He Can’t Stop Loving You

By Greg Albrecht—

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”—John 11:25

Ray Charles is one of my favorite blues singers of all time. The movie about his life, produced several years ago, won several Academy Awards, and was simply titled “Ray.”

Human suffering has given birth to much of our music, poetry, literature and art. The tragedies and the traumas of human relationships were the fertile soil from which many of the story lines and lyrics of Ray Charles’ music grew.

When I was a teenager I loved Ray’s music—it was catchy, with a sing-along melody line and on a surface level spoke to the adolescent, puppy-love infatuations I felt.

But, as a teenager, I had no idea of the deeper meanings of his music nor did I know until I saw the movie that depicted the enormous pain of Ray’s life, how many of his songs were autobiographical. It took several decades before I would begin to understand the deep anguish behind Ray’s music and lyrics.

The title of one of his songs, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” speaks of the pain that someone has as he or she looks back at a seemingly failed and broken relationship, but they just can’t let go. The song says that they can’t stop loving the object of their affections. Here are a few lines:

Those happy hours
That we once knew
So long ago
Still make me blue

They say that time
Heals a broken heart
But time has stood still
Since we’ve been apart

And the song concludes, after repeating the familiar refrain, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” several times,

So I’ll just live my life
In dreams of yesterday

With apologies to the late Ray Charles, I have modified the title of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” to He Can’t Stop Loving You so that we might change the nature of the discussion from a failed human relationship that cannot be revisited or rediscovered, to God’s permanent, loving relationship with us and his unconditional commitment to us.

Our keynote passage occurs within one of my favorite passages, the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John. This chapter is like a spiritual magnet to me—this teaching about the death and resurrection of Lazarus keeps drawing me back to how relevant it is to our lives and relationship with God.

Lazarus, of course, was not the only human Jesus loved then, and certainly not for that matter, the only one he ever loved. We know from John 3:16 that Jesus loves the entire world. His love for us is the very center of his being. His love defines and explains the very nature of God.

Jesus had a special friendship with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. This story is included in the Bible to tell us not only about Jesus’ special love for this family and his relationship with them at a painful and hard time, but of his unquenchable and unflagging love for us, a love that has no bounds.

Lazarus then, is every man and every woman. This eleventh chapter of John relates the powerful story about Lazarus’ death and the grief of his family. It confronts the common enemy of all humanity—the power that death has over us, a vice-like grip around our necks, an enemy we humanly cannot overpower or escape from.

Jesus comes to this time and place of loss, and as God in the flesh expresses his absolute confidence that Lazarus’ death is a temporary condition. God is in the business of life, new life, resurrected life.

Our keynote passage is a text that is often read in funeral sermons to help the grieving wrestle with the implications of death. In our passage Jesus responds to Martha, who is upset because she believes Jesus should have come earlier and healed Lazarus.

Martha, in her grief, is blaming Jesus for seeming to be blasé in the face of death, claiming that if Jesus had gotten off his duff and arrived earlier, then Lazarus would never have died.

But now, Lazarus is dead. Martha is dealing with the awful finality of death. There is nothing we can do about death, we stand powerless and hopeless before it. Death ends everything for us, but not for Jesus.

Jesus answers Martha, and all of us as we wrestle with not only death but many other predicaments that are beyond our control:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”—John 11:25 

“Do you believe this?” he asks Martha. “Do you believe this?” he asks you and me. He says, “Do you believe that nothing can stop my love for you? Do you believe that I can’t stop loving you? Do you believe that my love for you is more powerful than death? Do you believe that I can breathe new life into anything or anyone? Do you believe?”

It’s interesting that both of the sisters—Martha and Mary, on two separate occasions, said exactly the same thing to Jesus… “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).

Martha and Mary are part of a subplot in this story. Remember that Jesus had visited their home earlier in his ministry (Luke records this event in his tenth chapter) and when he arrived, Mary sat listening to him, wanting to hear his words of life. Martha, however, was busy—busy making, cleaning, cooking, preparing and dusting—and in the end, she was exasperated with her sister because her sister wasn’t jumping through all of the same hoops that she was.

Jesus told Martha that while there was nothing wrong with the activities in which Martha was busily engaged, that Mary had made the right choice at that particular time—to listen to the Lord and spiritually rest in him.

After their brother Lazarus had died, the two sisters exhibit the characteristics of legalistic religion which war against God’s grace. Both the sisters accuse Jesus of the same thing, for his failure to be with them at their hour of need, and they conclude that had Jesus “done his job” their brother Lazarus would not have died.

When Jesus does arrive, Mary bows before him, but Martha does not. As we closely read this account it seems that Martha, more than Mary, feels particularly let down by Jesus. Yet, ironically, Martha had been the one who was “too busy” to spend time with Jesus.

Like Martha and Mary, we cry out during an illness or unemployment or marriage difficulty, “Where is God when I need him?”
When we just can’t stand a trial or difficulty we are enduring, “Why doesn’t God hurry up and do something?”

When there is a horrible disaster, a flood, a hurricane, an earthquake or a tidal wave we often say, or at the very least think, “Where was God during all of this death and suffering? Why didn’t he prevent it?”

Those are typical reactions when we get caught up in the idea that our relationship with God is based on a quid pro quo basis, we do something for him and he responds by doing something for us.

But the gospel is not based on a quid pro quo relationship we have with God. The gospel is good news because it proclaims that God, out of his love, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God is good to us because he is good, because he loves us, not because he is responding to righteous things we have done for him.

God is a God of radical love, love that humanly we can only begin to imagine. The only way that we can even have an inkling of appreciation for God and his profound love is when we accept God’s grace that he offers to lavish on us.

Several verses later we see Jesus before the tomb of Lazarus, and in that famous short verse, verse 35, we read,

Jesus wept.

Someone died, and that was reason enough for Jesus to weep. Jesus joins the grief of Lazarus’ sisters and Lazarus’ friends in Bethany. But why would he weep since he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the tomb?

The drama of living and dying involves us all—it is the nature of our human predicament, it is the common denominator for us all, male and female, young and old, Jew and Arab, Buddhist and Christian, European and African, rich and poor—death is common to us all. The commonality we all experience in death, the bond we all share, was expressed by a 17th century poet and preacher, who served in St. Paul’s, in London:

“All mankind is of one author…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

But of course Jesus does not react to death the way others do, for as the God-man he has a divine perspective no human has or ever has had.
When he wept at the tomb, he was not weeping because he was confronted with death. Jesus was not weeping because death had overcome his love, for He Can’t Stop Loving You. Death does not terminate his love.

Jesus wept because he knew that the price of Lazarus’ resurrection was his own death, only days away, only a few miles from the very spot where he stood in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. He did not weep out of fear for his own death, but out of the passion of his love for Lazarus, and by extension, all mankind.

Jesus knew, as he stood before the tomb of Lazarus, that his love for all of us would reach its culmination in just a few days, and while he was steeled to face it, he knew that the miracle he was about to perform in resurrecting Lazarus would not cause the religious leadership to rejoice. He knew that Lazarus’ restored life would only inflame their attitudes toward the gospel and of course cause them to crucify him.

Jesus wept, I believe, out of a desire to get on with the singular act in history that would fully and completely express the love of God toward all humanity. God’s love can never be stopped, not by killing Jesus, and not by sealing the tomb in which his body was placed. Jesus was standing before Lazarus’ tomb, knowing that his own body would occupy a tomb within just a few days.

Why wouldn’t Jesus weep? I believe he wept, not in helpless or powerless grief, but out of sheer, human exasperation. Martha and Mary were upset with Jesus because he wasn’t there to stop Lazarus from dying. That seems to have been the extent of their faith. They believed Jesus could have healed. But once death happened, they could not see how Jesus’ reach could extend into the tomb.

As the God-man, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. He knew what it was like to be human, to be without hope beyond this life, to be helpless in the face of death. He wept for all humans, all who had ever lived, all who lived during the time when he walked this earth, and for all of us who would live afterward.

I also believe that Jesus wept because he humanly identified with the throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air futility of men and women who stand powerless in the face of death. So when Jesus yelled, Lazarus—come out! (John 11:43) he commanded death to give up its hold on Lazarus. Jesus, God in the flesh, stopped time, he reversed the laws of death and decay, he suspended the natural and he stopped the world as we know it. When Jesus yelled Lazarus—come out! he was expressing the power of his love, divine love that cannot be stopped by the forces of death or the grave.

The force of meaning, indicated by the Greek language, for Jesus’ command Lazarus—come out! carries the power of a scream, to scream as a woman might in childbirth, as a wounded animal might scream out of pain. Jesus screamed into the tomb of Lazarus, he yelled into the face of the darkness of death and decay.

Jesus yelled, “My love will not be stopped. Death will not stop my love. My own death is, in fact, an expression of my love.”

Jesus loved Lazarus and, for that matter, he loves us all. He was screaming into Lazarus’ tomb, to bring back the dead to life. You might say he screamed loud enough to “wake up the dead.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”—John 11:25