The Emoticon Gospel

11 Sep The Emoticon Gospel

The Emoticon Gospel
John 11:17-45
September 9, 2018
Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

We all know what they are and we’ve probably even used them ourselves, some of us frequently, maybe even numerous times a day.  When I was growing up, they were simply called “smiley faces” but now, they’re known as emoticons because they cover a lot more emotions than just being happy.  

The smiley face reportedly got its start in 1963 when it was created for an advertising campaign by the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worchester, Massachusetts.  It wasn’t copyrighted or trademarked then, so in 1971 a Paris newspaper began attaching one to every article that had an upbeat ending. Here in the U.S., we’ve seen them for years in Wal-Mart ads.  But emoticons in general are older than any of that. In 1912, journalist and novelist Ambrose Bierce, wrote an essay advocating the use of type symbols to represent snickering, heavy laughter and irony.  Other examples appeared in print in 1938, 1953 and 1967.

Going back even further, an 1881 issue of Puck magazine combined type symbols as a tongue-in-cheek way of expressing emotions.  Even that, however, isn’t the oldest appearance of emoticons. There are a few manuscripts from the 15th century that have figures and faces included in the illustrations to cue emotional responses at particular points in the text.  Who knew, right?

If emoticons had been in used in the first century, John 11 would have had them all over the page.  That’s not because the story told in this chapter is particularly simple but because it is filled with events and encounters that raise emotional responses in all who are present.  And if we read it closely, it’s likely to provoke emotional responses in us, as well.

It’s a familiar story.  Jesus’ friend Lazarus is desperately sick, and his two sisters, who are also friends of Jesus, send word to him about Lazarus’ dire condition.  Mary and Martha clearly want Jesus to come to Bethany, where their brother is. Jesus, however, makes a cryptic statement to his disciples about Lazarus’ illness leading not to death but to God’s glory.  And rather than heading off to see his deathly ill friend, Jesus remains where he is for two more days. Let’s think about the emotional impact of these events for all the people involved.

First, there’s the disciples.  Their first emotional response is confusion.  On the one hand, they don’t understand Jesus’ delay.  It seems out of character, especially because they know that Lazarus and his sisters are Jesus’ close, personal friends.  John gives us some insight into the depth of their relationship when he says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”

On the other hand, the disciples don’t really want Jesus to go to Bethany because it is near Jerusalem, and as they hasten to remind Jesus, the last time he was in Jerusalem, things did not go well.  Members of the religious establishment tried to stone him. Cue the “concern” emoticon.

Jesus responds with another cryptic answer, this one about walking in the daylight.  He seems to be alluding to the fact that he has only a little time left before his death, but the disciples don’t get it.  Time for another confusion emoticon.

Meanwhile, emotions back in Bethany are also running high.  By the time Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus is dead. In fact, he’s been dead four days.  Martha comes out to meet Jesus and the angst-filled words spill out of her: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  We’ve all been here, ripped apart over the death of someone we love. If we take the time to put ourselves in Martha’s shoes, we can feel the hurt, the grief, perhaps even some anger that she is experiencing.  We know the pain of separation has broken her heart, and our heart breaks right along with her.

But Martha says one more thing to Jesus:  “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Spoken to anyone other than Jesus, this statement would be written off as wishful or delusional thinking, or perhaps an expression of denial.  But addressed to the Jesus Martha knows, we hear hope in Martha’s voice, and we know that her hope is neither farfetched nor misplaced.

After Martha leaves, she sends her sister Mary to Jesus who repeats the conviction that if Jesus had been present, Lazarus would not have died.  Mary shares Martha’s hurt and grief but can barely get the words out before she is overcome with weeping at the loss of her brother.

We now need a flurry of emoticons for Jesus himself.  When he sees Mary and her neighbors weeping, Jesus, too, is overcome with emotion.  The NRSV translates the text as Jesus being “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” but scholars say that the Greek here conveys not compassion but agitation and indignation.  The Message may get closer to the truth when it says, “When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him.”  And then he also started crying.

It’s not totally clear what Jesus is angry about.  Pastor and author Mark Buchanan offers this possibility:  “Jesus is about to stand death down. He weeps, even knowing full well that he is about to call Lazarus forth from the grave and present him alive.  But the sight and sound of these mourners stir his blood, wrench his gut. Death is a gross injustice. Death is a low-down enemy, a playground bully.

“It should not have this kind of power, be able to plunder us this way and then taunt us.  That is simply not right. It is not right that death should be able to convince us that there is something in creation that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ—that can take even those who believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life and throttle the hope that is in them, make even the faithful think that his timing is tragically off.”  

I find that to be a credible and insightful reading of Jesus’ reaction, but even that explanation may be too theologically tidy.  Emotions are not tidy and don’t always correspond point-for-point to what’s going on outside us. There are times we are wrenched with deep emotions and we can’t say exactly why.  And other times, when we’ve dealt with the pain and hurt of life firsthand and worked through it and seem to be back on our feet, there later comes an emotional gut punch, unrelated to our present circumstances that knocks us off our feet again.

In this encounter with Jesus, while the emoticon for compassion is appropriate, it isn’t enough to cover all that’s behind Jesus’ tears.  We can add anger and grief, but we have finally reached the place where no amount of emoticons are sufficient. There appears to be something more going on inside Jesus in this moment, something we cannot easily illustrate with a facial expression.  Says one translator, “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.”

Consider this:  Here’s Jesus, who knows that he’s soon going to suffer the humiliation and horror of the cross and die.  Here’s Jesus, whose friend Lazarus has been dead four days. Here’s Jesus, accused by the two sisters of not caring enough to hurry to Lazarus’ side.  Here’s Jesus, seeing his good friend Mary crumbling in front of him in sobs of grief. Here’s Jesus, surrounded by people who are wailing and lamenting in sorrow.  Is it any wonder that Jesus experienced such deep internal stress that he trembled and began to weep himself?

Some eyewitnesses that day saw Jesus’ tears and said, “See how he loved Lazarus!”  But it’s too simple an explanation to say that Jesus cried simply out of love for his dead friend or out of compassion for Martha and Mary.  It’s even too simple to say he was angry at death. His very insides were being ripped to shreds.

We need to know this about Jesus.  We need to realize that Jesus’ tears weren’t merely ones of sadness but of the weight of life.  When we are suffering, when we are distressed and distraught, Jesus is not standing beside us patting us on the head saying, “there, there; everything will be alright.”  Jesus grieves with us—at the injustices, the pain, the betrayals, the illnesses, the violence, the abuses that mar our world and tear our lives apart. And Jesus does not stand helplessly and idly by.

We know, of course, how the story ends.  Jesus, still “greatly disturbed”, goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth from death, and Lazarus emerges, alive again.

Get out the amazement emoticon, because the neighbors, not surprisingly, are awed by what they witness.  It’s going to be the talk of the town for months, if not years, to come. But surely, the final emoticon for this family and all who love them is joy.  All of which tells us, that no matter how painful our emotions, when we’re weeping, feeling the ache of being human, crushed by the weight of circumstances, or churning inside because of so much that’s wrong, it is right, it is human to feel things deeply.  It is also important that we develop safe places to express what we feel, because doing so is both honest and redemptive.

And we are reminded that in the midst of our darkest, hardest times, we have a Savior who weeps with us.  But if we stay with him, if we, like Martha can believe and confess that Jesus is the one person in whom we find life, the final emoticon to our story will be joy, eternal, unending joy, joy that will, in ways we cannot possibly know or understand now, redeem all that has gone wrong with us.

“I am the resurrection and the life…Do you believe this?”  Grief-stricken and in anguish, Martha held fast to her faith.  What about you?

To the One who conquers even death, be all praise and glory and honor.  Amen.

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