The God Who Cries at Funerals
Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“God so loved the world He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentation 3:22-23).
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).
Each of these passages often used in a funeral service speaks of God’s love and compassion. God loves the world. He loves you and me. He shows that love by sending His Son Jesus Christ into the world as one of us. Jesus lives the perfect life that you and I could not live. He loves His Father above all things and loves His neighbor as Himself. He demonstrates the depth of that love by laying down His life as the perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, only to take it up again. No greater love has any man than this!
But when I think about God’s love and compassion, I also think of our Gospel lesson for today. I think of the God who weeps at His friend’s tomb. I think of the God who comforts Mary and Martha even though He knows what’s coming next. All of the Scriptures extol the love and compassion of our Savior. But it’s hard to beat a God who cries at funerals.
We have just heard the words of comfort that Jesus speaks to Martha. “I Am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believes in Me, even though he dies, yet shall he live, and he that lives and believes in Me will never die.”
Jesus’ words speak the eternal truth that has soothed many a troubled heart at a deathbed, during a funeral, or at a gravesite. Whoever believes in Jesus—even though death makes its unwelcome earthly visit—will live. Whoever lives by faith in Jesus will never die. The life we have in Christ survives death and the grave. Physical death does not separate us from God. We are alive with Him forever and will at the last be restored body and soul to enjoy the glories of His heaven.
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. Martha emphatically says, yes, she believes, and she identifies Jesus as the object of her faith. She believes He is the Christ. She believes that He is the Son of God. She believes He is the one who is to come into the world. She confesses Jesus as the Savior sent from heaven. Such faith gives her the life and hope that overcomes death and despair.
The Lord promises Martha that her brother will rise again. He will personally empty the graves of all His beloved. He is Resurrection personified. And it is while Jesus gives this comfort that Mary comes to her Lord and says to Him the very same words that her sister Martha had just spoken. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
For Mary and Martha the loss is deep. Not only have they lost their beloved brother, but they have also lost their support, their breadwinner, their source of God’s provision for daily bread. Death shatters the world of those who survive. A raw gaping hole is torn that only the resurrection will completely heal. You face the prospect of waking up each morning not seeing the face of the man or woman with whom you’ve spent the last fifty years of your life. Someone else will have to tell the same old joke many, many times. There will be one less familiar face coming to cheer you on at your games and activities. There is one more birthday and/or anniversary that brings a sense of sadness rather than celebration.
Yes, Mary and Martha believe in Jesus, they hope in the resurrection at the Last Day; but that doesn’t help them so much right now. Now is the pain. Now is the grief. Now is their loved one in the tomb. Now they have to bear all the consequences that the enemy death has wrought on them.
Jesus sees this. Jesus feels it. His guts are turned inside out. He gasps for breath. The Lord’s compassion is fueled by His love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and His relentless hatred of death and hell. Those He loves are grieving. Their brother, His friend, is dead. When Mary says to Jesus, “See where they laid him,” it’s all over. There is no macho show of manly strength. Jesus weeps openly and unashamedly. He sobs quietly, allowing the pain to flow from His eyes.
God cries at funerals. He cries because He loves His children. He cries because of His deep compassion for those who are left behind. He cries because the greatest evil has the appearance of victory. But the Lord’s tears will yield to His words. Death is being a little proud. But it shouldn’t be. Life Incarnate now stands before Lazarus’ tomb. The grave is going to be robbed today.
Jesus approaches the tomb and orders them to remove the stone that seals the entrance. But Martha objects, saying that the corpse, now four days old, will smell of decay. So Jesus reminds Martha of His earlier promises. Lazarus’ illness will not end in death. It is for God’s glory.
As they move the stone from the entrance to the tomb, Jesus looks up and attempts to turn the thoughts of the onlookers heavenward. With them listening, Jesus thanks His heavenly Father for listening to Him and prays that the people standing there will believe. Jesus doesn’t have to speak the words, because He and the Father are one, in perfect harmony with each other. The Father always hears the Son. But Jesus speaks for the benefit of all the others there. Some question whether Jesus is really sent from the Father. If they hear Him call to the Father and see the ensuing miracle, they will know Jesus’ claims are true.
When His prayer ends, Jesus raises His voice and commands the corpse: “Lazarus! Come forth!” Incredibly, Lazarus does just that! Still wrapped in His grave clothes, Lazarus walks out of what is supposed to be His final resting place. At the word of the Lord, death flees and life comes. Gone is decay. Gone is death. Empty is the tomb where they laid him. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Lazarus, even though he has died, has come forth from the tomb. He hears His Savior’s voice, because when Life beckons even the dead can hear it.
The Jews say, “See how He loved him!” And they will. Lazarus will. Mary will. Martha will. They will all see how Jesus has loved them. You and I will, too! Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem. Even as He gives comfort to Mary and Martha and gives Lazarus back to them, the Lord will not be satisfied until He has destroyed death forever.
You see, the death and resurrection of Lazarus is a prelude to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. In less than two weeks, Jesus will experience something far more dreadful than the sickness and death that Lazarus goes through. On the cross, Jesus will undergo severe suffering and physical pain. Even worse, He will experience eternal death, total separation from God. But then Jesus will come crashing out of death again in an even more glorious resurrection.
The death and resurrection of Lazarus, in a sense, brings on the death of Jesus. It prompts His enemies to move more quickly than they might have otherwise. Many of the Jews who see what Jesus does believe in Him. Some even tell the Pharisees what has happened, perhaps hoping to convince them that Jesus is the Christ. But this only accelerates the Pharisees’ determination to get rid of Jesus. They meet with the chief priests. “He is a serious problem—a threat to our nation,” they argue. “His group of followers continues to grow as a result of these miracles. The Romans might come in to punish us. They could take everything from us. Our city and our temple will be lost.”
Caiaphas, the pragmatic high priest, speaks up. He explains that it is expedient to get rid of Jesus. Better that one man die than all of them. Caiaphas’ concern is political rather than religious, but God makes his words prophetic. Caiaphas wants to preserve a nation on earth, which will be destroyed 40 years later anyway. Jesus, Caiaphas’ intended victim, comes to establish a nation that can never be destroyed. Jesus will die as a sacrifice for everyone in the world so that all who believe in Him are saved from death and made one in His holy church.
Martin Luther calls this “The Great Exchange” and writes, “Our sins must either be upon our own necks or upon Christ. If they remain upon us, we are lost forever, but if they be upon Christ, we are saved.” St. Peter declares the truth about this when He writes: “Christ died for your sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
In the marvelous wisdom of God’s mercy, the death of the innocent Jesus will be the occasion for the substitutionary atonement of the Righteous One for the unrighteous by laying our sins upon Him. Here is the unfailing source of pardon and salvation for all who are guilty before God, from the malicious plotters in our text to you and me. Here is our hope and life in the face of death. And so Jesus goes to the cross. He carries with Him the sins of Lazarus, Mary, Martha, you, and me. He suffers all of the pangs of hell. He delivers Himself into the grave and raises Himself up on the third day so that He might destroy death forever.
Lazarus’ body is awake from the sleep of death for a time, but he will die again. The sin that brought him to the grave the first time will eventually win again. This is not acceptable to Jesus. This is not the way He created the world to be. The Lord created you for immortal joy not tears and grief. His intent from the very foundation of the world has been that you would live with Him in your body forever, where there be no more tears, no more death or mourning or pain.
I’m sometimes told that death isn’t that bad. That it’s really a friend. It’s the liberation of the soul from the flesh, they say. And really, our human flesh is a bad thing. It limits us. When we get rid of the body, then we’ll be truly free. Then we’ll be at peace. We’ll be at one with the universe and never have to suffer any of the body’s pains or sorrows. These are lies, dear Christian! They are lies told by Satan to try to make you forget what you were created for. You were created for life—eternal life for both body and soul. In the day of resurrection, your very eyes will behold your Savior’s face forever. Your very lips will sing His praises. If the flesh were so evil, if our destiny was to be delivered from our body, then I suppose we could have had a spiritual Savior not one who came as flesh and blood. If our goal was to get rid of the body, I suppose that death could be seen as good.
But death is not good! Death is the enemy. It is the ultimate evil. But death has been defeated. Your Savior is the Lamb who was slain, but He is not dead. Your Savior is the firstborn from the dead, and He lives and reigns forever. He is the source of your life, and even though your body will sleep for a time, death cannot kill you. Jesus will not leave you or your loved ones to the grave. On the day of His return, every grave will be empty, and all His saints will go with Him, body and soul, into paradise forever. That, dear Christian, is the way of the God who cries at funerals. He loves you. He wants you to live with Him forever. And He will have His way with you. Every funeral He attends ends with a resurrection.
In the midst of our weak, frail, and powerless life on earth, we have a powerful Lord Jesus Christ whose resurrected life affects us today. We don’t have to grieve without hope when a loved one dies. We don’t have to quake in fear as we contemplate our own inevitable death. When faced with trials and troubles and our own struggle with sin, we have the power of the resurrection to know that we live in the newness of life, which not only holds hope and promise of our resurrection from the dead, but gives us strength for living here and now.
Life for us does not end in death. We will rise again on the Last Day and forever celebrate the joy of life we have in Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life. Only Jesus and His life-giving Word can give us true hope and life in the face of death. You can be sure this is true, because Jesus gave up His life for you that you may be forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This sermon was adapted from a funeral sermon I first preached in May 2008.
This sermon was adapted from a funeral sermon I first preached in May 2008.