Easter Day A
April 10, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
We are accustomed to associating Easter Sunday with travel. What we are perhaps not accustomed to realize is that the Easter story involves travel, too. Today we don’t mind traveling in order to see loved ones, including on holidays like Christmas or Easter. Some of us routinely pack up our cars and hit the highway to travel from Omaha clear over to Washington D.C. because that’s where a precious family member currently lives. If you want to be together as a family for a day like Easter, you hit the road. It’s not at all unusual.
But what if someone proposed a long trip to you under very different circumstances? Suppose your daughter, who lives in the same Ohio town where you currently live, is going to have her first baby, your first grandchild. Finally, the day arrives when you get a call telling you that Jenny is on her way to the local hospital to have the baby. You wait, you pace, you bite your fingernails until later that day the phone rings again and it’s your son-in-law. “Mom! It’s a boy and we named him Jeremy. He’s gorgeous and perfect. We can’t wait for you to see him. To celebrate, we’re leaving shortly for Pittsburgh, so if you and Dad want to get in the car and drive on over to Pennsylvania, there you will see Jeremy!”
Well now, in this case the long journey gives pause. If you and the new grandson are both in the same town at the moment, why in the world whisk the tyke over to Pittsburgh! Why do you need to go all the way over there to see the little guy when he’s already right here?!
But something very similar happens in Matthew 28. Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected in Jerusalem, where the disciples are still staying, too, following the Passover holiday weekend. They have not yet gone home. But wonder of wonders on the first day of the week, the women of Jesus’ entourage claim Jesus has been raised. They heard it from an angel’s lips first but then bumped into the master himself! The disciples must have been shocked and not a little intrigued. Surely their first inclination was to run over and see Jesus for themselves.
But there’s a catch: the women report Jesus as instructing them to head over to Galilee and there they will see him.
Punch up a Google map. Notice: Galilee is nearly 80 miles to the north as the crow flies, maybe 90-100 miles on the ground! In those days you didn’t do a trip like that in a day, maybe not even two days. At a decent walking clip of about 4-5 miles per hour on foot it will be 20 hours or so to get there (and since few people can walk 20 hours non-stop, it would be a trip of 2-3 days if you allow for time to eat, rest, and sleep.
The Gospel according to Matthew tells us that the grandest event in galactic history happened just down the road from where the disciples were, and yet they could not celebrate Easter until they walked a very long way. Jesus and the disciples who were so eager to see their Lord were in close proximity initially but the reunion came only after a long trip.
After all, in one sense Jesus was already in a prime spot after he was raised from the dead. Jerusalem was the place to make a splash. Herod was there, Pontius Pilate was there, the Temple hierarchy was there—shoot, everybody who had convicted and killed Jesus was there. These are the people whom we would have suggested the resurrected Jesus visit. But true to form Jesus didn’t do it. It was back to Galilee for the resurrected Lord of life even as it was to Galilee that Jesus journeyed first following his baptism by John earlier in Matthew. The gospel ends the way it began: in an out-of-the-way place and in a very quiet, unassuming fashion.
It hardly looked like the way to get the attention of the whole world, even though doing that is more-or-less what Jesus commissions the disciples to do in Matthew’s famous closing verses. In the wake of Jesus’ entire life, and now certainly of his amazing resurrection, we are to go out and tell everyone about Jesus. But how do we do that? Does Matthew 28 provide any hints or clues? In a way I think it does.
To start, notice what Matthew 28 does not provide. In Matthew Jesus proffers no explanation for just how his death and resurrection “work” to help other people. Obviously Jesus benefitted from his own resurrection, but how does it help you or me or anyone else? Jesus does not say. In fact, in Matthew 28 Jesus does not even mention the words “salvation,” “sin,” “atonement.”
All that we have is Jesus alive again, claiming that somehow he now holds all the authority in the universe. So what the disciples are commissioned to do is to tell people that Jesus is alive. Somehow we need to bring people into the presence of this supremely alive Person in the hope that once they meet Jesus, everything else will fall into place. Our message is life. Our message is affirming of creation and of our lives in it. Our message is joy and, even if it takes a long trip to journey to get to where Jesus is, it’s worth the trip because of the life-affirming exuberance that awaits us at our destination. We are supposed to be zesty people as Christians, radiating life and goodness in a world of death and rottenness.
The first Easter began with a long journey. But it was worth the trip for the disciples because life and joy and wholeness were waiting at the destination. The question Easter poses to us today is whether we exude that same life now, whether we are an attractive destination toward which people would be willing to travel to meet Jesus.
That’s a tricky question for us to face these days. Today there is a tendency to confuse exuding true life with exuding success in the glitzy way the world defines success. Today some confuse resurrection joy with spine-tingling excitement the way Disney World and Hollywood define such excitement. Matthew says that to get to Jesus the disciples had to head out into the sticks to a remote place where they encountered the quiet joy of Jesus. But today some prefer to keep Jesus on Main Street, packaging the gospel like a tailor-made, catered product for the “my way right away” generation of consumers.
There can be no doubt that churches should be places of deep-seated joy; they should be zestful places of life and holy liveliness, and not places of death and finger-wagging judgment only. But those precious features need to be on display in very Christ-like ways. Jesus tells us that our post-Easter job is to embody and also teach all that he commanded. But what kinds of things did Jesus have in mind? What has Jesus “commanded” in Matthew? After all, to the chagrin of the Pharisees Jesus had not exactly behaved like some morality cop. Jesus did not strut around Palestine like some moral drill sergeant. So what “commands” could Jesus have had in mind in Matthew 28?
Well, Jesus commanded that we love each other. Jesus commanded that we love our enemies and show compassion to all neighbors. Jesus commanded that we be forgiving, that we seek the lost, that we welcome those whose status in life is like that of lowly little children. In short, Jesus commanded a kingdom life even as he repeatedly said in parables that the kingdom of God is small, hidden, even invisible by the world’s standards. At the core of the kingdom is joy and grace, kindness and compassion, mercy and love. That’s mostly quiet stuff. Compassion doesn’t make a lot of noise typically, neither do grace and kindness. Yet Jesus says these are resurrection fruits. Jesus was God’s action in the world. If we want to get in on that action, we need to be like Jesus.
That is the irony of Matthew 28. We are so familiar with this famous passage that we maybe don’t recognize the irony but think about it: the disciples have Jesus back again. There he is, undeniably real and alive and in the flesh. It is highly dramatic. Surely the disciples wanted to show him off, rush him back to Jerusalem where they could drop in on King Herod or Pontius Pilate or the chief priests in order to say, “Look who we’ve got back with us! We win, you lose! Now do you believe in Jesus as the Messiah!?” But Jesus authorizes nothing of the kind. Why do you think he left Jerusalem? Probably to avoid precisely that kind of overly dramatic, loud, brash bashing of people with the drama of it all.
Go back to my earlier analogy about the grandchild being whisked to Pittsburgh: if such an odd thing really were done, there would have to be a very, very good reason for it. So also with Jesus leaving the disciples behind in Jerusalem, delaying their experience of Easter by a day or two: there must have been a good reason. Perhaps that reason was that the glitz and glamour of how a raised person would be received in so big a town was what Jesus wanted to avoid. So it is no surprise to discover at the end of Matthew 28 Jesus authorizing something much quieter, though no less sincere, vital, and alive. Indeed, do you know what Jesus left them with? Just water and words. Jesus gives them baptism and his own words from the gospel.
Why didn’t Jesus stay in Jerusalem that first Easter Sunday? Why didn’t he shake people up with the drama of a visibly resurrected body? Maybe it’s just not the way to reach people, not the way God wants to change the world. For the disciples Easter began with a journey. To see Jesus the disciples had to hit the road and go to the quiet place where he was waiting for them. You have to wonder what they talked about along the way. Maybe they grumbled some. “Nothing is ever easy with being a disciple,” they perhaps muttered to each other while trudging that long road to Galilee.
No, discipleship is not easy. Our world is not clamoring to trudge over to those out-of-the-way latter-day mountaintops to let us introduce them to Jesus. Easter is not easy, nor is the Easter life we are called to live. But we are not alone! We do have Jesus with us, after all! And we do have his gospel. We do have his life to proclaim first and forever. That is more than enough for us to go on, more than enough to save the world.
[Note: For a sermon starter article on John 20 and John’s account of Easter, you may visit this page: http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2002/easter02.html ]
A friend of mine was frustrated some while back at a meeting where at least a couple of people were hemming and hawing about taking this or that aspect of the Bible literally. This prompted my preacher friend to relate a story of something that happened to him probably thirty years ago. One Sunday he preached about Jesus’ resurrection. Monday morning, first thing, the phone rang. It was a high-powered, big city lawyer who had been in church the day before. “I need to talk to you right away,” the lawyer said. The pastor invited the man over and as the lawyer came into the study he immediately said, “I have just one question for you: do you believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead? Do you really believe it?”
“Yes, I really do,” the pastor replied.
The lawyer smiled and said, “Thank you, that’s all I needed to know.” And then he left.
Jesus really was raised from the dead. He really is still alive and he really is still right here in our every act of love, kindness, grace, compassion, and hope. Jesus lives and so do we. That’s all most people need to know.
Author: Doug Bratt
I sometimes wonder if Peter almost choked on the words: “I now know that God does not show favoritism…” In fact, with one biblical scholar, I sometimes wonder how he ever justified this to himself, much less Jerusalem’s church, as he does later.
After all, Jews like Peter had always recognized that God might show occasional love to a few Gentiles. However, Jews also always maintained that God’s favoritism dictated that those outsiders had to act like Jews in order to qualify for God’s mercy.
Now, however, Peter stands up and admits to some of those Gentiles, “God does not show favoritism.” Later he’ll even tell his fellow Jewish Christians, “God gave [the Gentiles] the same gift as he gave us.” Clearly God has convinced Peter that God doesn’t play favorites or show partiality.
Yet Peter’s message of God’s favor toward the Gentiles could not have been an easy one for even his Christian Jewish contemporaries to hear. It’s not, after all, as though had Peter said God favors Candiens fans as much as Maple Leaf fans. No, it’s more like he says God loves murderers, rapists and child abusers as much as God loves nice people like us.
Perhaps, however, this wide embrace should not have surprised Peter, the early church or us. God’s Spirit is, after all, on the move throughout the first part of the book of Acts. Acts shows how God nudges God’s people through Joppa, and past the converted Samaritans and Ethiopian. God even introduces us to the Jewish persecutor of Christians, Saul, whom God has turned into God’s missionary, Paul.
Now, however, God shoves one of God’s Israelite sons up against a Gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius. This man is completely involved in an oppressive political system. In fact, he makes his living off Rome’s sometimes-brutal military occupation of Peter’s country.
However, Acts 10:2, after all, describes his family and him as “devout and God-fearing.” It also reports that this Roman soldier “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” So Cornelius is, like the Magi who worshiped the newborn Jesus, a racial, religious and vocational outsider. However, unlike those men from the east, God has already drawn him to the edge of the God-fearing community. In fact, this Roman soldier shows that he’s already willing to have God and people teach and guide him.
However, it’s also clear that Cornelius doesn’t choose to become part of Christ’s church by being baptized. He doesn’t make some heroic decision to buck the odds and follow Jesus Christ. No, Luke portrays this Roman soldier as more of a passive actor in a cosmic drama that Someone Else directs.
Many of Acts 10’s preachers and teachers, like Cornelius also have great responsibility and authority. We usually tell our children, students or people we supervise what to do. However, even the most powerful Christians also take our commands for faith and life from the Lord.
In a similar way, God, through an angel, prompts mighty Cornelius to send for a man named Peter. Yet while Peter accepts his “invitation,” (after all, who can turn down a Roman soldier’s “request”?), he’s clearly no more in charge than the Gentile is.
After all, just as Cornelius had a strange vision, Peter has a dream that also confuses him. As he’s praying, someone lowers a big sheet that’s full of all sorts of animals. A voice then commands him to kill and eat what’s in the sheet, including food no faithful Jew ever ate.
The strict dietary laws Peter was following prevented the assimilation and destruction of Jews as Jews. Those laws proscribed faithfulness in the midst of immense pressure to abandon the faith and just become a good Roman citizen.
However, 21st century Christians who make countless little spiritual compromises can hardly understand Peter’s reluctance to break such laws. How, after all, could it hurt him just to take a bite of pork? So I don’t think we can even imagine how hard it was for Peter to go with Cornelius’ messengers.
Sure, the Spirit’s message and the Roman soldier’s story of the angel’s visit emphasizes God’s directing role. Yet Peter’s synagogue had raised him to both keep kosher and avoid Gentiles precisely like this soldier to whom he’s going.
God, however, drags this leader of the Jewish Christian church, to the home of a Gentile. God also empowers Peter to recognize that his mysterious trip to Cornelius’ home has something to do with that strange dream about pure and impure food.
After all, God is gradually revealing to Peter a full and, to Jews, frightening implication of Jesus’ resurrection that his Church celebrates today: God does not show favoritism! In response, Peter breaks at least one hallowed law. He enters the Gentile Cornelius’ home.
Yet once God breaks down that wall, we see God take a sledgehammer to a whole series of old walls. When, after all, Peter enters his home, the Roman soldier falls at his feet to worship him. While this rightly embarrasses Peter, it shows that the mighty Gentile soldier is not too powerful to kneel before a Jewish former fisherman. What’s more, eventually Peter stays with his Gentile hosts for a few days. So he also probably ate things that were unkosher.
Earlier Acts tells us that God converts, in one sense, both Saul and Ananias. Saul, after all, was a relentless persecutor of Christians whom God gave the gift of Christian faith. Ananias, however, also needed God’s transformation from one who avoided Saul to one who ministered to Paul.
Perhaps, then, both Peter and Cornelius need God to change them if God’s mission is to go forward. So who needs God’s conversion in our world today? Those who aren’t Christians certainly need God to convert them to the faith. However, we profess that we also need daily conversion away from our sinful ways and toward Christ likeness.
When converted Cornelius tells his remarkable story, converted Peter can draw only one conclusion. He finally realizes how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear the Lord and do what’s right.
God had, after all, as Peter says, sent Jesus to Israel where Jesus went around “doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” However, those captives of Satan included all sorts of Jews and outsiders and outcasts.
Eventually, Peter recalls, Satan’s allies succeeded in convincing the Romans, for whom Cornelius works, to crucify Jesus. God, however, Peter announces, raised this Jesus back to life and sent him back throughout Palestine.
Eventually this same Jesus, whom Peter now recognizes is Lord not just of the Jews, but also the Gentiles, ascended back to the heavenly realm. However, he didn’t do so before sending his followers to witness “to the ends of the earth.” Now one of those followers must feel as though he’s not just standing at the very end of the earth, but perhaps even on another planet. Peter is, after all, standing in a Gentile’s home, admitting that God does not show favoritism.
The Spirit shatters any lingering doubts Peter may have right before his eyes. As if to confirm that God is moving this process, the Holy Spirit somehow descends on everyone who has just heard Peter speak. Just, in fact, as Luke earlier reported the Spirit earlier descended on Jesus.
How, then, can Peter refuse to baptize these outsiders whom God has drawn into God’s family or their hospitality? The Spirit, after all, already lives in them. The Spirit has blown where it pleases. Peter and Christ’s church can only respond in faithful obedience.
After all, the Christian faith is far more than a decision that people make. Christian faith far more than something we offer to God. It’s a glad response, a joyful reception of God’s gracious offer of himself to us. Faith is quite simply a gift from God that we can’t make, but can only gladly receive. So God equips all those the Spirit moves to respond in faith. Both Jews and Gentiles, both virtuous pagans like Cornelius and religiously zealous persecutors like Saul, faithfully receive God’s grace.
This presents Acts 10’s preachers an opportunity to explore where the Spirit may be nudging modern individuals and churches. Some people may seem hopelessly beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace. Perhaps they’ve deeply embedded themselves in a religious system that completely rejects Christianity. Or they’ve been part of the church but consciously decided to reject it.
Of course God calls both Jews and Gentiles to receive God’s grace with their faith. However, people’s rejection of God doesn’t derail God’s longing that they faithfully respond to God’s work. As long as they live, God longs to send God’s Spirit on those outsiders, just as God sent the Holy Spirit on the Cornelius. So Easter Sunday may be a good time for preachers and teachers who serve the risen Savior to challenge our hearers to pray for those who don’t yet join us in serving him.
Those who preach and teach Acts 10 may also want to look for ways to invite churches to corporately show that God shows no favoritism. Certainly greater prayerful and financial support of those who serve as missionaries can be part of that. Encouraging people to both talk about God’s love for them in the risen Christ and show them that love is part, as well, of the Easter mission.
In his book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, David M. Kennedy writes about how during WWII Americans and Japanese hated and vilified each other based on racial stereotypes and thus fought a “war without mercy.” The Japanese thought Americans were “decadent” and “self-indulgent.” Americans had no stomach for war, the Japanese believed, and would, after Pearl Harbor, “immediately sue for peace” to Japan’s great advantage.
Besides, the Japanese thought of themselves as racially pure and of one will. Americans, by contrast, were in the eyes of Japanese “a contemptibly polyglot and divided people . . . riven by ethnic and racial conflict, labor violence, and political strife, incapable of self-sacrifice or submission to the public weal.” All because Americans were infected with the “detestable Western virus of individualism.”
Americans, for their part, thought the Japanese were “servile automatons devoid of individual identity.” Meanwhile, “wartime cartoons and posters routinely pictured the Japanese as murderous savages, immature children, wild beasts, or bucktoothed, bespectacled lunatics.”
Kennedy observes that national pride issuing in stereotypes of the “other” and war-making on this basis is an ancient phenomenon seen, for example, among ancient Greeks, who thought of themselves as cultured aristocrats and thought of everybody else as mere “barbarians.”
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Author: Stan Mast
What every preacher needs on Easter Sunday is an angle. Everyone already knows the story, so it is hard to astonish people as the women astonished the disciples with the news of an empty tomb on that first Easter morning. To help people experience that primitive astonishment and the kind of joyful thanksgiving to which Psalm 118 calls us, we need an angle into the old, old story. That’s what I hope to give you in this Sermon Starter by offering an angle into Psalm 118.
For a straightforward exploration of the various issues any preacher will encounter in Psalm 118, consult my piece on this Psalm from the March 21, 2016, Sermon Starter Archives on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website. There I dealt with questions about the identity of the speaker in the Psalm, the possible liturgical usages of the Psalm, the historical background of the Psalm, and all the Messianic linkages that stud the Psalm. All of that can inform what you do with the angle I’m going to suggest, but I won’t repeat here what I wrote back there.
From the work I did before I’m going to assume that Psalm 118 is a perfect Easter hymn. Patrick Henry Reardon calls it “the canticle of the empty tomb.” The early church saw our text as the voice of Jesus speaking about the astonishing thing God did in and through Jesus. The Revised Common Lectionary agrees with the primitive church, using Psalm 118 for Easter in all three years of the liturgical cycle (as well as using it for Palm Sunday in all three years). Thus, I’m going to suggest that we preach it as the believer’s song of faith about the Risen Christ. Because of our faith connection to Christ’s resurrection, the “I” in the Psalm becomes each of us individually and all of us together.
What we sing about is the astonishing news that God has done something new in history. That’s my angle. We live in a world that most of our contemporaries see as a closed system of cause and effect. We see that most simply in the cycle of nature; the wheel of the seasons goes round and round. Science gives us ever deepening insights into the interconnectedness of things, such that everything is caused by something else, which in turn causes yet another thing. So, there can be nothing truly new. It’s all caused by what went before. It’s always the same old same old.
It doesn’t take a scientist to know that. The old preacher of Ecclesiastes gives my angle a sharp point when he says, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! There is something new?’ It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 and 10)
Thus, we are stuck in the mess with which we are stuck. We can try to change things, but ultimately we’re trapped in a closed system that doesn’t care one whit about us. No wonder the old preacher said, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2) So say the honest, thorough-going secularists among us. Psalm 118 says something very different. God has broken through the chain of cause and effect, of life and death, and has done something brand new and life changing. That’s my angle on Psalm 118 and its ancient testimony about Easter.
The one who speaks in Psalm 118 is a true believer, like most of your listeners. Throughout the Psalm he/she says, in effect, “Here’s what I know by faith.” “The Lord’s love endures forever.” He uses that familiar word for God’s faithful covenant love, chesed, in verses 1-4 and 29, thus framing the rest of his words with that fundamental Jewish conviction. Further, he knows that because of God’s chesed, “the Lord is with me” in two ways. He is “my strength and my song,” the one who gives me strength for the struggle and a song for the victory. Interestingly, that phrase is a word-for-word quotation from Moses “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15. The Psalmist’s faith is a deep and ancient faith. No matter what happens in history and in my life, “you are my God.” This is the firm foundation on which we stand. We can count on the faithfulness of God even when trouble comes.
And trouble does come. The first hint that the Psalmist’s life has become difficult is that word “anguish” in verse 5. It’s a powerful word indicating that something terrible has happened. What was it? Verse 7 tells us that “enemies” have attacked. Indeed, “All the nations surrounded me… on every side. They swarmed around me like bees….” (verses 10-12) His enemies were so powerful that he “was pushed back and [almost] fell….” (verse 13) Perhaps worst of all, he sensed that the Lord himself was involved in this anguished situation; “the Lord has chastened me severely….” (verse 18) It’s bad enough when you have human enemies, but it becomes unbearable when it seems that your God has somehow conspired with them against you.
The experience of the Psalmist, of course, anticipates what happened to Jesus in his passion. As Acts 4:27-28 put it, “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Jesus’ most anguished cry from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” How many of your listeners know the terrible anguish of believing that your own God is involved in the trouble you are experiencing. It’s enough to rock the foundations of your faith.
But that didn’t happen to the Psalmist because he cried out for help, and God answered by doing something new. “I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me.” (There is yet another of those ubiquitous two word summaries of the Gospel—“but God.”) How did the Lord help? Look at the next verse (14). “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Note the change in verbs there—from “is” to “become.” We hear the same word in verse 21, “you have become my salvation.” I want to suggest that the word “become” suggests movement in the history of salvation. It’s not the same old same old. The Rock of my salvation has moved; he has done something new.
What new thing has Yahweh done? The Psalmist calls it “mighty.” “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” What deed warrants that powerful poetic repetition? Well, here it is. “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” Because the Lord “has not given me over to death,” the Psalmist can utter a preposterous shout of victory. “I will not die, but live….”
That is ridiculous. Everyone dies. In addition to taxes, death is one of the certainties of life. But the Psalmist dares to say that it won’t happen to him. That would be new, and astonishing. A recent issue of Time magazine chronicled the world wide scientific search for not only longevity, but even immortality. “I will not die, but live.”
Of course, this Psalm may only be talking about a temporary reprieve from death that comes with surviving a terrible battle, except for the Messianic connections of this Psalm. We hear one of them in verse 22, where the resurrected Psalmist is given an exalted status. “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Those are the very words Jesus used in reply to his critics in Mark 12:10, 11. He was the rejected one who has become the capstone to God’s redemptive activity. Indeed, it was by his resurrection that he completed that mighty work of God. Thus, the words of verses 17 and 18 are not just the words of the Psalmist after a temporary victory over his enemies. They are the words of Jesus after his complete victory over sin and suffering and the last enemy, death. “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.”
That mighty act of God has brought a new day to planet earth. “This is the day the Lord has done it (a better translation than the NIV); let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (verse 24) “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.” (verse 27) During the dark old days, all human beings “all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).” But now, because the Lord has done a new thing, we can all say, “I will not die, but live and proclaim what the Lord has done.”
That’s what your Easter sermon should be—the proclamation of the new day ushered in by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is something new under the sun. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that although people still die under the sun, the Risen Son has brought a new reality to those who struggle in anguish under the sun. From high above the sun, the Son of God has descended to be despised and rejected and killed, so that he could rise and become the capstone of God’s new creation. Under that Son, “death no longer is the stronger, hell itself is captive led. Christ has risen from death’s prison; O’er the tomb he light has shed.” (from “Praise the Savior,” a hymn from the 6th century)
Indeed, that old hymn echoes the response to which Psalm 118 calls those who have seen the new thing God has done. If we say with the congregation in Psalm 118, “the Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes,” then we should give our unceasing thanks to the Lord. That’s essentially what Psalm 118 is, a psalm of thanksgiving. It opens and closes with that call; “give thanks to the Lord!” Our Easter services and our Easter lives should be filled with “shouts of joy and victory.” Each day we should “rejoice and be glad.” And every Sunday we should “proclaim what the Lord has done.”
There is something new under the sun. Therefore, there is hope, real hope that things can change, even death. “Praise the Savior, now and ever; praise him all beneath the skies; prostrate lying, suffering, dying, on the cross a sacrifice. Victory gaining, life obtaining, now in glory he doth rise.”
Martin Luther called Psalm 118 “my beloved Psalm.” In fact, during one of the dark times in his life, when he spent almost half a year hiding during the Diet of Augsburg, he inscribed verse 17 on the wall of Colburg Castle in Bavaria. “I will not die, but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” No wonder he wrote: “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
On a day when some preachers might downplay the physical resurrection of Jesus and proclaim the general love of God, James Luther Mays reminds us of the utter centrality of that Resurrection. He is commenting on verses 22-24, which “teach the church that the Risen Christ is the crucified Jesus and warn us against separating Easter from its context in the passion of our Lord. It was not the free choice and approval of the human community that established the crucified one as the foundation and keystone of God’s coming kingdom, but God’s raising him from the dead.” (Acts 4:11) I know, that’s not exactly an illustration, but it is an important reminder of the centrality of this New Thing God has done. Without it, there is no real hope for our world, or for us. We will all just die.
Author: Scott Hoezee
No one likes being accused of “being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” Karl Marx has his own version of this (religion = narcotic) as have any number of cynics and critics of faith. Yet there it is in Colossians 3: if you have been raised with Christ, set your minds far above all things earthly and hone in on the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus only. Sure sounds like a formula for being heavenly minded at the expense of closer-to-hand matters here on earth.
And yet . . . so much of the New Testament fights against that mentality. I once did an Ascension Day sermon in which I juxtaposed Colossians 3 with the ascension story in Acts 1 in which the angels of God told the disciples to stop staring into the heavens. There was, after all, work to be done right here on earth. The Holy Spirit was going to come DOWN here, not whisk the disciples up to wherever it was Jesus had gone. (And anyway note the irony: although the disciples were staring into heaven, the only angels they encountered that day were behind their backs here on earth!) So which is it: stop staring into heaven or start staring into heaven? Acts 1 or Colossians 3? The answer is “Yes.” Both.
Even Colossians 3 does not stop at all things heavenly. Were we to read the subsequent verses, we would find Paul dishing out plenty of advice for how life is supposed to go here on earth. There are lots of behaviors that must not be present among believers in order to make room for other actions and attitudes that will exude the sweetness of love and mutuality and abiding celebration of the goodness of God in Christ. In fact, by the time you get to Colossians 3:17 you find Paul throwing in the word “whatever” as in “whatever you do . . . do it unto the Lord.”
Apparently those of us who have been raised with Christ are at once fixated on that divine reality and busy at work here on earth. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the disciples a paradoxical, counter-intuitive truth: it was for their good he had to go away. Well, it sure didn’t FEEL very good to see their Master waft away. They felt abandoned and—in a feeling Jesus even anticipated they would experience—they felt orphaned by their leader. What good would it do for Jesus to take his resurrection life and squirrel it away in the heavenly places?
The answer would come ten days later during a Jewish festival known as Pentecost. The good Jesus’ absence would do was the sending forth of one very powerful Holy Spirit who would be the energizing force for the life of God’s people from then on out. In the nearly 2,000 years since then, the works enabled by that Spirit are finally incalculable. Can you imagine what the list would look like if we actually could catalogue every single thing the Spirit has accomplished through believers the last two millennia? Every exercise of a spiritual gift, every budding of a spiritual fruit, every small act of hospitality and kindness, every saving word of a missionary or evangelist, every church program to minister to the homeless, every kind word to the dying from a Hospice nurse, every wiping away of pus from a leper by the Sisters of Mercy in Calcutta, every confession of “Jesus is Lord” by anyone, anywhere . . . It is finally mind-boggling. Surely only God knows.
But here’s the thing: all of that would be acts of delusion or—at best—acts of simple humanitarianism UNLESS they all flow from the things above where Christ is seated as the resurrected and ascended Lord of lords and King of kings. Take away that reality and we may as well be the United Way or Greenpeace or UNESCO. Those are all fine organizations that find their own rationale for the good work they do but Christians believe their work has a higher source and a longer lasting (eternal) value because it all flows from the top down. Christians do and say what they do not because it feels good or seems like the right thing to do. No, we do and say it all because we believe it accords with the way things are meant to be in God’s good creation—the way they maybe were once upon a time in the beginning and the way they will be again when God in Christ declares “Behold, I make all things new.”
Easter is the in-breaking of our collective future into a distinctive moment in history. Christ’s resurrection is an out-of-time event, a temporal distortion in the space-time continuum at least as cool as the best such narrative Star Trek could ever come up with. Because that event did happen to Christ, we know it will happen to all of us—we will be raised, the creation will be made new. We know it will happen because in Christ it already did happen. That re-frames the way we look at everything.
So yes on this Easter Sunday, let us place our minds above where Christ is seated and not be consumed with the trivial concerns of this earth. But once we turn our eyes back to what is in front of us, we will find it to be so transformed that we will stay busy the rest of our lives living out even the tiniest fraction of all the possibilities for goodness and renewal that we see when we so much as glimpse those things above.
He is risen! Risen indeed! Now we turn to the living out of that glorious truth.
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we encounter a group of aliens who long ago set up shop in a part of the Aztec Mayan kingdom in South America. These aliens, however, are not from outer space but rather we learn they are interdimensional beings, creatures that inhabit the spaces in between time as we know it. One of the things this means is that they are able to see past, present, and future in a single glance, giving them essentially an almost omniscient grasp of what has happened, can happen, might happen, will happen. One of the villains in the film is a Russian agent who wants to tap into that knowledge for herself so as to help the Soviet Union gain world domination. The aliens grant her wish but, of course, such knowledge is too wonderful for her and it ends up quite literally blowing her mind.
In a strange but true way, when we set our minds above where Christ is seated, we also get to see a glimpse of all the possibilities in a world made new by Christ’s resurrection. We see what has happened, what can happen, what will happen if we live out lives of true discipleship. But far from unmaking us or blowing our minds, our minds are renewed, energized, set on fire (in a good way!) to understand all the possibilities of what working and living for the resurrected Lord of life can and must mean for however long we live on this earth. It is a vision that has led God’s people for 2,000 years and that will continue until our Lord comes again.