I had arisen early so I could take a run. My eye happened to fall upon one of my children’s library books – The Jesse Owens Story. Reflexively, I picked it up and read it quickly, then took off on my run, thinking temporarily about the great track star Jesse Owens. But soon my thoughts segued to my old University of Georgia track coach, Spec Towns, a teammate of Jesse Owens on the famed 1936 U.S. Olympic team. Like Jesse Owens, Coach Towns was an Olympic gold medalist and world record holder. Thinking of Spec as I ran up a hill, suddenly, inside my head I could hear those Olympic trumpets – Da! Da! Ta-Da-Da-Da! – only this time pealed by a church organ. In my inner eye, I could see Spec’s casket being escorted down the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia, rolled between a corridor of athletes gathered from across Spec’s four decades of coaching. The late Tom Simonton was among their number. So, too, was I. A collage of faces I hadn’t seen or thought about in years came clearly into focus. Suddenly, I was running down the road with tears streaming down my face. I was weeping because some of the faces I saw in my inner eye no longer walked the earth. Yet I wept not only in grief, but also in amazement, because until that moment I had no idea of how important that period of my life was to me. To my mind came Soren Kierkegaard’s extraordinary insight: we live life forward, but we understand life backward.
Later that same day I visited a dear friend on the day of his death – an old friend of Loyd Landrum’s as it so happened. He had been one of my pastoral predecessors in my church, having served that congregation for thirty years. He had moved away from Charlotte to enjoy retirement, but had moved back to the area, and we had become good friends. Now he was on his deathbed. We had a congenial visit, but couldn’t avoid the obvious, and as I hugged him for the last time I whispered to him, “You are so special. You are such a special man.” He responded, “I will be honored to have you conduct my funeral.” A wave of grief overwhelmed me, and suddenly the comforter became the comforted — I lay my head on his breast and wept like a child. As I saw my friend’s own glistening eyes, tears rolling down his face, it occurred to me that life is eminently meaningful, and one of the chief instruments by which God communicates that meaning is the medium of other people. Driving back down the interstate, the occasional tear still descending my face, I realized that beneath life’s seemingly superficial surface is a great ocean of meaning. Tears are signs of that meaning swelling to the top. Tears are foundational statements of our personality, a sign of our passion, a sign of our love, a sign of our caring. Our tears are foundational statements of God’s values, for so often our tears are the tears of God.
Jesus has come to comfort his friends Mary and Martha in the wake of their brother Lazarus’s death. Jesus sees Mary and Martha weeping. He sees Lazarus’ friends weeping. And he is deeply moved. He feels the loss of his friend keenly in his own heart, and so, say the Scriptures, Jesus cries. Jesus wept. The Son of God weeps. Jesus weeps for the pain of Martha and Mary, he weeps for the pain of Lazarus’ friends, but he also weeps for his pain, too. He weeps, because who more than the Son of God feels the great wealth of pain in the world? He cries out of love. His tears are the tears of God, and they are tears of love. Those around him cannot help but say, “Look how he loved them.” Many is the time I’ve visited someone shortly after they have lost someone they cherished, and they are overcome with tears. Often, they want to apologize for crying. Apologize? I ask. Why would you apologize? Your every tear is a sign of how much you loved! Your tears are a sign of how passionately you cared for this person. Jesus weeps without apology for his friend. He weeps because he loved Lazarus deeply. And this image of a God weeping is the image of a God who loves us. Look how he loved him! Jesus cares enough for us to weep with us.
The annual NCAA basketball tournament always captures those moments when some Cinderella team’s bid for glory falls short, and we behold the heart-rending scenes of young men and young women slumped over, shoulders heaving, weeping copiously, because their dream has died. Their tears are a sign of their passion. Contrast that image with a Bosnian undertaker a generation ago who was unloading bodies off a truck amidst a cruel, prolonged war. Over the course of the war he had unloaded so many mangled corpses off a wagon and thrown them into a common pit that when he came upon the body of his own son on that wagon, he could not cry. He picked up his son’s body and unceremoniously threw it in the pit with the rest. War had burned up his tears. But he knew that his inability to weep for the loss of his son signaled that he had lost a capacity essential to his humanity. He couldn’t cry the tears of God. Better to be Jesus weeping, better to be Mary and Martha, better to be Lazarus’ friends, than to lose the capacity to cry God’s tears of love. Weeping the tears of God is an act essential to our humanity.
But the Bible is scrupulously honest. Even as there were those gushing, “Look how he loved him!” there were also those saying, “How could this guy who healed all these blind people and did so many miracles elsewhere – how could he not get here in time to save his friend from dying?” Frankly, that’s a question we would like answered, too. There are times when people we love, people we cherish, good people, people of faith, people who deserve healing and deliverance – who are not healed or delivered despite our anguished prayers of intercession. We want to know, Why? Why are some spared but some are not? The Bible doesn’t answer that question. All it gives us is the image of Jesus crying. There are those who are disturbed by the weakness of Christ as he cries. The vulnerability of God at times disturbs us. We want a God of sheer power! But what Jesus offers us instead is the disclosure of the nature of God as a God of caring, a God who weeps with us, a God of profound empathy, a God of suffering love.
This is the only Biblical passage where Jesus is recorded as crying. Yet I believe there is at least one other occasion when Jesus says what he says through tears. As Jesus walks toward Jerusalem one last time, he looks down upon that beautiful city and he knows – knows! – that the people’s obstinacy, their hubris, their commitment to the rutted status quo, their intransigent disbelief, their inflated self-image, will lead them within a generation into a senseless war that will result in the destruction of the temple, the razing of the city and the annihilation of most of the population. He looks out and laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I would have gathered you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” (Luke 13:34) Jesus would have said those words through tears. He weeps, because, as Shakespeare phrased it, “the times are out of joint.” He knows the city is about to make a great mistake, but he cannot dissuade them from making it. The times are out of joint. And so he weeps.
Many of us have also wept for people we loved because the times were out of joint. We see a relationship crumbling before our eyes, and we want to offer a word of guidance, but the times are out of joint – we know they will not heed us. We see a business friend about to overreach in ambition, and we want to say a word of caution, but we know such aid is fruitless – the times are out of joint. We see someone imprisoned within an addiction, destroying their lives and those they love, but we cannot reach them – the times are out of joint. We see a young person about to lose themselves in the far country, yet we know that our words of counsel will not penetrate their blindness, so we weep for them, hoping that in time the God of resurrection power will bring them out of their darkness and into redemptive, healing light.
The annals of early church history provide a famous, if mostly ignored, story about a pious bishop named Nonnus, who was leading an outdoor Bible study for other bishops when a beautiful prostitute named Pelagia walked by, wearing resplendent jewelry, but not much else. The other bishops hid their faces, but Nonnus watched her with rapt attention and asked the bishops why they did not rejoice in her beauty, seeing as God had made her? When they didn’t reply, Nonnus buried his face in his Bible and wept. He wept because he and the others bishops did not adorn their souls for God in the same way this woman adorned herself for men. Then Nonnus rose to go preach in his church and wept copiously before his people as he exhorted them to cry the tears of God, to weep tears of God for the lost, to weep tears of God for those enduring injustice, to weep tears of God for those who needed redemption. Pelagia happened to walk by, heard Nonnus crying for people like her, and her heart was convicted by his tears. She was moved to enter the church and repent. She soon retired to a convent and became famous for her holiness. How often we need to hear the exhortation of Nonnus, to weep for the world, to weep for the suffering, to weep for those enduring injustice, to weep for the powerless, to weep for those who need redemption. How often do we weep the tears of God for those in need?
There is yet another question to ponder. Why? Why would Jesus be weeping for Lazarus when he knows he is about to employ God’s resurrection power and bring Lazarus back from the dead? The answer, I believe, is very profound. I think Jesus weeps in part because he knows that from this time forth, his ordinary life is over. I think Jesus knows that when he summons Lazarus out of that tomb, what he regards as his ‘normal life,’ will have ended. As John phrased it, “From that time on they took counsel how to put Jesus to death.” (John 11: 53). Once Jesus restored his friend Lazarus to life, his own life was forfeit. And though he must have known for a long time that his mission involved such an end, Jesus would have grieved that from this time forth his life was a direct march to the cross. Please listen to me carefully: What we call the normal life, what we regard as our ordinary existence, is truly one of the most extraordinary blessings on earth. What we call the ordinary life expresses God’s extraordinary privilege. To find someone to love, to be allowed to grow old with that person throughout all the stages of life, is a story that has happened a million million times, yet it is an extraordinary ordinary privilege, an amazing blessing. To hold your newborn children in your hands and then watch them mature has happened a million million times, yet it is an extraordinary ordinary privilege, an amazing blessing. To hold your children’s children in your hands has happened a million million times, but it is an extraordinary ordinary privilege, an amazing blessing. To form great friendships that last throughout all of life’s stages has been done a million times, yet is an extraordinary ordinary privilege, an amazing blessing. Often, it takes calamity, sometimes it takes tragedy, sometimes it takes searing loss or accident for us to grasp just how richly we have been blessed with an extraordinary ordinary life! How often we do weep tears of joy in gratitude to God for the extraordinary ordinary blessings that define us?
Notice that the Scriptures say Jesus was deeply moved twice. He was deeply moved when he first came upon the scene of everyone weeping. But then, when he saw the place where Lazarus’ body had been placed, the Bible says he was deeply moved again. Then he called Lazarus forth from the grave. Why? He did so not because he thought this resurrection would solve his problems – he knew this resurrection would complicate Lazarus’ life and his own. But Jesus looked beyond the moment and brought forth Lazarus from the grave because he knew that doing so would signal that the resurrection power of God would ultimately be sufficient for them both – and for us all. Jesus brought forth Lazarus from the grave as as a sign that we can face our future with the assurance that God’s resurrection power will be sufficient for us all. The very reason our Lord came to earth, lived, taught, suffered, died, and was raised to newness of life is to remind us that such a future is available to all who live in a relationship of trust with the Divine.
All of life – whether you are twelve years old or ninety two – is a ceaseless process of having and letting go – having and letting go! Over the arc of our lives we must let go of everything we cherish. Over the course of a life we must let go our of our grandparents, our parents, our friends, our spouse – and sometimes our children. We must let go of our health, our possessions – and ultimately our lives. But if those moments of letting go are experienced in conversation with God, then every one of those moments of having and letting go, however painful, deepens our relationship with the eternal God. And Jesus promises that one day he will wipe away the tears from our eyes, and there shall be no more mourning, no more death, because, as Jesus declares, “I will make all things new!” And our tears of sorrow will become pure tears of joy. That’s the destiny of all who have been baptized by the tears of Christ into the Kingdom of God. And thus we are empowered to go out into the world and cry the tears of God.