The police chief’s voice was grim and clipped as he gave me the news: a young 13-year-old boy had drowned, just a block away from our church. “Could you go and meet with the mother, Pastor?” he had asked me. I was only too happy to do so, and I got in my truck and drove to her house. She lived a couple of blocks from the church, and I sat in her living room with their family. The room was dark and deluged with tears and wailing. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to grieve with her; to come up with the right words for her. The grief in the room was augmented by the awkwardness of having a strange man in her living room; she occasionally looked nervously at me, wondering if I was going to ever get around to the purpose of my visit. I wanted to help her, but was powerless.
Because I did not know her.
17When Jesus came, he had already been in the tomb three days. 18Now Bethany is near Jerusalem, about fifteen stadia [two miles]. 19Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she greeted him. But Mary was sitting in the house. 21Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know presently that whatever you ask of God, God will give to you.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise up in the resurrection at the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. 28And when she had said this, she went and called Mary her sister privately, saying, “The Teacher is here and calls you.” 29When she heard, she rose quickly and came to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was in the place where Martha had met him. 31Then the Jews who were with her in the house and comforting her saw that Mary rose quickly and went out, followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32Then when Mary came to the place where Jesus was, she saw him and fell down at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come together weeping, he was deeply moved and troubled in spirit, 34and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Come and see.” 35Jesus wept. 36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not the man who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?”
The gospel of John opens with a powerful image: God with us. The Word had become flesh and dwelled (or, as we have seen, “pitched a tent”) among us. The entire gospel carries this theme: Jesus is ever-present with his people. He’s always having dinner with them. He’s always hanging out with them. He’s always WITH them. When I read this pericope of scripture, I am struck with how naturally he grieves with Mary and Martha and the rest of the family. It is not awkward at all; he belongs there, because he’s been there so many times before. How many meals had he shared with them at that house? How many times had he made Mary laugh? How many pranks had he pulled on Martha with Lazarus? He was their friend. When verse 33 tells us that “he was deeply moved and troubled in spirit,” this is not manufactured. He is truly grieving because he was truly invested in Lazarus and this family. These were his friends. It hurt. It was a tremendous loss, and he FELT IT WITH THEM. Yes, he preaches the gospel (25-26), and yes, he has the right words to say….but they are the right words at the right time precisely because of all the other time he had spent there with them. Had he never been their friend to begin with, his words about the resurrection would have rung as hollowly through that house as mine did that terrible afternoon in DeSoto with the mother of that boy. They listened to what he had to say because he had already invested in them.
It is likely that the older I get, the more I value my “Fortress of Solitude.” Superman needed the Fortress of Solitude to collect himself and get acclimated to his mission. Such a quiet place is necessary for a guy like me. But the Lord is definitely moving me to pitch a tent among people—to be their friend, to be among them, to eat with them, live with them, laugh with them. In being called to be a preacher of the gospel, I am also called to be a friend and a brother. My mission is not to find 100 people to come to church on Sunday….it’s to find one person in whom I can invest as a friend.