Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon: “Sensing the Sacred: What’s That Smell?”, John 11:1-45 (March 29, 2020)

(This is the sixth sermon in our Lenten series, "Sensing the Sacred". 
The others can be found here, here, herehere, and here.)


In my Junior year of college, I took a course called “Art and the Bible”. I remember sitting in a large auditorium with images of classical art depicting scriptural stories projected in front of us. Most of the class time was spent with the professor explaining what we were seeing in detail. We’d have the scripture in front of us as we listened to him so that we could figure out for ourselves what aspects of the art were true to the text and which were “creative license”. It was a fascinating class (to me, anyway).

One piece of art from this course sticks out in my memory more than all the others. It was a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna, titled “The Raising of Lazarus”. I don’t remember it due to its being particularly beautiful or insightful or moving or anything like that. The reason I remember it is because of something that my professor pointed out to the class: while most of the crowd is appropriately in awe of the miracle that’s just occurred, and a few are taking care of logistics like moving the stone away from the tomb or giving thanks to God…one man at the front of the crowd is holding his cloak in front of his nose. Because as amazing as this resurrection would have been, Martha was right—after four days dead, the reality is that Lazarus would have stunk to high heaven.

Although 21-year-old me found that amusing enough to remember it over 10 years later, 34-year-old me is drawn to that observation for a different reason. Resurrection is an incredible, miraculous, wonderful thing. But resurrection can’t happen unless death precedes it. And death…death is ugly. Decay is foul. It smells. It’s unpleasant in every way. No matter how joyful we are at the prospect of new life, it can’t undo or diminish the death that necessarily comes first.

Jesus recognized this reality. He certainly knew perfectly well that Lazarus would live again. It was the very first thing he said to Martha when he arrived at their home. And yet, Jesus didn’t rush straight to the tomb to get to the good part. He didn’t push the mourners aside and say, “Forget that! Look what I can do!” No; instead, Jesus sat with them and wept. And I don’t want us to have any misapprehensions about these tears. These weren’t tragically beautiful, melancholy tears that streamed down his face in a dignified manner. He wasn’t crying as a formality. Mary and Martha were mourning the loss of their brother. Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend. These would have been body-wrenching, snot-producing, ear-splitting sobs. Anyone who’s ever battled depression or lost someone beloved to them knows what this sort of crying is really like. It’s not poetic. It’s not pretty. It’s awful. It’s physically painful. But it’s the reality of lament.

We can fool many of our senses into ignoring the painful parts of lament. We can look upon death and see it merely as a natural part of life. We can choose to hear the silence of death as peaceful rather than desolate. We can touch death and recognize that pain is over, that the person we loved is free of their earthly body. But our sense of smell doesn’t lie. The smell of death is inescapable. It echoes the fear and despair that we feel. It makes manifest our loss. The best we can do to escape it is to cover it up…but then, even that becomes a reminder of death. The myrrh that we associate with the Christmas story is actually a perfume that was used in biblical times to anoint dead bodies. The smell would have been instantly recognizable to Jesus’ contemporaries as a marker of death and decay. With the sense of smell being intimately linked to memories and emotions, this means that the grief of death is all but unavoidable.

But even though we might not want this, it’s not a bad thing. Because he was willing to deal with the unpleasant smell of the tomb, the man in di Buoninsegna’s painting was able to be the very first witness to Lazarus’ resurrection. Because he was willing to acknowledge the reality of death, he was able to fully appreciate the miracle of life. This is not only okay—it’s vital! Even Jesus made time to mourn before resurrecting Lazarus. Because it WAS sad. It WAS painful. It WAS terrible. To ignore that is to cheapen the gift that life is.

Death is scary. Jesus doesn’t rescue us from the hard parts of death. We still need to confront them and live with them. But God promises to be with us through the hard parts and assures us that death does not, WILL not, have the final word. We have no way of knowing how long the hard parts will last—it might be days, like Lazarus, it might be years, like the Israelites in the wilderness, and it might even be for the rest of our earthly lives, like Moses. But the Good News is that no matter how long it takes, we WILL be rescued and redeemed. Life WILL come from death. Jesus WILL weep with us and for us, and then Jesus will resurrect us.

Friends, you may be wrestling with the death of your hopes for Easter Sunday or other springtime events that you were anticipating with excitement. You may be grappling with the death of your job, your source of income, your sense of security. You may be coping with literal death, watching the numbers of COVID-19 casualties rise and fearing for your friends, your family, or even yourself. Honor those feelings. Don’t push them aside or deny them. Let yourself weep. Let yourself mourn and grieve. Let yourself smell the decay that surrounds us, now more than perhaps ever before in our lives. But never, EVER let yourself forget that Christ is here, and that life WILL come again. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted[1]…and they will be the first to recognize the new life that comes from God. Amen.


[1] Matthew 5:4.

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