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“When Tears are Wiped Away”
John 11: 20-27, 32-44
October 31, 2021
All Saints Day
This passage of scripture is one of the most moving in the New Testament. Here we have a personal, intimate picture of Jesus and three of his closest friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We know that Jesus often spent time with these friends at their home in Bethany. Earlier in chapter 11, we read that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. We sometimes think of Jesus spending all his time with the twelve, but here we understand that Jesus had other relationships, people to whom he was close, people he enjoyed being with, people he loved. And it is clear that these siblings loved Jesus, as well. When they heard Jesus was on his way, first Martha, then Mary, went out to meet him. In their shared grief, when Jesus saw Mary weeping, along with other friends, verse 33 tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” His grief overflowed in two of the most poignant words in scripture: “Jesus wept.”
In this passage from John, we see that God understands our human emotions: grief, pain, loss, fear. Jesus experienced in the flesh all that we experience. On this All Saints Sunday, we can be comforted in knowing that when we lose a loved one, our Lord shares our sorrow and mourns with us.
When we lose someone we love, it is natural to grieve. We miss their presence in our lives. Each person is unique, an individual created by God, who formed each body and shaped each soul. God gave us mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, children, companions, friends. Each of them touched our lives in special ways, and we give thanks for them and treasure them in our hearts. It is not wrong to grieve; scripture acknowledges the pain that death brings to those who still walk this earth.
But we are not left in mourning and sorrow. “We do not grieve as those without hope.”1 All the lectionary texts today join in proclaiming hope; they promise that the end of this life is not the end, but the beginning of life eternal, and that the Lord is the very one who wipes the tears from our eyes.
Our Call to Worship this morning quotes the stirring words from Revelation 21, one of the lections for this day: “The home of God is among mortals, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Mourning and crying and pain and even death will be no more. The Isaiah text speaks of a great heavenly banquet, a prominent image in the Bible for the Kingdom of God, when God welcomes all peoples to the table, and God will destroy death itself----that “shroud that is cast over all people; God will swallow up death forever. Then,” Isaiah says, “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. It will be said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Scripture assures that God cares so much about our grief that God will dry our tears with God’s own hand, and that the day is coming when God will wipe away all tears forever. We hope and wait in the promise of salvation, a promise proclaimed unequivocally in the words of Jesus himself in John 11.
When Martha met Jesus that day, Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responded, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and those who live and believe in me shall never die.”
When Jesus called Lazarus to come forth, the passage makes clear that Lazarus was really dead. He was not merely sleeping; he had passed away four days before, been wrapped in grave clothes and sealed in the tomb. Yet when Jesus called him, Lazarus came forth, still bound in strips of cloth, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Raising Lazarus from the dead was a demonstration of God’s resurrection power. It was an enactment of Jesus’ words: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” It was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection: the resurrection that won for us our lives, that freed us from the power of sin and death, and that gives us life now and for eternity.
If we have doubts about an afterlife, if we wonder what happens to our loved ones when they die, where they go, and if we will see them again, here is the answer, an answer from our Lord himself. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and those who live and believe in me shall never die.”
I have spoken those words literally hundreds of times at Memorial Services through the years, and every time I speak them, hope resounds in my heart. These words should lift our hearts and resonate in our bones: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and those who live and believe in me shall never die.”
George Beasley-Murray, who was one of the world’s foremost scholars on the gospel of John, points out that the two parts of this sentence are NOT synonymous. The first phrase speaks of our resurrection. The Greek phrase for “shall live” could be translated, “shall come to life.” “Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall come to life.”2 When we die to life on this earth, we come to life as we are meant to be, leaving behind sorrow and pain and suffering. We shall come to life in the fullest possible sense; as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Now we see as in a glass dimly; then we shall see face to face.”3 In that heavenly kingdom, we shall see God, with all our questions answered, all our doubts cast away, no longer subject to sin and frailty and the limitations of this human condition.
The second clause, Beasley-Murray says, “advances this.” “Whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die.” This earthly shell may be left behind, but our loved ones do not die. It is as if they have walked into another room; we may not be able to see them, but we know they are there, and one day, the door will open, and God will gather us together, where we will never be parted again.4
We believe in the resurrection: that as God raised Christ from the dead, the firstborn of all, we shall be raised also; raised to life eternal and imperishable. There is never a moment, never a second, that we are apart from God. There is never a time that God is not with us, and even death cannot separate us from God’s love.
And so we wait with hope.
The wonderful writer Henri Nouwen told a story about twins, a brother and sister, who were still in the womb.
The sister said to the brother, “You know, I believe there is going to be life after birth.”
Her brother said, “You’re crazy! That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. This is all there is.”
The sister insisted, “There must be something else, something more than this dark place, a place with light and freedom to move.”
But her brother would not be convinced.
And then she went on, “Well, you probably won’t believe this either, but I think there is a mother.”
“A mother?! What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you.”
The sister said, “Don’t you feel those squeezes every once in awhile? I think they are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face-to-face.”5
With our human limitations, we cannot fully conceive of what that new life will be like. But we trust in the witness of scripture and in the words of our Lord, that the end of life on this earth is only the beginning of something much more beautiful: life eternal and everlasting, where we will see God face-to-face.
Today, as we honor the saints who have joined the Church Triumphant, we give thanks for their lives, and we give thanks for their resurrection to eternal life through Christ our Lord. They have received that blessed gift: the comfort of God wiping away their tears, and in that heavenly kingdom, “mourning and crying and pain” and even death! will be no more. We can have peace in knowing that God comforts us in our grief, and that one day, we, too, will receive the gift of eternal life, trusting in Jesus’ promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and those who live and believe in me shall never die.” Amen and amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church