One of my favorite memories comes, surprisingly, from a funeral I attended seven or eight years ago. I was sitting in the sanctuary of a church listening to the pre-service music. Among the hymns that were played came a surprise – Let It Be, by the Beatles, which happens to be my favorite song of all time. There were two ladies sitting in front of me, friends of the deceased, and one turned to the other and said I like that song. I wonder what number it is in the hymnal? That would be a great hymnal, wouldn’t it? Tanya and I are having a bit of a disagreement over the music for my funeral. I told her I would like the pre-service music to be The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, but she’s not going for that idea.
If I asked you to name the hardest part of your work, you would probably be able to answer immediately. I can tell you without hesitation the hardest part of ministry, to me – funerals.
My most difficult task as a minister is to officiate at a funeral. One of my first funerals was one of my most difficult. I was a young Student Minister and it was one of the youth in our church, just a high school student. He was a fine young man – a good student, very polite, hard working – just a fine person. He began experiencing headaches and was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which took his life less than a year after his diagnosis. At the time of his funeral, I wasn’t many years older than him, and I was so nervous. I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing.
I’ve officiated at a lot of funerals over the years, and while I have adjusted to that part of ministry, it remains a difficult task. One of the reasons I find it difficult is because I assume that, on a typical Sunday morning, people may or not be listening all that close to what I have to say. And if I have something helpful to say that’s good, and if I don’t, there’s always next week. But officiating a funeral is very different, because you can sense the stillness among the congregation as people are hoping you can bring some words that will help them to find comfort and peace. To be honest, I find that to be rather unnerving and I never feel up to the task.
We continue our series Having A Heart Like Jesus, and this morning come to a passage that contains one of the most famous verses in the Bible. It’s a verse you learned if you ever had to memorize a passage of Scripture. You probably chose this verse to memorize because it is the shortest in the entire Bible – do you know which one it is? Jesus wept (verse 35). It comes from the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story that shows us that Jesus has A Heart for the Hurting.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
The entire story is longer than the passage we read this morning, and I would encourage you to take a few minutes today, or sometime this week, to read the entire passage from John’s gospel.
This is the story of a family grieving after a very difficult loss. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus arrives at the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, four days after the death of Lazarus. Their grief is still very tender, and their home is full of people who are mourning his loss. This is a story that demonstrates that the heart of Jesus is especially with those who experience the great pain of the loss of a loved one.
It’s impossible, I think, to avoid feeling sorry for Jesus in this passage. He is scolded by both Mary and Martha. In verse 32 Mary repeats the same statement made by her sister Martha in verse 21 – Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died. Once would be tough enough, but twice!
Do you ever wonder how Jesus felt about the things people said to him, and about him? We all learn that at some point in life we have to have thick skin, but it still hurts, doesn’t it, to be questioned and criticized? I wonder how Jesus felt when confronted in such a way by two of his close friends. It had to hurt. For Jesus, he often experienced such moments, that could be described as What have you done for me lately Jesus? moments. It seems that some were fine with Jesus as long as he was doing something for them. That’s why I think the passage we studied last week is such a powerful passage (Mark 14:1-9, when Mary anoints Jesus), because we see somebody doing something for Jesus.
But Jesus does not respond by reproving them. He doesn’t defend himself. Our first reaction, when we are criticized, is to get into that self-defense mode. But Jesus did something that is a great lesson to us, especially when we come alongside those who are grieving – he allowed them to grieve, and to grieve in the way that suited them. Jesus didn’t say now, now, you shouldn’t be talking like that; let me tell you what you need to do and say and how you ought to grieve.
You’ve got to let people have their say, especially when they have suffered the loss of a loved one. They may be angry and they may be frustrated, but you have to let them have their say. We can’t tell people how they should grieve and we shouldn’t tell them how they should feel, and we shouldn’t put a timetable on their grief, telling them after several months that it’s time to move on or it’s time to get over it. You don’t ever get over a loss. You adjust to the difference in life, but you don’t get over it.
Some years ago I was talking with a father who had recently lost his son. His son passed away at 41 years old after a long, difficult battle with cancer, and I officiated at his funeral. It was a tough loss, as you can imagine. The father made a comment that took me back. He referenced the passage in Matthew 7:9 – Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? He looked me right in the eye and said, all God has given me is a bag of rocks.
That’s a tough statement, isn’t it? But this was a father who was hurting deeply from the loss of his son. His words weren’t all that different from those of Mary and Martha; as they questioned Jesus about what they perceived was his inaction toward Lazarus, this father questioned God through his perception that God did not do enough.
Loss often makes people question. Loss often makes people angry. Those are emotions that have to come out. If they are pushed inside they will only cause further heartbreak. But we often find ourselves uncomfortable with the questions and the anger and the frustration, don’t we? We don’t know what to say, and we don’t know what to do, so sometimes do or say the wrong things. We will say, now, now, don’t feel that way. Don’t say those things. I don’t think it’s very helpful to tell people how they should feel. People simply feel the way they feel. You can’t put a timetable on grief and you can’t put parameters on how people should feel.
It hurts to see those you love hurting. Jesus was certainly not immune to the hurts of others; in fact, he was extremely sensitized to the suffering and pain of others, which is why he wept. He knew what he was going to do about Lazarus, but his love for Mary and Martha and his empathy for them touched his heart in a great way. We see over and over again in the gospels the emotions of Jesus. He was often moved by the plight and the suffering of others. One of the phrases often used about Jesus is he had compassion on them (such as in Matthew 9:36 – when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd).
In spite of the reaction of Mary and Martha to Jesus, what’s interesting is that Mary and Martha simply sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick – Lord, the one you love is sick (verse 3). Notice they do not ask him to come; they knew he would come. Have you ever heard the words I knew you would come? Those are very powerful words. Mary and Martha knew Jesus would come.
Jesus did not come on their schedule, but he did come. I don’t understand God’s timing. None of us do, but God has some kind of timing in mind. I think patience can trump understanding. I don’t understand the way God works, or the timing involved in how he works, but as I age I am more willing to be patient when it comes to his timing.
The heart of this passage is certainly the raising of Lazarus. In that great miracle Jesus is demonstrating that he is the resurrection and the life.
I vividly remember the first funeral I officiated for a young child. It was a bitterly cold winter day, such as we’ve experienced this week. It was early in the year and the ground was covered with ice and snow and a cold wind was blowing. The cold, hard winter landscape seemed to reflect the cold, hard reality of loss for the young couple who had suffered such a terrible loss. Their baby, only a few months old, had passed away. What can possibly be said to bring any comfort or meaning in the midst of such tragic circumstances? There is no way to take away the pain of such a loss, but it is possible to speak a word of hope. Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life we can affirm that life does not end with our last breath, it only transitions. It transitions from life in this world into life in the next world. When we take our final breath in this temporal world, we take our next breath in eternity. When the sun sets on this life, we are raised to the dawn of a new life. Those truths, while they do not remove grief and loss from our lives, give us hope, and hope is what we so desperately need in life, especially when we have experienced grief.
Jesus wept. He wept for the grief and the pain felt by Mary and Martha. He is not absent from our loss, just as he was not absent from the loss experienced by Mary and Martha. He is with us always, and may we rejoice in that great promise!