I grew up with David Bowie.
What I mean is I grew up listening to the music of David Bowie being played by my older siblings. Some of Bowie’s lyrics permeate the English language. For example, ‘Major Tim’ coined by the media, is a reference to the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. It refers to ‘Major Tom’ from the lyrics of Bowie’s classic song of 1969, ‘Space Oddity’. But perhaps Bowie’s most haunting song was his last, ‘Lazarus’. It is a reflection on death from a performance artist coming to terms with his own mortality.
Lazarus is a reference to the man who died and was brought back to life by Jesus in the Gospel of John 11:1-44. There are often many levels to stories. Today I read this story at the level where we are Lazarus. We are Lazarus when we hear the voice of the one who calls us from the ‘tomb’. This story is the story of our coming to life from death and not just as a future event.
We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.” So, God helps the one who suffers from affliction. For me, this story says we can be afflicted by death in many ways. We will die physically, but we can also die emotionally, relationally, socially, communally, economically, politically, or spiritually.
I am often reminded of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, who sat in her ragged wedding dress – grave clothes if you like – amid the cobwebs, the mouldy wedding cake, and the darkness of her home. Miss Havisham died in a way on her wedding day, that never happened. She was ‘entombed’.
The ghostlike character of Miss Havisham warns us that we all have the potential to create tombs in this life. We can create them individually and collectively. But I am convinced that we are not created to dwell in tombs forever – in this life or the next. For Christians this is the message of Easter.
One of the most significant Christian responses that can be shared in this world with other human beings is our response to death. Acknowledging all the emotions involved and yet providing a message of something more. This is conveyed by Sister Helen Prejean in her true story ‘Dead Man Walking’ written in 1993, which subsequently became a film. The story explores many aspects of what it means to be human in the face of death.
Human beings have addressed this question over the millennia, from mummification to cryogenics, seeking to defy death. Cybernetics now poses the question of whether human consciousness can be transformed into digital data and hence become ‘immortal’? This is called ‘Transhumanism’. The ‘mind, body, spirit’ debate continues but I am not here to address that. The Biblical tradition does not point us toward immortality, which is a Greek philosophical concept. Instead, it speaks of life transformed before God, even after death.
When Jesus eventually arrives at the tomb of Lazarus he asks, “Where have you laid him?” The crowd reply, “Lord, come and see.” We flashback to chapter one of John’s gospel when the would-be disciples are seeking Jesus, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” Life with God it seems is signified with invitations into the ‘new’.
At the entrance of the tomb Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” The Greek verb ‘kraugazein’ occurs six times in John’s gospel. It is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. But Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus – and to us. A voice calls at the edge of our tombs. We are invited to respond – freed from our grave clothes, as Jesus says, “Unbind them and let them go.”
There are many forms of death. I know what it is like to be in the ‘tomb’, and maybe so do you. But a voice spoke to me and in time… I was unbound. For we are created not for dwelling in tombs, but for life in this world and beyond. Life shared with others and with God. Life Unbound – Come and See…..
Sermon for Easter Day 2023 by Rev Derek Chandler