The shortest verse, Lent Week 1

John 11:1-45

“When Jesus wept, the falling tear, in mercy flowed beyond all bound.

When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear seized all the guilty world around.” This

simple round was written by William Billings. Billings was proficient and popular

hymn and song writer in the US in the 1770’s, one of the first in American

Christianity. In order to more widely distribute his hymns, he and another

hymnwriter developed a series of public ‘singing’ schools, where they would

travel the country and teach people how to sing, with many of the songs they

taught being songs they had written.

As a result, Billings’ music became very well known. This song is one that

combines references to two scriptural stories. The first two lines are connected

with our gospel text for today, while the last two lines are focused on the

experience of Jesus on the cross. ‘When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy

flowed beyond all bound.’ We do not have any notes on what Billings was

thinking when he wrote this music and lyrics, although I think it’s safe to say that

the song speaks for itself.

‘When Jesus wept, the falling tears in mercy flowed beyond all bounds.’ The

phrase reflects the deep feeling that Jesus expresses here. We can picture the

falling tears of Jesus over the loss of his friend, Lazarus, a friend who was almost

like family. The falling tears that were not only an expression of mercy, but also

heartache, grief, and love – this is truly what flowed beyond all bounds. By that

phrase, Billings insinuates that both the tears and the love of Jesus flow far

beyond what we would expect of the divine son of God. It’s Jesus’ humanity that

emerges in this text, and his divine actions spring forth from the very human love

that he feels for Lazarus and for his family.

It is a tremendous irony that one of the contiguous stories in the Bible,

verse-wise, also contains the shortest verse. As I’ve mentioned previously, the

annotations of chapters and verses were added to the Hebrew and Christian

scriptures much later than the actual texts were written, but it IS significant that

the person who later affixed the verse numbers also sought to emphasize the

importance of this moment by crafting the shortest verse. Jesus wept.

How do we measure, capture, or fathom the enormity of that verse? Jesus

wept. Jesus, the divine expression of God in the Gospel stories, wept. This is a

facet of humanity that has not previously existed in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a

manifestation of the presence of God that goes beyond the voice in the heavens

or the tablets given to Moses or the visions given to prophets. The Hebrew

scriptures showed God’s instructions, God’s wrath, and God’s love. In this text, we

witness God’s compassion, God’s mercy, and God’s empathy.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the final and most spectacular of the

seven most fully described public miracles or “signs” Jesus performed in the

Fourth Gospel. The others are the miracle of the water turned to wine in John 2,

the healing of the official’s son in John 4, the healing of the paralytic by the pool

in John 5, the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water in John 6 and the

healing of the man born blind in John 9. The gospels of John and Mark take very

different approaches to miracles. In Mark, Jesus often orders others to be silent

after he has performed a healing or an exorcism, or he swears them to secrecy

after they have witnessed one of his miracles. In John, the miracles are always

done in public and are said to have been done so people would believe in Jesus.

The story of the raising of Lazarus, then, being the last miracle in this

sequence, follows this same pattern we’ve seen before. Whereas in Mark, Jesus

quite often tolerates his disciples misunderstanding him and misinterpreting his

parables, in this passage, when the disciples take Jesus literally when he says

Lazarus has “fallen asleep” and think this means his condition isn’t serious, Jesus

just tells them outright, “Lazarus is dead”. Once they’re at the tomb, we’re told

that Lazarus has been in the tomb so many days that he would have begun to

decompose. Lazarus isn’t simply sleeping, nor is he in a coma from which he

might awaken. He is verifiably dead. And Jesus weeps.

What does it mean for us to follow this divine man who weeps? We cry

tears of joy and of sorrow. Sometimes, we laugh so hard that we cry. Sometimes

we sneeze or cough so hard that we cry. Each of these are physical responses to

something happening inside us – for the latter, it’s something our bodies are

trying to release and for the former, it’s something our spirits are trying to

release. Perhaps that’s a key part of this text – the release that we feel when

Jesus breaks down and allows himself to experience his own sorrow and the

sorrow of others.

That’s a part of our faith that we tend to overlook – the heart centered

part. We live in such a head centered society and we transfer that over to our

religious life. Or people in churches go the exact opposite direction and instead

make their faith solely an emotional experience. I don’t think God had either in

mind in its totality, but instead a blending that reflects a full expression of heart,

of mind, of soul.

As a young boy, I remember an image from a commercial that deeply

troubled me. It was a “Keep America Beautiful” ad with pollution, littering, and

environmental degradation happening as far as the eye could see. The

centerpiece of the ad was a native tribal American who simply stood without

movement, other than a single tear sliding down his face. That powerful,

evocative image captured a dual message – that European settlers who

devastated the people who lived on these lands now had descendants who were

devastating the land as well. It was powerful.

The ad was also controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. It

turns out that the actor who portrayed the native American had Italian heritage,

and no tribal ancestry at all. The man whose screen name was Iron Eyes Cody was

actually named Espera de Corti. Moreover, the Keep America Beautiful

organization was managed and funded by the leading beverage and packing

corporations at the time. These were not environmental groups, but instead were

among the companies most opposed to environmental regulation such the then

recently passed Clean Air Act. The message of the ad and the man’s tear was

powerful, but was also complex.

Likewise, we struggle with the notion embedded in this text that Jesus

purposefully waited for Lazarus to not only die, but to remain dead for several

days until he came, so that the resurrection of Lazarus could happen beyond all

reasonable doubt. That seems unacceptably harsh, a punishment to his family and

friends who did not know Jesus’ intention, and simply just a strange thing to do

for someone who you love. We are left to wrestle with this facet of the story, and

of Jesus’ actions or inactions in the story.

We are not the only ones. Jesus seems to wrestle deeply with it, especially

in the moment when he encounters Lazarus’ body. Even though the Gospel of

John explains the broader motivations at play, Jesus is moved and the flood of

tears bursts forth. It’s a flood that is borne of the conflict of love and duty that has

been placed upon him, creating a tension that may have been too much to bear.

And so the human side of Jesus came out in that moment, as did the tears. Like

for many of us, those tears represented more than one thing. And all Jesus could

do in that moment is exactly what many of us would do. Jesus wept.

Last week, I shared a story of officiating my grandmother’s funeral. Here’s

another. I have shared with several of you that this was the first funeral that I’ve

officiated for any of my four grandparents who have died. Kimberly and/or I have

participated in the service for several others, but this was the first that I planned,

coordinated and officiated. The reasons for why this was the only one are

complex, but the primary one is that I wanted to be fully present for the others as

a grandson, not as a minister.

As I mentioned, for a variety of reasons, I agreed to officiate my

grandmother’s service. And I was able to hold my emotions in check through the

services. At least until the very end. When Kimberly and Maya joined me to walk

out with the rest of the large extended family at the end of the service, I wept. As

with Jesus’ tears, the weeping was complex, filled with the pent up nature of not

being able to be fully present to my own emotions, along with the complex

relationship I had with my mother’s parents and the reality that my

grandmother’s death marked the passing of a generation, as she was the last

grandparent for either Kimberly or me. There was so much represented in my

tears that I could not hold them in. I wept. Amen.

Moment of silence - This year’s Lenten theme is entitled ‘Reflections of Jesus.’ As

part of weekly focus, we will have a ‘memory scripture’ that will guide us. The

memory scripture will be incorporated into the service in a variety of ways, in

order to increase our ability to reflect and absorb the power and wisdom of its

teaching. This morning’s memory scripture is ‘Jesus wept.’ In a few moments, we

will have a time of silence. During this time, I invite you to prayerfully reflect on

the nuance and the emotion of Jesus in this story, how the story impacts you, and

what new insights it might reveal in you. We will end this time of silence with

______. Let us enter this time.