Among the sources I consult in sermon preparation, two I investigate for nearly every sermon are The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which compiles writings from the fathers and mothers of the first few centuries of the Church, and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible. I’m considering adding a third – The Poetical Writings of (John and) Charles Wesley. It’s not that I go by the “three points and a poem” philosophy of sermon-writing, but often I do find times that there are meaningful lyrics from a hymn (sometimes well-known, sometimes more obscure) that speak to the point I aim to convey in a message.
When it came to the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary cycle, with the Gospel lesson that tells the story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus bringing him back to life (John 11:1-45), I found myself drawn toward the way Jesus engaged the grieving community and expressed grief himself. It is more than a mere fascination with the theological questions that arise from the statement that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It is that grief has been hitting rather close to home and it feels as though the community I pastor has endured more than its fair share of untimely deaths. Because it is part of the time-tested liturgy of death and resurrection, I have said multiple times recently, “Jesus said, ‘I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.” Words that come directly from this Gospel lesson. But the liturgy also says, “We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.” When I read and when I hear, “Jesus wept,” I see that Jesus comes together in grief with us, and acknowledges our human loss. As John Donne said, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”
Poetry speaks in ways that prose cannot, especially in times of grief. So I did some searching to see if Charles Wesley ever mused specifically on this passage, particularly about Jesus weeping. I knew that he occasionally used the phrase “vale of tears” in hymns. In one of my favorites of Charles’ meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation as revealed in his Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, he speaks to the empathetic nature of the Incarnation:
Glory be to God on high, And peace on earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky, And shows Himself our Friend!
God the’ invisible appears, God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears, And Jesus is His name.
I dug around some more and found one in a collection of hymns written for families. These hymns, like the psalms, come from or speak to different experiences – some quite specific, others more general – and they express a wide variety of feelings toward God, ranging from thanksgiving and adoration to supplication to bitter grief. The hymn I came upon that had a reference to Jesus weeping was under the heading of “For a Child in the Small-Pox.” In the midst of what would have been an agonizing time for the parents as they prayed through tears that God might bring healing to their child, Charles offered lyrics that help us to embrace this sort of grief and to not hold back in pouring out our hearts to God:
…Human tears may freely flow
Authorised by tears Divine,
Till Thine awful will we know,
Comprehend Thy whole design;
Jesus wept! and so may we:
Jesus, suffering all Thy will,
Felt the soft infirmity;
Feels His creatures sorrows still
Father of our patient Lord,
Strengthen us with Him to grieve.
Prostrate to receive Thy word,
All Thy counsel to receive:
Though we would the cup decline,
Govern’d by Thy will alone,
Ours we struggle to resign:
Thine, and only Thine, be done.
Life and death are in Thine hand:
In Thine hand our child we see
Waiting on Thy benign command,
Less beloved by us than Thee.
Need we then his life request?
Jesus understands our fears,
Reads a mother’s panting breast,
Knows the meaning of her tears.
Jesus blends them with His own,
Mindful of His suffering days:
Father, hear Thy pleading Son,
Son of Man for us He prays:
What for us He asks, bestow:
Ours He makes His own request:
Send us life or death; we know,
Life, or death from Thee is best.
There’s the internal struggle of agonizing desire for the child to be made well versus the feared need for resignation that it might not turn out the way the parents want. There is wonderment and humility expressed in the admission that this child is loved even more by God than by the parents themselves (“Less beloved by us than Thee”). But it all centers on the sympathy and empathy of the Incarnation – of Jesus’ familiarity with our fears, our hopes, and yes, our tears.
And then I dug just a bit deeper and looked in the collection for what I see as Charles’ version of the Explanatory Notes – only in hymnic, or poetic, form: Hymns on the Four Gospels. And here he pictured it so beautifully in what I would call “a hopeful grief.”
And now, if you’ll allow me to step onto a soapbox, I think that’s Paul’s point when he told the Thessalonians to “not grieve as those who have no hope.” He wasn’t telling them not to grieve at all. Some must think that he did because I see those poems on the back of funeral announcements sometime that just make me want to scream – something like “Don’t cry for me, for now I’m free…” It’s sentimentalized in the popular notion that humans become angels when we die (not a biblical concept). It’s conveyed in the statement that, “it was just their time” or, “they’re not really there/that’s just a shell/that body isn’t her (or him).”
To rebut this, I am reminded of the wisdom of a boy, who when told that the body in the casket isn’t where his grandfather was, said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my grandfather? Those hands cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his love. Everything I have ever known of my grandfather was through this body.” To tell someone not to cry, however well-intended it might be, is to deny them the dignity that even Jesus embraced – “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep” or “Jesus burst into tears.”
However voluntary or involuntary it might have been, we see that Jesus grieved. And here’s the irony – he grieved with the likely knowledge (or at least confidence) in what was about to happen – Lazarus made alive again. Why, then, does Jesus cry? To grieve with us – as Charles Wesley surmised – to see our tears: that death is real. And yet, hope lives. That’s the paradox. Our hope begins, mysteriously, in the tears of a weeping Lord. A grief that hopes. Here is Charles’ take. (If you want to sing this, it fits well with several well-known tunes quite nicely, including: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Hymn of Promise to name a few.)
Jesus weeps, our tears to see! Feels the soft infirmity;
Feels, whene’er a friend we mourn, From our bleeding bosom torn:
Let him still in spirit groan, Make our every grief his own,
Till we all triumphant rise, Called to meet him in the skies.