of us to come and see who Jesus is. Come and see the light that shines in the darkness. Come and see the Word made flesh. Come and see this Jesus who is “the resurrection and the life.” Come and see the one who came, John said, so that we might have life and have it abundantly. “Come and see” is the invitation for each of us to find eternal life through Christ.
But now, the invitation turns in the opposite direction. With the cross looming on the horizon, the invitation is to Jesus. Pointing a bony finger toward the tomb of Lazarus, the people say, “Lord, come and see.” Come and see the full reality of what it means to be finite, mortal, human creatures. Lord, come and see for yourself the awesome reality of death. Come with us to the tomb.
The most astonishing affirmation of the gospel of John is that the one whom John declares to be the source of all life, the one through whom all things came into being, the one who is the tangible expression of the infinite life of God, chooses to go with us to the tomb. He walks with us all the way to death. The love of God takes him to the place where none of us would rather go.
As Jesus looks directly into the face of death, John records the shortest verse in the Bible. Now, this will be on the test. Someone, someday is going to ask you – it might even be in “Trivial Pursuit” – the shortest verse in the Bible. It is John 11:35, just two words which may be one of the most profound affirmations in Scripture: “Jesus wept.”
Every year around this time my family remembers another March and a 16-year-old kid named Kevin. He was a skate-boarding, laughter-addicted, day-brightener of the first order. The car in which he was riding flipped over, and he was killed instantly. Searching for a way through the loss, I reread the first sermon William Sloan Coffin preached at the Riverside Church in New York City after his 24-year-old son, Alex, died when his car skidded off the highway and into Boston Harbor. Coffin wrote a line which has become a central part of my faith at times like these: “My consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
To watch Jesus weep beside Lazarus’ tomb is to know that whenever we confront the awesome power of death, God’s heart is always the first and greatest of all our hearts to break. Jesus enters into our sorrow; Jesus even cries our tears. “Jesus wept.”
But that’s not where the story ends. Just look at what Jesus does. Just look at the difference Jesus makes in the face of death! He called Lazarus forth from the grave and said to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.”
It is the awesome revelation of the resurrection power of life in Jesus. It didn’t happen that way for 16 year-old Kevin, or for Coffin’s son Alex, or for anyone else in all the years since it happened that way for Lazarus. This was, in one sense, a one-time event to reveal the glory of God in Jesus. And yet, we dare to believe the same power of life that brought Lazarus from the tomb will be the power of life at work within us. We dare to believe that because Jesus goes with us to death, we will be raised to new life with him.
Just as we have shared the reality of death, by faith we will share the power of the resurrection. And it’s even better than that! We don’t have to wait to experience this new life of the resurrection until we get to the other side of death. In John’s gospel, eternal life is not just a new way of living after death; it is a new way of living a duration of life off in some distant heaven, but it is also a quality of living that begins right now. It is a way of being in relationship with God which is so alive with the life of God that it can face everything life throws at it – even death – in the hope of resurrection. Eternal life begins in us right now and is fulfilled in eternity.
Back there on the road, when Martha first came to meet him, Jesus reminded her of the promise, “Your brother will rise.” She could only hear that as something off in a vague, ethereal future. There’s a hollow sadness in her words. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” It all seemed a long way off, like a distant dream in some far-off tomorrow, light years removed from her present sorrow. But Jesus drew the promise of new life into the present reality of her experience.
Jesus said to her, “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 asked her, “Do you believe this?” And Mary replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
The same Jesus comes to walk with us into places where we would rather not go. He comes to walk with us into the place of death and speaks to us the same words he spoke to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
And he asks us the same question he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?”
Well, do you?
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.