Sermon: “When Jesus Wept”

April 2, 2017: Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 11:1-45

“Jesus wept.”

That’s the shortest verse in the Bible, in the King James translation of 1611. It’s longer in the New Revised Standard Version of 1991: “Jesus began to weep,” which is probably a slightly better rendition of the three words it takes in the gospel writer’s original Greek: “edakrusen ho Iesous.”

Even at four words it’s still the shortest verse in the Bible, though it’s the two-word version that leaps to my mind: “Jesus wept.”

During Bible Study this week, Barbara Iwami asked the central, puzzling question about Jesus’ weeping:

Why? Why did he weep?

Because it is a puzzle, isn’t it? Jesus arrived in Bethany entirely aware of the situation. He’d told his disciples – clearly, for once – that Lazarus had died and that he was going to Bethany so that they might believe in him. He knew what he was going to do, even if they didn’t seem to grasp it.

He spoke with Lazarus’ sister Martha, and she made two great declaration of faith in Jesus: in who he was and in what he could do. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” – who says that about anyone in these days, unless it’s about a particularly brilliant physician, and even then? What astonishing faith she had in Jesus, her friend, who loved her and her sister Mary and her deceased brother, Lazarus. Faith she displayed once more in declaring that Jesus, himself, was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

Mary came to him and affirmed her faith in him as well. She was weeping. The people around her were weeping. Jesus asked to be shown the grave, and when they said the words, “Come and see,” Jesus wept.

Jesus wept.

But why?

Saint Augustine had his own perspective on this Scripture which rather reinforces the puzzle. He wrote: “But if we consider attentively who did it [that is, raised Lazarus from death], our duty is to rejoice rather than to wonder. A man was raised up by Him who made man: for He is the only One of the Father, by whom, as you know, all things were made. And if all things were made by Him, what wonder is it that one was raised by Him, when so many are daily brought in the world by His power?”

Well, that’s a good point, for us, who are in on the secret of who Jesus was and is. But in that case, why did he weep? And Augustine had an answer for that, too. To him, this entire story became a parable for sin and forgiveness. In Lazarus’ death, Augustine saw the painful reality of human sin. In Lazarus’ resurrection, Augustine saw the radical grace of God that restores people to full relationship with their Creator. And in Jesus’ tears, Augustine saw God’s grief that people turn away from righteousness to selfishness and avarice and sin.

Augustine recognized that Jesus’ tears, given who he was and what he knew, didn’t make sense. So he reframed the story as a parable so that they worked. Thus Augustine.

Well, I can’t quite go there with him.

Myself, I think the tears reveal the humanity of Jesus, and how, indeed, we are all created in the image of God.

I think the tears were real.

There are some things that are just about guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes. The opening sequence to the movie Up, which tells so swiftly and so beautifully the story of a long, loving relationship. The song “Denmark 1942” by the singer/songwriter Fred Small, which describes the evacuation of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden before the Nazis forced them into death camps. The end of the movie Nanny MacPhee. And perhaps somebody noticed at the close of last week’s service: I tear up on the words of the great Howard Thurman in the hymn “I am the Light of the World.”

These are works of human creation: movies and stories and songs. If these will do it for me, just imagine all the other things that might call the tears to rise: sorrows and losses. Successes and victories. Pride for my loved ones. The palpable presence of God.

I am made in the image of God. You are made in the image of God.

And Jesus, says John the Gospel writer, is the incarnation of God. Like me, like you, he felt the sorrow. He felt the sorrow of his dear friends Mary and Martha, who understood his power but still failed to recognize that a miracle was still in reach. He felt the sorrow of those others gathered around, the assembled community present to support the bereaved family in their grief.

He felt, I’m sure, his own sorrow, and what a mixture of sorrows that must have been. His heart must have been broken to see the sadness of those he loved. His soul must have been wounded to see that they so easily accepted the limitations of their imaginations, that they couldn’t envision a resurrection that day. And his human breath must have caught in his throat, once, twice, at the death of his friend.

That’s the explanation John records for his tears, after all. Those around him saw him crying, and they said, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus wept. See how he loved him.

Jesus wept. See how he loves us.

When my logical understanding runs out, I turn to poetry. And so:

“Jesus Wept”

Tears, come, and make your muddy traces
In the dust that yet adheres upon the visage
Of the Savior. Tears, come, as dust-caked voice
With muted tones inquires where he’s laid.
Tears, come, to join those springing from the eyes
Of friends most dear and of their comforters.
Tears, come, to stain the face of God.

Tears, come, because they do not understand.
Tears, come, because they fear when they need not.
Tears, come, because a few among them,
In just a little time,
May howl for your death.
Tears, come, because the road was long,
The body weary, spirit drained,
And who on Earth could hold themselves from weeping
In this sad community of tears?

Tears, come, because these are the depths of grief.
Tears, come, because the one you loved is gone.
Tears, come, because the resurrection has not happened yet,
Not the resurrection of the final day,
Nor the resurrection of today.

Tears, come, because we go to stand outside a tomb.
Tears, come, because we comprehend the paths of time.
Tears, come, because the grave of Lazarus,
Though opened, opens yet another tomb,
And they will carry you where you wish not to go.

Tears, come to testify to love.
Tears, come in solidarity with grief.
Tears, come to gather power for
A glorious resurrection.
Tears, come to anoint thee
For betrayal, for the trial,
For the torture, for the death,
For the tomb ahead.

Tears, come to Jesus’ eyes
And bathe his weary cheeks
With love, with grace, with awe.


The image is James Tissot’s painting Jesus pleura (Jesus wept), painted between 1886 and 1894.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on April 2, 2017

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  1. Jesus Wept | ordainedgeek

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