Now imagine the house of Lazarus filled from floor to ceiling with the smell of the most expensive fragrance known to man. Grown in the Himalayas at an altitude above 10000 feet, costing a year’s wages, bought by Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha. The same house that a short time earlier was filled with the smell of death, of tears, of a man who might have lived had only Jesus been there. And when at last he did come, he brought new life from the dead. “Lazarus, come out.” “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This morning at table with Lazarus and Martha, Mary throws herself at the same feet she had embraced earlier in last-ditch, clinging hope. Now she embraces them as they march resolutely toward death. We cannot know her mind. What we can know is that here, at the feet of Jesus, is where life from death, hope from hopelessness, trust from regret, adoration from guilt and shame become realities. Worth going all in for. Spending all we have available because confident this man Jesus is at the center of life and love, defeating death and despair wherever his feet go.
Jesus does not prevent the death of Lazarus but reverses it. He does not eliminate pain and sorrow and sickness in life but transforms them by walking straight into them and bringing new life. A titan striding the places of death and sickness and showing himself just there to be King.
Indeed, trying to get Jesus to turn from his path so that we might not experience death and loss would be to defeat him in his greatest purposes. Judas wants to take what Mary has lavished, what she has herself bought, and sell it away. He pretends interest in service. Helping the poor. But he is a thief who prowls around in the guise of good deeds.
This is one place where we might stop and reflect.
In the meditation “Love Bade Me Welcome” by George Herbert, the rural English parson, we are brought before the love of God Almighty. And because it is the love of God, the love that sets the stars in the sky, our hopes and our fears both arise. Our knowledge of our unworthiness. Our shame. Our lost or deferred hopes. Our unruly wills and affections. Our confusions and doubts about whether God is for us, or whether we are to be left to ourselves and our own best efforts. In our drawing back God tells us that his Son has borne the pain and loss and shame and unworthiness, for us. In thankfulness a pilgrim asks how he might serve.
This is not a bad instinct. It has its proper place. Many here have been doing their duty and service through trial and long days. Such may be our seasons.
But God responds in this way. Let me read the final line.
‘And know you not who bore the blame?’ ‘Yes, then I will serve.’ ‘You must sit down,’ say Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ So I did sit and eat.
We are at the point in the Lenten walk with Jesus when it is time to sit and eat. To take nourishment from him as he does his great work for us. For you and for me. All the Gospels tell of a final precious anointing of Jesus. For Mark and Matthew, it is an unnamed woman with costly oil. For Luke a sinful woman forgiven much. For John it is Mary of Bethany, at table with Lazarus and Martha. Where we too must sit down and eat.
And of course we already know Martha the busy one, serving at table, and Mary who listens at his feet, from the other gospels. Here in John they join one another at table, together with the Lazarus, who serves to remind us of the authority of Jesus over death and all things hurtful of God’s good purposes. A family fragrant with new life even facing death.
When I was little my mother had a framed prayer over the sink called simply “The Kitchen Prayer,” and its middle verse I recall to this day.
Although I must have Martha’s hands, I have a Mary mind, And when I black the boots and shoes, Thy sandals Lord I find. I think of how they trod the earth, what time I scrub the floor, accept this meditation Lord, I haven’t time for more.
But it is also important to stop and take nourishment for the journey of faith—to have a Mary mind—at the table where we are given the life and strength that make service possible, and when God is most kind, also joy. In service, an act of adoration and gratitude. Worth giving it our all.
To go with Jesus to his death – as we do next Sunday on Palm Sunday – is to die with him. It is to die to those forms of service that distract and keep us occupied but do not give life. To those fears that cannot be shunted away by human effort. To those losses we cannot recover. To those sicknesses that are greater than us, but never greater than him. To those concerns that this or that cannot be changed, when with God, all things can become new. “Behold I do a new thing,” Isaiah proclaims. “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion we became like those who dream,” our Psalm proclaims. “Those who sowed in tears will reap with songs of joy.”
And when this happens, when we sit at table with Jesus and eat, a fragrance of new life arises and removes the smell of fear and death, as surely as Lazarus finds himself overwhelmed by the most costly fragrance known to man.
St Luke’s can be the House of Lazarus, can put off that kind of fragrance, not by our hard work only, but by our surrender to him who has the power to make all we do – our service and our missteps, our best and our worst – the occasions of his transforming grace. New life. New hope. Life out of death.
You must sit down, says Love and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat.