11/1/2015 6:26:48 PM
The Shortest Verse [Sermon Manuscript]
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 1, 2015) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Have you heard the story about how the bible came to be broken into chapters and verses? It’s actually pretty interesting - and involves a few characters spread out over a thousand years. But my favorite part of the story concerns the New Testament. When the books of the New Testament were first written down, they were written in a style of ancient greek that didn’t have punctuation. In fact, there wasn’t even spaces between the words. When we read the text, we just needed to mentally know where all those things went. But as time went on, scribes started to put in the spaces, the periods, the other marks of punctuation. And it wasn’t long after that when the books started to be broken into chapsters. By the time the printing press came around and the Reformation was in full swing, scholars wanted a more minute way of identifying just what parts of scripture they were talking about when they were arguing with their opponents. So a Frenchman named Robert Estienne in the 1540s took up the task. He took the greek text of the bible and carefully began to give sentences verse numbers. But, if you read the text closely enough, you’ll realise that sometimes the verse numbering doesn’t make any sense. New verse numbers will show up in the middle of sentences and in other random places. Legend says that these random verse markings showed up because Robert did a lot of his work while riding in the back of a carriage. He’d be marking up the text when the carriage would hit a bump - and his pen would move, marking the page in the wrong spot. But when he got to this part of John, chapter 11, the roads must have been good. There’s no random markings here. Instead, Robert read this text, looked at the two words that make up verse 35 and that was it. That verse didn’t need more words. John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the entire bible - but it speaks volumes. Jesus, confronted by the death of his friend, does something amazing: he weeps. He does what we do when a loved one dies. And this text doesn’t have the usual commentary that John likes to add, claiming that Jesus was expressing this kind of emotion to test his disciples or to test the crowd or just to annoy the religious leaders. No, Jesus just cries. His mind is firmly focused on the death of his friend - and his heart just breaks.
So, on this All Saints’ Day, who is on your mind?
In a bit, during the prayers of intercession, it’s possible that we’ll name who you’re thinking about. Every year on this day, we read the names of members of this community who have died or the names of people this community has commended to God and buried. But I know this list is incomplete. It doesn’t include all the people in our lives who’ve died. It doesn’t include the beloved friends, the loyal companions, the devoted fathers, or distant brothers we wish we had connected with more. And the list doesn’t include the ones who died years ago and who we’ll always miss. If we tried to compose a complete list of all our loved ones who have passed, I’m sure when next Sunday rolled around, we would still be here, listening as the names keep coming. Death and loss, grief and pain - those things aren’t alien to us because we still live. We’re still here. Living doesn’t mean we’re not dead. Living means we’re going to experience death in all it’s forms. In our lives, we will face death and, like Jesus, weep.
Now, the text doesn’t specify exactly why Jesus weeps. And in the parts that follow, Jesus’ tears don’t seem to match with what comes next. When he goes to the tomb and orders Lazarus to come out - Jesus sounds confident. He’s not shaky. He doesn’t say, “Okay, Lazarus - if you can, please come out.” No, Jesus commands. He shouts. He acts like he knows that Lazarus will come out. So death, for Jesus, can’t be as final as it feels to us. He isn’t carrying guilt knowing that he’ll never be able to fix that relationship with his beloved friend. Jesus will never worry about those words he said to his dear friend when they last saw each other. And Jesus doesn’t carry any remorse because he didn’t make enough time to spend with his friend and now he’ll never get that chance. We know that Jesus gets that chance with Lazarus. Lazarus is brought back to life. Jesus’ confidence tells me that he knew this even before Mary called him. But even with that confidence - Jesus still weeps.
There’s something about death that, at its core, breaks God’s heart. So maybe that’s why God had to swallow death up - not to end our tears, but to mend God’s own heart. Because God is a God who creates - a God who builds. God didn’t start the world by destroying something first. God took the chaos - faced that darkness - and God brought light. Bringing light - bringing life - bringing hope even in the midst of loss, fear, and tears - that’s what God does. In the tombs that we find ourselves in - from the walls of doubt and pain, sorrow and sin, suffering and anxiety that we place around ourselves - even in the darkest places of our own souls - Jesus opens ours tombs and God’s light comes in.
The shortest verse in the bible - where Jesus weeps - is, in some ways, where Jesus is the most human. It’s also where he is his most divine. It’s where the phrase “God is love” becomes real. Jesus didn’t need to weep, but he did. God’s heart doesn’t need to break, but it does. The places and times in our lives when we are our most human is also the places and times when God is the most divine. Because God could have let the brokenness just happen. God could have ignored the finality of death, ignored the pain it causes, and not experience it as we do. God’s Son could have run from death. But he doesn’t. He came to live through it. He came, as we say every time when we confess our faith in the Apostles’ Creed, to ‘descend to the dead.’ He came to experience what we all experience: the brokenness, the fear, the broken hearts, and that giant void of death that scares and frightens us. And it’s there, in death, that his light burns brightest.
It’s that light that our loved ones now call home. And it’s one of the reasons why we light candles on this day. But this light isn’t just a light for our future. It isn’t a light that we have to literally die for. It’s a light that we, as members of the body of Christ, are experiencing right now. The flame we hold in our hands and place in the sand is not just the flame of our beloved spouse, parent, or child. When we look into the flame, we are looking at them and at us. We, in our baptism, in our faith, are joined with all of those who came before and all of those who are to come. In God’s light, the past, future, and present condense into a single flame. And that flame is something that we are a part of right now. It’s the same flame that fed our loved ones and it’s the same flame that feeds those who we’ll leave behind. We’re caught up in a God where the bumps and rattles of our lives can’t knock us out of the hands of the one who has us. The shortest verse in the bible doesn’t remind us how short our lives on earth are. The shortest verse in the bible shows just how vast our future in God will be.