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"Jesus Wept." John 11:35

October 03 2017
October 03 2017

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Yesterday America woke up to the news about yet another tragic and inscrutable mass shooting—this one more deadly than those that preceded it. As a pastor I’ve wrestled with how to respond because of the sheer enormity of it all. What words really explain? What words speak to us comfort and hope? Hard questions, but we must try to answer them.

Surprisingly perhaps, the latter question’s answer may be more readily at hand. As believers in Jesus Christ, Christians understand death as an enemy. Violence used in the service of death, particularly violence for which no clear motive can be ascertained as in the Las Vegas shooting, only accentuates that point.  In the Scriptures, whenever violence erupts and the corresponding deaths pile up it is always recognized as a participation in humanity’s curse, which began with Adam’s first transgression. There is no doubt about it; death is an enemy needing to be defeated.

The Bible’s treatment of death, then, is sobering.  But there is something about this that dignifies what’s lost in death and offers us hope today. So often in our collective rush to avoid death or fix what brings death, our humanity gets diminished. For example, in our response to mass shootings how quickly we turn to politicians, psychologists and social theorists to explain and manage the inscrutable. Presumably, such efforts are well-intentioned and seek to discover anything that might help prevent future tragedies. Oftentimes though, our collective temperatures only rise and the sickness gets worse. In our anger and anxiety, we fail to grieve and fail to comfort, and so death gets one more victory.

From John’s Gospel, we are given a different lens to view our response to death’s tragedy.  There we learn how Jesus responded to the news that Lazarus, a disciple and the brother of Mary and Martha, was near death. Upon hearing this, Jesus, who at that point was renowned for his miracles, chose to remain where he was for two more days instead of immediately returning to Bethany and heal Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-6). This hurt the sisters deeply. When Jesus finally did return, at which point Lazarus had already been dead for several days, both Martha and Mary separately said to him what we all probably would have said too, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21; 32). Surely, some of us are asking this question of Jesus in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, “Lord, if you had been here, this tragedy would not have happened!”

Jesus response to the grieving sisters and those gathered at Lazarus tomb is striking. He did not come to clinically undo the power of death that had laid hold of Lazarus. No. Instead, Jesus first entered into death's grief and pain. In what we commonly remember as the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). This is more than bedside empathy. In weeping, Jesus dignified both Lazarus’ life, the life of this community, and all its interlocking associations. By visibly taking stock of the inscrutable tragedy that is death—no matter the form it takes—Jesus recognized its thievery.

We so often forget. Death is so much more than mental illness, domestic terror, suicides, gun rights (whether you’re for them or against them), drug addiction, sexual freedom, economic inequality, etc. Death is totalizing and we cannot comprehend its horror except by taking stock of the beautiful whole it attacks, which is our humanity. Death not only steals our breath, but all our most precious bonds.

In stopping to weep, then, Jesus highlighted the preciousness of life. He saw what we often fail to see anymore because we are too busy degrading it in a thousand different ways. By weeping, he dignified our humanity. And his pause should give us pause. Indeed, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings we must weep. We must weep over these lives lost and the thousands of lives now affected—the moms and dads, the brothers and sisters, the boys and girls, the aunts and uncles, the friends and work associates, the bosses and employees, the visionaries, soldiers and servants. Each one had a story and each story intersected with stories upon stories. We must also weep over the man who committed this evil. He was one of us—a deeply flawed human being. God have mercy.

But why did Jesus delay? He could have prevented the heartache. While we’re at it, let’s ask, “Why didn’t Jesus prevent the Las Vegas tragedy?” In delaying his return to Bethany and allowing Lazarus to die though, Jesus highlighted his unique power to defeat death. In short order you also probably know, Jesus miraculously brought Lazarus back to life (Jn. 11:43-44). There’s no question, then, about Jesus’ power over death. This miracle, as with all of Jesus’ miracles, was not just a wonder but something carefully orchestrated to make a point. Jesus declared that he raised Lazarus from the dead so that the crowds would “believe that you [his Father] sent me (Jn. 11:42)." In so doing, Jesus prepared the disciples and those gathered there for an even greater, more enduring resurrection—his own. That victory conquered death in all its forms, the guilt of sin and all its associated misery.

This also means that our hope for victory over death and the comfort we are to seek in such tragic times are not found in temporary miracles (Lazarus almost certainly died again), but in the once for all accomplishment of Jesus’ atoning death and his resurrection. Our hope is to look to Jesus and recognize that we are not waiting for the victory, but waiting for Jesus to return to “Bethany” to bring about the fullness of that achievement (cf. Rev. 21:1ff).

Therefore, in response to Las Vegas and suffering wherever it’s found—to the ravages of hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Houston, south Florida and Puerto Rico, suicide bombings in the Middle East, drug violence in Mexico, sex and human trafficking along Texas highways, racism and racial violence in our cities—we weep. But, we weep as those who also hope, knowing that the victory Jesus won is also on its way (1 Thess. 4:13). There is a Day coming when our humanity will be fully restored and we will love as we, in Jesus Christ, have been loved.

So, may I suggest that as we pray for the families of those who lost loved ones that we also weep for one another? Before you run out to accuse others and defend your position, let’s remember our solidarity in sin’s brokenness. Let’s check on our neighbors and let them know that we are thankful for their lives—that the world is better with them than without them—instead of sizing them up to see which side they are on.

Why should we do this? Because Jesus sent us. We have been sent so that the world might see that the Father sent Jesus into this world to heal it from killing itself.

I know; there’s still question number one. I’ll speak to that tomorrow.


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