(a sermon for April 6, 2014, the 5th Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on John 11:17-45)
I think it can be safely said that so much of our lives, yours and mine, comes down to a series of “passionate moments.”
Understand, by using the word “passionate” I’m not suggesting that we’re living after the manner of some paperback romance novel – or at least most of us aren’t (!) – but what I am saying is that for each one of us there are moments in life so emotionally, physically and spiritually full, so utterly powerful in their intensity that we cannot help but remember them forever.
Some passionate moments are monumental in the scope of things – the experience of falling in love; looking at that person you’re about to marry as he or she is about to walk down the aisle; seeing your children born and then watching them grow; having a long worked-for goal come to fruition – but then there are those small, seemingly inconsequential moments that take us by surprise: when we’re out for a walk and we’re suddenly enveloped by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation; or when the whole family is around the dinner table, everyone talking over everybody else and lost in love and laughter. These are the “times of our life” when everything is right and good and makes sense; truly “passionate moments” that we need to really savor and hang on for dear life!
And then there’s grief.
Because not all “passionate moments” are joyous; some are filled with deep sorrow, and the death of a loved one is that kind of moment. I’m sure there are many in this room who could describe such a moment with utmost clarity; where we were, what we were doing, literally what it felt like when we heard that news. And even if we haven’t been through it, we will; for the fact is, as much as we don’t like to think about it, death is a part of life and sooner or later we will all have to deal with grief; and it’s almost never easy; grief is emotionally, spiritually and even physically exhausting.
Stephanie Ericsson, a grief counselor and author, says that at its worst “grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, [and] sweeps you up into darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.” Many of us do know just exactly what she’s talking about: death is a harsh reality, and grief is painful; the experience of loss is about the closest thing to unbearable suffering we are ever called to endure.
Now I speak of this today not to be dark or morose, but because as we’ve been talking about the “heart of Jesus” these past few weeks, what we’ve discovered is that Jesus was a truly “passionate man;” a person filled with love and compassion that fueled the integrity of his life; one whose emotional makeup was real and full and powerful, but ever and always focused on his relationship with God. In our Christian faith we understand that Jesus was indeed fully human as well as fully God; and so, if he was in fact, a “passionate man,” who knew and shared in all the “passionate moments” of our human lives, wouldn’t that also include our moments of grief?
I realize this might sound a bit obvious, especially as we consider the suffering that Christ endured on the cross, the fact that “he has borne our infirmities,” and was wounded for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities;” (Isaiah 53:4-5) the very reason Isaiah refers to this Messiah as “the suffering servant.” But even before he went to the cross, Jesus knew what it was to grieve; and it’s in the wounded heart of Jesus that we not only learn about the passion of his grief, but also how to deal with the passion of our own.
The text for this morning is John’s account of the death and raising of Lazarus; a story that not only serves as a foreshadowing of what is soon to take place on the hill of Golgotha, but also gives us the assurance that the power of Christ will overcome and conquer even death, a promise that extends to all who would receive it as their own: as Jesus said to Martha in her grief, “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.”
There’s a lot in this story, friends (more than we can possibly address in a single sermon!); but in and through it all there’s a lot said here about grief, which what I’d like to focus on for a few moments. For instance, first thing we find out in this story is that death is real. As Pat Williams has written, “we often wonder if we will have to endure a trial of loss, but that’s the wrong question. The only question we should ask ourselves is, when suffering comes, how will [we] respond?” What’s interesting here is that when Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, is sick, it almost seems as though Jesus is in denial: “This illness does not lead to death;” he says. He even delays for a couple of days his trip back to Bethany to be with Lazarus, all of which would imply that Jesus wasn’t taking this possibility of Lazarus’ death at all seriously! Of course, that wasn’t at all the case, and even before Jesus leaves for Bethany he acknowledges that Lazarus was dead, because whatever our denials or rationalities are about it, death is the one final certainty of our lives! Jesus knew that this death was in fact “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” but that didn’t make it any less real, or any less painful.
That’s what we also find in this passage: that grief is painful, and that Jesus felt that pain. Jesus suffered greatly when he lost a friend, and he didn’t try to hide or suppress that grief; this is expressed in that brief and greatly profound verse we explored a couple of weeks back: “Jesus wept.” More than simply crying, however, what we find is that Jesus quite literally raged against the pain he was feeling; at least one commentator suggests that the people who had gathered around Lazarus’ tomb could see just how deeply moved Jesus was as he approached; his body was trembling with grief over the loss of his friend. And that we know about, don’t we? Anyone who’s ever grieved knows all too well that it can hurt, physically; C.S. Lewis wrote following the death of his beloved wife Joy Davidman, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid,” he said, “but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”
Well, in Jesus we see that same kind of pain; but he doesn’t try to suppress it, or dismiss it as wrong thinking, rather he lets it all out. Jesus dealt with the pain of his grief in the same way he dealt with all of his emotions; with openness and honesty, but always clinging to the promise that by God’s grace, the pain will end, the sorrow will subside, and the fulfillment of life’s promised abundance will be fulfilled.
And in that regard, what we also learn here is that grief is a process: that it doesn’t necessarily follow our time schedules, but rather works out in its own time. Jesus knew this to be true: in fact, elsewhere in the gospels we learn that when Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed, he immediately took his disciples away from the crowds to a remote place, so that he could have time to mourn, to pray, to receive God’s blessing and strength in the midst of loss, so that the healing of pain could begin.
Grief is an intensely personal experience, and no two people grieve in the same way. For some people, “life goes on” after a death fairly quickly; but for others, it takes a long, long time. I’ve known people who after the loss of a loved one will continue to weep openly for weeks, even months at a time; while there are others who after the funeral’s all over will become very quiet about their grief, to the point of avoiding the issue altogether; until finally at some point they’re ready to talk about it; likewise, there are those for whom “normal life” just has to stop for a while, just as there are those who need to get on with business as usual. The point is that everyone handles grief differently, but the common denominator is time, and being intentional about grief; and honestly, the best thing any of us can do for those who are grieving; or for that matter, for ourselves as we grieve is to follow that model of Jesus in letting ourselves feel that grief as we should.
And that’s important, because finally what we learn in this story is that grief also serves a larger purpose. Ultimately, this miracle of Lazarus’ coming out of the tomb, was meant to bring the people of Jesus’ time to a deeper awareness and understanding of God’s love and his promise of life… and though we do grieve the loss of those we love, we need to be reminded as well; and that’s exactly what God does for us in Jesus Christ. One thing I can tell you as a pastor, after having led dozens upon dozens of funerals, memorials and graveside services is that many ways that are as mysterious as they are miraculous God does move in and through our hearts in times of grieving, bringing us though Jesus Christ a peace that world can neither give nor take away; bringing us strength and unending hope so that life can go on with purpose and with passion.
In his book How to Be Like Jesus, Pat Williams writes of a species of bean plant native to the hot, dry foothills of the southwest; a plant known to be among the most drought and heat resistant in all the world. This plant can produce bean pods even if there’s only one rainfall a year, and its leaves will stay green even in the scorching, 115-degree heat of the desert! This plant thrives even though there is absolutely no reason for it to do so, except… that its roots go deep into the soil; sometimes six feet into the desert soil in search of moisture! Williams concludes that if we are to endure in the midst of grief and hardship, “then we must send our roots deep into the soil of God, just as Jesus did… deep in the soil of prayer… deep in the soil of scripture… and deeply connected to God the Father.”
This was the heart of Jesus, beloved; a heart full of passion, a heart that experienced the height of our joy as well as the depths of our grief and pain; a heart that was full and healthy because it was deeply rooted in the soil of God.
By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, may the same be said of us.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c, 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry