Just like that

Lent 5A – Sunday 10th April 2011
John 11: 1-45.

I went up into the attic and found a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made lousy violins.

Tommy CooperThe late, great Tommy Cooper. One of the giants of the light entertainment industry and one of my favourite comedians of all time.

I watched a very good documentary recently about the life of Tommy Cooper. Originally shown back in 2007, The Art of Tommy Cooper, tried to encapsulate in just 30 minutes something of the story of his life.

So I said to the taxi driver, ‘King Arthur’s Close’. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll lose him at the next set of lights’.

Of course, much of it is well documented, from his early days in Wales to life in the army. From small beginnings in provincial theatres to headlining at the Palladium, in Las Vegas and on television.

I went to the butchers the other day and bet him 50 quid that he couldn’t reach the meat off the top shelf. He said, “No, the steaks are too high.”

Tommy CooperBut there was another side to Tommy Cooper, not so well known. He had his demons. He was plagued by self-doubt and was very much an attention-seeker. I also didn’t know that prior to his fatal heart attack on the 15 April 1984 on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, Tommy Cooper had had several other heart attacks and health scares.

Tommy Cooper was a legend. He was one of the finest magicians this country has ever produced. Those in showbusiness said he was a comedian’s comedian. He was that highly respected. Tommy Cooper was a star. But having discovered something of his story we can also say he was a mere mortal, from time to time you glimpsed his very human face. He suffered from anxiety, he suffered from depression. He had a constant battle against alcohol and against addiction to prescription drugs. But what always saved him – in the words of the biography of his life by John Fisher – was he wanted to “Always leave them laughing”.

Tommy CooperPolice arrested two kids yesterday, one was drinking battery acid, and the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.

The story of the raising of Lazarus from John’s 11th chapter is one of the most challenging in his gospel. We’ve now heard four very personal encounters, where the message and intensity seems to deepen week by week. The story of Jesus and Nicodemus, and the Samaritan Woman at the Well are full of deep meaning and significant truths, before the healing of the man born blind takes the concept of words and action to a new level. Finally, the steaks are raised to a ridiculously high level (as Tommy Cooper would say) in the story of Jesus and Lazarus.

Right from the outset there’s a sense of urgency and importance to this story. From Mary and Martha’s worry that makes them send for Jesus, to his response that this would display the glory of God. The delay caused by Jesus staying away creates further tension in the story, and the complete lack of understanding by the disciples as to what Jesus is all about adds a layer of frustration. But both Mary and Martha  have glimpsed the glory of God in the life of Jesus when they say to him separately:

“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:21)

And so the mighty miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from death happens and many people believe, they catch a glimpse of God at work in and through the life of Jesus.

But do you know what I like most about this story? It’s the shortest verse of the Bible:

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

In the midst of one of the most amazing stories of the Bible, as we experience more and more the vision of God amongst us, we see most humbly and meekly the human face of Jesus. There is so much that wrenches the heart in those two simple words. Two words that conjure up such compassion, such sympathy, such kindness. That he feels those emotions for Lazarus. That he feels those emotions for our lives.

We serve a mighty and majestic God, whose mind we cannot fathom, whose heart we cannot comprehend. He is at once both so uniquely divine, and yet so utterly human. Just when we think his love is so far out of our reach he stoops so tenderly to embrace and hold us. This is quite extraordinary, love so amazing, so divine.

Tommy CooperWhen I first discovered the complexity of Tommy Cooper’s life I thought it might taint his story in my eyes. But the more I discovered about his human frailty was equalled matched and eventually overwhelmed by his desire to entertain and to leave them laughing. At the heart of an amazing life was real pain and tragedy, a human life.

And that’s the feeling I’m left with after reading the story of Jesus and Lazarus. I’ve met with the Saviour. I’ve been touched by his love, his compassion, his power. I’ve been raised to new life.

Do you know how I finish this blog?

Just like that!

Happy days.


About Neil Chappell

Husband, father, Congregational Minister and football fan all rolled into one convenient package.
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