John 11:1-7, 17-44 November 14, 2021
The experience of grief is one of the most intense and enduring emotions we can have. Sometimes the pain seems unbearable. However, painful it is, grief is a natural human reaction to loss of any kind. Jesus experienced grief. We experience grief. None of us are immune to experiencing grief. Throughout this pandemic season many are in the throes of grief. The only ones who are immune to grief are people with serious personality disorders. If you have experienced or are experiencing grief, know this: your grief is evidence of your humanity and the value you held the object of your loss. Let us look at the story of the raising of Lazarus from death and the many facets of the grief process. Through this exploration, may God give us hope for the future.
Jesus cares deeply for all humanity, and he especially cared for a small family of three siblings who lived in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus and often visited their home. One day Jesus and the disciples were across the Jordan River when he received word that Lazarus was very ill. He told his disciples that Lazarus’ illness would be an occasion where God’s glory would be revealed. Instead of immediately traveling to Bethany, he stayed another two days where he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. He then went to Bethany. Jesus told the disciples point blank, “Lazarus is dead.” When they arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days and his body was wrapped and enclosed in a stone tomb.
Martha meets Jesus and they have a peculiar conversation. She is quite clear in her belief that if Jesus had been there her brother would not have died. Jesus does not tell us that Martha is a Pharisee but her beliefs are similar to the Pharisees. She clearly believes in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26 ).” Martha responds with a clear statement of faith: “’Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world (John 11:27).’” The writer of the Gospel of John is clear that Jesus is the Messiah and that his friends see him in that light.
Martha leaves Jesus and finds her sister Mary and she comes to Jesus and falls at his feet weeping. Like Martha, she tells Jesus that if he had been there her brother would not have died. Jesus asks her where they have entombed him. Everyone is weeping in grief. At this point, we find the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus began to weep (John 11:35).” Jesus too was in grief. He himself was not immune to that powerful set of emotions we call grief. He is like us in that he was fully human and fully experienced all the feelings we experience. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the Messiah, “He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).” Jesus goes with them to the tomb. John tells us Jesus is “greatly disturbed” or “deeply moved (John 11:38a).”
When the group reaches the tomb, Jesus tells them to take away the stone from the entrance. The people protest. Martha reminds him that Lazarus has been dead four days and that his body is decomposing. However, they trust Jesus and remove the stone. Jesus offers a powerful prayer of faith and trust in God. He then calls out, “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43).” And Lazarus, still wrapped in the grave cloths, steps out of the tomb. Jesus tells them to unbind him and let him go. As a sign of the glory of God and of the future resurrection, Lazarus is raised from death.
John tells us that in the face of Lazarus’ death and the grief of others, Jesus began to weep. He experienced the loss that death creates. Those who study human behavior tell us that we go through a process as we grieve. They tell us that grief is not something easily done and that there is no quick fix or fast cure. Grieving is a necessary and normal human experience. It is a normal reaction to loss. I remember my first experience of grief. When I was a young boy we found our cat dead in the back yard. Even today I recall the feelings of sadness and loss. We grieve over many losses. We grieve over the death of loved ones. We grieve over the loss of esteem or energy or our youth. When my father retired from Goodyear Aerospace, he was in grief. He did not realize it but he grieved over the loss of a meaningful career. We grieve over illness and injury. We grieve over divorce. We grieve when our children leave home. Grief is what we experience when we lose something significant to us. The worst thing we can do when in grief is to hold it in, belittle the experience or loss, or go on as though nothing important happened.
God in his wisdom gives us a process to go through so that we can again have hope, enjoy life and trust in His future. The experts say that the grief process has five stages. But remember grief is not a linear experience. We don’t just finish one stage and then move on to another. The grief process is more like a rollercoaster. We take two steps forward and then find ourselves taking one step backward. Sometimes we think we are well on our way to working through grief and we awaken right back in the beginning. There is no fixed pattern to grief nor is there a fixed time period one will experience it. When we grieve we get on for the ride wherever it will take us. Sometimes it’s like riding a bucking bronco. You get on, hold tight, and ride until the horse wears itself out.
Stage One: Grief begins with denial, numbness and shock. Our bodies protect us against a strong and terrible stressor. When my father died, we were at his bedside. At one level, I knew what was happening but at another I could not believe it. I felt a numbness crawl over me. Perhaps you have had similar feelings of denial, numbness and shock. They are the first stages of the grief process.
Stage Two: Anger. Some people experience anger which is another normal human emotion. While some will not experience anger others will clearly experience it. We especially feel anger when we feel powerless or helpless. Some experience anger as they feel abandoned by the loved one. We may have feelings of resentment. Why did he die and leave me alone? People are uncomfortable with anger. A grieving person who is normally calm may become quite angry and clearly express their anger. It may surprise others. Remember that anger too is a normal and natural reaction to grief. Anger is another way we work through our loss.
Stage Three: Bargaining sometimes comes next. Some want to make a deal with God. Others wonder what they could have done to prevent the loss. People dream of what might have been. We ask the unanswerable question, “Why?” “Why did this have to happen?” “Why did he or she have to die?” Bargaining is one of the ways we work through our feelings of loss and attempt to come to both an intellectual and emotional understanding of our loss and its associated feelings.
Stage Four: Depression. When we think of grief, one of the first words that describe it is emotional depression. Some degree of depression is a common, normal human experience as one goes through the grieving process. We react to loss in many ways. Our energy level goes down. It is hard to get out of bed in the morning and hard to get to sleep at night. Concentrating is sometimes difficult. We are distracted by our loss and reaction to it. Many feel lonely and empty inside. Fear can raise its head. We may overeat or not eat at all. A nearly overwhelming sadness may envelope us. Weeping can come at any time. We may have exaggerated thoughts that we will not make it or that the grief and loss will destroy us. Reacting to loss with some degree of depression is a normal, expected part of the process.
Stage Five: Acceptance. As the process moves on and we bounce back and forth, we begin to move into accepting our loss and the feelings around it. There is no time limit to grief. In our culture, people want a quick fix or an easy cure but grieving takes time. As we move into acceptance, we begin to acknowledge our feelings and accept them. The best one can do is finding a trusted person who will listen to and accept our feelings. As one moves into acceptance, they start to realize that they will make it. They begin to realize that grief will not overwhelm them and that life will continue. They realize that there is life beyond the loss.
As one begins to accept the loss, one begins to hope. They start to have confidence they will get better. There is an old African proverb that reminds us, “There is no way through the desert except through it.” We start to experience the hope that we will get through the painful time. We begin taking steps to build a new life for ourselves. While the pain of grief will not completely disappear, as we work through it, it will diminish. Regardless of our loss, God has a good plan for your future. Jeremiah went through a terrible time but he heard the words of God that gave him hope: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. . .(Jeremiah 29:11-13a).” Although these are God’s word to Jeremiah, we too can take heart in them.
Sometimes we get a false notion that our faith in God will exempt us from the pains of life, including grief. Some will offer the grieving person clichés that are unhelpful. Jesus told his disciples the truth: “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (John 25:33).” In this world we will have adversity. However, God is right there with us in our adversity and our Lord knows what we are experiencing. We are not alone; God has not abandoned us in our losses and difficult feelings. God continually offers us His grace so that we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. In Christ Jesus, you can have hope regardless of what comes your way.
Sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel