Martha was scared of the stink.
When Jesus said to “Take away the stone” from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha shot back with, “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days” (John 11:39).
We do this godly lady an injustice if we see these words as reflecting a lack of faith. She had earlier told Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give You whatever You ask” (v. 21). Notice how she was able to move from the tremendous disappointment of Jesus not showing up in time to save her brother (see v. 1-3), to the present—“even now God will give You whatever You ask.” She had that kind of faith in Him. It’s a faith that is reflected in her confession that “You are the Messiah, the Son of God” (v. 27). This confession appears to occupy the same place in John’s gospel that Peter’s confession has in the synoptics.
No, I think Martha was like most of us—we believe God can do great things and we want to be involved in what He’s doing—but we would also prefer that it be as far away from any stink as possible. After all, we might get it on us or even worse, we might start smelling that way ourselves.
Not only is this an impractical request, it’s an impossible one. The stink Martha was trying to avoid was the odor associated with a decomposing body. Bodies decompose because death puts an end to the regenerative processes that prevent decomposition. Death occurs because of sin (Genesis 3). It’s a theological truth that sooner or later becomes part of everyone’s biography and yes, it stinks.
Jesus thought so. We’re told three times in the account that He was deeply moved or weeping (v. 33, 35, 38). He wasn’t that way because Lazarus had died—He was in control and knew that he would be raised. No, He was weeping because He was in the presence of the pain that sin brings. He was upset by the enormity of suffering and death sin has brought to our planet—the pediatric cancer units, Parkinson’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. That is the stink of sin and it’s all around us.
But the good news is that Jesus is right in the middle of the stink. And He’s not there as a passionless observer—He’s there as an involved Savior who is working out the redemption of humanity. So instead of trying to steer clear of the stink at all costs, why don’t we just decide to go wherever Jesus leads us?
We received a holiday card recently lamenting the terrible year 2020 has been and speaking in more hopeful terms for 2021. I understand that—it’s been a difficult year in many ways, and I have no wish to minimize that. But next year, no matter what it brings, will have its share of stink—you can count on it. We won’t get through by being scared of it. We will make it through by understanding no matter how bad the odor gets—Jesus will be right there in the middle of the stink, working for the world’s good. That’s where He does His best work.
Just ask Lazarus.