After giving a lecture on miracles, one very learned theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle’, he said, ‘it is life’. And there are times in our lives, aren’t there, when we know how right he was… Life itself is a miracle. So, if you have wept at anything recently, if your heart beats faster at the sight of something or someone beautiful, if you listen when people talk to you, if there is any great cause for which you would give your life, if you smile when the sun shines, if you talk to strangers in the street, if you laugh out loud occasionally, if you are filled with longing for the world to be a better place, if you know what it is feel pain or bliss or both, then you are alive. And this is the greatest miracle of them all. The miracle of just being alive.
But, great miracle though it is, it’s one that’s easy to ignore or forget. And sometimes, we can all be guilty of letting it pass us by or fall through our fingers while we just get on with existing instead, rather than grasping the miracle of the kind of life that can be lived in fulness, whatever our circumstances, health or age. Jesus said that he came to give us life, life in all its fulness – and that was his greatest miracle of all.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used to tell a story, a kind of parable, about geese. He said, suppose it was a fact that geese could talk. The geese then would come together every week for religious worship – and a gander (or a goose) would preach. The content of the sermon would be roughly the same each week – what a high goal the Creator has set before the goose. By the aid of wings, they can fly, to distant places, where they would be properly at home, for they are strangers here. And every week the geese go home to their own affairs, and again next Sunday to worship, and then again home. And that was the end of it. The geese would become plump and then they were eaten at Christmas, for though the sermon sounded great on Sunday, on Monday the geese were ready to tell each other about what happened to a goose who had made serious use of the wings he had been given. And they looked with suspicion on some others of the geese who seemed to be growing thin and beginning to flap their wings… And the next Sunday they would go to worship and hear the same sermon about what a lofty goal the Creator had set before the goose, for which their wings were designed…
And so it is, said Kierkegaard, so it is sometimes with the worship of the church. We too have wings. We too could fly.
And flying here is a metaphor, of course, for living. We are meant for living, with all its delight and its pain and possibility. And none of this depends on your income or your health, because we know that rich people can be dead inside and that healthy people can shut down and bound tight their feelings. Jesus came to show us what human life could really be like, a life that’s defined by love and openness and generosity and joy. We are not meant, we never were meant, to be dry bones. We are meant for life. The story of the geese makes us laugh at the ones who chose to be fattened only for death, but of course the philosopher who told the story wanted us to see how sometimes we too can choose half-life and even death, when all the time God is offering us the fulness of life. We are sometimes afraid of the risk of life and sometimes prefer to live only half awake and never to use our wings..
The story of Lazarus is a story about life. And, if you think about it, it’s a story of a man who had the chance to live a second time, the chance to come out of death and try living again. And perhaps it can help us think about what it might mean to be alive at all. Poor Lazarus is always portrayed – in sculptures, film and paintings – as someone wrapped in grave clothes. He’s shown as though he were a kind of zombie – as though he belongs with the dead rather than the living. I love the Epstein statute of Lazarus –and I’ve seen it many times as it stands in New College Chapel in Oxford. I love the huge hands that are still strapped to his body and his head tilted on one side, as though he is just beginning to stir. But, however beautiful the statue is, Lazarus is still bound, still – in a way – dead. And in so many of the icons, and the films and the novels (and there seem to be many of them!) Lazarus still has something about him of the smell of the death. In the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the newly risen Lazarus is a poor soul, afraid of the light, dirty from the soil and the earth worms. He is a dead man just woken up. But his story in the Bible is not about death at all, but about having a second chance at life, the kind of second chance that most of us need to seize during our first life if we can. I would love to be able to commission a statue of Lazarus as he got into the stride of his second life, the life he might not have had, the life he lived when he knew that he had escaped death. A dfferent kind of statue of Lazarus might show a man somehow truly alive.. And then of course we have to ask what that would look like. And it might even make us ask what that would look like for us..
I think there is little doubt that the writer of John’s Gospel would have torn up chapter 11 if he thought that we’d all be obsessed with Lazarus as a kind of zombie figure, if he knew that we would remember this second chance life man as a revived corpse rather than as a human being brought back from the dead to live again. And perhaps he might despair sometimes if he could see us, disciples of Jesus, yet not always fully awake and alive. ‘Wake up’ was one of the first Christian songs. Becoming and being a Christian is about waking up to a new morning of life, again and again. Some writers have even reflected that Lazarus was to be pitied because he was doomed to die twice, to have a second death at a later date. ‘No one has committed so many sins in life that they deserve to die twice’ says Mary in Joe Saramago’s novel. There’s a glass half empty kind of thought… But never mind the second death, think about the chance of a second life. Think about the chance truly to live…!
So, how about seeing Lazarus, perhaps the first one to know what resurrection really means, as an inspiration to embrace life, to recognise that however old we are or whatever has happened to us that we have a real chance to live again and to live more fully. What if we could see Lazarus as one set free from the grave clothes, as one given, against all the odds, a second life? What if we could grasp that possibility for ourselves too?
There are people who, very literally, get second chances at life and many of them can testify about what that feels like. Someone suffers a heart attack, clutches at his chest and thinks that this is it. But by a miracle help is close and he finds himself clutching at life instead, seeing his family and friends with new eyes, looking at years of life that for a moment he thought he would never have. Or someone suffers the sadness and heartbreak of widowhood or divorce, to find that she falls in love again with someone gentle and funny and passionate, and a new life that she never imagined is opened up. Or after redundancy, after the shattering blow of finding a job is ended, someone finds a new kind of work, and a more fulfilling life than she thought possible with days that she looks forward in a way she never dreamt could be. Or after the loss of a child and the most devastating grief, someone finds that light begins to transform the darkness enough to make life find a new purpose. Someone in middle age, with a second wife, becomes a born again father of children the same age as his grandchildren. Someone in middle age finds that she has an intellect that she’d never believed was hers and she thrives on books and learning. There are many kinds of second life. There are many ways that we can emerge from the tomb of a first life, and find a second one.
A few weeks ago I discovered an amazing poem called When Death Comes, written by an American poet called Mary Oliver. It’s supposed to be a poem about death, but like most poems about death, it’s actually a poem about life. She says,
‘When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazment.
I was the bridgegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
of full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.’
I think I have known people who have lived as though they were just visiting. And I have seen and known people who were fully committed to living life to the full, people who were given the gift of life. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Lazarus, to come back and have a second chance at life, to come right back from the grave, to come back and try it again. What do you think he might have hoped for, with his second life?
I remember that when Dennis Potter, the playwright, knew that he was dying he looked at the blosson on the Spring trees and said it was the blossomiest blossom he had ever seen. And I can imagine that when Lazarus stepped out of the tomb he knew at last how precious and how beautiful life really can be. I can imagine that he looked for his sisters and looked into their beautiful faces. I can imagine that he saw a familiar friend in the crowd and winked. I can imagine that he looked at Jesus and knew he would gladly give his life for him if he could. He could have spread wings and flown – he felt so strong and full of hope. He was wonderfully, fantastically, fully, abundantly, gloriously, beautifullly, alive.. Not at all the living dead, but the livingest person there was. Because that is what resurrection looks like, that’s what eternal life looks like, that is what God made us for and what Jesus reaches into every tomb we make for ourselves to haul us out for. This is life. And it is God’s good gift. Who can say how long we shall have? But whether it is long or short, troubled or easy, let it really be life. Don’t be a visitor on earth. But come and live here, live the life that God made you for. Come out of your tombs. Spread your wings. Sit and eat at the feast of life. Whatever your name, come out! And take a second chance at life. Amen.