Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 2, 2017
“The Stench Will Get Worse”
John 11: 1-45 – Find the text at the end of the sermon
I want to quickly review the texts we have been reading in the Gospel of John on our journey through Lent.
The humble lifted high, the powerful toppled from their thrones. The hungry filled with good things, the rich sent away empty handed!
These are the stories that progressive Christians, like myself, relish in telling. They represent the faith tradition of the United Church of Christ of justice and equality. But there remain lots of texts like today’s that leave us asking, what do we do with this?
The basic story is this: Lazarus is sick. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters. It is where Jesus often went to be among friends who were so close they were like his family. So naturally Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus. They didn’t say explicitly that he should come right away, but clearly, that is what they expected. After all, Jesus had been healing all those strangers, why not his friend? But instead of dropping everything to rush over – and he was only two miles away – Jesus promptly did nothing. And that was fine with the disciples because the last time they were there, the townspeople had been ready to stone Jesus. Why would you want to go back there?
Jesus gives them some confusing spiritual admonitions about light and stumbling, about which they collectively said “Huh?” So Jesus said, Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples descend into a comedy routine, unintentionally of course, about why Jesus would need to go to such a dangerous place to wake him up. Jesus interrupts again: He’s dead; although no one had told them that he was anything more than sick.
But once again, instead of rushing over, Jesus does nothing. And by the time they causally wandered over to Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. That it had been four days is important. Popular Jewish belief at the time held that it took three days for the soul to separate from the body, so it would have been obvious to those who first heard the story that the situation was beyond hope. Lazarus wasn’t simply mistaken for dead. He was gone and it was past the time when something could be done. No more time left for anything to be fixed, not even a miracle from the famous healer named Jesus.
Earlier Jesus had said that Lazarus’ illness was for God’s glory, but Martha wasn’t having that. She pleaded or yelled or cursed or some combination of it all – “Why weren’t you here? Why don’t you care? If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead.” She reminds us that those who have lost a loved one don’t find comfort when told there is some larger purpose behind it. Telling someone that “God needed another flower in his garden” or some other BS we tell grieving people hurts more than it helps. Martha was pissed. Or maybe she was crushed. Whatever she felt, Martha managed to say, “Yet, even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Did she really believe there was still time for a miracle? Or is that just desperation? She seems both resigned to the fact that it is too late while hoping that something can still be done. It’s an emotional rollercoaster – grief, anger, acceptance… One that many of us have been on too. Can’t something be done?
Mary comes on the scene and repeats the same accusation and angrily said, “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t be dead” and then falls at Jesus’ feet weeping. Or maybe she tearfully said, “If you had been here, our brother wouldn’t be dead” In either case, Jesus wept too, genuinely pained for friends so close they are like his family.
They walked over to the tomb but Mary told Jesus not to get too close. He’ll stink. Plus, after all, his fate has been set. It’s been four days. There’s no more time left. Even if he wanted to, it’s not possible anymore.
Jesus cried to Lazarus “Come out!” His face still wrapped in bands of cloths, Lazarus came stumbling out of the tomb. He’s alive. That, or it’s the Zombie apocalypse! I do have to wonder how Lazarus felt about being used as a prop in this story!
Nevertheless, naturally I think, the real explanation is that Jesus and Lazarus had been playing a big joke on his sisters. Hide and seek. Or he had just been passed out drunk.
John knows our skepticism – or at least mine. So throughout his gospel he has been building a case. The raising of Lazarus is the last of what are known as John’s Seven Signs. With each sign he raises the credibility stakes.
Jesus’ first sign is at the wedding in Cana. Jesus turned water into wine. And we think, yeah, sure, why not. A little sleight of hand and anyone can do that, right?
Jesus’ second sign was when a royal official came to Jesus to ask him to heal his son, who was back at home. Jesus didn’t bother to go to the official’s house. He simply said, “Your son is healed.” And sure enough, he was. But maybe he wasn’t that sick in the first place. Just a panicky dad.
Sign number 3 was a paralytic man in Bethesda who asked Jesus to help in get into a pool of water that was known for its healing qualities. He didn’t ask for healing, just a little help getting into the pool. Jesus said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” Gee thanks, Jesus. But he did it! However, maybe he wasn’t really all that disabled.
Sign number 4 involved a crowd of about 5,000 people who had come to listen to Jesus teach. You know where this is going. As evening approached his disciples told him he should stop talking so people could go into town and get something to eat. Jesus said, “You feed them.” All they could come up with were a couple of fish and some loaves of bread, but in the end, 12 basketfuls of bread were gathered up after 5,000 people had eaten. But the real miracle was the abundance of people sharing, right?
Sign number 5: Jesus walked onto a stormy lake to the boat where the disciples were. Jesus calmed the storm and rescued a frightened Peter who tried to do the same thing but couldn’t – overtaken by fear. Jesus walked on water. But maybe it wasn’t so deep? And in the end, it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s all a metaphor, right?
Sign number 6: Jesus put mud on the eyes of a man born blind. He washed and then he could see – our story last week. The Pharisees argued he wasn’t really blind in the first place –suggesting my own skepticism. Metaphorical blindness, right? Because the real point was that it exposed the blindness of the religious authorities. Just like sign 5 was really a message about confronting your fears. And sign number 4 was really about the power of sharing. And sign number 3 was really about taking initiative for our own healing. You get where I’m going.
Then sign number 7: Lazarus is raised from the dead. But maybe he wasn’t really that dead.
Anticipating my search for alternate explanations, a more reasonable justification, John goes out of his way to give such details as – it’s been four days, he stinks… No. There are no “maybe it’s possibles…” left.
Now, to be clear – these are signs. They are not meant to turn Jesus into an object of worship, not meant to turn Jesus into an idol, but signs pointing to God. Jesus’ miracles were not about drawing attention to himself but to point to God. It is God whom we worship, the one Jesus calls Abba, his Father.
And with each sign, John raises the stakes of what is potentially conceivable, thinkable, and even imaginable. It most certainly strains the bounds of intellectual credibility. But the challenge of our faith is always to keep our hearts and minds and soul and strength open to receive that which may not be easily conceivable, thinkable, likely, believable, plausible, reasonable… Lazarus.
Examples like Lazarus show how Jesus keeps pointing to greater potential than what exists in us alone. Such signs keep directing us toward that which is greater than ourselves. Placing our faith in God, not in ourselves. Remember – to love God with all our hearts and minds and soul and strength. And to love our neighbor as our self. And just who is our neighbor? Everyone we wish it weren’t.
In keeping with our progressive, justice-focused faith tradition, we remember that each sign and miracle also raised the profile of trouble-maker Jesus. The religious and Roman authorities keep having to evaluate his acceptable threat level. Remember they have been watching his seven signs too – each time wondering if he has gone too far this time.
At various times there have always been preachers and prophets, minor agitators. Even miracle workers and healers weren’t unheard of. If there were threats, they could be controlled or put down if necessary. Rome was good at that. And crucifixion was a good deterrent. Any remaining followers are scared off.
And next week we will hear about that final encounter between Jesus and the authorities. He will arrive in Jerusalem with palms waving and great fanfare and excitement. And then within days be quickly abandoned by every single follower except a few women. Their mission to silence Jesus accomplished.
But they soon discovered what they really had on their hands. This was just step number one in the revolution for the humble and the hungry. The poor, the immigrant, the refugee. Those bound by death.
When there are no more explanations. Nothing more to say. Rock bottom. It is finished. When credibility and plausibility and conceivability and thinkability (is that a word?), when those are no more, then hope begins. Hope begins where things seem least hopeful. After four days, the stench growing…
We aren’t there yet as a country. But it is astounding how fast we are sinking. And maybe that’s good news. Because maybe only then will we come together in a way that nobody can conceive of yet. Love of neighbor still seems far off in some circles. You mean those people too? But that is our job.
It is truly our challenge, and our blessing, to always keep our hearts and minds and soul and strength open to receive that which may not be easily thinkable in the moment. But we can! Because when things couldn’t possibly get worse, our faith is in God, not our own ability. Whew!
Though I do caution, in the meantime, the stench will probably get worse before it gets better. Recall from the story, Lazarus stank pretty bad before his glorious unbinding took place. Before he was, before we are, completely free.
John 11:1-45 Common English Bible (CEB)
11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.”13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death.20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.”29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb
38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance.39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.