Understanding Advent Through the Story of Lazarus – How God Comes Near
Part 2 – An Unexpected Sorrow
I am committing my three Advent blogs in an effort to draw us into a story that may seem as far from the Christmas story as one can get. I’ve been meditating on the curious story of the raising of Lazarus from John 11. I say ‘curious’ because much in the story seems nonsensical. However, I believe there is much here that can teach us about the nature of God and help prepare us for the celebration of His coming as the child of Bethlehem.
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
This is the shortest verse in the Bible, and also the strangest. Honestly, I’ve never understood this verse until I placed it in the perspective of Advent. When you think of it in the larger context of what was happening around Jesus, it’s nonsensical. Here’s what I mean.
Jesus arrives at Bethany to the news that Lazarus has died. He knew this already, for He told His disciples before they even left Bethabara that Lazarus was already dead. So, the news was not new or shocking to Him. He had a two-day journey to reflect on the news. So why weep now?
The second strange thing about this little verse is that He also knew what He was about to do. He came to raise Lazarus from the dead. He came to turn sorrow into joy, mourning into gladness. As He looked at the two sisters and saw the deep pain in their eyes, He knew that in moments He would change their grieving into rejoicing. He came to do the miraculous, to change the entire scene from the wailing and lament of death to the exultation of new life. All that was about to happen, in just a moment. So why would a scene of such sorrow move Jesus when He knew what He was about to do?
A third question is for whom was Jesus weeping? Was it His own deep sense of grief? We cry when people die because we know that they are going to be separated from us for the rest of our earthly life. That wasn’t the case for Jesus. Was He weeping for those around Him? The text seems to indicate so, but again why weep for a situation that will be changed so quickly? Why grieve for others when you have the power to end their grieving and will soon exercise it?
Perhaps Jesus was grieving for death itself. And that thought begins to help us understand its relationship to Advent. When we remove the story of the birth of Jesus from all of the romanticism and colorful adorning of the Christmas season, it’s a crude, even brutish story. A woman in labor denied access to proper housing. Stuck in a stable on a cold night to give birth to her first child. For those of us who have been with our wives when they had their first child, you know all of the potential problems and complications there can be. You know the pain and anguish a mother goes through, and the anxiety and fear of husbands who try so hard to be helpful yet feel so powerless and vulnerable. Physical suffering, anxiety, fear; it’s not a happy, peaceful scene. To do all of that for the first time alone in an animal pen seems barbaric. Why would God choose such a way to enter the world, a world that He was about to redeem and reconcile? Why would Jesus weep in a situation He was about to transform?
I love these two stories together because they give us a picture into the heart of God. Last week, we talked about how God comes near. At just the right time, Jesus arrived at Bethany so that His power over death could be displayed. At just the right time, Jesus comes into the world that He may embrace its brokenness and overcome it for all humanity for all time. Yet in both situations, coming at exactly the right time meant coming into a situation of sorrow, grieving and death. And in both situations, instead of coming triumphantly, announcing that all is well and everything will soon be made new, Jesus enters first into the pain He is about to overcome.
That is the most remarkable fact about both stories. Before the redemption, before the healing, before the resurrection, Jesus takes on our pain. He bears it, feels it, allows it to overwhelm Him. In Bethany it causes Him to weep. In Bethlehem, it places Him in a cold animal stable to be born into a cruel and dark world in a cruel and dark place. In both the incarnation and the coming to Bethany at the death of Lazarus, Jesus shows that He is not a detached liberator who simply comes in power to fix all that is wrong. He is instead an incarnate Savior, who first bears our grief and weeps with us and for us before He heals us.
I am so thankful that the story of Jesus begins in the barn. I am so overwhelmed that Jesus wept in Bethany. What that means is that whenever we find ourselves weeping, He weeps with us. In our pain, He bears it. In our despair, He feels it. In our fear and anxiety, He understands it. There is nothing, no emotion we experience that He did not willingly and lovingly assume fully when He became human. We see it in the way He was born, we feel it in His grieving at the death of His dear friend Lazarus.
That is why the cross is so powerful and the resurrection so glorious. As we move through this Advent season and anticipate the celebration of this incredible coming to us, let us find the peace that He came to bring. And let’s claim it in the very midst of the challenges of our current culture and the discouragement and despair we may feel over so much of what’s happening in our nation and the world. It is precisely into this chaos that Jesus came for us. Emmanuel, God with us. And not only with us, but for us. He came to bear everything that we are feeling right now at the end of the year of coronavirus, and all the political, racial, social, moral chaos we are facing.
If the state of the world right now causes us to weep, we do not weep alone because of Bethlehem. And welcoming to earth the God who weeps with us gives us the assurance that caused the hymn writer to pen these words of invitation, “God rest ye Merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan‘s power when we had gone astray. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”