This Sunday was our special day at church to welcome visitors, guests, and newcomers of all kinds. But keeping in mind that it may be the first time that many of you have been with us, I wanted to keep the message brief. Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." While not all my sermons are brief, on the whole I tend to agree. I remember visiting one church when I was a kid, where we were the only ones who didn't know in advance that they should bring their lunches along and plan to make a whole day of it! In general, and especially when there are newcomers present, I believe it's best to keep the message short. George Burns said, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” Franklin D. Roosevelt used even fewer words than that, to say the same thing: "Be sincere, be brief, be seated."
Often the briefest things are the most profound. Today I want to share with you what's purportedly the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35. Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick, so his sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that He should come. For his own reasons he delayed coming to them, so by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had already been dead for several days. When he got there, both sisters told him the same thing, "If you had been here, our brother would not have died." In verses 33-37[i] we read:
33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”
Jesus wept, not because he grieved Lazarus' passing. In fact, He knew that he was about to perform one of His greatest miracles and bring his friend back from the dead. Jesus wept because He saw the overwhelming pain and turmoil of faith in the eyes of His friends. They felt hurt because they didn't understand why God would do miracles for others, yet let their brother die. They were wounded because their friend Jesus, who always had time for other people, had delayed coming to them when He could have prevented their brother's death. Jesus saw all this in the tears that streamed from their eyes, and in His compassion for them He wept.
The good news today is that just as Jesus saw the need and pain and disappointment in His friends' faces, He also knows your hurts and sorrows. Jesus sees you battered and broken, and He weeps with you when you hurt. Jesus mourns over the struggles you've had in your relationships, the financial pressures you feel, your sin and disease and unforgiveness. He also cries tears of joy in celebration of your triumphs. Jesus weeps. This is the good news: God knows how you feel, and He feels it with you.
But Jesus didn't continue to weep. Those two words, "Jesus wept" are in the past tense, which means Jesus felt what the mourners felt, but then he moved on to embrace hope and joy. He prayed a prayer of faith and raised Lazarus from the tomb. So too Jesus wants to see victory over the tombs in your life. He wants to see resurrected relationships, flourishing finances, sinners separated from their sin, and feuds forgiven. He can't do this by weeping. So He turns mourning into dancing. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
This brings us to the actual shortest verse in the Bible. While John 11:35, purportedly the shortest verse, consists of 16 letters in the original Greek (ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς), 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is two characters shorter (Πάντοτε χαίρετε). In English it simply says, "Rejoice always." If brevity is the soul of wit, and “Jesus wept” is profound, then “Rejoice always” is equally deep. But how do we reconcile these two with each other? They seem to be completely at odds—if Jesus is the model of divine living, and His Word tells us to rejoice always, then how could he have wept? If Jesus is the model of human experience and he could weep over grief and suffering, how could he rejoice?
We can understand these seemingly opposite things together when we realize that both illustrate the diversity of human experience and the reality of God’s complete identification with us. Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He came so that humanity might have access to the divine. So He can laugh when we laugh and cry when we cry. He can feel the sting of loss when a loved one struggles, yet He can also speak words of faith that bring life out of death. This is what rejoicing does—it resurrects the dead. Joy doesn’t deny that pain is real, but finds hope and strength in the midst of suffering. Holding hands with hope, joy knows that there’s victory in Jesus despite the pain.
I know it’s hard to rejoice always—especially when, like Mary and Martha and Jesus, you’ve experienced loss. It’s so unimaginable that Paul had to say it twice in Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” But then in verse five he tells how to do this: “The Lord is near.” Even in the midst of trouble, joy reminds us that God is with us. The Lord’s constant presence grants us access to peace of mind and power of spirit—the kind that works miracles.
How do you access that constant presence of God when situations scream hopelessness? The same way that Jesus did: Dispel despair with prayer. In verse 41, Jesus says, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me.” Knowing that his His Father is so near that He has unlimited access to the throne, Jesus could speak to the dead and bring him back to life. He tells us the same thing He told Martha: “…If you believe, you will see the glory of God….(John 11:40b)”
Today I ask you—what’s causing grief in your own life? What’s dead inside of you, or in the life of a loved one? Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)” wants to breathe new life to that which you have lost. It’s okay to weep—after all, Jesus did. But then He wants you to move from grief to faith. He only asks that you believe, so that you can see the glory of God. Even when things are tough, Jesus invites you to rejoice always in God’s constant presence. Trust God, praise Him, pray to Him, and wait for your miracle.