Dinner with Lazarus

By Charles Kiker

Six days before the Passover Jesus Came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Lazarus is there. Lazarus! Just a day or two before, Lazarus was dead! Dead! All bound up in grave clothes; wrapped up in the wrappings of death! He had been dead long enough that Martha objected, when Jesus asked them to roll away the stone from the mouth of the tomb, “Lord! By this time he’ll stink. He’s been dead four days.”

Lazarus was dead, but there he sat at the table. No doubt as the head of the house he had given thanks for the bread. He who was dead gave thanks for the Bread of Life. He who had been dead was there at the table with a fork and carving knife in his hand, ready to carve the roast lamb to honor his guest the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Bring on the food, Martha! Let’s have a feast! Let’s celebrate life! Let’s celebrate the Lord of Life who gave Lazarus life out of death. Let’s celebrate life in Jesus. O death, where now is your sting? O grave, where now is your victory? We are in the presence of life triumphant over death. Bring on the food, Martha! Let’s have a feast! Let’s celebrate life!

Bring on the food, Martha! Let’s celebrate freedom. Let’s celebrate the Son who sets us free. Lazarus is not bound anymore. When Jesus said, “Loose him!” the wrappings and trappings of death were not strong enough to hold him. Let’s celebrate freedom! The wrappings and trappings and forms of religion that bind up and restrain the celebration of freedom have bound us long enough. And the Lord speaks to whoever will listen, “Untie them! Let them go!” Bring on the food Martha. Let’s have a feast! Let’s celebrate freedom!

Here comes Martha from the kitchen now—a platter of lamb in one hand and a tray of bread in the other, but Mary is nowhere to be seen.

Now here comes Mary, but she’s not serving table. What’s that she’s carrying? Not lamb; not bread. It’s a flask of ointment, pure nard, expensive stuff! There must be a pound of it in that flask. That cost a pretty penny. It’d take a whole year’s wages to buy that. “Wonder where she got the money to buy that?” some cynic asked with a wink. I wonder what she’s going to do with it.

We don’t have to wonder long. Mary comes to Jesus and pours that nard on his feet and wipes his feet with her hair. And the smell of perfume, the sweet fragrance of that perfume fills the house which so recently haunted by the odor of death.

So they all lived happily ever after. Right? Wrong!

Death hates life. Bondage hates freedom. So Judas complains. “Why wasn’t this sold and given to the poor.” Not that Judas cares about the poor; Judas cares about the money.

But Judas is not the real villain in this story. Judas is just a pawn, a willing pawn of the sinister forces of death and bondage lurking just outside this feast celebrating life and freedom.

The villains in this story are those who are in control of the religion of Israel just as the early church is getting under way. Control is the operative word here. Bind things up. Be sure the expressions of faith are under tight control, lest things get out of hand.

Nicodemus,one of those religious controllers, came to Jesus one night. “We know you’re a teacher from God,” he said, “for it’s not possible for anyone else to do these things you do.”  Jesus responded, “I’ll tell you what’s not possible, Nicodemus. It’s not possible to see the kingdom of God without being born anew, born from above. You have to be born of the Spirit. And those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind. You hear its sound, but you can’t control it. You don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. You can’t control the Spirit, Nicodemus, and those born of the Spirit are out from under the controls of rigidifying and stultifying human imposed ways of doing things.”

Well, there are a bunch of controllers just outside Lazarus’ door. And they hear the commotion, and say, “Things are getting out of control in there. We have to put a stop to it. It’s all Lazarus’ fault. How dare a dead man live? How dare somebody who’s all wrapped up in the trappings of death live freely under God? We better kill him. He’s causing too much trouble.” So they begin plotting to kill Lazarus.

John didn’t finish the story about Lazarus. John knew that we ought to know without being told. We know that life haters and freedom haters and joy haters will stop at nothing to squelch life and freedom and joy. But we know something else too. We know that in just a few days they killed Jesus, the arch advocate of life and freedom and joy. But they couldn’t win. Resurrection morning followed dark Friday as surely as day follows night.

We know that the sweet perfume of life is stronger than the stench of death. We know that Good News freedom bursts all the wrappings and trappings of freedom denying, joy killing religion.

In Lent we need to delve deeply into the darkness of dark Friday.

But we know the ending, and we have to celebrate. So come, Martha, bring another platter of lamb. Let’s have a feast. Let’s celebrate freedom.  Come Mary, spread the sweet perfume of life all over this room. Let’s celebrate life.

Adaptation of a sermon originally preached at First Baptist Church of Kansas City, Kansas, March 29, 1998