Grief counsellors were surveyed for their advice on how to act at a funeral. The number one response was not to feel awkward about silence. Sometimes there just aren’t words available to express what you’d like to express. It’s as though all the feelings get knotted together and won’t come out at all. But don’t just blurt things out because you it feels too quiet. The important thing, we are told, is to be there for our loved ones. Your presence speaks volumes. Sometimes just being there says enough.
Everyone has a different reaction to grief. Some people put on a brave face; others reach for the box of tissues from the get-go. Some folks get angry; others start to see the humor in things at the worst possible moments. Even Jesus had to go through it. He was standing there, at the funeral of his friend, Lazarus. Lazarus was survived by his sisters, Mary and Martha, both of whom were at the funeral, trying to deal with what they were going through.
Mary was upset. She had sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching, enraptured by the powerful truths he expounded. She had ignored her sister’s call to help with the dishes, because Jesus was there. The Master had approved of her decision, for Mary had chosen the better part.
But this past week, the Master was no where to be found. She had sent for him. She knew he would heal Lazarus if he just managed to get there on time. And he was a family friend. He would come. Was it too much to expect Jesus to give their needs priority? Apparently so. He’d gotten the call. He knew of Lazarus’ illness. But Jesus had taken his sweet time getting there, and now Mary’s brother was dead.
The Bible text sounds like she was dealing with a little anger. When Jesus finally got closer into town, Martha went out to him, but Mary, it says, stayed in the house. Finally, when Jesus arrives, she accuses him,
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she said. Those are barbed words, and the barbs stick – because Mary was right. Jesus could have prevented it.
So many emotions bundled up into one big knot:
- Why wouldn’t Jesus show up in time?
- Why wouldn’t he heal Lazarus when he’d healed so many others?
- Why would the most powerful prophet, the miracle working messiah, the much sought-after savior simply…let this happen?
Like Mary, Martha had questions to deal with. Lazarus was her brother, too. Martha reaction to grief denial. She reads the obituary and knows her brother is dead, but she doesn’t want to think of it as anything more than one of the illnesses Jesus had fixed. She saw the stone rolled in front of the tomb. She knows by now Lazarus has begun to decompose. Yet she cannot help but think that somehow, this whole situation has got to be wrong. It is too much like a bad dream. And what makes Martha’s denial different than anyone else who’s been in denial is Jesus: Since the last time they’d met, she’d studied up. She knew there was more to Jesus than simply his popularity. She knew he had a special connection to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Martha knew not to underestimate Jesus.
So the Gospel story tells us, “when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him…(and) said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’”
What on any other day for any other person at any other funeral would have been a clear cut case of denial, turns out to be something quite different for Martha. For Jesus had not forgotten about his friend Lazarus. He was simply following a different set of instructions. Jesus was in perfect submission to the Father. And the father had not sent him to heal a sick Lazarus but to raise a dead Lazarus.
Even so, when he got there, Jesus, the Son of God, the way, the truth and the life, this Jesus…wept.
The Word of God, through whom the worlds were brought into existence, said not a word, but stood for a moment in silence.
His friend Lazarus was no more.
His friends Mary and Martha were all torn up inside, and it was tearing him up too.
Whatever emotions you are going through now, in your own grief and loss, know that your pain is real. Know that there is good reason to be upset. Because ultimately, what we are going through now is the result of what happened way back under that tree in Eden. Sin was the cause, and death is the effect. And the Lord Most High, Jesus the Christ himself, when face to face with the very human reality of death, stood and cried.
It’s the shortest verse in the bible. Just two words long: John 11:35. And in two words it says all we need to know about how Jesus handled grief.
That is how these three reacted to their grief at the passing of Lazarus: Mary with anger, Martha with denial, and Jesus with silent tears. And each of us today will have our own ways of dealing with our loss. The psychologists say we will go through stages. These will be painful times, but we must face them and go through them. Because if there is any meaning in suffering and death, it lies on the other side of the pain.
This is what makes a Christian funeral so different than other things. For we believe that Jesus, the Son of God, sharing the same eternal nature as the Father and the Spirit, was born unto Mary fully human. He took on human nature, so that he could put mortality to death. He trapped the sins of all humanity in his humanity, and executed evil by submitting his body to the cross. He died so that we might live again. In faith, we are united with him. Jesus’ death on the cross becomes our death to sin, and as Paul writes, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
What makes a Christian funeral different is that our reaction to grief is not the only thing going on in us. Our story does not end when the heart stops beating. More powerful than any emotion is the rock-solid, resolute and unshakeable knowledge that death – even though we must endure it – has been defeated. The Word of God through whom the Father created the universe was sent on a mission – to re-create the universe, beginning with fallen humanity. He accomplished this task on Good Friday, and every Sunday since then has been an Easter Sunday. What makes a funeral different for Christians is that it is really a celebration. In the midst of our grief, yet we can say with Job, “I know that my redeemer lives” and “in my flesh I shall see God”.
Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, but let us never forget: He did not leave Lazarus there. His tears were real. His grief was real. But so was his authority over all things.
Jesus stands there in silent sympathy with Mary and Martha, and then he acts. The God who said “let there be light” now says “Lazarus, come forth,” and his friend obeys, as every creature under heaven must.
A week later, Jesus himself would would rise again, and this resurrection far surpassed that of Lazarus. For Lazarus died again. (He lived to become a bishop in the early church. You can visit his grave in Cyprus if you want to.) But Jesus rose never to die again. Death has lost its sing, because he took the full dose himself. Humanity has been re-created in Christ. And because of what Jesus did on that day long ago, some day we all shall know the power of God in our own resurrected bodies.
Until then, we endure the pain and the suffering and the loss brought on by sin. There are consequences for breaking the moral law just as there are consequences for ignoring the laws of physics. On this earth, what goes up must come down. Sin, which is a turning away from the Father of Life, a twisting into falsehood what was given in Truth, brings about death and confusion. But whenever we find ourselves in darkness, there is Jesus, burning bright like the sun, always emanating love and forgiveness. He says only this, “believe and be baptized and you shall be saved.”
God himself promises eternal life to those who believe. All whose sins are drowned in the waters of baptism, are promised a white robe, free from the stain of sin. That is the meaning behind the funeral pall. It is the same white garment given to babies at their baptism, and it reminds us that God applies his forgiveness to us through his word, even as the pastor applies the water at the font. Indeed, we do not separate the Word of God from the Water. What is this water we use in baptism but Our Lord himself?
Jesus is the living water. Whoever comes and drinks of this water shall never thirst, and on the last day is promised eternal life.
Though we endure the stages of grief at our loss, yet we hope in the promise of the resurrection. We take comfort knowing that today Richard thirsts no more. His tears have been wiped away. He is a new creation. For the Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17,
“If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold the new has come!”