Encounters with Jesus: A Grieving Sister

“Jesus Wept” by James Tissot

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“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25).

A smart man. A thirsty woman. A blind man. A grieving sister. Four different people in four different situations. Four people changed by an encounter with Jesus. They lived in places and times far from ours, but we have much in common with them. We are smart, but not nearly as smart as we think. So, as He did with Nicodemus, Jesus teaches us. We are thirsty, longing for something that will satisfy us. And Jesus, as He did with the Samaritan woman, gives us Living Water. We have blind spots which keep us from fully seeing God, ourselves, and others. As He did with the man born blind, Jesus opens our eyes.

This week’s text invites us to walk alongside a grieving sister.

There are many causes of grief. One of them is broken relationships. We were close with someone, but that was before the “incident.” Another cause of grief could be that society has changed, often in the wrong direction, and we mourn the loss of what we used to take for granted. Grief is also caused when families, churches, or communities turn against one another. It seems somewhat paradoxical, but those who are closest to us often cause us the most pain.

Behind all the reasons to grieve lurks something which leaves none of us unaffected. I am speaking of death. Death shows up all around as relationships die, communities die, and dreams die. But the most dreadful of all is literal death. Our loved ones die, and the finality of death cause grief that cannot be undone. This was the cause of grief in our text from John 11. The grieving sister (or I should say, sisters) mourned the death of their brother.

At the beginning of our Gospel, we learn Lazarus had become seriously ill. So, Mary and Martha did what they could. They sent for Jesus. They knew He could help. He had already healed many people in miraculous ways. “Come quickly, Lord. Our brother, the one You love, is very sick.” It was, implicitly, a simple prayer. “Jesus, we have a problem. We know You will help us.”

Jesus got the message. He learned of His friend’s condition. But Jesus reacted strangely. He appeared nonchalant. This sickness was not meant to end in death, He assured His disciples. Rather, the sickness was to serve a divine purpose. It was intended for the glory of God, so that the Son might be glorified through it. So, Jesus waited. And as He waited, Lazarus died.

Four days later, Jesus finally showed up. He came to Martha and Mary while their grief was still raw. Both of them (Martha in verse 21 and Mary in verse 32) met Jesus with the same words: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Does it sound familiar? You’ve asked God for help. You know He can heal with only a word, but the sickness got worse. You’ve asked God for reconciliation and unity, both in the Church and in the world (and maybe also in your family), but strife and divisions only deepened. You’ve begged God for help, only to be disappointed, only to find another reason to grieve.

“Lord, if You would have provided healing, my friend would still be here.”

“Lord, if You had answered my prayers, my marriage could have been saved.”

“Lord, if You had done what I asked You to do, what I needed You to do, what I begged You to do, I would not be filled with such grief.”

Notice Jesus’ response to Martha. He did not apologize to her for arriving late. He did not admit He was wrong. Neith did He make excuses for His delay. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus assured Martha, but she didn’t think He meant that day, by a miracle. She thought Jesus meant the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, of which she may have heard Jesus talk in the past.

So, she also confessed her faith, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the Last Day.” Here is an error to keep in mind, dear friends: the Last Day will raise nobody from the dead. The Last Day is simply the last day. It is Jesus who raises from the dead because Jesus is the Conqueror of death. The dead will rise on the Last Day because Jesus raises them then. And if Jesus chooses to raise the dead on another day, He can do that too. His power is not chained to the Last Day: wherever Jesus is, whenever He is, He is the Lord of Life.

This is what He proclaims to Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though He die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Jesus’ words spoke the eternal truth that has soothed many a troubled heart at a deathbed, during a funeral, at a gravesite. Whoever believes in Jesus—even though death makes its unwelcome earthly visit—will live. Whoever lives by faith in Jesus will never die. The life we have in Christ survives death and the grave. Physical death does not separate us from God and His Son. We are alive with Him forever and will at the last be restored, body and soul, to enjoy the glories of His heaven.

“Do you believe this?” Jesus asked Martha. Martha’s answer is a model for us to emulate yet today. She said emphatically, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

“Do you believe this?” Jesus’ question probes the heart of every suffering human being. Blessed are those who can answer as Martha did.

It was time to let Mary know, too, that Jesus had come. Martha spoke to her in secret, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Mary didn’t waste a moment. She got up quickly and went to Jesus, who was waiting outside the village, where Martha had met Him.

When Mary reached Jesus, she fell at His feet in worship and expressed the same faith and confidence in Jesus as Martha had earlier. Undoubtedly, the sisters had said the same to each other when Lazarus died. Physical death is a cruel and sad result of sin. That result was painfully evident here, causing the worst kind of suffering. The entire scene troubled Jesus.

Mary was openly weeping, as were those who came with her. Jesus was filled with indignation and visibly agitated. The Scriptures seldom show such deep emotions in Jesus. But Jesus cared. His close friend, Lazarus, lay dead in the grave. His sisters were grieving. Even the hope of the resurrection, as Martha had expressed it, did not prevent crying. God had not created us to die as Lazarus had. Physical death is a cruel and sad result of sin. That result was painfully evident here, causing the worst kind of suffering. The entire scene troubled Jesus.

“Where have you laid him?” He asked. Then Jesus wept silently. Behold, your Savior, who empathizes with His people. Jesus’ display of emotion in our text reminds us that grief is only possible for those who lose something or someone beloved. That is, we grieve because we love.

The same is true of Jesus. He wept with the sisters because He loved them. He hurt for them because He cared about them. He knows what it means to lose a loved one, and He has compassion for anyone who grieves. Even though He knows that He will raise Lazarus from the dead, He hurts with Mary and Martha because they hurt, and they are His friends, His beloved children—as you are.

Jesus arrived at the tomb and commanded that the stone be taken away. Martha objects—Lazarus is dead, and his body has only corrupted more in the past four days. Why make that any more evident?

Hear Jesus’ answer: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” The glory of God is about to be displayed at the tomb of Lazarus. This is the glory of the triune God, for Jesus prays aloud so that people might know that the Father is in on the miracle, too, that He has sent His Son to do His work and will. Having made that clear, Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

And Lazarus came out of the tomb. Just like that. Just because Jesus spoke and told him to. That’s the glory of God on display: Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Where He is, life is, because He gives life; and He gives life by His Word. He speaks and tells Lazarus to live, and Lazarus lives again.

Before demonstrating His authority over death, Jesus had joined the sisters in their grief. He saw Mary crying and He saw the people with her crying, and He was deeply moved (John 11:33). But Jesus goes beyond empathy. He is not just familiar with our grief; He is the only one who can do something about our grief and its root cause—sin.

 Next Sunday begins Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we will follow Jesus as He rides into Jerusalem to shouts and cheers. We will follow Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane and witness His betrayal and arrest. We will make our way to Pilate’s judgment seat and listen to the demands of the mob. We will witness Jesus carrying His cross outside of the city. We will stand at the place of the Skull and watch Jesus take His final breath.

How will we respond? We will grieve. We will grieve that Jesus suffered so terribly. We will grieve that it was our sins that made His sacrifice necessary.

But that is not all. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said. The tomb could not hold Lazarus. The tomb could not hold Jesus. And the tomb cannot hold us; not you, not me, not loved ones who died in faith, not the people who have yet to hear and believe in Christ and His love. Which will remind us we are not there yet. The stubborn persistence of grief remains, even after Easter Sunday.

But we do not grieve alone, and we do not grieve without hope. We grieve together as the people of God. We grieve with the promise of Jesus in our hearts and on our lips. As we grieve, we continue to come before our risen Lord in prayer, not to force His hand, but to confess our faith in His promise. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” He says again to you and through you. “Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

Many of you grieve right now. In the past year, we’ve said goodbye to several of our brothers and sisters in Christ who were part of our parish; and that does not include your friends and loved ones whom you know, but who were not part of our fellowship in this place. Many have experienced the loss of loved ones.

I pray that this text gives you comfort. Christ has died and Christ is risen from the dead. He is the Conqueror of death. He is not the Resurrection and the Life only in the past, as if He retired from that after raising Lazarus from the dead. He is not the Resurrection and the Life only in the future, on the Last Day. He is the Resurrection and the Life now. Now, and forevermore.

Where Jesus is, life is. That’s what Jesus is about: and whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. By His forgiveness, He already declares that eternal life is yours, for He has done all to accomplish it by His death and resurrection. At your baptism, Jesus declared, “Come out! Come out of the bondage of sin, for I make you My beloved child this day! Come out of the darkness of sin, for I am the Life of the world! Come out of death, for I am the Resurrection and the Life—and I make you alive forever by water and the Word.”

Your resurrection at the font was a greater miracle than the one of Lazarus at the tomb: Jesus gave physical life back to Lazarus’ body, and that life would be lost again—Lazarus’ body would die again. Jesus has given eternal life to you: you already have it. Unless the Lord returns, your body will eventually die. Your soul will not: you are alive forever, and the Lord will raise your body, too, on the Last Day to be reunited with the soul for eternity in the new heaven and earth.

Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. His Word gives life. He spoke to bring Lazarus back from death. He put His words in Ezekiel’s mouth, and those words made dry bones alive. This day, He speaks His forgiveness to you. They are not empty words: they give you life and renew that eternal life in you once again.

Where Jesus is, life is. And whenever He is present forgiving sins, He is also present giving life. His Word gives life. He is present, for He gives you His very body and blood—and He gives it for the forgiveness of sins. He gives it to keep you alive—for where there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation.

This is true for you. It is true for those you mourn who died in the faith. Those who died in the faith are not dead but living. Their bodies rest in the grave for now, but they live even now with Christ in heaven. You have His promise: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” It is true for the saints who have gone before us, and it is true for you. Christ has given that life to you because you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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