As a pastor, I am sometimes asked to speak at funerals. The first time I received that call, it was for an elderly man I had never met. I did not know his family either. I thought it would probably be easy as far as first funerals go because he had lived a long life and I had no emotional connection to him or his loved ones. I was wrong though. There was nothing easy about it.
The funerals I have been involved with since then have been for a diverse group of people. Some have been for people who lived long lives, others for people who we might say are gone too soon. I once spoke at the funeral of a father who was younger than me. It was very difficult.
But the reality is that no matter the circumstances surrounding the occasion, it is never easy. A young father dying in an accident is certainly a different tragedy than the death of a grandfather in his eighties. Nevertheless, both deaths bring pain to the families who are left behind. Death is never easy. It’s not supposed to be.
Ecclesiastes 3 famously states, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…”
I’ve often heard these verses referenced in terms of death just being “a part of life.” And death is clearly a natural part of our time on earth. It will happen.
But Scripture makes it plain that it happens because things are not as they should be (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12). Death is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that we must be ok with it. As Ecclesiastes 3 continues, it also says that war has its time as well. Surely, we do not think that we should then gladly embrace war as just part of life. It may come, but it will always be a tragedy when it does. Many things that occur naturally are bad.
John 11 tells the well-known story of the death of Lazarus, a man identified as a friend of Jesus. Jesus goes to see the man’s family and is met by his grieving sisters Martha and Mary. Remarkably, he joins them in their grief. John describes the scene with the short and powerful phrase, “Jesus wept.”
Knowing that this was a friend of Jesus, it is clear that he wept because he was sincerely mourning right alongside these ladies. He was mourning the death of this friend of his because in the world that he made, Lazarus should not have died. Jesus is mourning because suffering and death do not belong in his creation. They may happen in life, but things were not meant to be this way.
When we grieve, we know on a deep level that we were not made to endure loss. It hurts so badly because the world for which we were created does not contain such things. Jesus makes that fact clear in the way he chooses to act at Lazarus’ tomb. He came not just to mourn, but to raise his friend from the dead. A feat that would demonstrate the glory of God.
Just as with every miracle that Jesus performed, this act was a restoration of the way that things were created to be.
Hunger did not belong in God’s paradise, so Jesus fed the famished. Illness did not belong, so Jesus healed the sick. Death did not belong, so Jesus raised his friend. Every miracle was a sign of his identity not just because he was able to do them, but also because he is the one who truly knows how things are supposed to be.
The miracles of Jesus are pictures of the world as it was intended. Consequently, they are also pictures of the world that is to come. Tim Keller put it this way:
Christ’s miracles were not the suspension of the natural order but the restoration of the natural order. They were a reminder of what once was prior to the fall and a preview of what will eventually be a universal reality once again–a world of peace and justice, without death, disease, or conflict.
The resurrection of Lazarus was a gracious glimpse of what things will be like when Jesus brings everything back into order. As John describes his vision of the future for God’s people in Revelation 21, we see that just as death and sorrow didn’t belong in God’s original paradise, neither do they belong in God’s restored creation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
As I serve families during their times of grief, I know that there is nothing I can do to take away their pain. The only thing that could do that would be the reverse of death. Which is what I think is so compelling about Christianity. The central doctrine of the faith is that Jesus overcame death and was resurrected. As Paul explained, Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Meaning, what happened to Jesus after his death will happen again to all who belong to him. Those who are in Christ won’t be eternally confined to the grave either.
As Paul put it elsewhere, “The dead in Christ will rise.” In light of this glorious truth, he gave these instructions: “Comfort one another with these words.” The pain is real, and we should mourn. Even Jesus mourned. But his mourning was temporary because he is the God who raises the dead. For those who hope in Christ, our mourning won’t last forever. Jesus assures us of that. And he also assures us that until that resurrection day comes, he is with us.
Who better to be by our side than the God who weeps with the hurting?