lenten journal: three little words


Before church this morning, I turned again to Rock of Doubt to see what seeds might get planted on my way to worship. Sydney Carter was writing about the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly about why we go to see movies more than once. I’ve made a point of return viewings of many movies, particularly those that caught me by surprise the first time. I went back to see how they told the story, where the clues were, what breadcrumbs they dropped along the way. The Usual Suspects comes to mind. And several of the Coen Brothers’ movies. Some I go back to so I can hear certain lines or speeches, or see particular scenes: Miss Firecracker, Moonstruck, Places in the Heart. If I keep listing movies, I won’t say anything else. You catch my drift.

The seasons of the liturgical year are a bit like going back to the same movie. We start with Advent and move through the story of the life of Christ and the early church and then go back and watch it again. As the old hymn says,

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.

The thing I find in most any return engagement is things are never quite as I remember them. What I take away is not necessarily, or at least not exactly what was there to begin with. I often find something new as well. A detail stands out in a way it did not before. As many times as I have read and reread the stories from the gospels, I continue to get surprised by things I didn’t see before: a detail I had overlooked, or one I just discovered missing. This Lent, I have been struck by how sparse the gospel accounts are in their telling. They put a high value on getting to the point — even John — such that the stories expect the reader to do some work coloring in the blank spots. Take today’s lectionary passage: the raising of Lazarus (John 11). Even though reading the whole chapter in church made it feel long, John goes from Lazarus getting sick to Jesus traveling to Lazarus walking out of the tomb dressed like a mummy in about forty-five verses. He offers up a plot worthy of a novel in about a page and a half leaving some big questions left unanswered and a good bit of back story unexplained.

From the gospel accounts, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ friends. They had a connection beyond disciples, which means they spent time together. That’s how friendships happen. The gospel writers give us accounts of a couple of visits, but for the two sisters to talk to Jesus as frankly as they did, leaning into their friendship, he must have spent a great deal more time there. They sent word that Lazarus was sick. All we know is Jesus didn’t go immediately. When he did get there, Lazarus was not only dead, but buried long enough that when Jesus asked for the grave to be opened, Martha said (the King James still rocks this one), “He stinketh.” As I read the story, I wrote down some of my unanswered questions:

  • how old was Lazarus?
  • was he chronically ill, or was this a sudden illness?
  • was he healed after he came back to life?
  • how did he respond once they unwrapped him?
  • what did it feel like for him to see Jesus die not long after?
  • how much longer did he live?

We just don’t know. When preachers talk about this story, Lazarus’ return to the living often becomes a prelude to the resurrection, or an example of Jesus’ power, or the moment when those in power decided it was time to cut this Messiah down to size. When I look at the way Jesus treated people, I don’t think he used people to make a point politically or theologically. He went to Bethany to see his friend. He took a risk to go to a region where he was a marked man to be with those he loved. And when he got to the tomb, he wept.

Jesus wept.

The shortest verse in the Bible — and another that is offered without much explanation. When I read the story this time, I noticed something I had not seen before. Look at John 11:34-35 —

He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus wept.

The three little words in the people’s response are the ones that got me: come and see. In the summer of 1990, as I was preparing to finish my years as youth minister at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, my friend Billy and I wrote a song for youth camp that summer. As I remember it, I was getting ready to leave Billy’s house near Austin to drive back to Fort Worth. The next time we would see each other would be at camp. As he was showering, I sat down and wrote a lyric. It’s the only time I have had one arrive so fully formed. When he came into the room, I handed it to him. “This is a song,” he said. While I took my turn getting ready, he wrote the melody.

if there was a place that felt like home
would you go there
if there was a chance that you could know love
would you try
if there was a dream that would come true
would you fall asleep
if there was someone to dry your tears
would you cry

come and see
come and see
take and eat
come and see

if there was a voice that would call your name
would you answer
if there was a friend who would never leave
would you stay
if there was a heart that would break for you
would you fall in love
if there was someone who was listening
would you pray

come and see
come and see
take and eat
come and see

I love those three little words, both because of the song and also because of where they show up in the gospel story. When John the Baptist’s disciples came to ask if Jesus was the One They Had Been Waiting For, Jesus said, “Come and see. (John 1:39) When Philip, one of the disciples, went to get his brother Nathaniel, the latter wondered aloud if it were even possible, if anything good could come out of Nazareth. “Come and see,” was Philip’s answer. (John 1:47) When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, she went back into the middle of the town that had regularly rejected her and invited them to the love and acceptance she had found by saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:29). The last time they show up is here, when Jesus got to Bethany and asked where they had buried Lazarus, they replied: “Come and see,” and took him to the tomb.

Then Jesus wept.

I have wondered most of the day if those three little words were what broke his heart. Previously, they had been invitations to discipleship, to community, to forgiveness; now they were showing him the way to a funeral for a friend. Yes, Jesus called his name — in a loud voice — and said, “Come out!” Perhaps it was the memories tied up in those words that hooked something in him. Maybe he was exhausted by the grief and dropped his guard. Or perhaps the best I can do is project on to him what my grief has felt like.

When they passed the bread for Communion this morning, I tried to tear a piece off of the main loaf and got a handful. “I took a little too much Jesus,” I thought to myself. I started writing a poem in my head, but then I stopped and let my old song find its way back from my memory.

come and see
come and see
take and eat
come and see


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