Sunday, April 10, 2011
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 10, 2011)
“The Presence of the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:1-45)
It’s been said that fish and guests smell after three days. The same is true of dead people. I don’t meant to gross you out, but I once had the chance to see – and smell – a rotting corpse. This occurred early in my ministry at my former congregation. An elderly woman had been dead for a number of days before she was found by family members returning from vacation. Her dead body had been baking in her mobile home during a sweltering summer week. A church member who was a local EMT called me to come to the scene and offer comfort to the family. When I arrived, he called me around to the back of the home. A door was open to a laundry room, and before I even got within ten feet, the foulest stench you could imagine hit me in the face. That, combined with the gruesome sight on the floor, caused me to come “this close” to vomiting.
Death stinks. Martha knew this better than you and I. Death has become sterilized in our culture. Funeral home staff sweep a body away before it gets the chance to decompose, cleansing the body and injecting it with embalming fluids, dressing it up nicely, surrounding it with fluffy pillows and fabric, and placing it inside a decorative box. But no amount of myrrh, aloes, and spices could keep a four-day old body from smelling in first-century Judea. So Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” I still get a kick out of how the King James Version renders Martha’s words: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”
Death does indeed stinketh. No matter how much we try to protect ourselves from the effects of death, pain and grief and confusion and agony end up permeating our lives one way or another. And death is in the world because of sin. In today’s reading from Romans, Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Rom. 8:6). In other words, death is our rightful sentence when we do those things that our selfish, sinful nature loves to do. Our sinful nature is hostile to God. It does not want to submit to the 10 commandments, but would rather go its own way and do its own thing without giving God a second thought. Death stinks. Sin stinks. It’s a foul smelling aroma in God’s nostrils.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were apparently good friends of Jesus. Jesus often visited them when he came to Jerusalem. Bethany was only a short two miles away. It would be a sensible place to stay during the yearly festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. When their brother Lazarus became ill, Mary and Martha know who to seek out. They know Jesus has the power to heal.
How surprising it must have been, then, when Jesus delays coming to Bethany. He stays put for two whole days. He doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned. Finally, he tells his disciples, “Let’s go.” They reply by expressing concern over going back into the territory where his opponents had already tried to stone him. But Jesus, the Light of the World, knows well what dangers await him. Walking in the light of Christ, disciples of Jesus don’t need to fear anything.
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Martha is the first to greet him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Moments later, Mary says the same thing. And the bystanders also wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
When death, disaster, or any difficulty come our way, perhaps our first complaint is, “Lord, if you had been here, this or that would not have happened.” Where is Jesus when my teenager dies in a car accident? Where is Jesus when the doctor tells me I have cancer? Where is Jesus when tsumanis sweep whole communities away? Where is Jesus when, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I am still alienated from certain people in my life? We have somehow gotten the wrong idea that Jesus will solve all our problems and protect us from bad things happening to us. When things don’t get any better, we turn our back on him or deny that he’s even real. Maybe he’s just a myth, just like that big furry fellow who brings eggs and baskets and candy on Easter morning.
Where is Jesus? Jesus is here. Ruling and reigning as God in the Flesh. Present with his grace and mercy. Bringing life in the midst of death because, as he said, “I am the resuurection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” His powerful Word gives life and triumphs over death, corruption, and hopelessness.
Jesus spoke his powerful Word at the tomb of Lazarus. “Lazarus, come out.” A heart silent for four days begins to beat. Arteries and veins expand to carry blood once again. Lungs fill with breath. And Lazarus steps forth, alive. I’ve heard it said that Jesus made sure he called Lazarus specifically, because if he had simply said, “Come forth,” every single dead person in the cemetery would have come out of their tombs. Having said that, the raising of Lazarus is certainly a preview of the day when, as Jesus promised, “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (John 5:28) and will rise again just like Lazarus.
In the meantime, you hear the voice of Jesus through the mouth of your pastor when he takes water in his hand and says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You hear the voice of Jesus when, in his stead, your pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins.” And you hear the voice of Jesus when your pastor repeats the words spoken at the Last Supper, “This is my body, which is given for you … This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you the forgiveness of sins.” And that is exactly what you get when you come to the Lord’s Supper today. Christ’s body and blood. Forgiveness. Through these gracious means, you hear the voice of Jesus and he raises you to new life. He gives you the promise of life everlasting. Though we die, yet shall we live. And really, in Christ, we never die. Temporal death is the separation of the soul from the body. Eternal death is the separation of the soul from God. In Christ, that will never happen.
Even when Jesus seems absent, he is present. When Jesus heard Lazarus was ill, he didn’t go right away. He stayed where he was for two more days. He seemed far away from the situation. He was about 20 miles away on the other side of the Jordan. He might as well have been a million miles away. But he knew exactly what he was doing. “This illness does not lead to death,” he told his disciples. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus knew exactly what had happened. He knew that Lazarus had died. So, in his omnipotence, he really was there, seeing the entire goings-on, the sisters in their sorrow, the mourners, and so forth. Yet he also knew that he was going there to raise Lazarus from the dead.
At times, Jesus seems absent from our lives. But he is not. He sees everything. He knows everything. He knows your sorrow, your hurt, your pain. And even though you and I can’t see the outcome of whatever situation in which find ourselves, Jesus does. He is the light among us even when things seem dark.
Even when Jesus seems not to care, he cares. His delay, at first, made it appear that he didn’t care about his friends. Once he arrived on the scene, his care is evident. He comforts Martha with his words. He seeks out Mary when she did not come initially with her sister. The divine nature and human natures of Jesus are so clearly seen here in this account. Jesus appears to be calmly in control and in command when he declares to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Yet when he encounters Mary, there is a change. His human emotions come spilling out. St. John writes that Jesus was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” The Greek here for deeply moved is literally “to snort like a horse,” usually in anger. Jesus was angry over the ravages of death that had entered the world because of sin. And the word for “greatly troubled” expresses agitation, confusion, disorganization. Jesus was certainly not confused, but he was clearly agitated. He was not apathetic to the situation. Jesus had lost a beloved friend to death. It hurt him deeply. He grieved. And he burst into tears.
The same Jesus who wept at the tomb of Lazarus deeply cares for you today, too, even when he seems silent and far away. He is present even though he seems absent. Through his Word of life, Jesus is here to evoke faith and calls us to trust him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha said, yet she quickly added these words of trust, “but even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
“Lord, if you had been here…” Jesus is big enough to handle our complaints. Yet he also calls us to trust in him, even when things look bleak. “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” The life-giving Word of Jesus creates and sustains faith that trusts that God will truly work things out for the good of those who are baptized into his family. The life-giving Word of Jesus creates and sustains faith that answers right along with Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Death stinks. Sin stinks. But with Jesus around, it is different. In his death, Jesus was a sweet smelling sacrifice offered to the Father. Our sins were laid upon Jesus at the cross. He paid the price in full for them. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Cleansed and redeemed, united with our Savior in Holy Baptism, you and I can offer sweet smelling sacrifices of thanksgiving to God and service to our neighbor in the name of Jesus.
The raising of Lazarus was the pivotal point in John’s Gospel. It was the last straw for the chief priests and the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. It was the raising of Lazarus that put in motion the plans for Jesus to be killed. We are winding our way down towards the end of Lent and Good Friday. Holy Week begins next Sunday. But the story of the raising of Lazarus also reminds us that Easter is always in view. The Son of God was glorified when Lazarus was raised from the dead, because the raising of Lazarus set things in motion for the glorification of Jesus at the cross, lifted high as our Crucified King … and his glorification at the empty tomb, shining forth as our Savior who is the Resurrection and the Life.