Monday, April 28, 2014

Jesus Intervenes in Our Grief (John 11:28-40)

When I was in Bible College, we had a Southern Gospel quartet come to sing in Chapel one day. Most of the students were really blessed by their ministry there that day, but they sang one song that just left me a little confused. They sang:

I used to sing a sad song, filled with gray skies and rain
I used to sing of no future, sad days with only pain
Now as I look back upon them, seems to me that I find
There were days in the valley, now I’ve left them all behind

Now it’s sunshine and roses, only a thorn now and then
Cool streams, warm breezes, since Jesus took my hand
Green meadows  and laughter, hope within a crumbling time
It’s sunshine and roses, only a thorn now and then.

Though everyone was tapping and clapping along to this very bouncy tune, singing along with hands raised in jubilation, I was scratching my head. It had been several years since Jesus took my hand, and I had not found that life all of a sudden became “sunshine and roses,” with “only a thorn now and then.” Was I not doing something right? Was something wrong with me? Maybe you have felt that way.

We do not have any promise in Scripture that we will escape sufferings, hardships, illnesses or grief in this world. Instead, we are promised that there will be difficulties of great magnitude as we endure this life in this world. That is why it is so hypocritical to portray yourself as free from problems when you come to church. If we know the Bible, and believe it, we know that life will hurt you deeply. You will grieve, even if you are a Christian. People you love will be taken away from you in death, and you will mourn. But Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that the difference is how Christians grieve. He says there that we are not to grieve as do the rest. We grieve, but we grieve differently than the rest. Why? Because in our grief, we have hope. Paul’s stated desire is that we not “grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” Unlike those who do not know Jesus, we have a sure and certain hope that is able to sustain us in our grief. That sure and certain hope is Christ Himself, who intervenes in our grief.

In our text today, Jesus has come to the home of His friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus had become ill, and now he is dead. The family is grieving, they are hurting, and they are confused. Jesus already had an encounter with Martha in the previous portion of the chapter. And now she has come to get her sister. And it is in this encounter with Mary that we discover how it is that the Lord Jesus intervenes in our grief. So, let’s dive into the text and see how it is that Christ intervenes in our grief.

I. The Lord Jesus confronts our grief with sovereign initiative (vv28-30).

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” But, when we are grieving, we feel as if we do not have the energy to take a single step. C. S. Lewis, in the wakeof his wife’s death, wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. … At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. … And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief. … [A]s a dog-tired man wants an extra blanket on a cold night; he’d rather lie there shivering than get up and find one.”[1] It is a journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step – a step that we do not feel that we can take. But thank God, that first step is not taken by us, but by the Lord Jesus as He comes to us with sovereign initiative to confront us in our grief.

Notice how He has done that for Mary here in our text. Mary is not out seeking the Lord. She is in the house, grieving in the company of others who are grieving with her. But Martha brings her a message: “The Teacher is here.” He has come to her, and He comes to us when we are grieving. He takes the sovereign initiative. He is not sitting idly by and waiting for us to muster the strength and courage to come to Him. He is moved with compassion to come along side of us, to encompass us with His love.

Notice that, not only does He come to us in our grief, but He calls us to come to Him. “The teacher is here and is calling for you.” He is personally concerned for Mary and is calling to her and inviting her to come to Him, just as she is, even in the brokenness of her grief. And He does the same for us. Friends, Jesus loves you and is concerned for you as an individual. He comes to you and calls to you, and beckons you to come to Him.

You might think, “Oh, I could never go to Jesus in the state I am in.” Maybe that is a state of brokenness or grief, as we find Mary here. If so, you might think you need to pull yourself together before you could ever go to Him. Or maybe your state is one of sinfulness – you’ve been living in a way that you know is displeasing to God – and you think that you should clean yourself up, and then you will consider going to Jesus. But friends, His love for us is unconditional. He calls us to come to Him just as we are. But He loves us too much to let us stay just as we are. He desires to change us. If you are broken and need mending, He will mend you. If you are morally unclean, He will clean you. If you are weak, He will strengthen you. You cannot pull yourself together or clean yourself up apart from Him. So know that He is here, and know that He calls to you, and then do as Mary did. When she heard that He was present and calling for her, she “got up quickly” and came to Him. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and He has taken all of them to come to you – all of them but one, that is. The final step is yours and only you can take it.

This is how He confronts our grief with sovereign initiative. When we are unable and unwilling to draw near to Him, He comes to us, and He calls for us. Now, let’s press forward in the text and observe …

II. The Lord Jesus responds to our grief with surprising emotions (vv31-35).

As you can probably imagine, I go to a lot of funerals. They are emotional occasions, and the emotions cover the whole spectrum at times. I have seen people at funerals who were distantly indifferent to the mourners’ grief; others have been uncontrollably demonstrative in their expressions of sorrow; and at times I have seen what strikes me as an inappropriate lightheartedness and frivolity. I can’t help thinking that any of these extremes are inappropriate in such occasions, especially for a Christian. Is there a right Christian perspective, a right balance of emotions that Christians should have in the face of loss and death? If so, we should be able to find it in Scripture and in the person of the Lord Jesus. He was no stranger to funerals, and in our text here, He attends one of a dear friend and responds to their grief with surprising emotions.

Before we see Jesus’ emotional response to the grief of Lazarus’ death, you will notice in verse 33 that His display of emotion is prompted by that which He finds in Mary and the other mourners present. His emotion is a response to theirs. The Bible tells us that Mary was “weeping, and the Jews who came with her were also weeping.” Who were these people? Verse 19 says that there were many of them, and they had come to console the family. An understanding of ancient Jewish funeral customs, which were far different from ours today, helps us understand what is going on here. First, mourners in that culture were expected to be very demonstrative, grieving with loud cries and wails. The greater the noise, the better, as far as they were concerned. Therefore, there was an expectation that the family would hire professional mourners to keep the noise and tears flowing throughout the seven day period of intense grieving. Even for the poorest of families, D. A. Carson explains, “it was customary … to hire a minimum of two flute players and a professional wailing woman. The flute players would play dirges in minor keys to increase the solemnity and sadness of the occasion, and the professional wailing woman would increase the volume level every time it lowered.”[2] Undoubtedly many of those with Mary were there because they had been hired. Their mourning was artificial and manufactured, performed just for show. Mary’s was real. Her words express the emptiness of her soul: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” There is genuine hopeless anguish in her heart. There is a great noise of manufactured despair surrounding her. This prompts Jesus to reveal His emotions in response to her grief.

The first emotion we find in Jesus is in verse 33: “He was deeply moved.” That’s really not a good translation of the Greek word used here. The phrase “deeply moved” is not only ambiguous (to the extent of losing all meaning), but it is inaccurate. The word that is used in the original Greek text is a word that is used in Greek literature to refer to the snorting of horses. When used of humans, both within the New Testament and elsewhere, it invariably conveys the idea of outrage (as Carson explains).[3] Note this, the funeral of Lazarus has made Jesus, first of all, angry.

That begs the question: Why is Jesus outraged at His friend’s funeral? He is outraged at the cause of this grief. What caused this grief? Death. What causes death? In some cases, like that of Lazarus, it is precipitated by sickness. But what is the cause of all sickness and death in the human race? It is sin. I am not at all saying that if, for instance, someone has cancer or someone has died, that it is punishment for some sin in their life. Rather, I am saying that the Bible makes it clear that when Adam sinned, the entire human race was subjected to suffering and death. Therefore, all manifestations of sickness, suffering, and death are rooted in the lingering effects of the fall of humanity into sin. As Paul states in Romans 5:12, “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” We inherit a sinful nature and a corruptible body that was not part of God’s design for humanity because of the sin of Adam. But, we are not just sinners by nature; we are also all sinners by choice. In other words, if Adam had not been our representative in sin, we would be no better off, for each of us has willfully chosen rebellion over obedience to God. God’s design for humanity was to live in health and wholeness, and to live forever in His presence. But sin caused there to be a separation and a rending of that design. As a result, we suffer and we die as sin works out its effects in the entire human race. Therefore, outrage is an entirely righteous and God-glorifying reaction to suffering, death and grief. Jesus looks upon this scene, with one dear friend dead and entombed, and another one being torn apart by grief, and He sees beyond the immediate scene to the ultimate and eternal one. This is what sin has done to that creature whom God has fearfully and wonderfully made in His own image.

I wonder if we have rightly responded to grief if we have not reached this emotional state. We go to funerals, and we go to the casket to view the deceased, and someone will say, “She looks good, doesn’t she?” I am always at a loss for words there. What we are seeing in that casket is not pretty. It is the wages of sin – not necessarily a specific sin committed by that person, but the wages of sin being dealt out to the entire human race because of our rebellion against the Lord. The Bible does not depict death as a good or happy thing to celebrate, not even for believers. Redemption from sin through the Lord Jesus Christ is a thing to celebrate, as are the promises of His gospel. But we should not celebrate death. The Bible calls it an enemy. It is destructive. It robs us of our loved ones here on earth, and it will take us as well. So, when we view a corpse, we are seeing the final blow that sin has dealt on humanity. How should we respond? Grief, surely, is appropriate. But when we consider the cause of our grief, the hideous work that sin has done on our race, we should be outraged, even as Jesus was. He is outraged by the cause of our grief.

Then notice that immediately in verse 33, we read that He was troubled. This word carries a different connotation. As I look at the uses of this word in the New Testament, I am inclined to give it the sense of being “puzzled,” but I know that the all-knowing, all-powerful Lord of glory is never puzzled. Perhaps the idea is something like “bewildered.” Our translators have chosen “troubled,” and that will suffice for us here. Why is He troubled? Apparently, He is troubled by the response to grief that He sees here. Look at the troubling elements of what is going on here.

First, in Mary’s grief, she has yielded to the temptation to question the love and goodness of the Lord. When she says in verse 32, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died,” it is hard to miss the obvious disappointment that she feels. The Lord has let her down. It is troubling for the Lord to see this, given their past friendship. This family has loved the Lord and known His love for them. They have served Him, Mary has sat at His feet basking in the glory of His words. And now, she expresses doubt in His concern for her. It is a strong temptation, one which the devil loves to bring our way in times of grief. His original temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden was to cause her to question God’s goodness and trustworthiness. Now, the serpent has hissed in Mary’s ear, even as he has done to so many of us in our most difficult moments. It troubles the Lord when He sees us succumb to this temptation and question His love and goodness, in spite of all that we have experienced in our walk with Him.

Then notice that He is troubled by the hopeless despair and demonstration of grief. He is troubled that there is no hope in her sorrow. He is troubled that she is grieving like the hopeless multitude who do not know the grace and glory of the Lord Jesus. In His bewilderment, it is as if He desires to say, “Mary, shall you not grieve differently than all the others, since you know Me and have believed my promises?” He would say the same to us. When grief blinds us to the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and pushes us into the deep canyons of hopeless sorrow, it is troubling to the Lord. He is troubled by our response to grief. The most depressing place I know of in the world is at the funeral of an unbeliever with an unbelieving family. They are drowning in grief, without the hope of Christ to secure them, and it is troubling! But, it is equally, if not more, troubling when a professed believer in Christ grieves as if there is no hope beyond the grave. We do not expect an exuberant celebration of joy, but we could hope to see the light of hope glimmering in their eyes. It’s refracted through their tears, but it is there, flickering. When we do see it, it is an amazing testimony to the Lord and to the person’s unshakable faith in Him. But so often, we see people, even those who profess to know Him, being swallowed alive by hopeless despair, and it should trouble us, even as it troubles the Lord Jesus.  

And then notice the third emotion He demonstrates. Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. It says, simply, Jesus wept. He comes along side of His own in their moments of devastating grief and mingles His tears with our own. He weeps with us in sympathy for our grief. The word “sympathy” means more than feeling sorry for someone. It means “feeling together” with them what they feel. It is to share in their heartache and sadness and hurt with them. Genuine sympathy communicates from our heart to theirs that they are not alone in their sorrow. And that is what Jesus has come to do for Mary. He does it still for us. He weeps with us, His tears joining ours as He comes along side of us in our grief. What grieves you grieves Him. He is “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” Isaiah foretold (Isa 53:3). He knows the pain and anguish that can afflict us in this life. He weeps alongside of us as we do.

What we see here in the emotions of Jesus ought to have an effect on us. It should comfort and encourage us to know that He is infinitely more outraged by sin and death than we can ever be; He is more deeply troubled than we can ever experience by the fears, the hopelessness, and the seeds of unbelief that begin to take root in grieving hearts. He is more sympathetic and compassionate with those who mourn than we can ever be. But, not only is this a comfort to us, it is also a model for us. How shall we, as Christians, respond to death and grief? As we look to our Master, we find that outrage at the deadliness of sin is fitting, as is the troubling of the spirit that is provoked by scenes of hopeless despair, but there must also be that compassionate sympathy that weeps real tears along side of those who are grieving. There is a delicate balance in these emotions that is quite unnatural for us to strike. As Carson so profoundly observes, “grief and compassion without outrage reduce to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance.”[4] It is only as we yield our emotions to the Spirit of Christ, who indwells us and who perfectly exemplifies this right balance of emotions, that we can maintain a healthy Christian perspective on grief.

So, here at the funeral of a friend, the Lord Jesus is seen to confront our grief with sovereign initiative, and to respond to our grief with surprising emotion. Now, finally, and most gloriously, we see …

III. The Lord Jesus overcomes our grief with saving power (vv36-40).
(Because of time constraints, this point did not get included in the preaching of this message on April 27, 2014)

It is a wonderful thing to know that Jesus comes to us and calls us. It is amazingly comforting to know that the death that rips our families apart and steals our loved ones away outrages Him; and that He is troubled by our failure to hold onto hope in the midst of our grief; and that He weeps with us. These things are a great comfort to our souls. But, friends, if we leave here today thinking that this is all that Jesus has done to address our grief and suffering, then we have missed the most important point.

Notice what people around Jesus are saying. In verse 36, they notice His tears, and they say, “See how He loved him!” And in verse 37, some of them are saying, “Could not this man, who opened they eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” Two groups of people, two interpretations of the situation, and both of them are right, and both of them are wrong.

Some think Jesus’ tears are an expression of His love for Lazarus. Well, they are right. Jesus loved Lazarus. The Bible says that plainly (vv 3, 5). But Jesus’ love for Lazarus is not chiefly manifested in His tears. His love for Lazarus, and His love for Mary and Martha, and even His love for you and me, is supremely manifested in that He is there. When I say “there,” I don’t mean “there,” as in, “there with them while they grieve,” although that is certainly true. I mean “there,” as in, “there in Bethany, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” His disciples understood the significance of this. The last time He was in this part of the country, people tried to put Him to death. In verse 8, they tried to stop Him from coming, and they said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” You and I might say, “Hmm. That’s too bad about Lazarus, but I just can’t go back there. It isn’t safe.” Jesus didn’t say that. Thanks be to God! JESUS DID NOT SAY THAT! He came, knowing that it would be a one-way trip. You see, Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, and you, and me, and everyone else who has ever walked this earth so much that He came back. He didn’t just come back to stand around the tomb and weep over death. He came to do business with death. We are barely half way through John, but the remaining portion of the book takes place in the course of one week: the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. In John 12:12, we start reading about Palm Sunday. He had come on a one-way trip to die. The final walk to the cross begins here! But in His dying, He was dealing with sin and death fully and finally. He came to take our place in death, to take our sins upon Himself and die as our substitute, bearing the wrath of God that our sins deserve in Himself. And by His resurrection, He slays death, and sin, and hell forever for those who trust in Him. Death is a defeated foe because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Oh, these people are so wrong. His tears do not just mean that Jesus loved Lazarus. But they are so right! “See how He loved him!” See how He loves you and me! Don’t see it in the tears that He sheds, although it is there. See it most supremely in that He sheds blood for us! He lies down His life so that the final enemy, death, can be defeated for us all. By His death and resurrection, He was removing the sting from death for all who trust in Him. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (11:25).  

He comes to look death square in the face. He says in verse 34, “Where have you laid Him?” You and I would be tempted to say, “No, Lord, we can’t go there. It is too painful. You don’t need to see that. Let’s have some closure here and just stay away.” But the people said to Jesus, “Lord, come and see.” And so He came to this tomb of Lazarus, a tomb very much like the one He Himself would be placed in just over a week later. And He says, “Remove the stone.” Now they protest. Martha says, in my paraphrase, “Jesus, are you crazy? There is a rotting corpse in there!” She says, “Lord by this time there will be a stench for He has been dead four days!” Jesus doesn’t mind. What is it that you don’t want Him to see in your life? Do you have some sin, some hardship, some monumental grief in your life that you do not want to see because you think it is so filthy? Say with these mourners, “Lord, come and see.” Listen, as He says to you, “Remove the stone. I am about to show you my glory!” He says in verse 40, “Did I not say to you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

You and I probably know what’s about to happen. He is going to pray, and then He will speak three words, and that dead man is going to come out of the tomb! But they don’t know that yet. Some of them are saying, “Couldn’t He have prevented Lazarus from dying?” They are right. He could have. But they are wrong in thinking that there is nothing that He can do for Him now. He is getting ready to bring that dead man back to life. You might say, “How is that comforting to me? He didn’t do that for my loved one! They are gone, and they aren’t coming back!” But you see, Jesus never promised that He would bring the dead back to life here and now. He promised something better. You see, Lazarus isn’t finished with sin, sickness, or death. We aren’t told the specifics, but we know that he will be touched by sin again, he will get sick again, and he will die again. What a shame for him to have to endure that all over again! Jesus promised to do something better for you. Because He tasted death for you, and conquered it forever, He can say to you, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Get that – you will SEE the glory of God. You will see it with your own eyes, in all of its fullness. As Job 19:25-26 says, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh, I shall see God. You will see far more glory than those people saw that day. If you trust in Him, you will stand in the very presence of God and see His unmediated glory because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; … everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (11:26). Oh, you will close your eyes to life here, but you will open them a life that never ends, lived out for eternity in the presence and the inexpressible glory of God, never again to be touched by sin, or by the nasty fruit it bears in our corruptible bodies that we occupy here and now, never again to be afflicted by grief, by sickness or by death.

This is what we are promised: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away … Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:3-4). The Lord Jesus has overcome our grief with His saving power forever through His own death and resurrection. It doesn’t mean you won’t grieve in this life. But you won’t grieve alone, and you won’t grieve like the rest of men do who have no hope. You will grieve with a true Christ-like perspective on death, He will grieve along side of you, and you will be secured as you rest in the saving promises of the Lord Jesus.  Death is not final for those who trust in Him. You will see the glory of God when this corruptible life in this fallen world has come to an end.

He has come to you. Have you come to Him? You might say, “Oh, I am just a mess. I could never come to Jesus like this. Let me straighten myself up a bit and then I will come to Him.” Friends you will never straighten yourself up apart from Him. He has come to you, and He invites you to come, just as you are, and promises to transform you by His power that conquered sin and death forever for you. Would you come to Him? He has come to you, and is calling you, and saying, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Arise quickly, and come to Him.

Hymn # 337 Nothing But the Blood

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