With All Saints Day falling on Sunday this year, we are fully embracing that here on the Lab. The Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week features commentary on all the texts for the day, and Dr. Chilton’s sermon is spot on for the day. Blessings to all who preach, read, and consider the Word for this day!
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
“When Jesus saw her 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.” John 11:33-35
When I was a kid going to Sunday School in the Baptist Church you answered the roll with a “memory verse.” The line rendered here “Jesus began to weep,” was only two words in the King James Version, “Jesus wept.” It was a popular memory verse in the Junior Boys Department until the teacher banned it from further usage. For a very long time that verse meant very little to me except as a pleasant memory of boyhood cutesiness.
But not so as I move into my sixties. More and more people that I have known and loved most of my life have died in recent years; my mother and my close friend John in the last year alone. And like Jesus, I have wept. Unlike Jesus, I did not have the power to bring my loved ones back to life.
All Saints Day is an oxymoronic celebration of sorrow and joy, of loss and anticipation, of the remembrance of things past and the hope of things to come. On this day we remember not only the great and celebrated saints of the church, we also remember the not so great and seldom celebrated saints who fill our personal lives. Most of all, this is a day on which we smile through our tears, trusting in God’s promise that all our yesterdays are just a prelude to a glorious and never-ending tomorrow.
The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus is part of a larger and very important story which takes up the whole of Chapter 11 in John and actually carries over into Chapter 12. It goes like this.
Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, about whom we have heard much before. Lazarus is a good friend of Jesus – he is described to Jesus as “he whom you love.” Lazarus is very sick and his sisters send word to Jesus to come and help him. But Jesus doesn’t go. He says something about this illness not being one that leads to death and that it will glorify God, and then he sits around for two days and does nothing.
Then suddenly he gets up and says, “Let’s go to Judea.” His disciples are startled and not just by his sudden movements. They remind him that there are people looking to kill him (and them) in Judea, and that this might not be a really smart move. Jesus again says something enigmatic, this time about daylight and darkness and those with the light not stumbling. Then he says, besides we’re going to find Lazarus and wake him up. The disciples, as usual, don’t get it and say, “Well if he’s asleep he’ll be fine.” Jesus then speaks plainly, “Lazarus is dead, so let’s go.” Then the one who is later called the doubter makes a great act of faith, or at least of courage. Thomas says, “Okay, let’s go with him, so we can die with him.” He still doesn’t get what Jesus’ is doing, but he’s with Jesus anyway. Kind of how I feel, most days.
So Jesus goes to Bethany and meets people who tell him that Lazarus is dead and that he’s been in the tomb four days, and Martha finds Jesus and takes out her grief on him, blaming Jesus that her brother has died, blaming Jesus for not coming right away. And when Jesus starts talking about resurrection, she blows him off, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about resurrection in the last days, yada, yada, yada. My brother’s dead NOW!” And Jesus says, “I’m talking about now, right now. Those who believe in me will live. Do you believe,” And she says, “I believe.”
So then, Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, who also comes to see Jesus. And now we come to the part of the story we read today. Mary is weeping, her friends are weeping, and Jesus becomes “greatly disturbed,” and for the first time begins to weep, begins to show the first signs of grief over the loss of his friend, the friend “whom he loved.”
Why now? Why did Jesus not cry before this? What has “greatly disturbed” him? The Greek verb translated “disturbed” here has to do with emotions and implies anger. Could it be that Jesus is weeping with anger at the power that death has over our lives? I think so. I think John wants us to see the great compassion Jesus has for the suffering and pain and loss people go through; compassion which in this case shows itself as anger and tears.
Jesus goes to the tomb, still angry, still disturbed. He decides to act and to act dramatically. As we listen to the story, we have to remember that for the people John wrote this book for, the events of Jesus own death and resurrection are already well known. They will know about and think about that first Easter morning when they hear Jesus say, “Take away the stone.” They will know about and think about Jesus bound corpse as they hear Jesus command, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
As the story moves on, this act of compassion by Jesus, this raising from death a man who had already begun to stink, was an act that had major repercussions – for Jesus and for us. As soon as Lazarus walked out of the tomb, the plot to put Jesus in a tomb was hatched and set in motion. Lazarus coming out of the tomb sealed Jesus’ fate – Lazarus coming out of the tomb meant that Jesus would be going in.
The message today is one of remembrance and hope. We are called upon today to remember all the saints who have gone before us – both those who were great and shining examples of Christian character and virtue and those who were known only to a few and whose greatest virtue may have been only that they clung tenaciously to the promise of God in Christ to love them no matter what.
Like so many through the years we look back with fondness and forward with desire and anticipation. We are invited to trust that God in Christ will do for us what Jesus did for Lazarus; that in the last days on God’s most holy mountain, we will file into a great banquet of people from all times and all places and that “death will have been swallowed up forever” as Isaiah says, that God will, in the words of Revelation, “wipe away every tear, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
On this All Saints Day, we are invited to put ourselves in the place of Mary and Martha, and trust that a weeping and compassionate God can and will make all things new, for us and for all creation.
Amen and amen.