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Jesus Wept

God understands and rules over the terror of this world.


I have a friend, a businessman, who sat in a hotel room in the Midwest watching early news reports of an airliner hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. He knew his adult son was inbound to New York City on an international flight, and he bowed his head and prayed for the God he loved to take care of the son he loved. He raised his head and looked back to the TV in time to see the second airliner hit the World Trade Center's second tower. And he says he could not anticipate, and even now cannot fully explain, his reaction. For when he recognized he may have witnessed the murder of his own son, he was filled with rage. His rage was so real to him that he could imagine the hands that had once held his infant son, around the throat of a terrorist, strangling him with unrelenting force until his eyes bulged with the terror that he himself had caused.

Now you and I know that father was spared the death of his son, because the airliners that hit the World Trade Center were not international flights. But that father still struggles with an inner anguish. He is a dedicated Christian, a man of principle who has sought to live consistently his faith. He struggles with knowing from where, beneath his principles and his regular personality, such rage and hatred came in that moment.

As he's analyzed it, he has recognized it is not just his rage at the terror of one who may have killed his son. He recognizes more and more that in that moment he saw the second airliner hit the second tower of the World Trade Center, he had to come to grips with the fact that the God he calls his Lord had not protected his own son.

How do we deal with that? How do we deal with the reality that there is such awful tragedy, and still say God is good?

I know we will say it is a fallen world and it groans as in the pains of childbirth awaiting its redemption, the redemption of our bodies and the renewal of all creation. I know we will say the final chapter of the world is not yet written, that God will bring good and set it right. I know we will say that, in the final day, judgment will be vindicated and justice will be mediated. God will do what is right in that day. I know we will say that when the ground shakes for a nation, not only do the heavens shudder, but men may fall to their knees in repentance. And that may be a good outcome.

And yet, Christian, you still have to deal with the fact that you say God is good, and planes with people hit the World Trade Center and exploded in balls of fire that killed thousands of people, and tens of thousands are grieving, and thousands and thousands more are propelled toward war. And it's not only our own people who are hurting; there are tens of thousands who are headed toward refugee camps where they will live in squalor and die lingering deaths. And you say God is good.

How can we say God is good in the face of tragedy? Does he understand? Does he care? Does he rule? The Scriptures answer our plaintive cries, the cries of our heart that are beyond logic, with simple words: Jesus wept. It is meant to go beyond our logic to answer our most basic questions. Does God understand? Jesus wept.

What is the account of Lazarus's death trying to make clear to us? In one measure it is making sure we know that God knows.

God knows

He knows, among other things in the face of tragedy, what will happen. Verse 4 says that when Jesus is informed that Lazarus is sick, he says: "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."

He knows what will happen. In verse 11, after Jesus speaks about Satan being destroyed, he says, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up." The amazingly dimwitted disciples don't get it. So he says even more plainly in verse 14, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe." Why? What will he do? What will happen?

It's clear he knows, if you look at the 23rd verse. When Martha comes to find out why he didn't come sooner, Jesus says, "Your brother will rise again." In each measure, the Bible makes clear that God in his Son knows what's going to happen. He knows.

The events of tragedy do not elude him, even if they exasperate his people. And they do exasperate his people, the Bible plainly shows. When Martha comes out to Jesus, who has delayed so long to get there, she says in the 21st verse, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." And Jesus still waits outside the town. Mary finally goes out to him in verse 32: "When [she] reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'"

These are amazing statements, because they contain in the same moment amazing faith and great blame. "Lord, if you'd been here, you would have been able to save him." There is the faith. "I believe you're able to stop this. But, Lord, where were you?" It's not a systematic theology, but it does express our hearts with great understanding. "You're able. Where were you?" It's not just an ancient account. It's what we say: "God, I know you're able. But where were you when this disease spread in my family? Where were you when that car crossed the centerline? When that deal was lost: Lord, you're able. Where were you? When the towers fell, Lord. You're able. Where were you?"

There's no immediate answer in this text. It doesn't say he was outside town for a particular reason. He just says, in words that cause us a good deal of consternation, that what will happen will be for God's glory and for the good of his people: Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I wasn't there to fix it in that moment so you'd believe something.

God simply says: I'm not surprised. It's not the final answer, but God is simply letting us know in some measure he knows what will happen. And I need to know that for my comfort, that my God isn't ignorant of what will happen. In fact, he says it will happen for glory and ultimate good.

But then why does he cry? Because he knows what has happened. Lazarus is dead. In that stark, plain fact of the death of a friend, Jesus weeps and reminds us that any death, even one death, is a destruction of the good plan of God, the way he made this world. It is a corruption of the universe. It will require even the death of God's Son to put things right. And in the meantime, God's people will experience pain and misery in a fallen world. For a moment visibly, and sometimes even violently, the prince of darkness will have his day. And that is distressing enough, awful enough, terrible enough that even Jesus has tears about it.

I need to know, too, not just that my God knows what will happen in his divinity, but in his humanity he knows what has happened. He experiences the reality of the misery of this world. I need to know that the knowledge of good outcomes does not deny me the right of tears now.

I must have watched the movie It's A Wonderful Life dozens of times. I know how it will turn out. I know George Bailey will be okay. I know his friends will rally around. I know Clarence will get his wings. And yet, despite knowing the outcomes, I can't but feel the distress and the tears when the pharmacist boxes the young George's ears and causes him to go deaf in one ear. I can't but feel the pain of Mr. Martini going in the gutter. I can't stand it when Donna Reed tells Jimmy Stewart to go out of the house. I know what's going to happen, but knowing the outcomes doesn't take away all the hurt.

So when I see Jesus weep, I know some things. I know I have permission to dry my tears, because Christians don't fear death as much as others. We know the outcome. But at the same time, I have the permission to weep, because Christians should feel death more keenly than others. We know what it's all about. We know this is not the way it was meant to be. We know Jesus had to die to overcome this. We know death is awful. We know it's miserable. We know it's part of the curse. We should feel the depth of it and be willing to say we don't have quick, ready answers. This is horrible. It really is. And we can say that because Jesus wept.

God cares

So Jesus knows. But does he care? The answer is the same. How do I know he cares? Because Jesus wept.

Even those who are observing him know that. Look at the 36th verse: "The Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'" You get the sense that Jesus is not just letting a little, wet tear come down his cheek. This is observable, obvious grief. Tears are wrenching him in such a way that people said, "My, how he must have loved him."

We hear people say, "Yes, some died, but more were spared. There could have been 50,000 people and only 7,000 died." This makes perfect sense, unless you were married to one of the 7,000, or it was your father or your mother or your child.

There are people who say, "Yes, some despair now, but others will be led to repentance." This makes perfect sense, unless you realize that what you're arguing is that terror is a tool of God's spirituality.

And there are those who say, "Judgment was warranted upon an evil nation." Yes, but it is warranted every day because of the sin of each one of us, even we who gather here. God would have a right to bring this building down upon our heads.

I'm not saying that the rational explanations have no place, that they're not in some measure useful. But they are not sufficient. The human formulas even of our theology are incomplete. We can say the words. "God's works of providence are most holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures … and all their actions … ."

Yes, I know the formula, and I believe it. But it's incomplete. It bothers some level of our desire for a systematic theology to recognize that truth is a person. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." If you want to know the truth about this, look at Jesus. Jesus wept.

Does he care? Jesus wept. Does he reveal it? Jesus wept. Does he love us through it? Jesus wept. There is in the expression of his humanity what I need to know when my logic fails.

At one time, I was a presbyter involved in the discipline of a minister, and we did all we were supposed to do for his sin. In every step of the way we said, "We do this because we love you, because this is good for you, because this is for the glory of God and the testimony of his church." And he believed all of that.

But some years later, when he had been restored and was in the ministry again, he said, "I never understood the love of God in that process until I went to a distant church. The pastor there knew my situation, and as soon as he saw me come through the door, he walked quickly to me and without a word put his arms around me and wept on my shoulder for me. Then I knew about the love of God."

The rational explanations are real, but until we say "Jesus wept" and understand the full truth of that, we don't have answers for the world. And Jesus didn't just shed tears; he shed blood, too. He'll do it in the days following this account. And without the cross, I don't have much to say to this world in the face of tragedy. I can unroll all the logical possibilities, but if I don't have the cross, it's not enough.

Our tendency in an academic world is to try to comfort people by coming up with answers to the circumstances or even by trying to soften the circumstances. What we have to learn to do as ministers, as parents, as those who offer comfort to other people is to say, "You are looking for answers in your circumstances, but the only answers are in the character of God."

Does God care? Look at the cross. Look at the Savior, who wept for you and bled for you. The truth is in the person and his character. When all our answers about the circumstances fail, the truth has to go back to looking at his character.

God rules

The final question may be the hardest of all. Does God rule in all of this? The Scriptures make it plain, though in terms we don't like, that God's triumph comes sometimes after a time. There may be a delay, but there's always a design.

Wouldn't it have bothered you to be Mary and Martha in this circumstance? In verse 4, after Jesus is told about the sickness of Lazarus, he says, 'This sickness will not end in death." But in verse 6 we are told, "He stayed where he was two more days." And that's not the end of it. Verse 17 says, "On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days." There's a minimum of six days in there.

Then you take the conversations with Martha and Mary outside the town to tell him all he's got to do is snap his fingers and in the blink of an eye Lazarus will be back. All this time is going by. It's not fixed yet. It's not made right. But at the same time that we see this delay, there is an amazing intricacy of design that's put before us in the Scriptures.

Remember the context. Within days of this event, Jesus tells a parable to these same disciples. A rich man has a poor beggar sitting at his gate, and the rich man ignores the needs of the poor man. Then in the afterlife the poor man is in heaven and the rich man in Hades. The rich man says to Father Abraham, "Would you please let that poor beggar go back to my family and tell them about the consequences of their evil life?" And Father Abraham says, "If they would not believe Moses and the Prophets, they will not believe even if one should rise from the dead." Do you remember the name of the poor man in the parable? It was Lazarus.

Within days we have this account of one who rises from the dead, and his name is Lazarus. And when he rises from the dead, everyone believes him and they convert to Jesus Christ, right? No. If you look at the 53rd verse of the 11th chapter, you read, "So from that day on they plotted to take his life." They now have a focus: We'll get this one who raises people from the dead.

Can you imagine being the disciples and thinking, What else can we do here? They even see a resurrection and yet they don't believe. And in a few more days they will see the one who did the resurrecting dying on a cross. How are they supposed to handle all of this?

The parable is a lens to understand Lazarus at Bethany. And Bethany is a lens to understand Calvary. And Calvary is a lens to understand eternity and now.

Jesus' triumph may take some time, but it will surely come, for he is ruling with a care, with an intricacy, with an intimacy for his people that defies our full ability to comprehend. After all, he will pass this way again. In just a few days he will go through Bethany again on his way to Jerusalem while the crowds take off their cloaks and put palm branches before him. They will say, "Hosanna! His time has come!" But his time has not yet come, though it will surely come.

In another day or two they will say, ""Crucify him!" because his time has not yet come. But though it has not yet come, it will surely come. And when they hang him on a cross, they will chide him, "Tell your angels to come." They do not come, but they will surely come.

Three days later he will rise. His time has surely come.

The promise of God will be fulfilled. Though it tarries, wait for it. For it will surely come, and it will not be late. God speaks to his people in such a way that we in a fallen world might trust that he is love. Unless we miss the point, he puts tears on the face of the Savior, each tear a lens so we will focus in, look closely, and through the microcosm of that tear begin to recognize what God has done. He has shown us in real form how he is in charge of the world in its intricacy as well as its grand scale. He is at work, and his illustration is not stick figures drawn in the sand. It is dealing with the realities, the harshness, the terribleness of this life.

Lazarus is dead. And to show us that God has power over even death, the harshest of this world's realities, Jesus comes to make it right. He will raise this one to show he has the power over sin, even to the extent of death. We see it in this microscopic vision of Lazarus's life. And we see it in a grander scale when Christ himself rises again. If I had been at the foot of the cross, I would have said, "Lord, don't do this. This is wrong." But it was right, and I know it because I look through the tears of Jesus to see what is being accomplished is the rule of God on behalf of his people. It is why Jesus wept: so we would trust he cares enough to do the right thing. And his rule will win out. He shows us as he overcomes the power of death to accomplish his good purposes in a fallen, sometimes terrible world.

Does he understand? Yes. Jesus wept. Does he care? Yes. Jesus wept. Does he rule? Yes. Jesus wept. Every tear is a lens to reveal the power of God ruled by love in behalf of his people, so we know when we face the terror he still loves and he still rules, because Jesus wept for us.

© Bryan Chapell
Preaching Today Issue #229
A resource of Christianity Today International

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


We wonder where a good God is during such a tragedy.

I. God knows.

II. God cares.

III. God rules.