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The Life of Jesus: The Tears of Jesus

April 13, 2014

Sermon:  The Life of Jesus: The Tears of Jesus
Text:  Luke 10:35-42

The logo for the Greek theater has twin masks – one of a smiling face denoting comedy and the other of a sad face denoting tragedy. For those of us who are Christians, a third option is no mask at all. What you see is what you get.

When we come to the life of Jesus, we see Jesus experiencing the full range of human emotions, a fact that we sometimes forget. We think of Christ as impassive, devoid of all emotion, placid, never angry or sad. That view fits the heresy known as Gnosticism, which states that Jesus was not really human, that he did not feel the emotions that you and I feel. That heresy is actually supported by the children’s Christmas song that states, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Do you think that line of the song is true? Have you ever known a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger or not, that did not cry? Every child I know cries. I am sure Jesus cried, too. As we enter Holy Week the Gospel accounts are intent on showing us clearly from the beginning to the end that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

It was Elton Trueblood, a Quaker writer, who first taught me about the humor of Christ. I had never thought that Jesus had a sense of humor until I considered his use of the remarkable figure of speech called Aramaic hyperbole. He could say to the Pharisees, who were so fastidious, “You will strain out a tiny gnat but swallow a big, hairy camel” (Matthew 23:24). He could say to them, “You are like whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). He can say to us, “Why do you worry about a speck in someone’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own eye?” (Acts 6:42). Jesus’ humor comes through with his use of Aramaic hyperbole.

Richard Hook, one of my favorite portrait artists, paints very realistic pictures of Jesus. One of my favorites in our home is of Jesus with a big smile on his face. I am sure that our Lord enjoyed a good sense of humor. He enjoyed a good laugh and times of fellowship with his followers.

We tend to think of anger as a sin, but the book of Ephesians clearly states, “Be angry but don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:26). We cannot avoid being angry. Anger is not a sin; it is a natural response, a secondary emotion, that just comes upon us when we feel some offense such as neglect or when we feel taken for granted or hurt in some way.

Jesus experienced humor, but he also experienced anger. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus was angry immediately before he healed a man with a withered hand. He became indignant that the religious leaders were waiting to trap him. They did not want him to heal on the Sabbath day. Imagine Jesus – calm, meek, and mild – going into the temple, fashioning a whip, driving out the animals, and turning over the tables of the money changers.

Jesus also experienced the depths of sorrow, sorrow that moved him to tears. What do we think his emotion was during this part of the Holy Week experience? I want to submit to you that this week was tear-stained for him.

I sat in the cafeteria of Spartanburg Regional Hospital some years ago, having coffee with three physicians. I have learned that even in difficult emotional circumstances, physicians tend to be very clinical, especially when something personal happens to them.

One man who had recently suffered a deep loss, the death of his wife following an extended illness, commented, “I know now why we are equipped with tear ducts. They are intended to be used.” How much more clinical can you get?

Another doctor at the table sipped his coffee and added, “I read a study that indicated we develop sinus problems if we do not cry enough. It is like crying backwards.” Again we see another clinical response to the gift of tears.

After a moment of silence, I asked, “Have any of you ever heard the former NFL player for the Rams Rosey Grier sing ‘It’s Alright to Cry’ on Sesame Street?”

Though the physicians certainly knew of Rosey Grier, none had ever heard that song. None even knew what Sesame Street was.

The third physician commented, “They don’t teach us that in medical school.”

The psalmist turns a remarkable phrase, saying that our tears are to be treasured. Psalm 56:8 says, “You have put my tears in a bottle.” In other words, God has treasured our tears enough to reserve them.

Following the death of our son Erik, now almost fourteen years ago, I gave Clare a necklace. She, in turn, gave the same type of necklace to our newly widowed daughter-in-law, June. The present was a small antique bottle called a lachrymatory fastened as a pendant on a chain. The word lachrymatory is derived from the Latin word for tears. These small vessels made of terracotta or glass have been found in Greek and Roman tombs. Mourners dropped their tears into these bottles shaped like flasks with long, small necks and bodies in the form of bulbs. During the Civil War, women from both the North and South were said to have cried into bottles and saved those tears until their boyfriend or husband returned from battle. The collected tears showed the soldiers that they were adored, missed, and grieved during their absence when they were placed in harm’s way.

Lachrymatories have once again become popular. Artists in many different cultures who work in glass have begun creating them. References to the power of the tear bottle have even occurred in contemporary literature. Some of you are well-acquainted with Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood, a book published several years ago. A passage in that book says, “In olden days it was the greatest gift you could give someone. It meant that you loved them, that you shared grief that brought you together.”

Clare and June both agreed that the small lachrymatories, the tear bottles, were simply not large enough. All of their tears shed after Erik’s death would not fit.

I continue to be astonished when well-meaning people, even good Christians, believe that people should not cry. If we cannot cry in times of deep sorrow, when can we cry? Certainly any time of grief is a time when tears flow. Crying chooses its own time. We do not necessarily get to choose when we weep. It is not to say that our tears should never be postponed. During other times we may be better able to monitor ourselves. The truth is that sometimes crying is just inconvenient.

Clare said, “After Erik died I gave up mascara. Why bother? It was then that I cried in the shower. It is just less messy to cry then. Besides, my tears bothered everyone else.”

We may not keep our tears in a bottle, but they are still a gift from God. The Psalms give ample evidence that tears are a part of human life.

In Psalm 6:6-9, the psalmist declares that we can pray without words because God can hear our tears.

6 I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

I have learned from Clare that both our sorrow and our joy come from the same place deep within us. They both flow through the same plumbing system, rising unbidden in the human heart.

Psalm 30:5, a familiar passage, says,

For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Consider Psalm 39:12:

“Hear my prayer, LORD,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.

Psalm 42:1-4 says,

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:

A young man who graduated from seminary had so many gifts, so many skills, as a preacher and pastoral counselor. Knowing that he was somehow not connecting with his new congregation, he felt a distance between himself and the members. He spoke with an older pastor, saying, “Please tell me how I can connect with my congregation. I feel a distance between me and those I am serving.”

The retired pastor, after talking with him awhile, said, “You can only get better at connecting with the people you serve once your heart has been broken.”

Jesus’ heart was broken many times. He was able to cry because the people around him elicited this emotion from him.

Consider the wonderful story in John 11:17-44 where Mary and Martha, two grieving sisters, sent for Jesus because their brother, Lazarus, had died. On that occasion Jesus went to be with these women he loved but arrived four days after Lazarus’ death. They were upset with Jesus because they knew that if he had arrived sooner, he could have healed their brother and kept him from dying. Jesus talked with each sister, offering them the reassurance, “I am the resurrection and life” (John 11:25). Verse 33 tells us that he was troubled and deeply moved in spirit. This is John’s way of saying that Jesus was feeling something very profound here. He was moved to empathy with Martha and Mary. It is then that we have the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

Why did Jesus weep? Remember that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. This is the God Man. Jesus is weeping as a man, empathizing with Mary and Martha because his good friend Lazarus had died. Now on the divine side, he was getting ready to perform the miracle of resurrection. We see here in John’s Gospel clearly the truth that the incarnation of Jesus was his first miracle. Because he was fully human, fully divine, John could say, “He dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He was God’s only begotten Son. He was divine, but he was also very human.

Again at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus lifted his eyes to pray and was deeply moved in his spirit. He wept tears of empathy. Paul tells us in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” The hallmark of the Christian church is to be able to experience both emotions. Tears of grief are part of the Christian life. While it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope, our hope is in the resurrection. We know that death is not the end for those who believe in Christ Jesus. That does not mean that we do not grieve. We certainly do grieve. It is cruel to say to a Christian, “You ought to be over this if you have faith.” Let grief happen like a river flows. Do not try to push the river to make it go faster. Let it flow in its own course. Jesus knew how to empathize. This is why Isaiah says in that great servant passage, Jesus “was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Surely he bore our sorrows and carried our griefs” (Isaiah 53:3-4).

Holy Week, the dramatic conclusion to the earthly ministry of Jesus, is the most important week in the Christian year. Again I say that this week was stained with tears. The passage from Luke about Palm Sunday tells of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Notice that everyone was rejoicing, waving palm branches. Everybody was happy. As Jesus rode that donkey down the road, down the Mount of Olives, he paused and looked at the city in the distance across the Kidron Valley. He wept over it, saying, “If you had known what this day would bring you! It could have brought you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes” (John 19:41).

Matthew 23:37-39 gives us more detail about this lament:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Why was Jesus weeping? He wept over Jerusalem for the same reason that he weeps over New York and Los Angeles, the same reason he weeps over Kiev and Moscow, the same reason he weeps over Beijing and other cities where people are oppressed. He weeps over cities filled with injustice and over cities where the religious people are recalcitrant, unbending. It brings him to tears.

After Palm Sunday events moved along quickly. By Passover on Maundy Thursday night, Jesus had already been with grieving people. There in that small upper room he told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid” (John 14:1). Jesus knew that these men were grieving.

We see Jesus again in the Garden of Gethsemane late at night. The book of Hebrews says, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrew 5:7). The writer of Hebrews is possibly describing Gethsemane. Luke 22:39-44 puts it this way:

39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

What do the tears of Jesus in Gethsemane mean? Luke tells us that Simon Peter had declared that he would never deny Jesus, but he did deny him three times. When Peter heard that rooster crow in downtown Jerusalem and realized what he had done, he went out and wept bitterly. Peter’s denial brought him to tears, bitter tears. What do you think happened to Judas when he realized what he had done? Did he have any tears? Jesus wept in Gethsemane, but not for himself. He was certainly struggling with a decision, but he decided to yield to the will of God. In Gethsemane Jesus wept over sin – Peter’s sin, Judas’ sin, my sin, and your sin. Jesus was weeping for you? Yes. He knew the only remedy. He was willing to go to the cross and give himself – in terrible suffering, in agony – because he cares about your sin.

As Jesus walked along that road called the Via Dolorosa on his way to the cross, the women following him were crying. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Jesus weeps for the sin of this world. He even died for the sin of this world – for my sin and yours.

Since Erik died I think I cry more easily. I learned another lesson from Clare who said to me one day, “Kirk, I just do not see you cry much.”

I said, “Clare, I cry privately.”

She said, “That is just not fair. You are leaving me out of your sorrow.”

She was right. I thought I had to be the Rock of Gibraltar, the strong one, you know. It was more important for her to know that I was her companion in grief. So are we all companions in grief.

Listen. I have some good news for you. Listen to what John saw in a great vision, as presented in Revelation 21:3-5:

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “God’s dwelling place is now among his people, and He will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for former things have passed away…Behold, all things are new!”

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). We can be comforted by that promise. Jesus loves you. He weeps for you.

Do you believe that Jesus died for you? Do you believe that Christ Jesus, the Son of God, came into this world to love you so much that he loved you to death? He did. I simply ask you to acknowledge that. If you have never accepted Christ, could you do that today?


Kirk H. Neely
© April 2014


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