What is hope? I may want God to cure my ills and sweep away my problems–and he may–but that desire is not the fullness of Christian hope. I may grudgingly endure suffering in view of an eternity in heaven, but that attitude may also be wide of the mark. In each case, hope points to the happy resolution of a storyline in which I am the main character. That’s legitimate as far as it goes. But it’s not the whole story, and therefore, not all there is to hope.
For many, the default image of Jesus is one of unruffled serenity. Just as he was able to sleep through a raging storm, though swamped by waves and panicked disciples, so too did he calmly crisscross the countryside dispensing wisdom and healing. It’s harder, for example, to imagine Jesus actually furious with his disciples. We might even dismiss it as a mere affectation: Jesus put on his mad face just to make a point.
If it’s difficult to imagine Jesus genuinely angry, can we imagine him rejoicing with one whom he’s healed? Laughing at a good joke (a clean one, of course)?
Or weeping at the graveside of a friend?
The story of Lazarus in John 11 would read differently if not for the two simple words, “Jesus wept.” We are kept from imagining Jesus treating the gathered mourners with disdain or flippancy: “Oh, cheer up. I’m going to bring him back from the dead, you know.” The people experienced him as being in solidarity with their grief.
But as I’ve suggested before, his grief extended beyond personal loss. Much as Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (e.g., Matt 23:37), I believe that at the tomb of Lazarus, he experienced a gut-wrenching sorrow over the brokenness of God’s good creation. And he did so even though he had come to Bethany to demonstrate God’s power over death.
Jesus raised Lazarus, but Lazarus would die again. Jesus raised Lazarus, but would himself die on a cross, to be raised by his Father. And knowing these things, Jesus wept. What does that say to us about Christian hope?
Resurrection points to the sovereignty of God over death, a sign of the larger story of the coming of God’s kingdom. What drives the drama of Scripture is not merely the problem that individuals die; death, rather, represents the brokenness wrought by sin. And true Christian hope entails the confidence that in the larger scheme of things, brokenness, sin, and death don’t get the last word, whatever the twists and turns of my own personal story.
If all there is to hope is the individual promise of eternal life tomorrow, I can resent God’s seeming absence in the midst of my suffering today. But true hope must rest on the faith that God is sovereign over death now, even if I die–even as Lazarus died, even as Jesus died.
And as the apostle Paul suggests, resurrection is not only about life after death, but new life before death–freedom from slavery to the death-dark ways of sin. This, too, is a fount of hope, as we attune ourselves to notice how God desires and empowers us to be people of light, as Jesus himself was the Light (John 8:12; Matt 5:14; Luke 16:8).
We need not regret our tears in the face of death. Life is a sacred gift, and it is right to mourn its loss. But let us also notice the Jesus who weeps at our side. Let us follow him when he goes to the tomb and calls for the stone to be rolled aside.
Because if we miss the miracle, we lose our hope.