Death Stinks

[This sermon was originally prepared for three weeks earlier, but a big snow storm that weekend led to a much smaller and more informal service that day]

Jesus’ very best friends in the whole wide world were two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who shared a home in Bethany, which was just outside of Jerusalem. Their home was a place of retreat for Jesus, especially when things would get so hot and heavy in Jerusalem.

You might remember the story about the time Martha got her knickers all in a knot because Jesus and the gang were over for dinner, and Martha was doing all the work. Mary was just hanging out with Jesus and hanging on to every word he said. So Martha said something about it to Jesus. But he took Mary’s side.

The story we are looking at today from John 11 says Mary was also the one who anointed Jesus’ feet that time with real expensive perfume and dried his feet with her hair. It was pretty scandalous stuff.

Well, Lazarus died. When he got sick Mary and Martha sent people out looking for Jesus and when they found him they said, “Lazarus, the friend you love so much is very ill.”

But Jesus didn’t seem too concerned. Mary and Martha expected that he would come right back to Bethany, but he just stayed where he was for a couple of days, and then he told his disciples, “We’d better head back to Judea.”

Judea was the part of the country that Bethany was in. And like I said, it is near Jerusalem. When the disciples heard this they said, “Are you crazy? There are people, plenty of people, back in Jerusalem who are looking to kill you.” Jesus said they had to go anyway because Lazarus was asleep.

“You’re taking us back there to get killed because Lazarus is asleep! Can’t somebody else wake him up?”

“What I meant was that he’s dead, and by time we’re done we’re going to learn something about the glory of God.”

Thomas, who shortly afterwards became the most famous of all doubters, responded, “well, let’s go back and die with him.”

When Jesus finally got to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Martha saw Jesus coming and said to him, “you know if you had gotten here sooner, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Now you can imagine the accusing tone that was in her voice. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t come sooner, but she still was glad Jesus was there. And she told Jesus that even though he was late in getting there she was ready for whatever was next.

Jesus looked at Martha and said, “Lazarus is going to live again.”

“I know,” Master, “at the end of all things he will be raised.”

“No… Sooner than that.”


“Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. The One who believes in me even though he or she dies will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Are you able to believe this?”

“I knew it. Even though you won’t say it. You are the Messiah. I’ve got to go tell Mary you are here.”

So Martha went back into the house where Mary was surrounded by mourners, some of them probably paid, and whispered in her ear. Mary got up and ran out to see Jesus. The mourners thought she was going to the tomb to do some more weeping and wailing and they headed out after her.

She started with Jesus just like her sister had. “Master, if you had only been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Now, some of the translations says that Jesus saw her and all the other mourners crying and that his spirit was troubled. But that’s not the right translation. What it really says it that Jesus got mad.

“Show me where you put him.” And he started crying.

Why did he get mad? It wasn’t Mary and Martha’s fault that Lazarus died. And besides as Mary and Martha, and later, the crowd of mourners said, maybe he could have done something about it if he had come right away. “He did heal that blind man. And Lazarus was his friend.”

So Mary took Jesus over to the tomb and Jesus said that they should roll the stone away. Mary suggested that was not such a good idea because it’s been four days already, and there would be a stink.

Jesus told them to do it anyway, and called Lazarus out of his tomb. And Lazarus came. Jesus told them to take off Lazarus’s death shroud and set him loose.

It’s quite a story. Within a week Jesus was going to be dead himself. But he ended us staying in his tomb for less time than even Lazarus did.

Why did Jesus get so mad, though? No one really knows. But here’s my speculation. Maybe it was because Bethany was the place that had been so life giving to Jesus. He was loved there, when he was reviled in so many other places. People listened to him there, tried to figure out what he was saying. They weren’t hurling accusations at him and challenging him at every turn. Death haunted Jesus everywhere he went, except Bethany. It was a life giving place. And now death had shown up there.

There is huge metaphor going on here. Jesus challenged the stench of death. He called Lazarus out of the tomb. He told the people to set Lazarus free from his death shroud.

Suddenly this story is no longer only about Lazarus coming out of a tomb and being set free. It’s about the tombs we find ourselves in and the death shrouds that cling so closely to us. It’s a story about us, too.

And the metaphor continues. Do you know what happened after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? The religious leaders got together and said they had to do something. The people were watching Jesus and were expecting too much. The leaders were afraid things were going to get out of hand and Rome was going to respond very unkindly and take what little power they had left, and further repress the nation.

But Caiphas came up with the answer. “It’s better to have one man die for the people than the whole nation to be destroyed.” The story goes on to say that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

Jesus has done this amazing thing in raising Lazarus from the dead. And the folk in power didn’t even deny such a miracle had taken place. The leaders were just scared. They were afraid their own authority was in danger. So they let their fear overtake them and set their plot into motion. In less than a week, Jesus would be dead himself.

The leaders’ response is a time honored one. They started playing to people’s fears and death took over. And it goes on and on and on. There are still plenty of fear peddlers out there. For awhile we were supposed to be afraid of the communists. Now we’re supposed to be afraid of gay and lesbian people, illegal immigrants, and islamofascists. Politicians and advertisers know how to play to our fears. What if you aren’t driving the right car, wearing the right clothes, using the right deodorant, watching the right TV shows on the right TV set, or listening to the right music?

And fear doesn’t stop there. Some of us are afraid of big corporations, afraid of our government, afraid of global warming. It’s not that those aren’t things to worry about. But when our lives are shaped by our fears, afraid of what someone else might do, we are Lazarus still in the tomb. And the stink of death is all around. I told you there was a lot of metaphor going on here.

You kind of wonder what it was like for Lazarus when he left death behind and came out of that tomb. He, literally, had a new lease on life. What did he do with it? Lazarus ended up dying again. And nobody was around to call him out of the tomb that time. But what did he do in that time between his two deaths. Did he take life more seriously? Was he able to live without the fear of death since he had already been there and done that? 

After he died, Lazarus got to see life in a whole different way. What we would do? I hope we wouldn’t simply go for the gusto, or do all those things we said we were going to do before we die. I’m a firm believer that we should cuddle as many puppies and get to the mountains as much as possible before we slip off this mortal coil. But Jesus has to be talking about more than that. Like most things with Jesus, it must have something to do with the Kingdom of God. This call from our tombs, I think, is a call to start living the life of God’s Kingdom.

What’s it mean to be called from the tomb and the death shrouds cut away? To be set loose? Set loose for what? What is the stuff of life that Jesus knew about? “Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin, but not even Solomon in all his glory compares to them.” “You have heard it said love you friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you love your enemies.” “No one can serve two masters.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” “The last shall be first.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, they are called the children of God.” If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” “Forgive one another as your God in heaven forgives you.” Do you see what we are called out of our tombs for? What being set loose from our death shrouds means?

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Can we hear that? Can we come alive with Jesus or has resurrection escaped us? Can we come out of our tombs and create more Bethanys with each other, where there is a respite from all the death and fear, where we love Jesus and try to figure out what he talking about?

It would be nice if Jesus always came sooner than later, but he always comes. And he gives us life. What are we going to do with it? And by living it well–leaving our tombs behind and others cutting our death shrouds loose–is that the glory of God Jesus was talking about when he called Lazarus out of his tomb?