“Take away the stone,” [Jesus] said. “But, LORD,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” John 11:39-40
Every time I read the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead I think about the same thing. The smell. Martha warns Jesus that there will be a bad odor of death if they take away the stone. But, Jesus commands them to remove the stone anyway – I always imagine them moving the stone and backing quickly away, covering their faces. And then, as they are standing there trying not to breathe too much — Jesus prays for a while.
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” John 11:41-42
So, there was this interval between their obedience in taking away the stone and actually seeing Lazarus walk out. They must have stood there gaging on the strong odor after four days in the heat as Jesus prayed. Did Jesus do this on purpose? Jesus says he prayed “for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you [the Father] sent me.” Did Jesus let them wait in the smell of death for their benefit? I think so.
Remember when he told the disciples that Lazarus was dead he said, “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” He wanted there to be absolutely no doubt as to it being a miracle, and that nobody but God could have done it. Like a man seeing who was blind from birth. Like an old woman giving birth to a son. Like Elijah pouring water on the sacrifice (1 Kings 18:30-33) until it filled the trench.
I grieve that many of us are there in the interval between obedience and answered prayer. And it smells like death and it looks like death and we are trying not to give in to despair. Then, all of a sudden I realize something gaspingly wonderful. What were they waiting for standing outside the tomb? What are we waiting for now? We are waiting for Jesus to pray. It says Jesus prayed. Jesus is always interceding on our behalf. He has not forgotten us, he has not given us up to hopelessness, death and despair. He is praying for us. That gives me hope for which I can joyfully wait.
Jesus prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me (in the past tense)” even before he called Lazarus out. Even in the midst of the hopeless smell of death, in the interval between the obedience and the seeing, Jesus thanked God for hearing and answering. Then he called the dead man out. They all must have breathed deeply about the same time as Lazarus did.
I have been there a lot, standing in the smell of death, waiting for God. Waiting for the tears to turn to joy. I am there now holding my breath. Like the world held its breath in the darkness before the Resurrection. And time stretches long when you are trying not to breathe. But I know that Jesus is praying for me, and in this dark time he is working life in me and in you. And I believe that God keeps his promises. I believe that God’s Word is true. I believe that Lazarus will walk out.
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living. Psalm 27:13 (NASB)
Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Romans 8:34
Father, I thank you that you have heard me. John 11:41
Image in the Public Domain, Detail from The Raising of Lazarus illumination on parchment, c. 1504