An Image that Changes Everything

(A Final Lenten Sermon on John 11:35)


Jesus  Wept.

Leonard Sweet tells the following great story about a Methodist minister named Al Hanner, now at the tail end of his career that has been spent serving in the Virginia area for the last 4 decades.  Allow me to paraphrase that story:

Sweet tells the story of the minister’s first six months in his very first appointment out of seminary.  He claims that he was no different from the countless thousands of others that graduate from seminary each year.    They grab their diplomas with both hands and believe with the arrogance of youth that they are heading out to change the world.    They know everything, and they can’t wait until they can find a home to put all their new cutting edge ideas into action.

That was Al.   Immediately after his graduation he was appointed to a small rural church, which I imagine was not a whole heck of a lot different from Asbury Church.  He remembers stepping up to that pulpit on his first Sunday, with an incredibly well thought out theological dissertation and fully eager to become the next super preacher.    He was going to double, triple and quadruple the number of people who worshipped in that church, and he had plans to do it overnight.

Within a few months he had changed countless things in the church, ranging from the order of worship to the way communion was taken.   The congregation was patient with the new pastor, and every time they questioned a change, the pastor would reply:  “this new way is better”.   With each passing Sunday, his ego grew.

Sadly, there was one day that Al never expected, and it caught him off guard.   It was an average Tuesday morning, when he got a call from the chair of the church council.    Unexpectedly the chair’s husband had died during the night.   Immediately, Al started for the family’s home.     As he made that drive to the house, fear and panic hit him like a truck.

“What am I going to do?,” he asked himself.   What do I say to them?   What do I tell them?    He tried to recall his pastoral care classes from seminary, or any of the articles he had read over the course of his education, but he drew a blank.   Why wasn’t he more prepared, he asked himself.

Finally, he decided exactly what he was going to do.  He was going to enter that home with confidence and assuredness.   He would gather all the family into a common room, form a circle of hands and he would speak aloud the words of the 23rd Psalm.    He was confident that his management of the situation would be perfect.

As soon as the door to their home was opened, his plans fell apart.   There gathered before him was a family, eyes red from crying, whose hearts were broken.    In an instant, their pain became his pain, their grief became his.    He was unprepared for the reality that hit him when he opened that door.    In that moment, he realized that he loved this people, they had become his family.

As he tried to regain his control, and to keep his uncertainty from showing he continued on with his plan.   He gathered the family in the living room, and as the held each other’s hands he eyed each of them, and he realized that his heart was broken right with them.     Overcome with emotion, he tried to speak aloud the 23rd Psalm.   He managed; “The Lord is my shepherd,…” and almost instantly broke into tears.    He couldn’t stop crying.   There in a circle in that living room he buried his face in his hands and wept uncontrollably.   He cried so hard that he had to sit on the couch, while a family member got him a glass of water.   

When he managed to get control of himself he was embarrassed and ashamed.  He apologized repeatedly.   He felt so foolish he could hardly look at anyone in the room.   He felt so awkward that day, and for the days that followed, feeling like a fool.     He was so embarrassed that on the same day that the funeral was had, he went to his district superintendent and asked to be transferred out of the parish.   In two weeks he was.

From that point on, any time he saw them in town or at district meetings he would avoid them at all cost.    Years passed, and he still felt embarrassed and ashamed.   One evening came when Al couldn’t hide any longer.   He was in a store, and as he turned an aisle there was the family.   Not one or two but five of the six that were in that room.   There was no place for Al to hide.   He couldn’t turn around without the family noticing.

What happened in that store surprised him.   Upon seeing him, the family instantly and without hesitation ran towards him and engulfed him in hugs.   The widow proceeded to say “Oh, Al, We are so glad to see you.   Our family so loves you.   We appreciate you and what you do so much, you are part of our family.   We have loved all the pastors that have served our church, but you are the one we love and miss the most.”  Al, surprised, stammered out a reply of “Really?”.   “Oh, yes,” the widow replied “we’ll never forget how you came and cried with us when Daddy died.”

You know what?  

The most important lesson from this story, and perhaps from church itself is that people don’t necessarily come to this place in moments of anxiety, pain, doubt or grief to find great theological answers.   Maybe some do, and maybe there are times when questions of God need to be asked and answered, but the majority of us come to this place, on any given Sunday and in those scary times, searching for something else.    

We want love.    We want comfort.   We want the strength of another.   We want someone to celebrate and remember with us.    And we want someone to cry with.     That’s who we are.  That is the church.

This morning’s scripture is the shortest passage in the Bible, and my top ten favorites.  It’s a favorite because not only is it easy to memorize, but in two words we catch a glimpse of just how different and how extraordinary this Jesus person is.   I can worship, follow, and devote myself and my life to Jesus because of the Jesus that is expressed in these few paragraphs.

Lets look at the scene.   Jesus is out and about in his travelling ministry, when he receives word that the brother of Martha and Mary is sick and as Jesus stall, the brother eventually dies.    Four days later, Jesus arrives back in Bethany and is greeted by Martha.   Without missing a bit, Jesus tells Martha that her brother will live again.   Of course, Martha assumes this to be at the resurrection.

By this time there is a crowd at the home of Martha and Mary, and when Mary sees Jesus, she falls at his feet, and cries out that if he was only there, her brother would be alive.    Jesus sees the crowd in such intense grief, and asks where his body is.   As he does, Jesus cries.

Some of those gathered are taken by the sight of Jesus weeping, while others start to criticize and mock him.   “If he was so important, why didn’t he save him?   He can make the blind see, but can’t heal a friend?.   After a few minutes, Jesus turns to the crowd, probably with his cheeks still wet with tears, and asks that the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb be removed.    Over their protests, the eventually open the front of Lazarus’ tomb.

Jesus calls out in a loud voice “Lazarus, Come out!”  In an instant, out walks Lazarus, still wrapped in his funeral shroud.  There must have been a silence unimaginable at that moment, with equal parts awe and fear. Jesus then turns to the assembled crowd, and tells them to Unbind, and Let him Go.

We have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks talking about love, forgiveness and healing.    We have talked about how none of these things are easy, and that no matter how much we would like to have them, no one has all the answers.    We talked about how we have to have trust.   We have to trust that God will heal.   We have to trust in his message.   We have to trust in what we have been taught in His House. 

With all that sad, its oddly appropriate that we arrive at this, the last Sunday of Lent, and we are faced with this scripture.    This great moment tells us exactly who Jesus is.   We have been talking about trusting in God, trusting in the power of his promise, and living a life with God right beside you, and finally and beautifully, we catch an amazing glimpse of exactly who this God is.

We see a Jesus that wept with those he loved, and one that weeps with us in our pain.   When our heart breaks, his heart does too.  He knows and feels our pain.    When our world has been shaken to the core, there is someone who stands beside us that is going through it right with us.    That pain that rips at our hearts that is so intense, we are unsure how anyone can not succumb to it, he shares it with us.   Jesus wept, and Jesus weeps.

Its those 9 letters, those two words that for me, make all the difference.   For me, the very image of Jesus with his face buried in his hands forms the foundation for all I know about God.   It turns my God from the vengeful, angry god of the old testament, into something else.    It turns the Bible from an obscure rule book to a love letter from God.   It turns God from a deity to be feared to one that can fully engulf me in a love unparalleled.   For me, all the books ever written and sermons ever preached on Jesus, do not reveal as much about him than those words.

We have a God who weeps for all who pray for God to end their pain, their struggle, and their grief.  He weeps for those who have questions that no one can answer.   He weeps for those who look to the news, the tidal wave, the world hell bent on destruction and see no way out. He weeps for those who ask for a miracle and do not get it.   

For a moment, close your eyes and just imagine.   Imagine God before you, and realize that he isn’t that Charlton Heston image that Hollywood so frequently portrays.    He isn’t angry or vindictive.   He isn’t full of judgment and fire and brimstone.    

Instead, the God that stands before you is different; he stands with tears in his eyes.   That image is one of the most important that I have of Jesus.   It means that he knows what I am going through.   He knows that sometimes I get things right, and other times I fail miserably.    It means he knows that there are things in this world that will beat me up, or break me down.     He knows that there are things that will break my heart, and there will be times when I feel like giving up.

In that moment, I know he understands my journey.    He knows that sometimes forgiveness doesn’t come easy, and I know it’s okay to say “I’m not there yet.”     He knows that sometimes I am can’t help but cry, and other times I just not ready too.    He knows that sometimes I can talk, but other I am not ready.    He knows that sometimes I can’t help but look at the hurts around me and get angry and ask why.  

I know he understands my hurt.    I know he understands my shortcomings, my jealousies, my envies, and my longings.    I know he knows my sorrows, and I know he stands there with me.   In the end, that is what makes the difference In the end, I pray that you will never lose sight of just how powerful that promise is.    

Jesus stands at the mouth of Lazarus’ tomb, weeping, and calls him out by his name.     They say that the road to Easter travels through a cemetery;  Lazarus’.    Next week the big game for the church starts.   Its holy week, and there is no bigger time than that for us.   I just pray that among the Easter eggs, fancy dresses, and chocolate bunnies we don’t lose sight of this moment;   Jesus standing before our sorrow, our pain, and our tombs….calling us… commanding us…   to a new life, by name.      Make no qualms about it, that is the God that we were searching for throughout Lent, and that we need to find in Easter.

I would like to close with a final comment.     Very soon, we will be marking the 16th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Terry Nicols and Timothy McViegh.    I remember that moment so clearly.    I was 25 years old, and it was before the age of terror.    I remember hearing it on the news and believing it had to be an accident.   No one could do so a thing.   Sadly, someone could and in doing so it took the lives of 168 people, 19 of them children, and 608 others were injured.    It was a painful moment that today, stands almost as prologue to our current day, where 9-11 changed everything.

Since that morning, there has been a sort of evolution in healing from and honoring those that passed in Oklahoma City.    Within a few days, the families of the victims rallied around the oddest of things;  An American Elm Tree.     It is reportedly over 100 years old, and for decades it was a source of shade for workers on lunch.     During the investigation, FBI agents saw a piece of bomb in one of its branches, and started to chop the tree down to recover evidence.    The families on site rallied and saved the tree.   Today its called the survivor tree, and there is actually a chamber built under the tree for full time arborists to preserve and insure the tree remains healthy for generations to come.   

Survivors and families say it’s important to have life springing from the site of the explosion, and the tree symbolizes to them resurrection. 

 The first “official” memorial to the victims is what is known as the “Field of Empty Chairs”.  

168 empty chairs inscribed with the victims names, and representing the empty chair at dinner tables all over the state, sit neatly and sacredly in silence.        Sadly there are also 19 kid’s chairs, smaller in size, and 9 chairs that have two names, representing the 9 unborn children who also died with their mothers.   It is said, that it is rare for one to approach the site without tears.

Lastly, there stands a statue that was one of the last to be erected.   It is a nine foot statue of Jesus, whose picture is included here:

This statute is not one of a stony Jesus with arms out wide or the type that has Jesus springing out of the water with his hands up (which are typically called “Touchdown Jesus’”)… 

No, the statue that stands at the center of the Oklahoma City Memorial is something different.   Instead, Jesus is turned slightly away from where the act occured, and where the empty chairs now stand.    At the base of a statue there is a plaque that reads simply, “And Jesus Wept.” *

As Lent draws to a close, we are called to approach the upcoming holiday as different people.      I pray that you take stock of the God that you embrace.   I pray that you realize that God stands with you in your joy and in your sorrow.    I pray that you remember that God is beside you in the darkest moments of your life (Be it drunkenness, divorce, death, doubt, disease, despair or depression) as readily as he stands beside you in the moments of Celebration.

I pray that you will see the Lord of all creation, standing before you with Tears and his eyes, calling for you to come out of your tombs and accept the new life…  to accept the resurrection he is offering.   

 Thanks be to God, Amen.

* The original version of this illustration comes from a memorial service on the 5th anniversary of the explosion.   Source: IDG Net
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