“The Raising of Lazarus” by Vincent van Gogh
By Donna Brown
Originally posted March 10, 2014, at Revdonna’s Blog. Republished with permission of the author.
“He stinketh.” I do not usually use the King James Version of the Bible, but in this case I’ll make an exception. He stinketh are Martha’s words from that old translation and that, “he stinketh,” has kind of stucketh with me.
It is easy to laugh at the words, but our humor hides or disguises the seriousness and the pain of this scene/story.
Lazarus stinketh, he stinks because he is dead, and unlike that man who revived at the morgue in his body bag, Lazarus has been dead and in his tomb four days. The mourners from their town of Bethany know that he stinketh, Mary and her sister Martha know this, and Martha wants to make sure Jesus knows this too. Lazarus stinketh because he is beyond healing, beyond hope.
Now, maybe if Jesus had made it to their home earlier, perhaps if he had not dillydallied in Jerusalem. If only he had acted as soon as he got the word that Lazarus, that Mary and Martha, needed him. If only.
How many times do we say those words, “If only”? How many times are we even afraid to say it? But not Mary and Martha — both sisters voice their loss, their frustration, their anger, their pain to Jesus. I am so glad they say those words, “If only” and that Jesus listens to them. He doesn’t rebuke them. It makes our “if only’s” OK.
If only we had gone to the doctor or the hospital sooner, if only we hadn’t been on the cell phone, if only we had said “I love you, I forgive you” that last time, if only the driver hadn’t been drinking or had been paying attention. If only you, God, if only you had answered our prayers, done what we wanted, stopped that bullet, cured that cancer, healed that addiction. If only. Two words that speak volumes about how not just death stinketh, but sometimes life stinketh too.
Sometimes life is so rotten that even the Son of God is not unaffected but just has to let the tears roll down his cheeks. I don’t know about you, but for me there is great comfort in that Jesus — in the Jesus who knows so deep down in his heart what it is to love and lose. That does not let divinity, does not let propriety, does not let what some people think may be good and proper, control him. Instead, we read, we hear, we sing — Jesus wept.
Those two little words in English — three in the Greek it was originally written in — tell us volumes. They tell us that not only does life stinketh sometimes, but that faith isn’t afraid to go to even the smelliest and messiest places. Being faithful to God is being faithful to our ties to one another. Being faithful to God isn’t about looking good and having it all together. Church, we are not here to put on a performance; we are here to meet the one who huffs, who needs some puffs, and will break open the doors of death.
That’s what Jesus does. He calls out, perhaps with tears still flowing over his dust-covered skin, “Lazarus, come out.”
That’s the thing about God’s word, it can penetrate to the deepest pit of despair and death. It can move through mountains of struggles and vibrate through piles of pains. And it doesn’t stop until it is heard. Lazarus, come out.
And he did. Lazarus gulped in some stinky, clammy, stale air but air nonetheless. The breath of life filled his lungs again, pumped his heart, and moved his muscles. In the dark, all wrapped up like a mummy he got up and got going.
But, “Lazarus, come out” wasn’t Jesus’ last word. Nope. Jesus could put the air back into his stiff and stinky body, but he needed the people to pull the wrappings away. They couldn’t just stand there like a bunch of spectators watching and waiting till Lazarus had gotten himself all cleaned up, got some soap, and some deodorant, made himself respectable. No, Lazarus stinketh and Jesus said get over there to that man and touch him not with a 10-foot pole but with your hands; bring him and welcome him back to the land of the living.
There’s a lot of talk about what a church should be doing these days. We know that the world has changed, the world is changing. It’s not the same out there as it was years and years ago. It’s not the same in here. The people out there, the people in here, are not the same. A lot of people are really hurting. A lot of people are walking around like the walking dead. Death has a hold on this world, and, man, it stinketh.
So what is Jesus telling us to do? Come in here and hide, and pretend, pray, make ourselves feel a bit better? No, Jesus says to us, come out, it will get messy, maybe even stinketh some. But Jesus says to us get out there, get over there, weep with those in pain, touch those who are untouchable, loosen the binds, loosen up. And you know what? Death is the one who will lose. Death will fall away like the shreds of the shroud that bound Lazarus.
Because, unlike the reinvigorated dead that fill our imaginations, our bookshelves, our TVs and movies, of this or that zombie apocalypse, Lazarus doesn’t come out of the tomb hungry for brains, but rather hungry for life.
And as at least one character wisely has said on some show or another, “Coming back from the dead changes people.” And we, the church of Jesus — who raised Lazarus, who was raised from death, who promises to raise us too, maybe not just on the last day, but every day. And, although we won’t hear the words till next week, we can now say with Martha and Mary, the sisters of the man who stinketh, the ones whose love was returned to them when Lazarus was raised, we can say, thank you, thank you, thank you Jesus. Amen.
Find a link to Donna Brown’s blog Revdonna’s Blog at Lutheran Blogs.