By Cade Campbell
On Sunday morning, November 5, the Holcombe family in Sutherland Springs, Texas did what they always did on a Sunday morning; they went to church. As they made their way to the morning service, everything about that Sunday seemed like all the other ordinary Sunday mornings that had come before.
But it wasn’t an ordinary Sunday. The Holcombe family was going to church for the last time. During the Sunday morning service, nine members of their family were murdered along with many, many others. Bryan (who was the guest preacher that morning), his wife Karla, their son Marc, their daughter-in-law Crystal, four children (Noah, Emily, Megan, and Greg), along with the unborn child Crystal was carrying, were all killed.
Later that same day, hundreds of miles away in Louisville, Kentucky there was another murder. A young man and his wife were walking home after an evening with friends. The details are still sketchy, but something horrible happened that night. The couple were apparently accosted in an attempted robbery. The husband, Jason Spencer, was shot and killed. He and his wife had been married for ten days. They had returned from their honeymoon just the day before.
Death permeates our world. We’re constantly reminded that something is terribly wrong and sometimes it just gets to be too much. It. Never. Ends. That’s why we face the temptation of tragedy-overload: Becoming so immersed in tragedy that we are no longer shocked and horrified by the tragic. There comes a point when you’ve seen so much that’s shocking that you’re just not shocked anymore. We move on to another news cycle, scroll through our social media feeds, and get back to our daily lives after a day or two of appropriate focus. And each time it’s all too easy to become even more calloused and desensitized. We can be spiritually shell-shocked. When horror is everywhere, it can become just another part of the landscape. When cries of pain are everywhere, screams and sobs can be tuned-out as static.
This kind of tragedy-overload is dangerous. If we become seduced by its spell we can be tricked into believing that this is just the way the world is. When we become desensitized to the nightmare wreckage of sin, we all too often become desensitized to the very presence of sin. Without even realizing it we may get to the point where we believe this is normal. It’s not. To quote Cornelius Plantinga, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Jesus knew that the world he had come to had been unhinged by our reckless rebellion. He knew that creation was askew. He looked around at the world that lay burdened by the emotional overload of tragedy and he didn’t blink. He did something else.
In John 11, Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died, and Jesus had only just showed up at the very end of Lazarus’ funeral. Mary and Martha were distraught. The friends and family members at the graveside were still grieving. An edge of resentment at Jesus’ long absence and his tardy arrival in Bethany lent an icy atmosphere to the mourning.
That’s when Jesus does something we never see him do anywhere else in the gospels: He visits a cemetery. Sure, he’s encountered the dead and dying before. He’s spent time with grieving family members like Jairus and his wife, and the widow of Nain, but this is different. In those instances, Jesus arrived immediately after the death. In John 11, the graves at Bethany Memorial Gardens are all sealed shut. Lazarus had been lain to rest four days past. The pallor of death hung like a fog over the tombs.
Now, observe Jesus. This is such a consequential moment. Watch his movements. Take notice of his reaction to his surroundings as he walks through the gate of the graveyard. The crowds were watching. They noticed everything he did. As the drama plays out in the text we read, we should too.
We’re probably familiar with one of Jesus’ famous responses to the death of Lazarus. He cried. He was genuinely sad for the loss of his friend. His heart broke for the pain that Mary and Martha were enduring. As he stood outside the rock-hewn tomb of Lazarus tears welled up in his eyes and streamed down his face.
[Jesus’ tears are a gift of grace to his people. We aren’t to face death with a stiff upper-lip. We don’t stoically face death without emotion. Nor should we seek to arm ourselves with false bravado. Tears are not antithetical to faith. We dare not attempt to be godlier than Jesus. When Jesus confronted death, he cried. We should too.]
But look again, Jesus did more than weep. There is another response that we sometimes pass over. As Jesus looked around at the rocky stones sealing the dead from the land of the living and as he looked into the stony, tear-streaked faces of the spiritually dead men and women standing around him, he responded with a visceral rage.
Jesus looked into the eyes of the hurting crowd. Jesus saw the expressions of pain and doubt. The same Creator who had once personally placed Adam in Eden, now stood with Adam’s children in the rocky and thorn-covered plot of ground that our sin gave to us in exchange for the garden. Jesus saw the utter and ultimate tragedy of sin: In disobeying God, we traded a garden for a grave.
Perhaps in that moment Jesus remembered the wicked smile that had crossed Satan’s face as Eve and Adam plucked the fruit from the forbidden tree. Maybe he remembered the serpent’s lie, “You will not die.” As Jesus walked into the cemetery on that hot afternoon, maybe he remembered the cool, early morning when he had walked into the garden calling out Adam’s name.
All this led Jesus to clench his fists and erupt. In verses 33 and 38 of John 11, Jesus’ response to the death of Lazarus and the grief of the mourners is described in most English translations as being “deeply moved.” That’s an understatement. The word in the original language refers to an intense, angered-sigh or gasp. The Greek word embrimaomai conveys a deep, guttural rage. The word is often used in other places outside the New Testament to describe the way a horse snorts in anger or agitation. Maybe the best imagery for Jesus’ response is that of an angry wolf or lion facing an enemy and growling.
When Christ the Creator faced the most vivid expression of sin’s curse, he didn’t just sob, he snarled. Jesus looked into the dark face of death (both physical and spiritual) and was overwhelmed with what sin had done to his creation. And he was ticked. And Jesus bared his teeth. He growled at the enemy of God.
What had happened and what was happening was not okay. He was not at peace with people passing away. He wasn’t numbed to it. Nor did he anesthetize it. He wasn’t resolved to the uncontrollable ordinariness of death. Neither was he comfortable with the curse. It wasn’t alright. He saw death for what it is – an enemy – an unwelcome and poisonous parasite on the world he had declared good.
Jesus is no quiet and timid teacher. The Jesus of the gospels is fierce. Death had led a coup within creation. Death was overseeing a reign of terror. Death had taken God’s image-bearers hostage. And Jesus had come to take them back. Jesus had come to kill the curse. Jesus had come to deliver a death-blow to death. And he did. The snarl of the Savior outside the tomb of Lazarus was a warning to all the demonic forces of darkness that their days were numbered.
That’s the warning the Savior’s snarl gave to death itself. That warning was made even clearer when Jesus wrecked Lazarus’ funeral by rescuing him from the clenches of his casket, and it was ultimately fulfilled when the same Jesus who had growled at the curses of death and disbelief descended to death himself, killing the curse with his cross.
Like Lazarus Jesus was shrouded and sealed in a tomb. Like Lazarus Jesus’ corpse was enclosed in the darkness of the cave. But unlike Lazarus, Jesus was raised to never die again. The Savior who had snarled at death outside a rock-hewn tomb, roared to life inside his own. And when he rose to life and left his grave behind him there was only one thing left lying in the tomb: The dead body of death itself, cold on the stony slab where Christ had once laid, but where he laid no more.
The massacre and murders of this last week were really terrible. But guess what? More terrible tragedies are still to come. This really isn’t going to go away this side of glory. And there are going to be moments when you’re just going to want to turn the television off and “make the world go away.”
When that happens, remember the resurrected Christ that is presently, even now, ruling this world and orchestrating all things (even the nerve-numbing nightmares) for the ultimate good for his people. Remember the snarling growl of the Son of God, and remember what it meant: Today death may be loudly boasting of its power. Today the darkness may seem impenetrable. Today the suffering may seem indestructible. But there is a Savior who will one day unmake all this madness. He will one day call his people to never-dying life. One day his promises will plow through every graveyard on earth remaking them into the hillsides of the new earth’s garden paradise.
Death has been put on notice.
This side of Easter Sunday death’s loudest boasts echo with the whimper of its final gasp – overpowered by the roar of resurrection.
Cade Campbell (M.Div, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.