Death Stinks – Sermon on John 11:1-45 for Lent 5A

Death really stinks, doesn’t it? I can remember the first time I smelled that smell. A mouse – or some animal – had died in the wall of the apartment where I was living. After a few days the stench was unbearable. I called the landlord, and he just laughed at me. “It’ll go away in a while,” he said. “Just live with it.”

And that is what we have to do with death, isn’t it? Just live with it. We can’t make it go away, and we can’t avoid it. You may have followed the growing death toll from Corona virus infections from March 2020 until …. I think most people gave up trying to compare COVID-19 victims with the number of deaths from influenza within a few months. It just was too depressing.

But the truth is that, as David Lose notes, “the death rate in my community is the same as yours: one per person and 100%.”[1] Yet, even though we know we are all mortal, death takes us by surprise. Even when we know a loved one is nearing the end, that end often comes as a shock.

Grief is real. Last week, we walked through the valley of the shadow of death with the psalmist David. This week, Jesus looks death in the eye. Jesus faces the same grief you and I face whenever someone we love dies. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:1-16)

It’s interesting that John introduces Lazarus to us through his sisters, rather than the other way around. It makes me think that maybe Lazarus was Martha and Mary’s baby brother, but John doesn’t really tell us their birth order. This family was apparently well known to the original audience of John’s gospel. Verse two mentions another story about them that won’t happen until the following chapter.

The aroma of perfume and the smell of death are closely linked in these two stories. They are framed by another story, one that contrasts those who believe in Jesus with the religious leaders who see Jesus and the signs of God’s power working in him as a growing threat. Just before heading to Bethany, Jesus had left Jerusalem to avoid being stoned. After he raises Lazarus, the religious leaders will conspire in earnest to kill Jesus.

No wonder Thomas tells the other disciples, “We might as well go too, so we can also die with him.” It seems that the threat of death surrounds this whole story. And death stinks.

Yet Jesus is clear about his purpose. Everything he does has one goal: to glorify God. It may seem cruel to have let Lazarus linger two more days, but Jesus had a reason for waiting to set out for Bethany. This final miracle would surpass the signs Jesus had already performed. For those who still questioned whether or not he was Messiah, this final act needed to be definitive. But his decision to wait certainly caused great consternation among his disciples, and even more for Mary and Martha.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:17-27)

When Martha tells Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” it’s hard to tell if she is confessing her faith in Jesus and his power to heal, or if she is accusing him of neglecting his friend. Either way, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Just as Jesus told the woman at the Samaritan well that he was Messiah, and last week we heard him tell a man born blind that he was the Son of Man, now we hear Jesus tell Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life.” It’s one of the great “I am” statements in John’s gospel. But it comes with a challenge.

Jesus asks Martha if she believes. It’s interesting that John always puts this word into its active verb form. John doesn’t talk about belief as a noun, but always as what Jesus asks us to do. And this time, Martha’s statement is clearly an affirmation of faith. “Yes, Lord,” she tells him. “Despite all indications to the contrary, I believe you are Messiah.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:28-37)

“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. In a couple of weeks, another Mary will ask this same question as she looks into an empty tomb. She will weep as Jesus does now. Here, in this long passage of scripture, the most profound verse is quite short. The old King James version, like the original Greek, is only two words: “Jesus wept.”

But why did Jesus weep? Those around him assumed it was for sorrow at the loss of his friend. But Jesus knew before he ever headed out to Bethany that he would be raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus wept, not because he had lost a friend, but because the scene around him was full of chaos, full of the very suffering he had come to eliminate once and for all.

Hope for resurrection had been displaced by the havoc of sin and death. Those who accompanied Jesus to the tomb didn’t understand that Jesus wasn’t weeping for Lazarus; he was weeping for them.

I think Jesus weeps for us now, too. Jesus sees our chaos, our fear, and the rising anxiety surrounding a virus that medical professionals are wearing themselves out trying to contain and treat. Jesus sees the empty toilet paper shelves at the store and the growing number of unemployment claims, and the terror of someone who suddenly just can’t breathe – and Jesus weeps.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:38-44)

I want you to see what Lazarus’ tomb looks like – or at least, what tradition has identified since the third century as Lazarus’ tomb. Churches and a mosque have been built up around it over the centuries. For about the past thousand years, the entrance to this tomb has been a little unassuming door in a little courtyard.

And while we might think this tomb is much like the one in which Jesus will be laid, it isn’t a garden tomb. It’s more like a deep well.

You have to climb up out of this grave. Imagine trying to do that when your arms and legs are bound in burial cloths. Imagine waking up in that cave, wrapped so tightly you can’t even pull the covering off your own face, because your hands are still bound. It’s dark, and it stinks in there. What you smell is your own rotting flesh, that somehow isn’t rotting anymore. But the stench is still hanging in the cave around you. Death stinks. There’s no getting around it.

And you hear a familiar voice, muffled, but easy to recognize. Your dearest friend is calling to you to come out. You don’t even know which direction the door is, or how to get to it. But you wriggle around enough to get up, and you inch your way toward the light. As you trip over yourself, while your sisters help you to get free, there is a gasp from the crowd that has gathered outside this cave. They are as surprised to see you as you are to be there.

And then you must decide. Do you fall back into the tomb, or do you step out into the unknown? Because what lies ahead is completely new territory. No one has ever done this before. No one has ever been completely, unquestionably dead, and then been called back to life after being buried in a tomb for four days.

But here you are. As you stumble forward, that voice you love says, “Unbind him. Unbind her. Let them go.” And the bandages come off, and you can see Jesus standing there, tears streaming down his face, welcoming you back to life.

John finishes the story by reminding us of the reason he wrote this gospel in the first place: Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (John 11:45)

Death stinks. There’s no getting around it. But without death, there can be no resurrection. We can’t accept new life in Christ until we allow our old, sinful lives to end. What do you need to let die, so that you can come out of your tomb? What binds you to death, and prevents you from living abundantly, fully, as a new creation?

Whatever stinks in your life, hear the voice of Jesus calling to you, “Come out of there!” Jesus is waiting, weeping for you to receive his love and forgiveness. Jesus is offering you a new chance at life – life that is abundant and filled with peace. It might be completely new territory for you, but you don’t have to go there alone.

When Lazarus stepped out of that tomb, there were friends at hand to help him get out of his grave clothes, to support him and love him. That’s what this community of faith is for: to help each of us get unbound. During this time when you might feel isolated and alone, there are friends to help you out of your stinking grave clothes, and into the family of God.

We may not have all the answers, we may feel helpless, but we have this hope: Christ has overcome death and sin, and offers us new life in him, if we believe in him. 

[1] David Lose,

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