I went to see the new Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, recently. Before I tell you about this scene in the movie, I feel like I should call “spoiler alert”. However, if you saw Disney’s cartoon version of this story once upon a time and long ago (25 years ago—just to make us all feel old) then what I’m about to describe isn’t really a spoiler. So, I’m hoping that all of you who are going to see the live-action movie have seen it already, or at least will know what I’m talking about from your memories of the cartoon. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and, in the live-action movie, all of the talking furniture becomes real furniture, instead of turning back into the servants like they would have if the curse had been lifted. And as this moment of the curse becoming permanent seemed to go on for a few beats too many, I sat on the edge of my seat, saying to myself, “Come on, Disney, you’re all about happy endings. Let’s get on with it already.” And, in the end, the curse is lifted, as we expect it to be. But the reason I thought about that moment when all hope seemed to be lost as I was preparing for today’s sermon is this: I wonder if this is the kind of thing that Mary and Martha felt as they watched their brother Lazarus become ill. As his illness worsened and Lazarus grew closer to death, I can see them hopefully, then desperately, watching the door to their house, expecting Jesus to come in at any moment and heal Lazarus. After all, Jesus had healed a lot of other people whom he barely knew. Why shouldn’t he come and heal Lazarus, whom he knew and loved? And then, as the spirit of life slowly leaves Lazarus, and Jesus doesn’t come, the last spark of hope is extinguished. Lazarus is dead, and even though Jesus can do many extraordinary things, the sisters clearly are not expecting Jesus to be able to raise the dead.
To use an image from another movie, Lazarus is dead: most sincerely dead. There is no getting around this. And what’s disturbing about this story is that Jesus deliberately delayed his arrival in Bethany to come after Lazarus’ death, when he might have been able to come earlier and heal him. It’s all good in theory: the Son of God must be glorified through what Jesus is going to do. But in reality, here is what has happened: Mary and Martha and those who knew the family have been put through the wrenching grief of losing Lazarus, and the pain of knowing that Jesus could have come and healed him, but didn’t. The glory of God doesn’t seem to matter very much when you’re weeping over a beloved brother, does it? I think we can all understand why Martha and Mary might be angry with Jesus when he does bother to show up.
But then, Jesus himself gets angry. And our translation doesn’t really show that; it glosses over Jesus’ emotions by saying that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” A more accurate translation of the Greek verb would say something like this: Jesus snorted in anger, bringing to mind the snorting noise that a warhorse makes. The harder question for us to answer is this: why would Jesus be angry? And why would he be so angry that he makes a snorting noise? Well, he could be angry at being scolded by both Martha and Mary; both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or, perhaps Jesus is angry with himself: Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus, and he knew that it would be for God’s glory so that those who witnessed it would believe in him, and, as I said before, that’s all good in theory. But when confronted with the pain and the grief that his delay had caused, Jesus experienced the real consequences of his actions. And he was angry at himself for the pain and the suffering that he had caused by delaying. Then, some of the people surrounding Martha and Mary are saying that Jesus could have kept this man from dying, and he snorts in anger again. Here, I think it’s easier to say that he was angry over the people’s inability to trust in him, even in the event of death, or that he’s angry that the people, too, are scolding him. But whatever the reasons, Jesus is angry.
We say that Jesus is both human and divine, and sometimes, in our minds, the divine takes over the human part. Oh, since Jesus is divine, since Jesus is God’s Son, he can’t get angry. After all, we think, anger is not good and it is sinful, and since Jesus is without sin, he can’t get angry. That’s why, I think, the translators of our Bibles gloss over Jesus’ anger by saying, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s just vague enough to get Jesus off the hook; to say that yes, he experienced human emotions, but he didn’t experience the really bad ones. But let’s think about that for a moment: as human beings, we all get angry from time to time. It is a natural human emotion, and there is nothing sinful about anger in and of itself. Rather, it is what we do with that anger that is sinful. So for me, and perhaps for some of you here today, too, Jesus becoming angry at this whole situation that he’s in makes him more human. He really did experience everything that I do; he understands what it’s like to lose a loved one. Not only did Jesus weep as he saw the others around him weeping, he became angry at himself—and became angry at God, too.
What Jesus does with his anger, though, is the important part of this story. He follows through with what he knew he was going to do all along: he confronts death head on. We tend to laugh when Martha objects to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone from the grave by saying, “Lord, already there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” It is a realistic and pragmatic touch to this powerful story that makes us love Martha. But, there is something more going on here. I’d like to explain it by telling this story.
Back in January, I lost one of my cats to something called FIP, a virus against which there is no vaccine and no cure. I watched my cat die in front of me, and I brought him back to the vet to have him confirm that my cat was dead. I mourned for my cat, but after a couple of days, my life was starting to return to an equilibrium, and a new normal with just one dog and one cat in the house. Things started to settle into a routine again. Then, a couple of weeks later, I got the call from the vet that the ashes of my cat who had died were ready to be picked up. I went to pick up the box, and the moment of my cat’s death replayed itself in my mind, and the wound became raw once more.
I think that’s what is going on here when Martha tells Jesus that there will be a stench if they open the tomb. The stench will be a reminder to her and to Mary that Lazarus is truly dead, and the pain of the wound will come once more to the surface. They will relive the moment when they saw Lazarus take his last breath. They will have to confront death. I think that Martha and Mary and those who were with Jesus were expecting Jesus to mourn at the tomb at this point in the story; they were still not expecting Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life, and that’s why Martha is surprised at Jesus commanding the stone to be removed. And so, Jesus urges them once more to believe, so that they may see the glory of God. And he does the impossible: he brings Lazarus back to life.
It’s comforting to me to see that, even as far back as this ancient story of Jesus raising Lazarus, no one likes to confront death. It shows me that human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the years. But one of the points that John is making by telling us this story is this: we can’t appreciate resurrection and new life until we have first acknowledged the reality of death. And we don’t like to do that in our society today. More and more when I look through the obituaries in the paper I see that there is no funeral or memorial service planned for a person who has died. Or, if there is one planned, it is named as a “celebration of life” because we don’t want people to be sad. We are uncomfortable with grief. But denying death in this way, and in other ways, is not natural, and denying grief is simply not healthy. Gathering together to console one another in our grief, as the friends of Martha and Mary did for them when Lazarus died, is a vitally important and healthy thing to do.
But something that is even more disturbing to me is that this avoidance of death in general society has infected the church, too. In the years that I have been with you here at Hope, I have seen only small numbers of people come to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. I know that this was the pattern even before I got here, and I have struggled with this. Part of me understands that it may be hard to commit to going to two worship services two days in a row. But I think there’s something deeper than that in play here: we don’t want to confront death. We want the joy of Easter without having to go to the cross and stare death in the face. But here is the truth: without death, there can be no resurrection. We cannot truly understand and experience the joy of Easter without first understanding and experiencing the crucifixion on Good Friday.
I think deep down, Jesus understood that. In John’s Gospel, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the final straw with the authorities: after this, they go off and seriously plot to kill Jesus. Jesus knew that. And so, when they opened the tomb of Lazarus and the stench of death came out, Jesus was confronting his own upcoming death. Jesus knew that, not long from this moment, he would be experiencing this same thing. And yet, whatever fear he might have felt in this moment, he also had hope that death would not be the end, either for him or for Lazarus. And he gave the people the sign that there is hope for resurrection by raising Lazarus, and through that sign, he himself knew that he and all of the people around him would experience that resurrection as well.
As Christians, we are resurrection people. But as Christians, we know that we cannot experience resurrection without first experiencing death. Jesus teaches us the way to confront death and to not be afraid. We should be able to look death in the face and say, “Yes, death, you are pretty scary. And you are disgusting. But, we have hope. We know one who has died for us, and yet has conquered death. And he claims us as his brothers and sisters. And because of that, we know that one day, we, too, through Jesus, will conquer death, and we will live forever with Jesus. So go ahead, death. Do your worst. We will acknowledge you, but we trust that God through Jesus will bring us through you. You will not take away our hope in Christ.” Amen.