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Making Our Way to the House of Mourning

Last week, friend and beloved church member Wade Stephenson was tragically killed in a car accident, leaving behind his pregnant wife, three young daughters, and a grieving church. This post is an adaptation of my Sunday sermon as I attempted to care for his wife, children and our church as we made our way to the house of mourning together (Ecc 7: 2-4). What does it mean to mourn with those who have lost a loved one? What does it look like to “weep with those who weep?” (Rom 12:15) How can a church do this effectively and together? How does Scripture address us, inform us, direct us when God calls us to the house of mourning?

John 11:1-44

Amid the incessant whirl of pastoral activity, the telephone call comes. One of the members of the congregation has died. The servant of God is abruptly halted in his ordinary spectrum of ministerial duties. Death may have come with shocking unexpectedness and untimeliness, snatching away a child, a youth, or one in the full flower of adulthood. Or it may have come to pluck away one who was advanced in years. However it comes, the true servant of God is brought to feel afresh the awesome, ominous, and haunting sobriety of the presence of death. Once again, he and his congregation are irresistibly summoned to the house of mourning.

So writes pastor Al Martin of the inevitable dreaded call a pastor can expect to receive. Churches are often called by God to what the writer of Ecclesiastes calls “the house of mourning” (Ecc 7:2-4). It is “a time to mourn.” Pastor, it wise to consider how we might serve mourners, their children and extended family, and each other as we mourn together. What does it mean to mourn? What does it look like to mourn together, and to “weep with those who weep?” How does Scripture address us, inform us, and direct us when we are called to the house of mourning?

I’m not aware of a more compelling example and passage in this regard than what we observe and learn from the Son of God as he attends the funeral of Lazarus in John 11. So as we make our way to the house of mourning let’s stop off at the funeral of Lazarus and learn from the Son of God how we might mourn together.

The Death of Lazarus (vv. 1-16)

Initially, we are informed in verse 1 that Lazarus is ill. His sisters Martha and Mary send word to Jesus of his illness assuming he would immediately come to heal him. John draws our attention to the unique relationship between this family and Jesus and the deep affection of Jesus for this family. Note in verse 3, “So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill,’” and in verse 5, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”

Jesus knew this family well and loved this family deeply. Martha and Mary didn’t hesitate to inform Jesus when Lazarus became ill because of their close relationship. They had seen Jesus heal others; surely he would return and heal Lazarus whom he loved and by doing so serve Martha and Mary whom he also loved.

Jesus’ pronounced love for this family only makes what we read in verse 6 more perplexing: “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” What? Don’t you expect to read that he left immediately for Bethany? Instead, he stayed two days longer in the place he was. Why the deliberate delay?

Jesus explains why in verse 4: “But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” We discover here that Lazarus isn’t the main character in this story. Jesus is the main character in this story. He deliberately postpones going to Bethany so they—and we—might behold the glory of God, in order to reveal the glory of the Lord.

Something no one anticipated—something astounding—was about to take place. It was a sign and when it did the glory of God would be revealed and the Son of God glorified through it. However, those must have been long days of waiting and disappointment for Martha and Mary as they watched Lazarus deteriorate while anticipating that Jesus was surely on his way.

How often do you think Martha and Mary walked outside to scan the horizon, looking Jesus’ approach? They are certain he is coming because of his love for them. They anticipated his arrival at any moment. But he didn’t come. And their brother died. Surely, they wondered why.

This account serves each of us in the midst of our trials and suffering. If, in your life, it seems God is delaying and not responding to our requests, we are assured there is a divine purpose even when we can’t immediately perceive it. His delays in response to our requests and in the midst of trials and suffering should not be interpreted as a withdrawal of his love. When it appears God is delaying and not responding, withholding and not providing, there is a purpose. That purpose is revealed in verse 4: “It is for the glory of God.” Jesus is the main character in our story as well. It is about his glory.

Oftentimes we don’t know all the ways God intends to display his glory in and through our trials and suffering. But we must acknowledge that his glory and not our comfort or preferences is what matters most. In the midst of our trials and suffering we can be assured of his love, assured that he is at work for his glory and our good. His glory is our greatest good. In his perfect timing he will display his glory and work all things together for our good.

But it might not appear that way in the moment. It certainly didn’t appear that way to Martha and Mary.

The Promise of Jesus (vv. 17-27)

By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany Lazarus has died and has been in the tomb for four days. This reference to four days is no insignificant detail for the rabbinic teaching included the idea that after a person died their spirit hovered over the body for three days. If the body was somehow resuscitated the spirit would return to it. But after four days death was irreversible.

Jesus returned on this day because he didn’t want there to be any doubt or controversy when he raised Lazarus from the dead. He wanted it to be clear this was a miracle: a sign revealing His identity as the Son of God. He arrives according to the divine timetable. Jesus is never late.

Martha finally hears he is coming and goes to meet him. But Martha thinks he got there late, too late to make a difference. It was the fourth day. There was no hope left. Try to Imagine their interaction. Martha must have been exhausted, weary, and perplexed. With tear-stained face she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

We don’t have the benefit of hearing her tone of voice but there appears to be a note of accusation or scolding in this statement. However she immediately follows this statement with one communicating trust and faith in verse 22: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” And Jesus responds in a way she wasn’t anticipating in verse 23, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha’s response affirms this reality in the distant future. But Jesus reveals himself to her and makes a startling promise: “I am the resurrection and the life…”

This is a culmination of the unfolding revelation of his words and miracles in previous chapters. What a revelation it is! Bruce Milne writes,

The life he gives is nothing less than the indestructible life of the resurrection, the very life of the deathless God himself. Resurrection life which triumphs over death is not confined to the distant future, but is present here and now in him who is the Resurrection, the embodiment of the promised life and salvation of God.

Jesus follows this revelation of himself with this promise: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” What hope is found in these words and what they reveal in the midst of sorrow, grief, and death. Jesus doesn’t merely teach on the resurrection. He announces he is the resurrection and the life. Therefore, everyone who trusts in him shall never die.

Please don’t misunderstand. This does not mean that Christians won’t die. Yes, Christians die. “But,” as R.C. Sproul explains,

biological death doesn’t disturb the continuity of the living, personal existence for God’s people in the slightest. This is what Jesus said. Once a person believes in Christ, the life of Christ is poured into the soul of that person, and that life is eternal. Everyone who is in Christ has already begun to experience eternal life. We’re never going to die. We may go through the transition of physical death, but that death cannot destroy the life that Christ has given us.

So in the midst of our deep sorrow for a Christian who has died there is a certain hope that “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” This certain hope is why a funeral for a Christian is distinctively and discernibly different from a funeral for a non-Christian. In the midst of the many tears you will discern the presence of hope because of Jesus is the resurrection and the life and he has promised that “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Jesus says of all who believed in him: “though he die, yet shall he live.” The grace and glory of God is revealed in that hope and that hope will be discernible at every Christian funeral.

And though Martha began her interaction with Jesus with an apparent accusation she concludes with as compelling an expression of faith as you will find in Scripture. She does so in the midst of her sorrow. Understand: she did not anticipate Jesus raising her brother from the dead. That is evident in verse 39, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” This is a woman who does not have a category for Jesus raising her brother from the dead after four days in the tomb. But in the midst of her sorrow, she says to him, “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” What an impressive confession by Martha. When we think of Martha, let’s not remember her only as one who served. Let’s remember her as one who has faith.

The Heart of Jesus (vv. 28-37)

I don’t think there is a passage where the heart of Jesus and the emotions of Jesus are more on display than in this passage. Sinclair Ferguson says, “These are among the most important words you could read about Jesus Christ.”

Notice the heart of Jesus and the care of Jesus for Mary and all who are genuinely mourning the death of Lazarus. And notice the difference between Jesus’ interaction with Martha and his interaction with Mary. He serves Martha with a promise. He serves Mary with his tears. In verse 32, when Mary meets Jesus, she has the same perplexing question as Martha. Look carefully at Jesus’ response: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”

As Jesus takes in Mary’s grief and weeping, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Scholars inform us that this phrasing doesn’t do justice to the underlying Greek. “Deeply moved” when a reference to human emotion means angry. Jesus was angry. He was indignant. He was irate. Jesus was angry and as a result greatly troubled. B.B. Warfield writes, “What John tells us in point of fact, is that Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus in a state not of uncontrollable grief but of inexpressible anger.”

Why is he angry? Obviously he’s not angry at Mary or Martha or those mourning. He’s angry at death, and behind death, the devil himself. He’s angry as he finds himself in the ravaging presence of death. All around him death wreaks havoc on those he loves. He’s angry as he observes the effects of sin and death. He’s angry at death for death is the enemy.

As Jesus surveys the damage done by sin and death to Lazarus and his family, he is angry for this wasn’t the original intention at creation. And it is most certainly appropriate for the Christian to be angry at death as well. Theologically informed, rightly-directed anger, is the appropriate response of the Christian to death and the effects of death. How can you survey the havoc death has caused and not be angry?

Jesus was angry at the last enemy and the havoc that death left in its wake. We should be as well. So there is a discernible holy anger the Son of God feels and expresses. But this is followed by another emotional outburst by the Son of God in verses 34-35, “And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord come and see.’” And we read in the shortest verse in all of Scripture, “Jesus wept.”

The shortest verse in all of Scripture is also one of the most eloquent and profound texts in all of Scripture. The Son of God shed tears. He wept. Imagine this scene: according to Jewish funeral custom even a poor family was expected to hire professional mourners. These folks would be on the scene to weep and wail. Friends of the family are weeping. Mary is weeping. Observing their grief and being shown the tomb, “Jesus wept.”

Why did Jesus weep? These are holy tears. His tears aren’t the tears of a professional mourner. His tears obviously weren’t for Lazarus for he was about to raise him from the dead. Jesus is about to perform perhaps his greatest miracle. It is a miracle that will immediately transform the mourning of all into indescribable joy. But before he performs this miracle, He enters into their grief and mourns with them for the one they loved and lost. Jesus shares the grief of Mary and Martha. He identifies with them in their grief.

And his tears did not go unnoticed, “See how he loved him!” This is remarkable and particularly relevant to us. J.C. Ryle explains,

Not many passages in the New Testament are more wonderful than the simple narrative contained in these verses. It brings out, in a most beautiful light, the sympathizing character of our Lord Jesus Christ. It shows us him who is ‘able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him (Heb 7:25), as able to feel as he is to save. It shows him who is one with the Father, and the Maker of all things, entering into human sorrows, and shedding human tears. He knew perfectly well that the sorrow of the family of Bethany would soon be turned into joy, and that Lazarus in a few minutes would be restored to his sisters. But though he knew all this, he ‘wept.’

And since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, we can say every mourner: “Jesus weeps with you. He weeps for you.” Jesus models what it means to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. Let us study him and his example so we might emulate him and serve others. This is particularly relevant for us as we make our way to the house of mourning together.

How can we best serve those who are grieving the death of a love one? When we encounter those who are suffering, we need help. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. All of us desire to care for and serve those who are grieving. But many of us haven’t been trained how to effectively do this. It’s easy to miss the moment.

We all feel awkward approaching someone who has lost a loved one. But we don’t know what to say. We want to be helpful. We want to say something that will comfort. and encourage, something unique and profound that will express our sorrow and care. Though we are well meaning, what we say isn’t particularly helpful. We feel guilty that we didn’t serve someone we love effectively.

Mourning with someone is a learned skill that begins with sincerity but involves wisdom as well. We begin by following the example of Jesus, by identifying with someone in their sorrows and weeping with them. The example of Jesus in this passage is instructive and liberating because the truth is we don’t have to say anything profound. In fact, we don’t have to say anything. I’ve found, the less I say, the better. Just being present with tears in our eyes is sufficient. Just be there, identifying. Just be there, feeling. Just be there, mourning. Just be there, crying.

Before we say anything to someone grieving the loss of a loved one we must identify with them in their sorrow as best we can. If you’ve never felt their grief, accept your limitations. Don’t attempt to portray yourself as able to relate if you have not walked this path. Trust God that others who have walked this path already will bear this burden with them in a unique way. We don’t all have the same part to play. It is wise to simply communicate that you haven’t experienced what they’ve experienced. Your tears can still make a difference.

Also, in the immediate aftermath of someone losing a loved one let us restrain ourselves from prematurely exhorting someone who is grieving or attempt to cheer them up by reminding them that all things work together for the good. Listen to the wise pastoral counsel of Don Carson:

Anyone who has suffered devastating grief or dehumanizing pain has at some point been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters. They come with clichés and tired, pious mouthings. They engender guilt where they should be administering balm. They utter solemn truths where compassion is needed. They exhibit strength and exhort to courage where they would be more comforting if they simply wept.

Crying with someone for a season should precede any exhortation. Tears must precede any encouragement or exhortation. And a history of relationship with someone and appropriate timing should inform any encouragement and exhortation. Initially, there should simply be sharing their grief. Let there be many tears and much listening. This is good news, because we can all do this. We can all cry, feel, identify, listen and support. We can all just be there.

So we shouldn’t feel compelled to say anything eloquent. We shouldn’t feel compelled to say anything, actually Just be there and grieve together.

And just as important what should we avoid saying? In an excellent article titled “What Not to Ask Someone Suffering” Nancy Guthrie helpfully writes:

People ask me all the time what to say and what to do for people who are grieving the death of someone they love. And I’m glad they ask. I’m glad they want to know what is really helpful and meaningful, and what is completely unhelpful and actually hurtful. And I wish I could tell you that I always know myself what to say. But sometimes words fail me. And I wish I could tell you that I never say the wrong thing. But I do. In fact, a few days ago, I made the mistake I often tell other people not to make.

The minute I said it I wished I hadn’t. I should know better. But it’s just what came out. Maybe it’s what comes out when you talk to grieving people too. Here’s what I said. Or more accurately, what I asked: How are you?

It doesn’t seem so wrong, does it? It’s a question that reveals that we care. It lets the person know we haven’t forgotten about their loss. Really it is an invitation for the grieving person to talk about their loss. But many grieving people say they simply hate the question. They feel put on the spot to report on their job performance in this task they’ve been given — continuing to live when their loved one has died — a task for which they had no training and for which they seem to have no resources. It’s a question they don’t know how to answer. “I’m fine” isn’t quite right. They may be functioning, and perhaps even feeling better, but they know they’re not “fine.” “I’m terrible” seems whiney. “I’m angry!” seems unacceptable. “I’m crying all the time” seems pathetic.

“How are you?” is one of those questions that always bothered my husband, David, in those days after our daughter, and later our son, died. He always felt like he was supposed to quantify his progress back toward normalcy. In our book, When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One he wrote, “In the midst of my own pain and confusion, I suddenly also felt responsible to others to give an account for my progress. As the words of my reply came measured through my lips, I wondered if my report would be acceptable.”

The grieving person knows what the questioner most likely wants to hear — that everything is getting better, the world is getting brighter, the darkness is lifting, and the tears are subsiding. But oftentimes that just isn’t the way it is, and it is awkward to be honest about the confusion, listlessness, and loneliness of grief. The reality of grief is that sometimes right after the loss we feel strong, but as time passes, and the reality of life without that person settles in, we feel weak and weepy. And it’s awkward to talk about.

We’re afraid that if we tell you how sad we are, you might think there is something “wrong” with the way we’re doing this grief thing. We’re afraid you will assume we should be on a steady upward path toward normalcy and that we’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes we want to scream that we will never be “normal” again. And sometimes we just want to say, “How am I? I’m sad. And I wish the world — including you — would simply give me some time and space to simply be sad. This person I loved has died and I miss him. He mattered to me and therefore it makes sense that I would not get over his absence easily or quickly.”

Nancy Guthrie provides some better questions:

  • What is your grief like these days?
  • I find myself really missing (name of person who died)…
  • I often think of you when do things and whisper a prayer for God’s comfort. Are there particular things I could be praying for you as you go through this time of grief?

In a sense, all of these questions are asking, “How are you?” but somehow they express a desire to enter into the sorrow of another instead of merely getting a report on their sorrow. In this way we come alongside to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

The Triumph of Jesus (vv. 38-44)

This story doesn’t conclude with tears, the story concludes with the triumph of the Son of God over death. Notice in verse 38, Once again he is angry and irate at death and the effects of death and he has come not simply to weep or teach but to act! Jesus has come to exercise authority over death by raising Lazarus from the dead.

In verse 43, “He cries out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out…” This sign reveals in a unique way the identity of Jesus and the glory of God. This is a picture of the future. Lazarus represents the spiritually dead being raised to life. And Lazarus represents the future for all believe in the Son of God at the end of the age.

Death is the loser here, as well as him who has the power of death: the devil. Jesus isn’t just angry at death and the effects of death he acts. He demonstrates his authority over death and this act of giving life to Lazarus will lead to his death. Jesus is deliberately precipitating his own death by raising Lazarus from the dead. Look at verse 53: “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”

Jesus’ death would be no accident or tragedy. This was the purpose for which he came. He came to suffer death in our place as our substitute for our sin. His death addresses our great enemy and our great fear: death. On the Cross the enemy of death is conquered when the Son of God dies in the place of sinners like you and me. Through his death and resurrection, death is defeated! Death no longer has the final say for the Christian.

We have a Savior who not only feels the effect of death in our lives and weeps with us, we have a Savior who was willing to bear God’s judgment for our sin so we will be forgiven of our sin and spared judgment for our sin.

“Death is swallowed up in his victory.”

And the one who wept by the tomb of Lazarus will one day personally wipe away every tear from the eyes of His people.