The One Coming into the World

Ezekiel 37:1-14 | Psalm 130 | Romans 8:6-11 | John 11:1-45

Jeremy Richards

How many of you have ever done an internship?

Usually internship are somehow related to our education. The way it usually goes is we take a class on theory and then we put that theory into practice through our internship. A common example of this is student teaching, right? I wasn’t an education major, but my dad was a teacher and I had friends in college who were education majors. The students quite literally become the teachers in student teaching. They take 3 years of classes, and then they’re put in front of a classroom full of elementary or middle school or high school students, under varying degrees of supervision depending on the teacher who they’re working under, and expected to, well, teach!

The first day of an internship always terrifies me. You enter a new place, with a supervisor and coworkers you’ve usually never met before, and you know – you know – there will be a point when your education doesn’t meet up with your responsibilities. You know there will come a time where you do something totally wrong, or you’ll be expected to know how to do something you don’t know how to do.

My first church internship during seminary was at Mt. Bethel UMC. Mt. Bethel had an interim minister, Dr. Bill Simpson, a retired district superintendent, for the first month or so I was there. Prior to my first day, which was a Sunday, I had only been in a Methodist church one or two times before. I showed up before the first of two services (luckily the first service consisted of only 5-10 elderly women), and Dr. Simpson said to me, “Well, we’ll just throw you in the deep end. You lead the service and I’ll preach the sermon.”  I was unfamiliar with the structure of the service, the liturgy, the creeds, and you all know how I feel about singing! 

But, obviously, internships are also very helpful. You can only learn so much before you just need to experience it. You need to experience both the good and the bad. You need to make mistakes so you can learn from them, but you also get to experience the joy and fulfillment that come from finally getting to practice that which you’ve been training for for so long.

I remember my first time preaching at Mt. Bethel. I had spent a year studying theology and Scripture, and thinking critically about them, but I didn’t really have any outlet for the work that was going on internally, and my internship provided an opportunity for my studies to be put into practice.

If I was going to be a pastor, I should probably try it out before I got called to my first church, right? Aren’t you all glad I had some internships and practice before I got here? Aren’t you glad your child’s new teacher, even if they’re fresh out of college, has had experience teaching?

In internships we learn that knowing about something, and having actually experienced it, are two very different things.

Prior to the incarnation, God had walked alongside Israel in a variety of ways, but God had not yet become human. God walked with Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, but God was still very much the Creator and they were the creation. God heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, freed them, and led them to the promised land, but God was not one of the enslaved. God fed Elijah in the desert, but God was not the one who was hungry.

But in the person of Jesus, God went from speaking, guiding, and ministering to broken humanity to becoming a member of broken humanity.

God, in a sense, left the celestial classroom and entered “the real world.”

Hebrews 2 tells us that Jesus had to “become like his [siblings] (us) in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” In other words, Jesus has to know what it means to be human if he’s actually going to minister to us. When we are in the depths of despair, what good is it to pray to a God who has never entered into that despair? How can we worship a God who lets us suffer while sitting on a golden throne in some heavenly realm far away?

No, we need a God who is not only for us, but who is also with us – one who has experience the pain that we’re experiencing – and that is what we get in Jesus.

How amazing is it that we have a God who was willing to enter fully into all kinds of suffering, and ultimately death, in order to be a God, or, in the words of Hebrews a high priest, who would not only be for us but would also be with us.

In the words of Philippians 2, which is one of our readings for next week, Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Jesus’ death on the cross is proof that Jesus will be true to his word, he will “never leave us or forsake us,” though he certainly could have. He will remain with us to the “point of death – even death on a cross.”

We put so much emphasis on the cross, though, that we forget that there is another kind of pain that comes from death, and that is not the pain of your own death, but the pain associated with the death of one you love.

In our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus come face-to-face with this kind of pain. He stands at the tomb of Lazarus not so much as God, or as the Messiah, but as a human who has lost a dear friend. When those around Jesus see him weeping and say, “See how he loved him!” the word used for love is not the much more frequently used agape, but is instead philia, which refers to common, everyday friendship. Jesus’ love for Lazarus (and we can infer for Mary and Martha as well) was the love of a friend. When Jesus arrives in Bethany he experiences the jarring disparity of a familiar place eerily void of a familiar friend. One who should be there – who, until now, has always been there.

I remember as a child, when our golden retriever, Zeke, not even a year old, was hit by a car. When I first found out I wasn’t that upset. He’d been missing for a few days, and we’d begun to fear the worst. It wasn’t until my dad buried him, and I returned to my house, and realized he wouldn’t run up to greet me anymore, knocking my legs out from under me, that it sunk in and I began to cry. It wasn’t the fact that he was dead, it was his absence, that struck me. It was the world void of Zeke that made me break down.

I don’t mean to trivialize human death by talking about my dog’s, but I think we can all relate to that feeling of loss, the absence that’s so devastating in death.

In part 2 of his poem “Elegy,” aptly titled “Wept,” CK Williams captures this sense of absence beautifully as he mourns the death of his dear friend.

(Excerpt from The Singing).

In this Gospel story Jesus comes face to face with the kind of pain CK Williams writes about, probably for the first time, and it tears him up.

Like CK Williams in the aftermath of his friend’s death, Jesus feels the “absence,” the “violated presence,” the “despair” of having lost his beloved friend Lazarus. Like CK Williams, Jesus felt a certain loss within himself, a loss of the part of himself that was shared with Lazarus. We know the end of the story, so we know that part of him will be resurrected with Lazarus, but we shouldn’t let that diminish the reality of that loss in the moment. Jesus feels that loss completely.

When Jesus sees the effects of death – really sees them – in Mary and Martha, his dear friends, and their friends weeping with them, Jesus breaks down and begins to weep himself. Their lament becomes his lament. He doesn’t stand outside the group but is absorbed into it. He becomes one with the many –

No longer a God apart, but a God within.

Perhaps this is what Martha is referring to when she ends her confession of Jesus’ Messiahship with the somewhat confusing, “…the one coming into the world.” She says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus is already in the world, but maybe he hasn’t fully come into the world. He’s still in process, he’s still experiencing and learning what it means to be human, to be a part of this world. Like a young man or woman’s “coming of age,” Jesus is “coming into the world,” and it’s painful.

His distress is not confined to only one instance, but in vv. 33 and 38, he is “greatly disturbed” in the NRSV, or, in the words of the NKJV, he “groans” within himself.

Jesus seems to be saying, like CK Williams, “I know by now / that each death demands / its own procedures / of mourning, but I can’t / find those I need even / to begin mourning you: / so much affectionate accord there was with you, / that to imagine / being without you / is impossibly diminishing.”[1]

The Greek in vv. 33 and 38 implies anger and indignation. Jesus is angry and indignant at the presence of death. Angry that this is the world humanity is forced to live in. How far it’s come from the world he created in Genesis, where there was no death and everything was good. How far it still has to go before, in the words of Revelation, “death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4).

Perhaps Jesus waited 2 days before traveling to Bethany because he knew he needed to experience this, because we needed him to experience this with us. We need a God who has stood outside the grave of a friend and felt the weight of death and groaned deep within. A God who knows the violent injustice of death, free from shallow clichés and easy explanations.

A God who doesn’t know about lament, but has practiced lament. A God who has “come into the world,” in the words of Martha.

Jesus’ experience with Lazarus’ death and the ramifications of that death actually seem to be more important to the story than Lazarus’ miraculous resurrection. It takes 43 verses for Jesus to call out, “Lazarus, come out!” And the story ends one verse later.

The resurrection is surely important, and throughout the story there are significant references to Jesus’ power over death, such as when Jesus famously says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” but all this takes place before, not after, the resurrection of Lazarus.

Jesus’ disciples decide to follow him to Bethany after Lazarus has died, knowing that traveling back to Judea may well result in their own deaths. Martha confesses Jesus as the Messiah while Lazarus remains in the tomb. When Mary gets up and goes to Jesus the tears are still fresh on her cheeks.

This story is not so much about resurrection as it is about where God is and who God is pre-resurrection – where God is and who God is in the midst of death.

And we find God both lamenting with us and comforting us. We find God both weeping and saying “This will not end in death.” We find God groaning deep within and also assuring us, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our hope doesn’t come at the expense of our lament, and our lament doesn’t come at the expense of our hope, but the two are inseparable, as Jesus’ wailing is with our own, as our resurrection will be with Christ’s.

We are bound to this One, Jesus, and he is bound to us. We are walking this wilderness road together. Through his incarnation he has been pulled into our world where death continues to reign (for the time being), and through our baptism we have been pulled into his crucifixion and resurrection. His fate is ours, and ours is his. We are in him, and he is in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] CK Williams, “Elegy” in The Singing (New York: Farrar, Staus and Groux, 2003), 40.