A certain man became ill. His name was Lazarus, and he lived in the village of Bethany, in the hills just west of Jerusalem, in the region of Judea. His sisters lived there too, in the same vilalge, keeping house together – Mary and Martha. Neither of them had ever married – Mary couldn’t be bothered; she didn’t want the things other women wanted – a home of her own, children underfoot. Her mind and heart were always wandering off from the present moment to dwell with the great Mystery at the center of things. And Martha – well, somebody needed to look after Mary and Lazarus.
People got sick a lot, in those days. And illnesses we can prevent or treat easily, often killed people. When Lazarus got sick, his sisters were worried. But they had a friend whom they hoped could help: Jesus of Nazareth. I wish we knew how they became friends, Jesus and the siblings from Bethany, but we know it was an important friendship. Luke records the famous story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet as Martha prepares food, while John gives us the stories I’m telling now. So the sisters write to Jesus: “Master, your friend whom you love is ill.” They’ve heard about his powers, though they may not yet have seen them firsthand. They trust that he could help Lazarus – if he came.
But he doesn’t come. He gets the message all right. And he loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus, all right. But he stays where he is – preaching and performing acts of wonder near the River Jordan – for two more days. Two long days… during which Lazarus got sicker, and died. During which his sisters washed his body, weeping, and wrapped him in linen cloths, and laid him in a tomb, and sealed the door with a great stone, and began the long hard work of figuring out how to live after the loss of a loved one.
Then, on the third day, out of the blue, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up.” His disciples are concerned; Bethany is very close to Jerusalem, where various leaders are plotting to murder Jesus if he shows his face. They say, “If Lazarus is asleep, he’ll be fine! He doesn’t need you.” Jesus realizes he has to drop the euphemisms. He tells them, “Lazarus is dead. But all of this has happened so that God may be glorified.” Then he says some stuff about how if you walk in the light you will not stumble. The disciples look at each other, shrug. If Jesus is going to die, might as well die with him. And they all set out for Bethany.
By the time they arrive, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany is packed with people; many friends and extended family have come out from Jerusalem to mourn with Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples stay just outside the town, and send word quietly to the sisters that they have arrived. When the message reaches her, Martha excuses herself from a knot of anxious aunties and goes to him.
She says, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” She answers, “Yes, of course, I know he will rise again when all those who have died in God rise to new life on the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the New Life, Martha. Everyone who trusts in me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?” And Martha, trembling, says to her friend who is also her God: “Yes. I believe that you are the Anointed One, Son of God, the One coming into the world.”
Then Martha goes and slips into the house, and calls Mary away from those who are gathered to console her. Several of them follow her. She runs to Jesus and falls at his feet, and cries out, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s weeping, and those who came with her are weeping, and tears are contagious; Jesus starts to weep too. Maybe his God-self has been so focused on the gathering miracle that his human-self hadn’t felt the loss until that moment. But now, he weeps. Some of the onlookers say, “Look, he really loved Lazarus!” But others say, “If he cared so much, why didn’t he come heal him?”
He asks them to lead him to the tomb – a cave, sealed by a stone. They expect him to pay his respects, say his goodbyes. Instead he says, “Take away the stone.” Martha, blessed Martha, ever practical, says, “Master, his body has been there for four days. There will be a terrible smell.” Jesus says, Martha. Trust in me. So they roll away the stone. And Jesus looks up towards heaven and prays out loud: “Father, show this crowd that you have sent me.” Then he shouts into the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”
A long, still, incredulous moment. Then – horror, wonder – sounds from within the dark of the cave. A dim shape, shuffling into the light – face, hands and feet still bound in cloth. The crowd gasps, steps back. Jesus laughs. “Unbind the poor man,” he says, “and let him go.”
Was there a smell, I wonder? The text does not reveal the mechanics of the miracle. Did Lazarus’ body begin the normal course of decay in a warm climate, only to be abruptly and totally reversed? Or did he wait in divine suspended animation, only mostly dead, anticipating Jesus’ call? If there was a smell, it would have been rich and rank. We’ve all smelled it – roadkill, or a dead mouse in the walls. The odor of death.
Imagine their joy, the sisters and their beloved brother! Psalm 126 gives us words for their incredulous, dazed delight – the way you feel when the worst had happened, but then, suddenly, things turn. “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream! Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy! God has done great things for us. Those who sowed with tears will harvest with shouts of joy.”
But not everyone is joyful. There’s an anxious meeting in Jerusalem the next day. Word of this wondrous act – Jesus’ most amazing yet – has reached the chief priests, and they gather to strategize. They say, “What are we to do? This man Jesus is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. There will be unrest among the people, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. Surely it’s better for one man to die for the sake of the people, than to have the whole nation destroyed.” And they give orders that anyone who sees Jesus in Jerusalem should let them know, so they can have him arrested and deal with this threat.
Jesus and his friends leave the Jerusalem area, but not long. Just a few days later, they’re back in Bethany. Lazarus has invited Jesus to dinner – a feast in his honor. Martha, of course, does the cooking and serves the guests, but she doesn’t mind, much – this is how she can show her friend and Lord how she feels about having her brother restored to her. Mary has a plan to show her gratitude, as well.
While Jesus is reclining at table with Lazarus and others, Mary brings some expensive ointment, made from nard, an exotic and fragrant plant from the far East. She kneels beside Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet, rubbing in the rich ointment. Then she looses her long hair – women wore their hair up, and covered – she unbinds her hair, and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. Foot-washing was a common act of hospitality; people wore sandals and streets were dusty and often filthy. But this is more, and other, than that common gesture.This is powerful, and excessive, and uncomfortably intimate.
I imagine the people nearest noticing, falling silent. The silence spreads around the room until everyone is watching. If you come to Maundy Thursday services, maybe you know that silence, the silence that gathers around each foot-washing station even though there’s music playing and people singing elsewhere in the room. We enter that silence one by one as we come to sit and be washed; to kneel, and wash.
The adults are hesitant, self-conscious. The kids are utterly present and utterly serious. This is big work, deep magic, and they know how to do it. The silence in the room at Bethany would have had all that woven together -awkwardness, confusion, recognition, awe.
This time, there is a smell: the smell of the perfume. It fills the whole house, rich and heavy. It smells like pine needles baking in the sun, like the cool earth of a forest floor, like the insistent sweetness of night flowers. Mary’s using a whole POUND of the stuff; it’s almost choking, overwhelming the smells of roast meat and garlic and warm bread. It gets into your nose and stays there, like the scent of incense. The smell of humanity, urgent with gratitude and awe, offering up the best we have. The odor of devotion. Of love.
It makes Judas’ head swim. It’s too much. Why are his eyes watering? He’s not weeping; it’s the damn perfume. It’s the excess, the shameless waste of it all. He blurts out, “That could have been sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor!”
Jesus looks at him. Imagine that gaze – compassion, grief, resignation – as he looks upon his friend, his betrayer. Leave her alone, says Jesus. She bought this ointment for the day of my burial. You will always have the opportunity to respond to the needs of the poor. But I will not always be here.
The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a crowd, frenzied with joy and expectation, waved palms and shouted, Hosanna! We’ll tell that chapter together, here, next Sunday.
A sermon is supposed to involve some combination of exegesis and explanation. Exegesis is a fancy word for unpacking a text from Scripture, explaining and clarifying – where clarity is to be had. I’ve offered exegesis today simply by telling this story in its fullness. The lectionary gives it to us broken – the raising of Lazarus will come to us on a Sunday in Lent next year, while we have Mary’s anointing of Jesus this Sunday. Those two smells, the smell of death and the smell of devotion, separated by a year instead of 20 verses.
But as for application… This is not a text that is amenable to paring out some portable moral lesson to carry home and into our daily lives. Sometimes we turn to the Wondering question used in our Godly Play classroom downstairs: Where are you in this story? Certainly we find ourselves more readily in the story if we can recall moments when we’ve been overwhelmed with grief, or gratitude –
Or when we’ve stood by perplexed or outraged by the depth of someone else’s emotions. That can be a wonderful way to dwell with a narrative from Scripture, let it settle into our minds and hearts, our very bones.
But I don’t know, friends – who’s ridden a roller coaster? We’re not at the top of the big hill yet – that’s next Sunday – but we are going up, click click click click, feeling the angle pull us back against our seats, watching treetops fall behind us, gripping the bar. Soon. This story, in John’s Gospel, the raising and the feast, is a heart and a pivot: it gathers together what has already happened, it points ahead to what is coming, and it turns the story towards the cross. In this chapter and a half, we have so much that foreshadows what’s ahead: Devotion and betrayal. A feast; a death; a tomb; a stone rolled away; a resurrection. A body wrapped in cloths for burial; a body lovingly anointed with fragrant oil. A week later – only a week! – Jesus will be anointed again, with myrrh and aloes and spices, and wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb.
Maybe rather than trying to find ourselves in the story, right now, we should be trying to let the story find us. For this little time, these strange, demanding, aching, glorious days ahead that are the pivot of the church’s year, the heart of Christian faith, may we let the Story become the center from which we view our lives, rather than vice versa. Beloveds, it’s close now; can you feel the pull of its gravity? This is the Great Story, the Big Mystery. Interpretations falter. Explanations fail. God is about to do a new thing.
Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text: