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Telltale Tears

"Jesus wept" speaks volumes about our Savior's humanity, compassion and tenderness—and teaches us something about the way we should be.

The Bible consists of different books. These books are made up of 1,189 chapters, and these chapters are comprised of 31,173 verses. The shortest of all these verses in this: "Jesus wept."

About four hundred years ago a man named Robert Stevens, a Frenchman, sat down and divided the Bible into chapters and verses. For some reason known only to him, when he came to the eleventh chapter of John's gospel, he divided it in such way that the verse consists of only two words: "Jesus wept."

Now I'm sure if I had asked the question, "What is the shortest verse in the Bible?" some of you would have been able to identify it. But I wonder how many of you have thought deeply about the tremendous truths that are to be found in these two words.

The verse speaks volumes about Jesus' humanity.

First of all and most obviously, there is testimony here to Jesus' humanity. Two weeks ago a high school girl came to me and put this question: "In what way is Jesus relevant to my life today?"

Now she did not put the question with any insolence or arrogance. It was a very sincere question and, let's face it, a very legitimate question. After all, what relevance to today, our jet age, is a peasant from an obscure village located about eight thousand miles from here? He never wrote a book. He never went to college. He never traveled very far from his home. He never saw a computer. What relevance is there between him and us in the midst of our human predicament?

I answered her that Jesus is supremely relevant to our time because he is the model of what humanity is to be. Jesus' great mission, you see, was not to be God, for he was God by nature. His mission was to be man, to take upon himself the garb of flesh and to represent to us, in the purest possible way, what it really is to be a human being. Jesus demonstrates for us the nobility of life at its very highest. No matter what time or place you live in, if you are seeking nobility, the very highest demonstration of life is to be found in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

It's for this reason that the church has always emphasized the humanity of Jesus. In its creeds and in its symbols, it constantly uses words representative of his humanity. In the Apostles' Creed, for example, it says that he "suffered under Pontius Pilate," that "he was crucified, dead, and buried." These words pertain not to a ghost or an apparition. Only a man can suffer. Only a man can be crucified. When Jesus heard, he heard as we hear. When Jesus saw, he saw as we see. When he took one hand and hit it against the other hand, the sound was example the same as when you and I do it. When he was thirsty, he was thirsty as we are thirsty. When taking up a great weight, he we, in carrying weights that are too heavy for us, fall. And when he went to the funeral of a friend, he did what we would do in exactly that same Jesus wept.

He was not a Greek deity floating on a cloud. He was not a pagan god utterly disinterested with the affairs of men. He was not some vague Eastern idea unrelated to the human predicament. Instead, he was a carpenter, who loved flowers and little children, who talked about sowing seed and buying some sparrows for a penny.

He was a patriot, and a teacher, and a whole a lot more, but always a man. He entered as a fetus into the womb of his mother and dwelt there for nine months. At the end of his life, he died and was placed into a tomb. His body began to decay, and were it not for the resurrection, it would have decayed and returned to the inorganic, just as our bodies do. His body was woven of exactly that which our bodies are woven: the same blood, the same sweat, the same tears.

C.S. Lewis describes it in terms of those divers we see down in M young, brown boys who go up to great heights and leap out and descend in a graceful curve to the water. They penetrate the green, emerald, warm water and then go deeper, down to the icy, darkest waters. And there they touch the muddy bottom. Then, their lungs reaching out for air, they turn and surge up from the inky blackness to the emerald green water again, and then surge out of the water shouting, and exulting, and splashing. Just so, Jesus moved down into life. But he didn't dwell in the icy darkness of earthly living only for a moment, but rather was among us for years.

He counted equality with God, living there in the sunlit heights, not something to be grasped, but laid it aside and took upon himself our form. Paul says at one point that "he pitched his tent among us." John says, "The Word became flesh."

Jesus humanity of the Master.

One of the great treats to me in this last Thanksgiving break was a television concert presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was Eugene Ormandy's eightieth birthday, and to celebrate it he led the orchestra in the Second Symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff had been a personal friend of Ormandy. Before the concert, in an interview, Ormandy told how when he had first received the work from Rachmaninoff's hand, he proposed certain cuts or abbreviations to be made in in number. Rachmaninoff reviewed the proposed cuts, accepted seven of them, but said that the eighth cut could not be made. He said, "If you take that part out, the whole composition will no longer make sense." Following the directions of the composer, Ormandy so performed the work and has performed it many times since. It is a master work, sublime and beautiful; the performance was magnificent in every way.

But as I listened to it, what kept coming back to me was this: As you look at the symphony of the human experience, you discover in it all kinds of discord and dissonance, much sound and drums and cymbals often it seems to signify nothing. That's the reason so many, when they listen to the symphony to life, opt out, either by suicide or losing themselves in a orgy of , which is a suicide of its own kind.

But Jesus, you see, is the one part of the music that absolutely must not be cut out if the symphony is to make sense. When he is inserted into the music, when one understands him as the model of what humanity is to be, then suddenly we learn that the whole symphony is to be done in C Christ Major. Then the song becomes beautiful. Then the order and the harmony are there to enjoy.

Jesus is the master man and shows us what living is to be.

God does not weep, for spirit cannot shed tears. An animal does not weep; it is incapable of such emotion. Only a man can weep. Jesus wept, and in his manhood showed us how we are to live.

The verse shows us the importance of openness and vulnerability.

But notice this, too. Part of what he showed us about the human experience was this: the importance of openness and vulnerability. He out where people could see him. It's recorded in Scripture twice that Jesus did this, once at the tomb of his friend and once over the capital city of the nation that he loved.

Now please understand that Jesus was not a weepy sentimentalist. His enemies, for example, described him not as one who rained on parties but rather as one who liked to go to too many of them. His friends spoke of him in the most positive terms. Little children were ready to scramble up into his lap. A prostitute responded to his directions immediately. A tough tax collector came scrambling down out of a tree at his invitation. He had the kind of personality that attracted all kinds of people. His words to describe himself were very upbeat words. He described himself as a bridegroom, or as a buried treasure, or as a pearl of great price. You yourself, if you are a Christian, know how you can reach across the years and experience him. And when you do experience him, there is a warmth and a power and a glow about him, not that which is cold but that which is uplifting and enthusing and dynamic.

Jesus was not a weepy individual, but he was always a vulnerable individual. He never masked himself. There was no duplicity in him. When his heart hurt, he let it show. "Good men weep easily," the Greek poet wrote, and Scripture testifies to this. It says that David wept, and Jonathan wept, and Job wept, and Ezra wept. The Scriptures say that in heaven God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, which, it seems to me, means that in life there are some thing we ought to be crying about. And openly.

But some people will never do that. They look upon weeping as a sign of weakness. Weakness? Do you remember Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, the star backs for the Chicago Bears? One was a black man; one was a white man. They created quite a sensation back in the days that they were , because they were the first two black and white men to room together in professional football.

Reporters used to ask them about that all the time, and they would always tease one another in their answers. A reporter would say, "Do you mind living with him?" and Piccolo would answer, "Not if he doesn't use the bathroom." Or a reporter would say, "What do you two fellows talk about?" and Sayers would respond, "Oh, just the usual racist talk." They had a lot of kidding remarks they made toward one another, but there was a deep, deep affection between them.

Then Brian Piccolo was cut down with cancer and began to spend more time in the hospital than he did on the football field. The two men had planned to go with their wives to New York to the Professional Football Writers Association banquet, where Sayers was to be presented the George S. Halas Award as the most courageous professional football player in that year. But Piccolo, because of the oncoming advance of the disease, was unable to go.

When the moment came for Gayle Sayers to receive the award, this star running back stepped to the microphone and with the tears unashamedly rolling down his cheeks said, "You flatter me by giving me this award. But I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the award. I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like you to love him, too. Tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him." A strong man saying of another strong man, "I love Brian," and weeping as he said it. But is that weakness?

I read last summer the latest biography of Abraham Lincoln and was struck by the fact that he repeatedly, both in public and in private, wept. Do you think of Abraham Lincoln as a weak man?

And what of Jesus, who was a carpenter in the days when the carpenter went out, chopped down the trees, hauled them to where they were to be used, and then hewed them into shape? This one who would grasp the mast of a ship in the midst of a storm and stand up and argue with the wind. This one who would face down a hostile crowd and walk courageously through the very middle of them. This man who wrestled with evil in the wrestled with God in a garden. This one who was, with a whip and the sharpness of his tongue, able to clear a temple of moneychangers. This one who drew to him, in bonds of firm loyalty, tough and tax collectors. This one who drew women, not only by his winsomeness but also by his manliness. This one who could be beaten and crowned with thorns and spat upon and still, when he was brought before a Roman governor, could draw from the lips of that governor these words: "Behold, the man!" Is this weakness?

I'll tell you what weakness is. I think of a college , , from a fine background, very bright, had invitations to attend four elite graduate schools. In his senior year he fell in love with a girl and began sleeping with her regularly. This girl was not interested only in him but also in his best friend, and she began sleeping with both of them. She told them this; they were aware of it.

A doctor friend asked him how he could tolerate such a thing, and the young man looked at him questioningly and said, "I am mature enough and urbane enough to be able to understand. I have a sophisticated enough view of sex to be able to tolerate this without difficulty." Never showed that inside he was a mass of anger and frustration. Always the stiff upper lip; no tears where anyone could see.

Then one night he borrowed her car, drove to a nearby parking lot, put a pistol in his mouth, and blew his brains out. Everyone who commented after it, including the doctor who wrote of it, said, "He never let us know what he was really feeling." There is weakness.

Charles Dickens put into the lips of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist these words: "Crying opens lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens the temper. So cry on." To that we might add, "It frees the emotion; it cleanses the spirit." If you've ever held anyone in your arms who was boy whose mother just died; a girl whose fellow just walked away; a child who was lost, or afraid, or know how tears can communicate feelings, and how in communication of feelings there is the deepest contact.

We can only touch each other on three levels. There's the factual level: "Dave and I went out for lunch yesterday. We had steak subs." There's the opinion level: "While Dave and I were out for lunch, he expressed an opinion on this question; I disagreed with it." Then there's the feeling level: "When I go out for lunch with Dave, I feel so lifted up, my spirit so soars. I am so freed of all my burdens for that moment that I wouldn't miss it." Now which one of those says the most about where we really are? It is the expression of our feelings. It is only when we make ourselves known and know that the other truly knows us, it is only then when they say they love us, we can be assured that it is the truth.

Golda Meir perhaps summed it best: "I've always felt sorry for people afraid of feeling, of sentimentality, who are unable to weep with their whole hearts. Because these do not do this, because they do not know how to weep, they do not know how to laugh, either." Jesus wept.

These words speak to us magnificently of our Lord's compassion. When he got to Bethany, a typical funeral of the day was in mourners, the sackcloth, the ashes, the loud crying, the playing of the instruments. And Jesus, on seeing this, wept. He did not weep for Lazarus. He knew that Lazarus already had one foot in heaven and that he could call Lazarus back at will. The passage is very specific; it says, "When Jesus saw them weeping." When Jesus heard their cries of lamentation, he was troubled and he wept. In other words, Jesus wept because of the sorrow, and the brokenness, the he saw in that human experience. He reached out and put his arms about it in compassion and tenderness.

I read recently of a teaching hospital that found one of its young resident students had a marvelous effect on children. They responded to him with delight. They would do things for him and yield to his ministrations in a way that they wouldn't do for any other person on the staff. They assigned a nurse to discover what the secret of this young resident was. It wasn't until the second week when she was on night turn that she found out the secret. It was simply this: Every night on his last round he would kiss and hug, and tuck in every one of the children. It was in that act of compassion, you see, in that act of sympathy, that he made his contact. And it's sympathy, this compassion that belongs to J reaches out to us. It's this about him that charms us more than anything else.

Jesus is "the great tempter" of the ages.

He is the great tempter of the ages. We think of the devil as the great tempter. Jesus tempts far more. Oh, some are tempted to be Alexander, or Napoleon, or R have Jesus tempts us with his simple words, "Follow me." Although we say no because we're afraid to risk as he risked and to love as he loved, still always there is nibbling away down at the center of our hearts something that says, "Oh, if only we could be really like him."

I had a mission friend, a doctor in Egypt, who once performed a relatively simple operation on a woman, and her sight was restored. She came before she left the hospital and said, "Thank you, Jesus."

"Oh," he said, "I'm not Jesus. I'm just Jesus' servant."

But no matter how much he protested, she kept saying and bowing low, "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus." He admitted to me that he was awed and thrilled by this, to think that he had done something in his life that someone else looked at and thought of Jesus.

We all have that desire. But still we resist his invitation to serve. We're like Peter. We say, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinner." We say, "I can't rise to that level of living. You're on a scale utterly beyond me." Jesus disturbs us, doesn't he? We read his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and we applaud them. But if there's honesty in us, we know that when we read them we feel like spiritual morons. We look at Jesus as our example. Yet when we stand beside him, it is sickness standing beside health. It is weakness standing beside strength. It is the ugly standing beside the beautiful.

We see him gird himself with a towel and minister to others, and we hear him invite us to do the same, and our hearts hush within us. Then we cry out, "O thou crystal Christ, I'd like to be like that, but I'm not like that." And we try to turn away and forget it.

Lloyd Douglas in The Robe tells about when Jesus met Z know, the tough tax collector who came out of the tree and they had lunch together. That tax collector was a thief, but halfway through lunch he goes out on the porch and speaks to the crowd: "I will give back four times over everything that I stole." The law required you return double, but he said four times over. Then he said, "I will give half of everything I possess to the poor."

Douglas pictures Jesus as saying to him, "Zacchaeus, what led you to do that?"

Zacchaeus, answered, "Master, when I looked into your eyes, I saw there mirrored the Zacchaeus I was intended to be."

At one and the same time, that's what fascinates us and frightens us in Jesus. We look at him, and something in us says, "Yes, that's what I'm supposed to be. That's what I want to be." Then we look at ourselves and we say, " No, I can never be that." That's the reason these words, "Jesus wept," are so important. They are expressions of his compassion, his sympathy, and that compassion and sympathy are extended to us. The Good News is that Jesus isn't just our example, our teacher, but more than these things, he is our Savior. The keynote is compassion, not the compassion he calls us to but the compassion he extends to us and then invites us to grow in.

Tchaikovsky says somewhere in one of his letters that he owed to Mozart the fact that he had devoted his whole life to music. Did you catch in that sentence two tones? First the tone of humility. He looks to Mozart as the very paragon of musical genius. But also there's the note of enthusiasm. Mozart had been to him not only the one who humbled him but also the one who called out of him the dedication of his whole life to being everything in music that he could be.

Christ is far beyond Mozart, and Tchaikovsky is far beyond us. But the illustration is still apt. For what it says to us is this: Jesus can be the one who loves us, accepts us, forgives us, cleanses us, and at the same moment so flows into us that we are enabled to live more like him that we ever previously believed.

Quite frankly, I'm sick to death of ideals. I have so many ideals and I've been so frustrated by them, I really don't care for any more. What I'm looking for is a someone who will just tell me what I ought to be, but someone who will forgive me for what I am, and then with his very love will enable me to be more that I ever believed I could be. It's exactly that that Jesus does.

When Bishop Booth, the Episcopal bishop up in Vermont, was a young man, but he led a beautiful Christian nurse said, "I know where the Bishop is tonight. His soul is in hell." A woman who heard those remarks was absolutely stunned into silence. She stood there quiet, and the nurse went on, "That's the only place that the bishop would be there were so many people who needed help." The bishop was Jesus' man, for Jesus sought hell, and Jesus still hungers for sinners.

I believe that in his Spirit, he is moving up and down the aisles of this room, and he is saying, "Those who are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." The one who says that came to live with us as a man, so knows exactly what we're feeling. The one who said says it open and vulnerable, always speaking to us the truth. The one who said who says that the one who, on seeing the hurt, lonely, sinful brokenness of people like us, was so moved that he wept.

Jesus wept. That says to me that he's the pioneer of the future. And that puts into my heart incomparable hope.

Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The verse speaks volumes about Jesus' humanity

II. The verse shows us the truth about openness and vulnerability

III. Jesus is "the great tempter" of the ages