Practicality often gets in the way of noticing the glory of God. Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with being “down to earth”; indeed, a healthy dose of practicality is downright necessary. If my practical side didn’t assert itself, I don’t think I’d ever remember to buy groceries. But a life governed by “the practical” misses the better portion of what makes life worth living—that is, rejoicing in the glory of God that perpetually surrounds me. This Sunday is All Saints’ Day, and I’m really excited that I get to preach because the Gospel text comes from perhaps my favorite chapter of the Bible. I talked about the first half of the chapter a few weeks ago on Episcopalcafe.com. Go read the second part of John 11 before continuing this post.
Jesus commands the onlookers to remove the stone, but before they can start rolling, Martha jumps in. Notice that the narrator, with odd redundancy, reminds the reader that Martha is the sister of the dead man. The oddity of this reminder makes it stand out. Martha, who had just made one of the strongest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel, once again has her mind on the practicalities of death. And this is made clear in her comment, which the NRSV makes slightly more sanitary than it is. The NRSV translation sounds rather like a member of the British House of Lords: Already there is a stench. Another reading gives this statement the earthier quality of, say, a West Texas ranch hand: It’s been four days; he stinks! With unpolished directness, her practical side asserts itself and comments on the absurdity of the scene that’s taking place.
Before coming to the tomb, Martha was ready to believe everything that Jesus said to her. But, now, confronted with the stone covering her brother’s tomb, this belief seems so small and silly compared to the reality of Lazarus’s death. The practical notion that the dead body of Lazarus smells is so much more palpable than the rather dodgy notion that Jesus can possibly bring him back to life. For a moment, she clings to this practicality because the alternative drove past the exit for Impracticality miles back and is stopping at a rest area over the border in Impossibility.
But Jesus turns the car around: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God,” he says to Martha. In other words, don’t focus on reasons why what I’m about to do won’t work. Instead, remember that you believe in me, which gives you the ability to discover the one reason why it will work—because I AM. There are plenty of practical reasons why Lazarus’s stench, rather than Lazarus himself, will come out. But Jesus trumps all these reasons with a helping of delightful divine unreasonableness, which reminds me of some of Paul’s words: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). When Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away, the olfactory practicality of human decomposition is insignificant compared to the divine impracticality of raising someone from the dead.
Belief in God is impractical because (unlike my groceries) it can’t be seen or touched or bought or sold. However, when God integrates belief into my practical life, I notice the incompleteness of a life full of practicalities. The unreasonableness of belief in God becomes my reason to live. And the impracticality of putting my faith in an impalpable being infuses all parts of my practical life. Martha’s probably right in the end: when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smells like one of those little trees you put on your rearview mirror. But he comes out all the same.