Jesus Wept: Grieving to Move On

On the eve of Memorial Day, our Scripture lesson drops us into a scene of grief and loss – a place of transition that all of us experience.

Two women, Mary and Martha, are grieving the death of their brother Lazarus. Martha learns that Jesus plans to meet them in their grief, and she runs from her home to greet him. When their paths finally cross, Martha declares her belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world not to condemn but to save.

That’s where we enter the story. Listen for the Word of the Lord. 

When she had said this, Martha went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

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.

So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:28-37)

Transitions pepper our lives, and they’re nothing to sneeze at.

Some transitions we anticipate; others catch us off guard. And each transition brings a hard choice: Either look back at what was – and risk getting stuck in an unhealthy place of perpetual mourning. Or, look ahead to what might be and keep moving forward in hope and trust – sometimes with only a speck of confidence in heaven’s promises of better days ahead.

Such are the transitional decisions with which we wrestle on this national holiday weekend of remembering our dead – in particular, those lost to warfare on the battlefield, but maybe so also those lost to brokenness and conflict in the trenches of daily living on the home front.

Of course, not every transition is hard. Many are easier to move through than others, perhaps because they’re changes for which we’ve prayed, dreamed, or labored. But when the transition is not the object of our prayer, hope, or desire, a season of mourning begins, because someone has died. Or because something has died.

Indeed, mourning isn’t just reserved for the death of a loved one. The emotion erupts when anything dies: A hope, a plan, a goal; an aspiration, ambition, or expectation; a sense of identity, purpose, or meaning. Mourning comes whenever anything changes seemingly for the worse. Its pain is particularly sharp and stabbing when change stirs a deep sense of loss and attachment, and you’re nowhere near ready or willing to let go.

And thus, like Jesus, you weep, sob, cry bitter tears of anguish in loving remembrance, joining the likes of none other than Mary herself in assigning blame: “Lord, if only you had been here … .” Your quivering voice joins the chorus of others similarly grieved in wondering: Could not the One who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this loss from happening?

And from heaven comes the answer: Just because someone or something has died, God’s promises, plans, and purposes for your life have not. Hard times befall, and circumstances upend, and you have to accept what you don’t want to accept. But if you can separate the circumstances you’re facing from God’s overall purpose for your life – that of producing spiritual fruit, then you possess the nourishment that fuels your forward movement.

The degree to which you can prepare your heart to go, move on, and keep holding fast to God and God’s promises is the degree to which new opportunity, renewal, and resurrection have room to grow. But if paralyzing grief holds you in place, then there’s less chance that something good will come from a bad situation, or that hope can come from a hopeless situation, or resurrection can come from what looks like nothing but stone-cold death.

When you lose someone you love deeply, or something in which you’ve invested greatly, or something that once gave your life meaning and purpose, you’re easily tempted to get stuck in that place of loss, and unless you vow to do otherwise, there in the limbo of mourning you will remain.

So, how long are you going to mourn?

It’s a good question, and one we might need to ask ourselves, lest we become mesmerized by the reflection in the rear-view mirror. I’m not suggesting that you pretend bad things never happen, or that you ignore the pain in your heart. What I am encouraging is that you move – even if no faster than a snail’s pace. Keep moving through your place of mourning, beyond your broken past and miserable present, to the restored future that God has in store for you and all of Creation.

Plenty of harsh tragedy and deep heartache make such advancement feel impossible. You can’t possibly accept it’s the end of an era, and surely you’ll never be able to stop looking back and start looking ahead. Yet, it surely is possible, because God doesn’t expect you to do it alone. God wants us to trust in what we do know and see, and to trust God with all that we don’t know and can’t see. Enter God’s Holy Spirit in Christ.

It is the healing gift of God’s Holy Spirit in Christ that establishes such trust – trust in the gifts that the Spirit provides: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, holiness, and reverence, such that your living continues to produce spiritual fruit: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Life’s pivotal moments are chock-full of teary-eyed experiences that deeply disturb, as Jesus feels in solidarity with Mary, Martha, and company. “See how he loved Lazarus,” the onlookers observe. Jesus’s own death is an act of such immense, pure love. It is the result of God in Christ Jesus choosing to join with humanity to the utmost degree, entering into and taking on all the kinds of our suffering, including death.

Jesus talks about his death and the Cross, about how he would be lifted up for the sake of his beloved. But Jesus never calls himself “death.” Suffering is included in some of his titles and assuredly is a major component of the prophecies about him. But when he speaks, Jesus reveals himself as the Resurrection and the Life. His resurrection is as much an act of love as his dying for us is. And if we believe that, we will see the glory of God, which is always sufficient to see us through, keep us calm, and allow us to carry on.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, May 28, 2023. It is part of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Christine Caine and Chelsey Harmon inform the message.

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