5th Sunday in Lent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
John 11:1-45 Sermon
March 9, 2008
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
--- "Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing"
294 "Jesus Christ My Sure Defence"
573 "O Blessed Son Whose Splendor"
385 "My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less"
JESUS TAKES AWAY DEATH’S STENCH
TEXT (vs. 38-44): “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’”
Death is everywhere. It seems that regardless of how hard we might try, we can’t avoid it. If we turn on the television, we see programs such as the three CSI’s, or NCIS, or others that involve death, dead bodies, coroners, and so forth. If we turn on the news, there’s always something about people dying. We can’t even open the newspaper without the couple pages in the Journal-Star comprising the obituaries fairly jumping out at us.
Back when I did my seminary training, I knew that I would have to deal with death during my ministry. In fact, one of my classmates who was called to an older congregation right out of seminary told me that he had to conduct ten funerals during his first six months at his congregation. And of course it wasn’t easy.
As for me, my first real reality check about death came when I was training as a Police Chaplain some nine years ago. And during my time as a Chaplain, I can’t even begin to tell you how many death calls I’ve had to handle. None of them have been easy either.
I can remember my very first one. It was a man, in his fifties I believe, who lived by himself in a first floor apartment on 10th and E Streets. A neighbor had called the police requesting a “welfare check” on this man’s apartment, since they smelt a bad odor, and nobody would answer the door or the telephone.
When I arrived, all of the doors and windows were open, and there was a Lancaster County Sheriff’s Deputy standing guard outside. And just as a side note, the reason it was a Sheriff’s Deputy is because the Coroner’s office in Lincoln is a county rather than a city office. But I digress.
We figured that the man had been dead for three days. And since it was early summer, the days were warm. He had been in a hot, closed-up apartment for that length of time. He was lying face down on the floor, and his body was almost black because of the coagulated blood.
But the one thing that really hit me was the smell. The smell of decomposing flesh, or “decomp” as it is called on TV, has to be one of the most pungent and foul smells you could imagine. There’s really no way to describe it; but I can assure you that once you’ve smelt it, you’ll never forget it.
That’s one of the realities of death, and it’s probably one of those things that most people in the clergy don’t have to deal with very often, if at all. For most pastors, death is dealt with in a hospital, or in the antiseptic surroundings of a funeral home. A rotting corpse is outside most pastors’ field of experience.
If you’ve watched some of those TV shows that deal with death, you probably know that there are numerous ways to check whether or not a person is living. Checking the pulse is the first way. Holding a mirror in front of someone’s nose is another way. If a coroner starts to make an incision and the person starts bleeding, then you know they’re not dead. But if there’s no heartbeat, no respiration, no brain activity, and no response to stimulation, then one can be reasonably well assured that the person is no longer alive. And if rigor mortis has set in (that’s the stiffening and contracting of the body’s muscles after death), or the person has turned black due to coagulating blood, or there’s the stench of decomposing flesh, there can be absolutely no doubt that the person is one-hundred percent dead.
As we get into our text for today which is the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday, the one thing you probably noticed is that it is 45 verses long. That’s a very long Gospel reading! And if we wanted the entire story, we would have to read an additional 12 verses, ending at verse 57. I’m not going to do that, but I will reference them later on in the sermon.
Our reading is that long for a reason. This account of the raising of Lazarus is a multi-faceted event, with many key issues being brought to light, and I might add topics for many sermons. However I’m going to focus today on the primary subject of the story, this man named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who lived in Bethany.
One could assume that this family either lived together, or lived close to each other. Bethany is not that big of a town. These people were more than just followers of Jesus; they were his closest friends. In fact, Lazarus was most likely Jesus’ closest friend, notwithstanding the 12 apostles. Our text for today refers to him as the one Jesus loved.
Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was very sick. Even though he knew this, he still held back going to Bethany for a couple days. His disciples were confused as to why he did this, but it was all part of his master plan. Jesus was going to perform one of his most amazing miracles yet, and he wanted a large audience to witness it. Moreover, there could be no doubt in any of their minds as to what he had done.
In the beginning of the famous book entitled “A Christmas Carol,” the story about Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens writes the following words: "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner." Later on Dickens says, "There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."
Much the same could be said about the death of Lazarus in our story today. It must be distinctly understood that Lazarus was dead, or nothing wonderful could come out of this event.
In those days, it was customary to have a seven day period of mourning when someone died. There were even professional mourners that people would hire to come and help them grieve, as was the case here. So there were many people gathered to mourn. When Jesus showed up at Bethany, it was now day four of this mourning period. He arrived right in the middle of everything, just as he had planned.
Everybody knew Lazarus was dead. Mary and Martha knew. Those who anointed the body and wrapped it for burial knew. All of the mourners knew this to be a fact.
And just in case there might be a seed of doubt amongst the people, Jesus orders the stone to be removed from the entrance to the tomb. What meets the people when this happens is this stench, this unmistakable smell of decomposing flesh. Everybody knew what this unique odor was. Lazarus was most certainly and most assuredly very dead.
We all know that when a person first dies, or goes into a “full code” as they say in the hospital, the minutes following are very precious if the person is to be revived. Respiratory functions are stimulated either through mouth-to-mouth or with a bag. The heart is stimulated manually as in CPR, or they use a defibulator. Injections are given to stimulate the heart, sometimes right into the heart itself. But there comes a time, should all these efforts fail, when a person has to be pronounced dead. A time comes when all efforts to revive a person are deemed futile.
Even with all of the life-saving medical measures available, we know that if a person has had rigor mortis set in, if the body is black with coagulated blood, and if there is the stench of decomposing flesh, then there’s no need to even consider trying to revive that person. They have been dead too long. And I would seriously doubt if there’s a medical professional anywhere who would disagree with this. It’s just common sense.
But it’s here where Jesus steps in to do the impossible; that is humanly speaking. The stone is removed. The people gathered there are met with this unbelievably pungent smell of a rotting corpse. Even people back then knew what that smell meant, and that it would be futile to try to revive him.
But Jesus, with the power of just a few words, commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And out he comes, still bound with the swathing bands they wrapped him in when he died. Lazarus was alive, and well, and walking, and talking. Jesus had done the impossible.
Certainly Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying. He could have come before he died and healed him of his illness. A healing miracle here would have been as much of a miracle as any he had done in the past. But doing things in the way Jesus did them had a far greater impact.
We can look at this in a metaphorical sense, where we see ourselves dead in our trespasses and sins. Everything about us in this sinful state has the stench of decomposing flesh. Left on our own according to human standards, we would have nothing to look forward to, except eternal death.
But through our faith in Jesus our Saviour, we have been made alive again. We have heard our Saviour’s voice and he has revived us. He has breathed new life into the dry bones of our corpses. He has eliminated the effects of sin and death in our lives, and has brought us out of the pit into a new living relationship with God. The miracle of faith in our hearts is as astounding and awesome as it was when Jesus called Lazarus out of his grave.
We can also look at this in a very real sense too. As impossible as it seems for a body to be raised from the dead, we know that Christ will raise our bodies from the grave on the Last Day. He will call us forth from the earth that holds our bodies, and give us a new and glorified body like his own. As believers, we will inhabit the mansions of heaven for eternity. Even Martha, when she thought Lazarus’ body would remain in the grave, stated her hope in the resurrection of the dead.
Jesus’ reply to her is a very familiar verse, one that I’ve used in every funeral I’ve ever conducted. John 11, 25-26 quotes Jesus saying, “…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….” Most certainly Jesus takes away the stench of death.
This miracle was done in the presence of many witnesses, people who knew that Lazarus was dead beyond all doubt. Jesus did this miracle to show exactly who he was and what he came to do. People would know that he was more powerful than death and the grave, even under some very adverse circumstances.
There are people out there who are nay-sayers, those who think that Lazarus was only in a coma. But the smell that came forth from his tomb wasn’t because he hadn’t bathed in several days. The smell was from his rotting corpse, the unmistakable smell of decomposing flesh.
Some of the witnesses of this event take this news back to the Pharisees, who called together the entire Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. This account is in those 12 verses following our text for today.
It would seem that they would be overjoyed with this miracle, that Jesus was indeed who he claimed to be. But instead, they saw Jesus as more of a threat than ever. Verse 48 says, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” And then verse 53 continues, “So from that day on they plotted to take his life.”
For the Pharisees and the whole Sanhedrin, this was the final straw for them. The fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah wasn’t the important thing; they were more concerned about their own places of importance and their own luxurious lifestyle. They couldn’t care less about what Jesus had come to do.
Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew their hearts and their intents. And so when he returned to Jerusalem for the Passover, he knew where the road ahead was leading. He would be arrested, beaten, flogged, spit upon, illegally tried, and put to death on the cross.
The final verse of our text for today, verse 45 gives the best reason for Jesus performing this miracle: “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.”
Jesus showed himself to be true God, doing things only God could do. He showed his love to all people by willingly bearing the punishment for the sins of all humanity, and taking them to the cross.
But then he showed his love for people, assuring them that he was more powerful than even death itself. He raised Lazarus from the grave after having been dead for four days surrounded with the odor of decomposing flesh. It should have been no surprise that he was then able to raise himself from the grave after three days, after having endured the torture and death he did.
Through all of this, the love of Jesus for the people on this earth comes shining through. Whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we do, the love of Jesus continues to surround us. Through faith, we can be assured that our sins are forgiven through him. And through faith, we know without a doubt that we will one day hear his voice and be called from our graves, to live with him in paradise for all of eternity.