Wiping Away Tears at the Cemetery

John 11:17-27,38-45 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." 23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27 "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world." … 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." 40 Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." 45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

A few years ago, my family sat down to watch the movie “Marley and Me.” The movie is about how John and Jenny Grogan, a newly married couple, adopt a yellow Labrador retriever puppy in order to see if the couple is ready to become parents. They name the puppy after the reggae singer, Bob Marley.

My family enjoyed watching Marley tear up the Grogan’s home, getting kicked out of dog training school and other antics. The Grogans eventually have two children and Marley is an integral part of their family. Until old age sets in for Marley at the age of 15 and he is euthanized.

If you’ve ever seen “Old Yeller,” “Marley and Me” is the same kind of movie. You are drawn into the story and you end up loving the dogs so much in the movies that when the dogs die at the end of the movie … even grown men find themselves wiping away their tears.

We all cry. Whether it is watching a sad movie or putting our beloved pet to sleep. Whether it is constant back pain or arthritis. Whether it is visiting with Grandma in hospice care or at Dad’s funeral – we all cry.

Even Jesus cried. There was no tougher or stronger Man than Jesus … and yet He cried at the funeral of His dear friend, Lazarus.

Jesus arrives at the home of His friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They lived together in Bethany, a small suburb of Jerusalem. It was the tradition of the Jewish culture for there to be seven days of mourning after the death of a loved one. Jesus arrives on the fourth day, in the middle of the mourning period.

It was also tradition for the grieving family to hire people to mourn with them. The family of Lazarus must have been fairly well off, because there were many mourners who came from Jerusalem.

Martha runs out to meet Jesus on the road and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” At first, these words might seem to be an angry expression of frustration that Jesus did not come a week earlier to make Lazarus well. But listen to Martha as she continues, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Martha has faith. She doesn’t know exactly what Jesus has planned, but when the Son of God shows up, you have to trust that something miraculous and marvelous is going to happen.

Jesus gives her a glimpse of what is going to happen when He says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Jesus turns Martha’s faith into action. Jesus gives Martha a glimpse into the grave.

Marvel at the faith of Martha as she answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus says to her (words that are spoken at almost every Christian funeral), “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Martha is rightly thinking about the resurrection at the end of time. Jesus is talking about the resurrection and life right now in Him, for all those who believe in Him.

We need to remember these words of resurrection faith while we are in the ICU, the hospice home, the funeral home and at the cemetery. For that is where we meet our greatest enemy face-to-face.

There are many in our society who will try to tell us that death is our friend. It is the end of suffering. The end of pain. The peaceful conclusion to a long life. The solution to our problems. But standing in the cemetery you know that this is all a lie. Though we all die, death is not natural. Adam and Eve were not created to die, but to live. Death, then, is an unwelcome intruder in the life of God’s creation. It is the violent rending of the soul from the body.

Dying exists in God’s once immortal human race as a punishment for human evil and rebellion. It is not nice or natural. What was once spoken as a curse on Adam and Eve; what has been spoken over countless cemetery committals; will also be stated as a matter of fact upon your death. “For dust you are and dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Death is the clearest expression of God’s hatred over our sins.

Many times when someone dies we try to blame God. But it is death who is the enemy. Death takes our loved ones away from us and leaves us a hole. And whether it happens suddenly or slowly, to a grandmother, spouse, brother or child, it really doesn’t matter, does it? The pain is great. The brokenness is absolute. The hurting is unbearable.

What God has joined together, death has torn asunder.

Have you felt that pain? Have you been called to stand on the thin line that separates the living from the dead? Have you lain awake at night listening to machines pumping air in and out of your lungs? Have you watched sickness corrode and atrophy the body of your loved one? Have you held his hand or her head as life slowly ebbed away? Have you lingered behind at the cemetery long after the others have left, gazing in disbelief at the casket that contains the body of the one you can’t believe is gone?

You’ve felt alone. Alone with your doubts. Alone with your fears. Driven to despair. Unsure what to do next.

And we’re not much help to the grieving, are we? How often don’t we say things like, “I’m sorry.” “If you need anything, I’m here for you.” “Here’s a casserole.” Often times when we see someone grieving, we either leave them alone or force them to move along too quickly.

We may not be much help to the grieving, but Jesus certainly is. You see, if God is anywhere, He is in the face of death. Pop psychology can help with depression. Pep talks can deal with pessimism. Prosperity can handle the hunger. But only God can deal with our ultimate dilemma – death.

Death has hounded mankind since the Garden of Eden and caused misery that God never intended for His children. When Jesus saw the effects of death on His loved ones, He wept with them, but also promised them that one day even this last enemy would be defeated.

Only God stands tall and bright in the dark valley of death. God was there when death intruded upon His perfect creation. Immediately after the fall into sin – as funerals and cemeteries would soon be filling the world with prolonged sadness – God brought immediate hope with the promise of the Savior and Serpent-crusher (Genesis 3:15). In the Bethany cemetery, Jesus wipes away tears as He stands near the tomb of His dear friend, Lazarus, and speaks. And Jesus wipes away tears upon the hill of death as He tells the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Martha takes Jesus to the cemetery where her brother is entombed. Jesus wants the stone rolled away and the grave opened. Remember, it is the fourth day, so Martha objects that the decaying flesh would smell too bad. Jesus replies, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” When Jesus finishes His prayer, He calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He who called planets into existence and breathed life into man, now calls Lazarus back from the dead and gives him once more the breath of life.

Lazarus had no choice. He came out.

Lazarus’ response to the command of Christ stirs the heart of every Christian who has stared at the ugly face of death – the dead man came out.

What happened at that Bethany cemetery is a prelude to what would happen in a few weeks in a Jerusalem cemetery. Jesus’ borrowed tomb was opened by the angel to show that Jesus was already gone. Jesus walked out of His own grave – alive. This is a prelude to what will happen to us on the Last Day when our graves are opened and we are called from our tombs. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

When God speaks … people come out of their graves. They have no choice.

Don’t miss what was happening in that Bethany cemetery. Don’t gloss over it thinking, “Oh, it’s another resurrection. We already heard about another resurrection this morning. Ho-hum.” No! This is amazing! This is astounding! This is a miracle! Life from death! Hope follows despair! Tears of grief are replaced with tears of joy! The cemetery turns into a party!

Three friends were discussing death and one of them asked: “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?” The first of the friends said, “I would like them to say: ‘He was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.’” The second said, “I would like them to say: ‘He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.’” The third friend said, “I would like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!!’”

Imagine the setting at Lazarus’ tomb. The sisters and the mourners point at the tomb and shout, “Look, he’s moving!!” Jesus has intruded into the enemy’s turf. He is standing in Satan’s territory – the valley of death. His stomach turns as He smells the sulfuric residue of the ex-angel. He cries, for death has grabbed hold of His dear friend. He winces as He hears the oppressed wails of the mourners. Satan has been here. He has once again violated one of God’s creations.

Jesus’ victory in this battle with death was a foregone conclusion – He thanked God for it in advance.

With His foot planted on the serpent’s head, Jesus speaks loudly enough that His words echo off the hills around this dark valley. “I am the resurrection and the life.”

This is a critical event in history. The stage is set for the same confrontation of Jesus versus death at Calvary in a few weeks. A chink has been found in death’s armor. The keys to the halls of hell have been claimed. The tomb has been opened and will have to claim another. The buzzards scatter and the maggots scurry as Life confronts death – and wins!

“Do you believe this?”

Jesus asks Martha the greatest question in Scripture, a question that is meant for you and me as much as for Martha.

“Do you believe this?”

This is the bottom line. The dimension that separates philosophers, gurus, shamans, and prophets from Christians. This is the question that will drive you either to absolute obedience or total rejection of a crucified and resurrected Christ. Do you believe that the Creator of life died so His creation may have life with Him? Do you believe that Jesus opened His grave so He may open yours? Do you believe that for the Christian, death is but a sleep and you will awaken in your own room in the mansions of heaven? Do you believe that you are but a stranger here and heaven is your home? Do you believe that on the Last Day cemeteries will turn into parties? Do you believe that Jesus wipes away your tears … even at the cemetery?

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Amen.