In my years of student ministry, there were plenty of occasions in which teens were called to spontaneously quote a Bible verse. Invariably, someone – usually a middle schooler, always a boy – would offer the ‘smart alecky’ response, “Jesus wept.” It took me too long to turn those episodes into teachable moments but I eventually figured out how to do just that. Whenever “Jesus wept” was an answer, I pressed for the scripture reference (nobody ever offered the correct answer of John 11:35). Then I’d offer a follow-up question as a chance for redemption: in what biblical story is that two-word verse found? The success rate was a little higher with that question (the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead).
I remember when that simple verse became real to me. REALLY real. I think it was in the summer of 1994, although I may be off by a year. At this advanced stage of life, as often as not my mind will engage in synthesis instead of recall. It was at the graveside service of a man I’d never met, in a cemetery in or near Goldsboro, NC. I was there because the man’s son had been an instrumental figure in my faith journey, and my presence was the most tangible way of showing support to him. It was a very warm summer morning, made to feel hot from wearing a dark suit out in the open sun. The service itself wasn’t any more or any less remarkable than dozens of others I’d attended in my life to that point. I hung around on the fringes, waiting for my turn to speak just briefly to my friend. Most of the others there knew him and his father, so I felt they deserved my friend’s time more than I did.
I didn’t judge myself to be “affected” in any deep way. I was thinking more about the rest of my day – and a trip to the beach – than about ministering to my friend. Then it happened. The end of the line finally made it’s way to my friend under that tent with the name of the funeral home on the side. After waiting for quite a while, I had my opportunity to express condolences and offer encouragement. Except I couldn’t. Like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas morning, my adam’s apple grew three sizes. Whatever cliche platitudes I had planned on spewing out wouldn’t come. All I could do was look at him for ten or fifteen seconds, trying to speak but unable because I was also trying not to cry.
God finally gave me some words, and in looking back I think they were really good words. I told my friend that I wasn’t crying for myself and I wasn’t crying for the man whose body was in the casket. I cried because my heart hurt was hurting for my friend. I told him I didn’t have anything brilliant to say, but that I hoped he knew someone who never met his dad was hurting with him and for him.
The next time I came across the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, my mind was taken back to that cemetery. Over twenty years later, it continues to be taken back to that same time and place whenever I’m reading or hearing chapter eleven of John’s account of the gospel of Jesus. Some suggest that Jesus wept at his overwhelming sadness and frustration that even the people closest to him ‘just didn’t get it.’ I don’t find that to be an inappropriate interpretation. I will suggest that it’s an incomplete interpretation, though.
A lot of us, I think, view Jesus as a hybrid: half God, half man. That view is flawed because Jesus was/is fully God AND fully man. In coming to earth as one of us, some of his divine traits were subjugated (and that’s a topic for the blog of someone who is much smarter than I am) but he was never NOT God and he was never NOT a man. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the man Jesus was driven to tears because the other humans surrounding him failed to see that God was literally in their midst. It’s also not unreasonable to believe that Jesus wept as a response of his own sadness and for the compassion he felt for those around him who were also incredibly sad. John 11:33 even hints to that, indicating that “Jesus was deeply moved in his spirit and troubled” (NIV) when he saw the others in deep mourning over Lazarus’ death.
During the season of Advent we’re reminded that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” He gave up his place and position in heaven to come down to earth as one of us. He fully took on a human form, flesh and blood and everything that comes with it. Jesus understands physical pain, mental frustration, and – yes – emotional anguish. Our God is not separate and apart from us. He is with us, He understands us fully, and He relates to us perfectly.
Whenever you’re struggling down a path that’s a little darker or steeper or rockier than you’d prefer it to be, remind yourself that Jesus wept, too. There’s a good bunch of daffodils in that reminder.