Easter Sunday, April 12 2009
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
From the beginning of humanity and from the fall of Adam, God has promised us a Redeemer to bring us back to him. To bring us home. From the very day that Death came into the world, God has promised us a conqueror of Death. For Three Days, as Jesus lay sealed in his tomb…as he descended into the land of the dead…all hope of this seemed lost forever. But today, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is with great joy that I proclaim to you that once and for all, death has been defeated! Christ is risen! Our Redeemer Lives! Alleluia!
Yes, indeed, it is that time of year again…when children are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross and stores are full of bright colored cutouts and window decals of the Flogging at the Pillar. In the Walmart, everyone is humming great hits from the music overhead, like, “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded”. Have you heard the Alvin and the Chipmunks’ version? Car dealers in town are offering Great Big Empty Tomb Sized discounts on Toyotas. It is beginning to look a lot like Easter! Who among us hasn’t been invited to an In His Steps party with a board game showing the road map of the way to the cross and everyone moves the little plastic pieces around the board shaped like crowns of thorns, spears, cups and loaves of bread.
No?? Me either. Somehow, it never seems we make such a big deal of Holy Week and Easter as we do of Christmas. No one plans to have a Holly Jolly Easter??!!*
It just isn’t fun in the way Christmas is, is it? It’s a common place saying that Christmas is for children, which is another way of saying it’s for us to feel childlike and happy. But what about Easter? Back when I was a child, as I am sure many of you might agree, compared to Christmas, Easter was pretty boring. Well…..the chocolate was sure good and I did like a nice hat, but that was about it. A whole lot of blah blah blah at church that we seemed to attend every single day. A whole lot of building up to……what? Well, it seemed to be no pay off. You could always count on Christmas to make a big splash. Christmas changed a lot of things especially in the toy department! Easter did not change anything.
But really, when you think about the astonishing claims that we Christians make at Easter, the neglect we give it is pretty strange. Without Easter, there is no Christmas. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, well…..who would care if he’d been born in a stable or in a holiday inn or down here at Harris Regional Hospital? No Easter, no Christmas. And no Christianity, either.
When we first meet the women in our Gospel text for today, they are on their way to complete a sad task: preparing the body of Jesus for burial. They believed their teacher, their leader, their friend, the Messiah is dead. All their hopes for a bright future sealed forever in the dark, still tomb. God, who had promised a deliverer, had not made good on his promise.
I have a friend who told me that one day, he had decided to see if he could live without God in order to see if God was really necessary. “I got up that morning,” he told me, “looked in the mirror and said, ‘God is dead. There is no God.’ And then I proceeded to go about my day. It was miserable. By lunch time, I didn’t even want to live.” He told me that because he had known God, he didn’t want to live in a world without God in it.
It must have been like that for Jesus’ followers. They knew Jesus—face to face—knew what it was like to walk and talk with him. To eat and drink with the Son of God. And now, he was gone and with him all the hope he had given them.
As the women are heading to the tomb, they wonder to themselves, who will move that heavy stone for us? It is just then that they look up and realize….there is no stone! This huge rock had already been moved. Rolled away like it was nothing!
We don’t know what the women actually thought, but we can guess. They were probably sad, confused. We would all be. When things are not as we had thought they would be. When we lose a future on which we had planned or when someone lets us down, when we lose someone precious to us or come face to face with a great injustice in the face of which we feel helpless, we try so hard to see, to grope along in the darkness of our losses feeling that we have been abandoned or let down. We may not even realize we are standing in the presence of angels. Standing in the very place God has worked a miracle.
Perhaps the women were thinking:
This great man—Jesus of Nazareth—he was a great prophet in both his words and his actions—a man of integrity—he was executed. And, not only that, it was our own people! Our priests and leaders who made it happen. But we had thought…we had hoped…that he would be the one to redeem us. We had really thought that maybe he was the one whom God had sent to set us free, to turn all our sorrows into joy and to bring us back to God. But, maybe we were wrong after all. Our hearts are broken.
The man they meet tells them not to be afraid. This is a common statement for angels in the bible. Huh. Easy for him to say! Surprisingly, this man knows what the women are here for. “You’re looking for him who was crucified..and he’s not here!”
Have you ever seen a really good movie which was very suspenseful with lots of plot turns and twists? Or read a really great novel? Suddenly there comes a point for the viewer or the reader where everything begins to click—everything starts sliding together. It all starts to make one picture. Maybe these women were like that…..remembering the stories about the Messiah that God send to his people. Like the prophets who said words like:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you….The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear,…7The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory…he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing8as on a day of festival. The Lord says: I will remove disaster from you, …… And I will save the lame and gather the outcast… I will change their shame into joy…20At that time I will bring you home…..
Or when Isaiah said:
God says: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. ….He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth …, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon and those who sit in darkness…..See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.….The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Or perhaps they remembered hearing about this great promise of God:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines….. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth….. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
He will swallow up death forever! What an audacious promise!! What these women had seen as Jesus’ defeat was actually his victory. He had to die in order to defeat death. And now it has been swallowed up forever and he will wipe away the tears from all faces.
The end of this Gospel is quite ambiguous. It has the women running off in amazement and terror. Well, who can blame them really? I think that if we could truly grasp what it meant that the tomb where Jesus dead and lifeless body had been laid was empty on that morning, we’d be amazed and terrified, too. Truly, this is news worthy of trembling. Jesus is at large—on the loose in the world! And all creation should be in awe!
Just a few days before, we could almost hear the devil’s cackle as Jesus was nailed to the cross. It looked like death and evil had won. But our God is a God of mysteries and surprises and it is He who has the last word! Now, Jesus stands victorious. God promised to send to us a redeemer, one who would restore us to relationship with God, and Jesus is that redeemer. God promised to send us a conqueror of death, one who would restore life to us and to the world, and Jesus is that conqueror.
You know, from all those Christmases of my childhood, I remember very little of the toys and gifts I’ve been given. When we grow up we begin to be concerned with bigger things, though perhaps those things are not as much fun. When I grew up I began to see the evidence of suffering and death. I saw people live through situations that seemed so unfair, so crushing that it seemed impossible that there WASN’T a God to wipe away tears and effect Justice on the last day. I saw and still see people find within themselves the courage to face and overcome obstacles with a strength that comes from a source beyond their own. We have all seen things like these. We have all lost people we loved. Many of us have borne witness to the physical emotional and mental suffering of those we love as well.
Easter tells us of something different from Christmas. It tells us about something that we’d like to protect children from. In fact, these may be things that we’d like to protect ourselves from if we could. Easter speaks of the weariness of life, the pain and profound loneliness, suffering and, what often haunts the backs of our minds: the fear of altogether meaninglessness. And yet, in the midst of this, we find Jesus, triumphant over death, triumphant over all these things. We find Jesus, the very source of life. The one who is life itself. We find Jesus who is SHOCKINGLY alive and who does not deny that all this suffering is a part of our lives but, rather takes hold of it all, the whole of our lives, and transforms it into new life.
In the Orthodox church, there is this Easter chant repeated over and over:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
This is quite different from Christmas carols and animals in a manger scene. This is revolutionary and shocking. Easter didn’t change anything? Easter changes everything. Once and for all, death has been defeated! Christ is risen! Our Redeemer Lives! Alleluia!
*For much of this I owe a debt of gratitude to Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, an Orthodox Theologian and a great woman of God.