In the name of the One who creates; procreates and recreates.
'Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you .. The living, the living, they thank you, as I do this day .. The Lord will save me, and we will sing to stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the Lord.' Isaiah 38.18,19,20
Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit (in the book by JRR Tolkein of the same name) has just stolen one solitary gold cup from the dragon Smaug's huge hoard of treasure, while he slept. Bilbo returns to the dwarves waiting at the entrance to the secret tunnel, but Smaug wakes up. Tolkein writes: 'Dragons may not have much real use for all their wealth, but they know it to an ounce as a rule, especially after long possession; and Smaug was no exception .. He stirred and stretched forth his neck to sniff. Then he missed the cup! Thieves! Fire! Murder! Such a thing had not happened since he first came to the mountain! His rage passes description – the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than enough lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.' (The Hobbit p217)
Sometimes I have thought of God as a bit like this Smaug. Or the proverbial Scrooge, counting up his money, and rejoicing when he's got more and weeping bitterly when he's lost some. It seems like this, when you hear some people speak about God. It's as if the Almighty is in heaven keeping a count of all the followers; rejoicing if some more become followers, but getting angry when some fall away. What a good God am I, I've got 2.1 billion (of a total population of 6,812,400,000) followers today; 0.0002% more than yesterday! But, of course these days the number is going down, not up, and God is not pleased. We need to get more children involved!!!
And of course the way God knows how many followers there are, is by how loudly they sing. The more loud the praise; the more followers. The quieter the music; the less number of followers.
It is as if God has this almighty inferiority complex, and we have to keep God from not feeling insecure by our praise. And we might take the words of the psalm of King Hezekiah to mean this. The king bargains with God. I won't be able to praise you if I die – therefore you have to keep me alive.
One of the other passages of scripture that might be used to reinforce this idea is the second of the ten commandments, 'You shall not make for yourself an idol .. for I the Lord your God am a jealous God ..' Exodus 20.4,5 However in an equally well known passage St Paul assures us that 'love .. is not jealous'; so God, being love, cannot be jealous. (1 Cor 13.4)
I note that each and every time someone meets God in scripture, they fall on their faces. And each and every time someone falls on their face, God lifts them to their feet, restoring in them the primal dignity given to all human beings; to stand on their own two feet (rather than cower before the Almighty) and to think and reason and so to act (rather than simply comply). (Actually I lie, the Blessed Virgin Mary didn't fall on her face when the Archangel Gabriel came to her.) So whatever God does, God does for our benefit, to lift us to our feet and so to restore our primal dignity as human beings.
So the raising of Lazarus was not to keep another person in the earthly choir, but something about the raising of a human to life, and a raising of humanity to the fullness of life, beyond mere compliance with rules and regulations with which we have to comply, to a life in communion with all.
You see; death is not at all a cessation of communion with God, it is a cessation of communion with other people. And it is this that Jesus restores.
During Lent we here in the Cathedral had the series of sermons on 'God in the Gallery'. Art is expressing what is important to oneself to others, it is a way of communion with other people. Standing on our own two feet, unbound, able to think and reason, not just comply, and to be creative – to be a whole person in relationship with others – this is what real life is about, and this is what God wants for you and for me and for all people.
The death and resurrection of Jesus was not primarily a conflict and victory over secular atheist authorities, like the recent controversy prompted by the visit of Professor Richard Dawkins might suggest. The death and resurrection of Jesus was a conflict with those who used religious orthodoxy to separate themselves from others and to effectively marginalise and alienate others. So it was not just Lazarus who was dead, but all who were marginalised and alienated by the religiously orthodox who were effectively dead.
However, marginalisation and alienation in the name of our 'christian' god continues to this day as we consider our expression of faith and worship so much more superior than that of others. And I have no doubt it is precisely this marginalisation and alienation of others who dare to think and to reason that motivates people like Professor Richard Dawkins. If we had a God who affirmed the scholarship of Dawkins and others we might find that they might come to believe.
You see, we tend to think of idols as creations of clay, wood, stone or metal, all fairly benign, but the idols one really has to worry about are those like Smaug, who after finding one solitary gold cup missing and failing to find Bilbo and the dwarves in the secret tunnel, goes off to attack the innocent people of the Lake (p247f). The real idols are those of our nightmares, the echoes of our past, the ones that keep us afraid. These idols are mental and only affect us and our dealings with others in our personal circle. But the more dangerous idols are those that affect lots of people. In Jesus' day the predominant idol marginalised and alienated anyone who was less than religiously orthodox. If we think in 'christian' terms, God would be condemning the other 4,712,400,000 people alive to eternal damnation! In a less distant generation, I was brought up in the era when children were to be seen and not heard. In echoes of that today there are parts of our Anglican Communion that still marginalise women and alienate gay and lesbian persons. How sad that the story of the destruction of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, because the inhabitants didn't welcome strangers, has been used to justify not welcoming strangers in the name of the very same 'god'; to alienate people who find intimacy in someone of their own gender!
The resurrection is our guarantee that all that would diminish us as individuals and diminish us as a community are null and void. And both of these are necessary. There is precious little point in me having my sins washed away in the precious blood of the lamb, while millions of others are kept in poverty and illness – with premature death all around – by regimes that forbid the use of effective methods of birth control (and these are religious, not secular, regimes – supposedly worshipping the same 'god' as us!)
Sometimes it is necessary to state the bleeding obvious – Smaug was not human. So too our fears and the other things that keep us less than human – dis-eased, infantile, enslaved – are inhuman. But the God we know in Jesus is, above all else, human, and the death and resurrection are our guarantee that humanity and communion with everyone will prevail, and we in the church have to count ourselves in!
Bishop Jack Spong's mantra is that 'the job of the church is to help people live fully and love wastefully, and be all that they can be', and I can but heartily agree for this is what the resurrection is all about, this is what God wants for each and every person. It is when we get this message that our praise of the Almighty becomes truly heartfelt.