John 11:1-45

“What’s the surprise in the text?”

I hear my friend and mentor, Rev. Dr. Kimberly Majeski’s voice in my head asking this question nearly every time I approach our Scriptures. She is a fierce scholar and justice leader who knows the depth of the redemptive story of our sacred text is often found through those on the fringes—in the story within the story.

So I turn to the powerful account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11 and look with new eyes for the surprise in the text. Of course we know the pinnacle of this story is the raising of a dead man. This is a miracle I can hardly comprehend witnessing. But what strikes me now is how Jesus interacts with those He created who did not know that a miracle of this magnitude was coming.

Both Mary and Martha waste no time telling Jesus exactly how they feel. I love their unashamed boldness where they each forego a greeting and instead go straight to their raw reality saying, “If you had been here, this would not have happened.” You can feel the emotion and implications layered in their vulnerability. And I notice Jesus does not rebuke them but instead receives their grief as it is.

And then we come to John 11:35, the simple verse, “Jesus wept.” If you grew up in church like me, this phrase was merely a way to get a sticker next to your name on the Scripture memory board in a children’s Sunday School class. Or it was at least fun trivia to know as the shortest verse in the Bible.

It has taken me years to move beyond the memory verse sticker or trivia and begin to grasp the weight of this seemingly simple verse. And I start to wonder.

What if the first miracle of this story is that this God of all creation chooses to weep and bear witness to the grief of Mary and Martha? What if healing begins in His presence to their grief before the raising of Lazarus occurs?

Each Advent season, I am reminded how powerful it is that we can call God, Emmanuel, God with us. Then Holy Week continues to confront us with the truth that Jesus, fully God and fully man, is indeed a “man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). I am often the one with a mic reminding our people in our church that the profoundness of Jesus’ suffering and death reveals to us that there is no place we can go where God will not be there too. That this man of sorrows is with us, even in our own grief.

But it is one thing to know in your head this truth and another to experience it in your soul.

That God could be present in my own grief was something that overwhelmed me a year and a half ago when my husband and I walked through back-to-back miscarriages. In the midst of the second miscarriage, I came home from a doctor’s appointment and immediately put pen to page in my journal trying to make sense of it all. As I let myself write faster than my mind could edit, I saw my honest Mary-and-Martha-line that for me was phrased, “God, can you just go ahead and get to the lesson in all of this?”

And like Mary and Martha, instead of a rebuke, I sensed the profound presence of our God who is indeed with us and meets us in our grief. With gentleness and strength and peace, I felt God say, “I am with you, and that is the only lesson you need right now.” 

Little did I know that exactly a year from that date, I would be in labor with our healthy baby girl. But my healing did not begin the moment I saw the miracle of new life with my daughter. It began in the honesty of my grief when all I saw was loss and the awareness that the very God who breathed life in me is also the God who chooses to weep with me and bear witness to my grief.

I think sometimes we fear that if we acknowledge our grief, we will open a chasm that will never again be closed. However, I know that when we refuse to acknowledge our loss and grief for what it is, it will come out in some way—and often in a way that is much more damaging than if we would have the courage to name it and realize that God will begin our healing there before some “big miracle” takes place. That the first miracle is always His presence with us.

But here’s the thing. We as a culture do not know how to grieve well. For some reason, we believe the lie that it is easier to not give our grief place or voice and instead pretend that everything is fine. Especially in church. Yet this seems deeply incongruent with the example of our Jesus who weeps and is unafraid to meet us exactly where we are.

So in this season where everything we know has seemingly been upended in some way with Covid19, we are all facing loss to some degree, and I think we need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge loss and remember there is no hierarchy of what deserves to be grieved. 

We grieve for the loss of normalcy and routine. The loss of work. The loss of control. The loss of gathering in worship, graduation ceremonies, wedding dates, and vacations. The loss of life. The loss of savings. The loss of play dates and coffee meetings. We don’t bottle it up and pretend that everything is fine. It is hard. And there is loss. And it deserves to be grieved. 

Yet, we have hope. Because the first miracle is His presence with us, even in grief. And it is there that God begins our healing.