Jesus is Near

If you’ve ever been to a funeral at which I’ve presided, you know that I always talk about Jesus’ interaction with Mary, the sister of Lazarus, in John 11. After Mary’s brother Lazarus has died, Jesus goes to Bethany – the home of Mary, Lazarus, and their sister Martha – in order to raise Lazarus from the dead. It would have made sense for Jesus to tell Mary, “I’m going to bring Lazarus back from the dead, don’t worry, no need to cry.” Instead, when Jesus sees Mary and others weeping with grief, we read that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” after which “Jesus began to weep.”

As we continue to wrestle through the intellectual and emotional difficulties raised by the problem of human suffering, I believe that this account, while certainly not providing a full answer, can be helpful. On seeing the reality of Lazarus’ death, Jesus responded with strong emotion: a mix of anger and deep disturbance. Ultimately, Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, demonstrating his power over death itself. Between Mary’s weeping and Lazarus coming out of the grave, however, Jesus does not simply point Mary toward the coming miracle. Rather, he chooses to enter the pain of the situation – a dead man and his grieving sister – with deep emotion and tears.

As we inevitably find ourselves in the midst of suffering and death, we can trust that Jesus is near, full of deep emotion at that wreckage wrought by the realities of sin and death, longing to weep with us. As we allow Jesus to meet us like this, we may experience all sorts of emotions – confusion, anger, fear – and we may not see the source of our pain reversed like Mary did when she saw Lazarus come out of the tomb.

I do know, however, that the Messiah is a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, KJV), and that it is through these sufferings that Jesus takes on the burden of sin and death. His resurrection is not like that of Lazarus, because Lazarus eventually died again. The kind of life that Jesus has, which the gospel of John calls “eternal life,” is the kind of life that death cannot touch. Jesus told Mary’s sister Martha, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25). This kind of life is available to us all, even in the midst of profound suffering.

As we prepare for Holy Week, which begins next Sunday, know that Jesus, the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, longs to come to us in our suffering. Trust that he is moved deeply, even shedding tears, at the sources of pain in our lives and in our world. All the while, he is leading us to the cross and empty tomb, offering the kind of life that death cannot touch.