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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 26, 2023

John 11:1-45

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death stinks. It literally stinks, of course, but it stinks in every other way as well.

It stinks because it brings confusion and pain. It stinks because it brings grief, which can be overwhelming, even debilitating, at times. It stinks because it means loss. Death brings an aching absence in your life that used to be filled by the person who died. If it was someone especially close to you, this absence can be as profound as losing a limb. Yes, death stinks in more ways than one.

Death stinks because it can also make us confused about what God is up to in our lives. It can make us wonder whether God hears our prayers, whether God cares about us.

You can almost picture Martha and Mary giving Jesus the stink eye when he showed up a day late and a dollar short after their beloved brother died. “If you had been here, Lord, our brother would not have died,” they each said to him. When these sisters sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was gravely ill, Jesus didn’t rush to their side. He didn’t immediately respond to their request. John tells us, “Though Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” It is almost as though John feels a need to reassure us that Jesus loved them, because his dallying, his delayed response, sure didn’t look like love. By the time Jesus headed out to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead. And so came the stink eye directed towards him from Martha and Mary. Then came the thinly veiled disappointment in him as they said, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.”

I sometimes hear echoes of Mary and Martha’s words in the grief and the disappointment and the confusion and the anger of those who have lost loved ones, those whose prayers seem to have gone unanswered. We pray fervently for God to intervene when we are sick or when someone we love is sick. We pray fervently that God would come and help. We pray fervently for healing, for the surgery to be successful, for the tumor to be benign, for the chemo to work. By all means we should pray for these things, and when our requests are met, we should give thanks.

When they aren’t, however, that’s when the stink eye often shows up. That’s when the disappointment can set in. That’s when one’s relationship with God sometimes becomes strained.

When Jesus was confronted by these two grieving sisters, he didn’t give them an excuse for why he didn’t respond right away, in the way they would have liked. Instead, he gave them a promise. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Jesus didn’t give these two disappointed sisters an explanation for why he allowed things to unfold as they did. Instead, he wept with them. Even though he knew what would ultimately happen, Jesus had empathy for them. He understood what death did to people. He was moved by their grief and shared in it. His emotions flowed so freely that some in the crowd noticed it, saying, “See how he loved him!”

Others were cynical about it, saying, “If he loved him, why didn’t he come a little earlier and save him?” But Jesus did love Lazarus. He loved Lazarus so much that he asked to be taken to the tomb. They brought him to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone lying against it to seal it tight. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” But Martha said no. She said no because death literally stinks. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Tombs weren’t something you just opened up again. They were filthy places. They made you unclean, both physically and, in Jewish tradition, spiritually as well. But Jesus loved Lazarus enough to get dirty.

I once knew a man whose wife died. He had adored this woman. He was the kind of husband who doted on his wife, holding her hand whenever he could with a big smile on his face. He just lit up whenever she was around. He cared for her so lovingly in her final days. Then he found himself standing at her graveside in his best suit. He insisted on staying until she had been lowered into the ground. People milled around for a while, but he lingered, and lingered, and lingered. He just didn’t want to leave her. Eventually it was just me and him and the funeral director left there when he got down on the ground next to her grave. He got down on his belly and reached his arms down to his wife, calling out her name. It didn’t matter to him that he was getting mud all over his nice suit. He loved her and he didn’t want to let her go. It was gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time.

Jesus loved Lazarus enough to get dirty too.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus said. So they opened up the tomb. Jesus came right up next to it. Jesus spoke into that dark cave as the stench wafted out. Jesus called out his name: “Lazarus, come out!”

And Lazarus came out.

If there was any question about whether Jesus loved him before, there wasn’t now. If there was confusion about what Jesus was up to, it had now given way to the joy and wonder of Jesus’ power over death. If there were any doubts about Jesus before, they now gave way to faith in him. As John tells us, “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

While Jesus didn’t respond to the sisters in the way they wanted him to, while he didn’t grant their request and come quickly to heal Lazarus, Jesus did do what gave God glory. He said no in order to say yes to something better. He let Lazarus die so that he could show his power over death. And many came to believe in him as a result.

The Christian church has always seen human life as precious, from womb to tomb. The Christian church has always sought to preserve human life. Christians literally invented the hospital so that sick people would be nursed back to health and diseases might be treated and people could go on living as long as possible. We can and should pray fervently for anyone who is ill, asking God to intervene and heal them.

But no matter how much we pray, and no matter how wonderfully advanced medical technology gets, death will come. It will come for the people we love. It will come for each of us.

That stinks, but Christ Jesus does not leave us alone when death comes. Though we might wonder where he is, though we might be disappointed that our prayers aren’t answered in the way we would like, Jesus does come to us. He comes to us in the same way he came to Mary and Martha.

Jesus comes to us with a promise. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus acknowledges the reality of death, saying, “even though they die,” but he promises that death will not hold us. It will not have the last word for us who trust in him.

As we encounter death, Jesus has compassion for us. He has empathy for us. He weeps with us. He knows the toll death takes on our hearts and our lives. He knows the aching absence. He loves us so much that he weeps for us and with us. And so we are never alone in our grief. Even when it feels like it, even when our heads are swimming with a swirl of intense emotions and we can’t make sense of anything, Christ Jesus is right there beside us, accompanying us in our grief, walking through it with us. We grieve, but, as St. Paul says, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We have a promise from our Lord that gives us hope in the face of death.

When we are one day lowered into our grave, or scattered, or interred, Jesus will do what gives God the greatest glory. He will come to our tomb. He will open it up. He will get down into the dirt and stink of it all to be close to us, refusing to let us go. In his great love for us he will reach his arms down into our graves and call out our names.

And his voice has a power that ours do not. His word is more powerful than death.

And so when we die, the first thing we will hear is the voice of our Lord Jesus calling our name, calling us to come out.

It is then that we will be unbound from death. It is then that we will be truly healed. It is then that we will bask in the fullness of the glory of God. It is then that we will rise up to live with Jesus and all the saints forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church