The Stench of Death and the Promise of Life

“Lazarus is dead. …I am the resurrection and the life.”
John 11:14, 25

Lent is a troubling season for people living in twenty-first centur y North America. Lent is about death–both our Lord’s death and our own deaths–and we live in a culture uneasy with this stark reality. The evidence for our uneasiness comes in both cosmetic and communicative ways.

As a pastor, I find the funeral home to be a place full of irony and contradiction–even subtle deception. Someone has died, but it doesn’t look like it. Morticians mask death with makeup–the corpse placed in casket trimmed with chrome and lined with satin. If the funeral director has done the job well, I’ll often hear friends and family say that the deceased one appears to be “peacefully sleeping.” Appearances can be dreadfully deceiving. Someone has died, but no one speaks about it. We use glorified “Christian-ese,” mindlessly muttering phrases like, “Mom went home to glory” or “Dad went to be with Jesus.” Even the insipid words “passed away” are emblematic of a culture that has domesticated death. Words such as these shroud the truth.

In John 11, the Gospel writer tells a story about the death of Lazarus of Bethany. In this story, John makes no attempt to tame the truth. Mary and Martha are anxious about their brother’s illness. They send word to Jesus, who stays in Jerusalem two more days before going to Bethany. Lazarus dies. At first, Jesus attempts to speak about death in culturally conditioned language: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (John 11:11). When the disciples misunderstand him, however, Jesus is forthright: “Lazarus has died” (John 11:14).

Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus is met by two grief-stricken sisters. Their initial encounters with Jesus on two separate occasions are the same, and are marked by a combination of affirmation and accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). The sisters affirm their faith in Jesus–that he possessed the power to heal their ailing brother. But at the same time, Martha and Mary accuse Jesus of Lazarus’s death; had he arrived sooner, the death could have been prevented.

Anyone who has experienced the premature death of a loved one understands that affirmation and accusation go hand-in-hand as we wrestle our way through grief’s nauseating twists and turns. We believe in God’s goodness…at least we want to believe in God’s goodness…but why would a good God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

John tells us that Mary weeps, that her Jewish friends weep, and that, in the midst of so much sorrow, Jesus weeps too. In fact, John tells us that the outpouring of emotion surrounding Lazarus’s death leaves Jesus feeling “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33), as if to remind us that, even for our Lord, death is disconcerting. Later, when Jesus commands the stone to be taken away from the tomb, Martha reminds Jesus that there is a stench because Lazarus has been dead for four days. The smell of decaying f lesh must have over whelmed them at the stone’s removal–a reminder to us that all the mortician’s makeup and all the embalmer’s chemicals cannot preser ve that which does not have the God-given breath of life.

If John is clear about anything, it is this: Death is real. Death is hard. Death is disturbing. Death stinks. What’s all the more troubling is that, just as it was for Lazarus, so it will be for all of us. We will die.

This is what Lent is all about. In order to find life–in order for Life to find us–we must die.

Fortunately, Easter follows Lent. New life springs forth from death. This is part of John’s Gospel story too. Jesus engages Martha in conversation about resurrection–about this new life. Despite our fascination with Jesus’ ability to raise Lazarus from the grave, the true miracle of John’s account comes in Jesus’ words in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and ever yone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Thanks be to God that death does not have the final word. The Lord of Life does.

Michael Hardeman is co-pastor of Alton Reformed Church in Alton, Iowa.