Joseph Avenue Christmas is the story of one man's journey to the true meaning of Christmas. Not just the birth of the babe, but the salvation of the soul. Set on the wintry streets of Rochester, NY it is a visit to the heart of that city and the hearts of some of its best and bravest people. From their good example, and the simple lessons of their own lives and faith, a troubled man finds on a dark Christmas Eve an escape from an increasingly failed life.
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It's the shortest verse in the Bible.
I recited it Sunday after Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Canisteo. If you quoted a Bible verse in Sunday school you got a piece of candy. And on those weeks when you'd not quite gotten around to memorizing a new verse, the teacher was kind enough to accept an old one.
And we all chose the short one.
The one I've only lately come to understand. Or at least to think about.
He had been teaching, out amongst the people, when word came from Mary and Martha -- two women he loved -- that their brother, Lazarus, was gravely ill. He said he would come and tend to Lazarus, to presumably heal him, as he had healed so many others.
But he delayed.
And his disciples wished that he wouldn't go at all. It was dangerous, they said, the people where Lazarus and his family lived -- in Bethany of Judea -- wanted to stone Jesus, and kill him.
But he was determined. And he tried to explain to his disciples what awaited them in Bethany. Not danger, but something they had not yet seen or understood. The absolute power of their master over life and death.
"Lazarus sleepeth," Jesus told them, "but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep."
There was confusion about his words, and the belief that if he was asleep then he was mending from his illness, so Jesus had to speak to them directly. He had to lay aside figurative language.
"Lazarus is dead," he said.
And as they journeyed they were met near Bethany by Martha, who mourned her brother, dead and buried now for four days. If you had only been here, she said to Jesus, my brother would still be alive.
He comforted her, and spoke to her of her faith, and her faith in him, and she went to get Mary, her sister. When Mary got to Jesus, she was broken hearted and mourning, and she, too, said that if only the Lord had come sooner he could have saved poor Lazarus.
Then Mary began to cry, and so did the friends who accompanied her.
And that's when he cried. The shortest verse in the Bible. "Jesus wept."
In moments, after being taken to the tomb, Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus knew that in a very short time this scene of mourning and grief would be one of miraculous reunion and joy. He knew, as he had known from the very first, how this would end. He knew that Mary was about to embrace her living brother. He knew that in moments her tears would be gone.
But they were not gone yet.
Her sorrow, though destined to be short-lived, was real. It was real then. And Mary's grief mattered to Jesus, and was moving to Jesus, and it brought him to tears.
Which ought to mean a great deal to us.
Because it shows the capacity of the Lord to understand our feelings, and to give them value and relevence, even when they are changable and temporary. We often -- naturally and appropriately -- are dismissive of our pains, believing that, "this, too, shall pass." We endure hard times and sorrows by clinging to the belief that they will get better, and a brighter day will dawn. We ignore the pain of today in preference for looking forward to the relief of tomorrow.
In this instance, the Lord did not do that. He did not tell Mary and Martha to stop crying, he joined them.
The knowledge that they would soon be freed from grief did not minimize his reaction to the impact or significance of that grief to them in that moment.
I believe that shows that the Lord stands by us each moment, and he understands and empathizes with our fears and sorrows, even when those fears and sorrows are unfounded. The Lord's perspective is different from ours, but he understands ours, and he understands the impact of ours on us.
Confusion often leads to pain. The Lord does not share our confusion, but he does share our pain. More correctly, he is pained that we are pained.
And that's why he wept.
Not because he mourned Lazarus. Not because he shared Mary's despair at the death of her brother. He wept because she wept. He wept not for his pain, but for hers. Because he understood her and her feelings better than anyone could. Because he understood her and her feelings better than she herself did.
Just as he understands us and our feelings better than we ourselves can.
I memorized it 30 years ago, but have only lately come to understand it.