Brothers and sisters –
I call you my brothers and my sisters, knowing that we travel on different journeys of faith. You have your own, and, as a church, you have another; I have mine. We will not diminish any journey of faith.
I want to thank the Rev Miak Siew, your wonderful pastor, for inviting me to speak from your pulpit. Someone told me on Facebook that FCC’s pulpit was one of the most important in Singapore. I didn’t think that specifically when I accepted Rev Siew’s invitation some time ago. For me, all pulpits are important, sacred. This is why we should only speak what builds people up from them.
I also want to thank the Rev Yap Kim Hao for his warm online welcome and support. It means a lot to me quietly – and now not so quietly anymore – because this is the first sermon I have given in decades. This is certainly my first adult sermon, in a church.
Like Rev Yap, I too am a Methodist. I became a Christian in 1984 and was baptised and confirmed in 1987. The rest of my family is Buddhist; it still is. When I was baptised, my mother cried. My father came to my baptism, and he said to me: “Now that you’ve made your decision, you must stay with it. I will have no nonsense about you changing your mind later.”
Today, I consider myself, if pressed, a Kryptonian Methodist. You know what happened to Superman’s home planet, Krypton? That is how I feel. I feel that I can understand my Bible better, think more clearly, and live more simply – as my Methodist code compels me – when I stay outside institution. There are actually a few Christians like me around, modern-day hermits. Our desert is the city, which is very different geographically from traditional landscapes. In the city, the desert lies between people. If you want, you can always live in this desert; you can go into its solitude, drop out of the radar, disappear.
Brothers and sisters, we are near the time in the Christian year when we commemorate the death of our Lord. So, when you listen to today’s passage on the Raising of Lazarus, you may be prompted to think ahead, think of the time Jesus would lie in the grave and his Resurrection. You may see this episode for what it alludes to, what it prefigures. Lazarus’s death prefigures Jesus’s death. Lazarus’s return to life prefigures Jesus’s Resurrection.
In fact, reading backwards, from the Gospel’s conclusion to this point in Jesus’s life, you may think other thoughts. You may think that, when Jesus wept, when he saw the family and friends of Lazarus wept and he wept, he was weeping for all of Creation’s senseless sufferings. Jesus wept for the consequences of Man’s separation from a Holy God – the greatest consequence being death – and he wept for the world’s sins, for which he would give his life very soon.
You may also think that, because Jesus is God, he was demonstrating by weeping his humanity. His Raising of Lazarus later would demonstrate his divinity. Jesus was showing that he was not some alien, some disguised E.T., but that he walked among us as truly human. God did not keep Himself emotionally and psychologically apart from us but had embraced human nature with its pain, its sense of helplessness, and its compassion. And the proof of this? Jesus wept.
This particular point impressed me a lot when I learnt it as a young Christian; now, it all sounds pretty academic. This is because, as precisely a human, I also realise that weeping can be a show and may not prove sincerity, let alone humanity. Sometimes, the opposite of that is true, as when actors, tricksters, and politicians weep. Weeping in itself proves little. Indeed, in our passage, as much as there were onlookers who were moved to remark “See how much Jesus loved Lazarus!”, there were those who knew human nature too well who doubted, saw it as an act.
You see, brothers and sisters, I am literature-trained. All my degrees are in literature; all I have been teaching is literature and writing; and I write and draw. All the ways of reading into this episode what we already know about Christianity would have made a lot of sense – if reading backwards were the only way to read. But the Gospel is not just Scripture, which we are to read again and again, flipping and re-flipping our understanding for layers of hidden meanings. And, for that matter, it is also not just literature.
The Gospel is, first and foremost, a story, a true story. Sometimes, in our readings, in our veneration of the sacred, we forget this simple point: how it is a story works. We forget how we are to enjoy a story, to be caught up in a story. To enjoy a story, you read it – sounds logical – and you read it forwards. You read one line after another, from one page to another page. If you already know what will happen next, how the story will end, you do yourself a favour and forget these parts. They are spoilers!
So, opposed to the skills you are trained normally to have for Bible study, I invite you here to embrace ignorance, forgetfulness. To treat something simply, as it is: this, too, is a great skill.
Let us look at what we know here. We know that, firstly, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were siblings who were very close to Jesus. They were not just his followers; John describes them specifically as people whom Jesus loved. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
And here is where it gets disturbing. We also know, secondly, that Jesus could actually have gone early to the village of Bethany where they lived, where Lazarus lay sick – but he didn’t. Given the news of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus even actively stopped himself and his entourage. He tarried where he was then two days more, assuring everyone that this was not a “sickness unto death”, to use the wonderful phrase from the King James. Sickness unto Death, by the way, is also the title of a book by one of my favourite philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard uses it to refer to despair, abject despair, the kind through which we die inside. Lazarus’s was not to be a sickness that ended in physical death but one through which God’s glory would be revealed.
But this was a tense moment, a tense situation. The last time Jesus was in Judaea, where Bethany was, the people tried to stone him. He had claimed to be God, saying, “Before Abraham was born, I am”. His disciples knew of this danger going back would pose and reminded him. When Jesus decided eventually that it was time to head to Bethany, who should we be introduced to but the guy we will later call Doubting Thomas. Thomas remarked sarcastically: “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” And, when Jesus got to Bethany, first Martha and then Mary, both in immense grief, came to him and told him the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
So, as readers of a story, we are struck by a number of awkward truths. Firstly, we realise that Jesus was wrong because Lazarus did die; it was a sickness unto death. Secondly, we wonder whether Jesus might be afraid to go to Judaea for the same reason his disciples were reluctant to go there – because it was dangerous. We wonder shockingly whether Jesus had masqueraded his own fear, by trivialising the seriousness of his friend’s sickness. His friend’s sickness!
Thirdly, as uncomfortably, we find ourselves faced with the idea that Jesus wanted Lazarus to die. Jesus did not merely take his time to visit, but he seemed to have done so knowing that Lazarus could not survive the wait. That sounds really perverse, but it was surely the truth! By ensuring that he was not present to heal Lazarus when Lazarus was alive, Jesus had effectively allowed his death. That was as much as what was implied in the words of both Martha and Mary.
To complicate matters, we know by this point in John’s Gospel that Jesus had another superpower: he could heal from afar, just by command. Earlier in Chapter 4, the sick son of a royal official in Capernaum was healed this way. The royal official went home in faith and found his son already well. Why couldn’t Jesus – even when he wouldn’t travel to Bethany – just speak healing into Lazarus? How hard was that?
You see, everything in this episode before the Raising of Lazarus points us to doubt, to distrust, to confusion, to sadness, to anger. We should feel a level of scandal at how our Lord had chosen to behave. We should feel the rightness of our suspicion. Did Jesus not care? Did God not care? How could God be so sloppy, so flippant, so la-dee-da, with human suffering – a question made worse by the fact that this was the pain of not enemies or strangers or even acquaintances but the people He loved?
Everyone talks about the Garden of Gethsemane, but John 11 is, in fact, one of the most overlooked emotionally tense moments in the life of Jesus. It was so tense that Jesus was deeply troubled twice or, in the words of the King James, he “groaned in the spirit”. It was so tense that Jesus had to explain himself, argue for God’s Greater Plan, not once, not twice, but thrice! He said it to the disciples: “This is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” He said it to Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Do you believe this?” He said it before everyone who came to the grave: “Father, I know that you always hear me, but I say this for their benefit, that they may believe that you sent me.”
It is within this setting that Jesus wept.
Here was an important instance of tension between God and Man. By this point of the story, people knew Jesus’s message of love and compassion, and they knew God’s ability to perform great miracles. What they could not understand was why neither would take away the pain, the unavoidable, immediate pain, of life. Healing could not be that difficult. Did Jesus not love enough? Was God not powerful enough?
But Jesus could not act because there was a Plan, a Greater Plan which, from the viewpoint of Eternity and Infinity, was far greater than what human minds could comprehend. He was bound by his own goodness. Yet, by not acting until the right time, Jesus was not able to demonstrate the value of faith. He was not able to demonstrate the value of hope. And, most importantly for a God of Love, he was unable to show that He loved.
In this conundrum, in this deadlock, in this powerlessness, this moment I consider a death in God – a death because it was a moment God could not be God – Jesus wept.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus loved Lazarus. When our Lord restored him to life, he was such that it was as though he was never sick, never dead – as though the whole episode in John 11 never happened. But, within John 11, within this chapter, every individual, even the one he loved, was sunk in an inward scandal of questioning the Godness of God.
And is not each of these individuals a version of us? We are in Lazarus, who was dying away, day by day, from some illness, some real difficulty, and clinging to the end in vain hope. We are in Martha and Mary, who suffered a great loss and, in this loss, a sudden confusion of what the Love of God meant, what it was all worth. We are in the disciples, the villagers, and the friends, who, in a hidden thought or more, doubted whether God was indeed in control, whether He was perverse, whether He truly cared.
You see, theologically, John 11 prefigures the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, but, metaphorically, it is the drama of our lives, of having to live. Christians, for millennia, have been troubled by a question that still troubles us today not just in the play of abstract thought but also in our darkest nights. Why does a loving God allow suffering? It is safe to say that we shall never find a satisfactory answer because we are still living within the chapter of God’s silence. We are living within that passage when God cannot disclose by action what He means for us. All He can give us is His assurance that it will all turn out fine, that, in the grand scheme of things, it has the best of sense.
But, meanwhile, we remain hardly convinced. We languish away. Our pain goes on; it grows deeper, even multiplies. We are to keep hoping, but it is so hard. We are to believe in good, and yet the darkness is always winning.
And, at the heart, we have this perverse truth that God allows us to go through darkness. Why does He do that? We do not know for now, but we are asked to trust. Yet, from this passage, we know that, meanwhile, God Himself is not having fun, enjoying all the luxuries that His power can afford Him. God is not indifferent or, worse, taking pleasure in our plight. In His silence, in the doubts and heartaches and sufferings that span our lives, in God’s inability to show us how He loves us in a way we understand, God is in pain. God is tearing Himself up inside – even now.
Have you noticed yet how the Christian God is depicted in many a popular painting? He is often shown to be kind, compassionate, gentle, loving – and He smiles faintly, thinly. But go through your Bible, and you will be hard pressed to find an actual description of a smiling God. If there is an emotional, facial description, it is here: Jesus wept. This is strange. The Old Testament followers saw God as an angry God because they knew Him in terms of the Law. But we who are children of the New Testament, who know God as Love – we find Him weeping, a weeping God.
There is a Great Mystery here. In God’s weeping, God expresses His love for us. For only one who truly loves knows how to weep. When Jesus saw the family and friends of Lazarus weep and he wept, his weeping didn’t show his humanity. It showed his divinity. It showed that the loving God was torn between wanting to take away the pain right then and there and having to do what He knew was best and that, in this state of being torn, of having two opposing, negating ways of loving, He was powerless. In this powerlessness, Jesus shared in the powerlessness of all who loved Lazarus, who could do nothing but weep. In this powerlessness we call by that inadequate word “compassion”, God became Man.
So it is that the poet William Blake writes in a very profound poem about compassion, this place where God and Man meet. I want to read this poem as my means to conclude:
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can he who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief & care,
Hear the woes that infants bear,
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast;
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear;
And not sit both night & day,
Wiping all our tears away?
O, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all;
He becomes an infant small;
He becomes a man of woe;
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh
And thy maker is not by;
Think not thou canst weep a tear
And thy maker is not near.
O! he gives to us his joy
That our grief he may destroy;
Till our grief is fled & gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
Let us pray:
Jesus said something cryptic to his disciples in John 11. He said, “In the day, there are twelve hours. Anyone who walks during this time will not stumble because he or she sees by this world’s light. But, when a person walks at night, he or she stumbles because he or she has no light.”
Father, we know that, in the darkness of our lives, You walk with us, but our eyes are so dim that we think that You’re not there. In our nights of deep sadness, You weep with us, but our ears are so poor that we think that You don’t care. Father, when we cannot believe and when we cannot hope, help us to believe and to hope, that we may go on in this life. Because, like the day, the night, too, is only twelve hours, and then we are home with You.
In Jesus’s name,