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Sunday's Sermon: The Shortest Verse in the Bible

The shortest verse in the Bible used to be John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” This verse was a friend to every child who ever had to compete in a Sunday school memory verse contest. Alas, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible changed the verb tense from “Jesus wept” to “Jesus began to weep,” and doubled the length of the verse. What will the kids do now?

A better question is, “What are those tears for?” Take a look at this interpretation of the raising of Lazarus by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. What does his body language, left hand raised, right hand gathering his robe into a fist at his hip, say about Jesus’s mood?

I showed this Rembrandt etching to a congregation I served in North Carolina, and I asked them that same question. One of our teenagers said she thought Jesus was “coppin’ an attitude” in this work of art. That seemed to resonate with the adults on hand that evening, no doubt because they’d seen that kind of body language before, from their own teenagers. That “talk to the hand” pose.

Interestingly, “coppin’ an attitude” may come closer to the original Greek than the English translation you just heard. In English we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” at the sight of the mourners and “greatly disturbed” as he approached Lazarus’s tomb. But the Greek for “greatly disturbed” really conveys anger and displeasure. As a verb it can mean to scold or rebuke. Occasionally the word is used to describe the snort of a horse who doesn’t like the feel of the bit in its mouth. “Jesus snorted,” an even more memorable verse than “Jesus wept!”

Likewise, “deeply moved” is a rather weak way of translating a Greek term which elsewhere signals mental agitation or commotion. The term appears in a story in the Book of Acts, in which an angel springs the apostle Peter out of jail in the middle of the night, Saint Luke, the author of Acts, in his typically understated style reports, “The next day there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had happened to Peter.” Were they deeply moved by his escape? No, they were pulling their hair out in frustration.

The scriptures and the artists and perceptive teenagers agree that Jesus was shedding tears of rage at Lazarus’s tomb. Why’s he so angry?

John Calvin, a French attorney and church reformer who lived in the 16th century, thought that Jesus was angry at death itself, this evil power vandalizing God’s good creation. Now it’s true that there are times in which death is something of a merciful release for those who have suffered a long time. Doctors and attorneys and ethicists are not wrong to talk about “a good death,” that is, dying at home, rather than in a hospital, if circumstances permit, with our affairs in order, and having said, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to all the people we need to say that to. But in the end, death is an enemy, and we are not meant to be reconciled to it. One of the most hateful things about the Coronavirus is that it’s barred hospitals and nursing homes to visitors, which means that more people are dying without their loved ones present, denied the best of a bad situation, that so-called good death. If you’re feeling angry in this season of pandemic, know Jesus’ tears of rage and his balled-up fist mean that he is angry too.

But Jesus’ anger isn’t impotent rage. His anger has an attitude to it. Graveyards don’t scare him. He walks right up to the tomb, orders the men with the strongest backs in Bethany to roll away the stone, and when Martha goes all weak-kneed on him, “Ooh, Lord, it’s gonna smell in there!” Jesus snaps, “Didn’t I tell you, if you believed you’d see the glory of God? Lazarus, come out!” And out he comes.

Jesus’s boldness inspires us to live boldly in the face of the Coronavirus. Not recklessly or ignorantly. Heed the recommendations of our public health officials. Wash your hands. Stay at home. But if you fear for your own survival, or the lives of those whom you love, then cast those cares and anxieties on the one whose death conquered death. Jesus has the power to open graves and release the dead from their captor.

While Jesus’ attitude inspires us to face the Reaper without fear, there is something of a rebuke to us in it. Jesus’s fearlessness puts us to shame. The fear of death, like the strips of cloth binding Lazarus’s hands and feet, ties us up—paralyses us. We find ourselves unable to do what God requires of us. It is the hungry, the sick, and the dying to whom we owe our works of love as Christians, but precisely because they have one foot in the grave, we keep them at arm’s length lest we fall in too. We postpone those visits to the hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. Like Lazarus’s tomb, these institutions sometimes have an odor to them, and we’d rather not have that smell in our nostrils because it reminds us of our own mortality. One of the cruel ironies of the pandemic is that it has barred us from going places we perhaps didn’t really want to visit before, but now wish we had.

Jesus is not only angry at death. He’s angry at us. Jesus looks around and, seeing the misunderstanding of the mourners and the faltering faith and extinguished love of his disciples, angrily snorts that he alone is ready to do battle with death. Everyone else has gone AWOL. So a few chapters later, carrying the cross by himself, he goes to The Place of the Skull, that frightening hill of God-forsakenness.

But he goes there so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, and free those of us who’ve been held captive our whole life long by the fear of death.” Understand then that Jesus’ frustration with us is only the flip side of his love for us. He recognizes our helplessness in the face of the Reaper, and if he must face the grave alone, he does so gladly because he loves us, and he longs for us to be set from fear and set free to love.

All this talk about Jesus’s power over death raises some questions, the same as some of the mourners raised: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” That question has no doubt been asked again and again down through the ages: “Could not he who raised his friend Lazarus from the grave have quashed this virus before it got loose, prevented my buddy from dying in that car accident, saved my sick relative from that dreaded disease?” For those whose grief is still raw, the comfort of seeing our dead loved ones in heaven may seem like cold comfort. Why wouldn’t Jesus let me have them now?

It’s worth remembering that Lazarus himself may not have been all that happy to be raised from the dead. No sooner had word of the miracle got out than Jesus’s enemies conspired to suppress the evidence by murdering Lazarus. Did Jesus really do Lazarus a favor by raising him from the dead, only to live henceforth as a marked man? Did he do Mary and Martha any favors when he switched their grief at the death of their brother for the fear of losing him a second time? We don’t know for sure whether things would have been better for us or our loved ones had they been granted that one reprieve from the dead. But we do know that God gives us grace in good times and in bad.

The other gospels portray Jesus as moved with compassion to heal the sick. His example has inspired untold numbers of men and women to become medical professions out of humanitarian concern. Today we give thanks for their sacrifices. But the raising of Lazarus is not a humanitarian gesture. It’s mostly about getting us to put our lives in Jesus’ hands, come what may. Believe that the one who can raise the dead is the one sent to reconcile you to God. Through faith in him, your death and mine and the thousands of little deaths that litter our lives are not failures, but open doors through which we return to the One who created us. The little sparks of love that the Spirit has kindled in our lives here will burn in heaven forever. Already the sky is filled with the lights of prophets and martyrs and apostles, grandmothers, missionaries, and Sunday School teachers. And one day our lights will take up residence with them, until all shadows are banished.

And so on that note I want to close by turning to a second interpretation of John 11 by a Dutch artist who lived 200 years after Rembrandt, and was inspired by Rembrandt’s etching to paint the same scene, Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh rarely depicted overtly religious scenes. He preferred to paint scenes of ordinary life—a wheat field, a family sitting down to dinner—and infuse the scene with a mystical quality. So Van Gogh does not depict Jesus in this painting, but he does paint a large, warm, yellow sun rising over the grave, its light and its radiance supplying a halo cradling the head of a Lazarus who seems as though he has just awakened from his four day slumber.

I take this to mean that we may or may not see miracles in our lives, but through the eyes of faith, we can see that this creation, though vandalized by death, is shot through with the glory of God. The sun shining, daffodils turning their yellow heads to greet it, gold finches putting away their drab winter attire and adorning themselves with bright yellow feathers all communicate the presence of One strong enough to unbind us when we are tied up in knots, to gather us together when we fall apart, and to raise us up when we stumble. Look for him. His glory shines through the tedium of long, lonely hours in home confinement. His presence fills stressed out households where moms and dads struggle to educate their kids while working from home.

If you have been sleepwalking through life, eyelids as heavy as the eyelids of Lazarus in this painting, then let Jesus Christ take you by the hand. He will lead you out of the Wilderness and into a life filled with meaning and purpose, a life flowing with faith, hope, and love. If you’ve been living a nightmare, then run to Jesus Christ. As the rising sun chases away the night, so the Risen Son of God will put to flight the demons that haunt you. If you have been laid low by mistakes you’ve made, believe that Jesus Christ can raise you up, because he bore your sins away when he took up his cross. And when it is time for us and for our loved ones to fall asleep, trust that when we awaken, the warmth of his loving gaze will be the first thing we see.

Image Credits:

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus Van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt)

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