Sunday, April 12, 2009

(Easter Sunday) Though Some Have Died

Easter Sunday
Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10a

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Alleluia! Christ is alive! Let Christians sing!
And we certainly have!
And the real roof-raising songs are still to come.

Christ is alive!
What joy to celebrate that singular truth this morning!

But you know,
one hardly even needs to believe the content of the Gospel story,
to get swept away by the beauty of this day,
to revel in the sounds of singing,
of trumpet, and bells, and organ pipes.
It could move an atheist to tears.

You don’t really have to believe it to appreciate it.
You don’t have to be a person of faith
to paint eggs, the universal symbol of God’s gift of life.
You don’t have to love Jesus, or believe God raised him from the dead
to go out on your porch and hang up a banner of butterflies,
the universal symbol of resurrection.
Almost anyone can get into the spirit of Easter,
can get emotionally invested in this season that celebrates life.
Anyone can catch the contagious joy of what we sing about today.

But what happens when we leave this place?
What happens when we go back into this severely distressed
and broken and wounded world,
and try to come to terms
with the death that’s still all around us?
Truth be told,
we don’t have to go outside these walls to face it.
This gathering of people here today,
even though it might be a larger crowd than usual,
even though we sing a little more than usual,
a little stronger than usual,
even though we ratchet up the celebration meter,
even though John pulls all the stops on the organ,
even though we will, before this service is over,
shake the walls with the Hallelujah Chorus,
even with all that,
we’re the same kind of people that came together last Sunday,
and the Sunday before.
When we come into this place, we still carry with us
a whole lot of brokenness, and pain, and death.
A whole lot, believe me.
Even today.

I have a dear pastor friend about my age,
whose wife is terminally ill with cancer,
has been told to expect a few months.
He’s in his church at this moment preaching not one,
but three or four services of high praise
to the God who conquered death and the grave.

Easter, or not, we’re the same people . . .
who suffer, who are lonely,
who are estranged from their loved ones,
who are in financial distress,
who are dying . . .
Same people. Different day.
What difference does Easter make for us broken and dying people,
who live in a broken and dying world?

Well, here is precisely where it does matter
whether we believe the content of the Gospel we proclaim.
It does take more than a vague belief in the beauty of butterflies,
more than the ability to marvel at the magic
of eggs that produce fuzzy yellow chicks,
more, even, than a genuine belief in Jesus as a godly man,
a great teacher and example.

You see, scripture tells us that one day
God will set all things right in this world.
Because of Easter we can say,
“Yes! God will. And God has.”
Without Easter all we could muster would be,
“Well, let’s hope God does what he said he would.”

Resurrection reinforces the truth
of what the whole Bible is saying about God.
God is all about restoring the broken to wholeness,
the blind to sight,
the lost to being found,
the dead to life.

Resurrection was not some brand new idea
God got into his head, only after Jesus got himself in a fix.
No, God had been on this trajectory
ever since Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden.
Resurrection was what God was aiming for,
ever since God started moving in human history.
The resurrection of Jesus just put a grand exclamation point
on everything God had already said . . . and done.
If you read the Old Testament in light of the resurrection,
you see it all over the place.

God’s actions to bring life from death fill the pages of scriptures.
Take Isaiah. In the earlier part of the book
there’s vivid descriptions of the fall of Jerusalem,
laments of death and destruction on the holy mountain.
Then in Isaiah 25, which we just heard,
God declares a resurrection.
“On this mountain—where everything lies in ruins—
on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make a feast.
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 . . .
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.”

You know, going through the rituals and worship of Easter weekend,
is actually an easy thing to do.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday stand in stark contrast to each other,
but both of them, standing on their own, are easy to do.
They make sense to us.
They resonate with our experience.

It’s not hard, on Good Friday, to identify with
the darkness and pain and shadow side of life.
We can connect with Jesus’ suffering,
and loneliness,
and sense of abandonment,
and even death.
Because those shadow experiences of life are all around us,
we know them intimately.
Not to Jesus’ extent, of course,
but we have known suffering and loneliness.
We’ve felt abandoned.
We’ve tasted death, been around it, even close to it.
We can do Good Friday! No problem!

And . . . it’s not hard to pull out the stops and celebrate on Easter Sunday.
New life is easy to celebrate,
because signs of it are all around us this time of year.
Daffodils dance by the side of every road,
trees are pushing out blooms and soft green leaves,
babies are being born.
We can believe that God has something good in store in the end,
because there’s so much tangible evidence
of the persistence of life.
We can do Easter Sunday! No problem!

We can do Good Friday.
We can do Easter.
. . . But can we bring the two together?

We better.
If we don’t, Easter is nothing more than a temporary,
emotional, pick-me-up, in an otherwise dark world.
Easter becomes little more than a brief escape from reality.
We have to bring them together.
Even the Gospel stories kept them together.
When Jesus made his appearances to his followers,
the wounds of his torture and crucifixion
were still in full view.
Easter did not undo the crucifixion.
Easter did not nullify Jesus’ suffering and death.
Easter gave Good Friday it’s meaning.

Easter is an invitation to us who believe,
to live full lives here in this broken and wounded world,
to actually move toward that brokenness, and pain, and death,
and meet the saving God right there in the middle of it.
Easter people refuse to let death define the experience of life.
Believing in resurrection is not an escape.
It is an invitation to live in genuine hope,
while surrounded by pain and suffering and death,
because we know who God is.
God’s trajectory through human history was proven true
in Jesus’ resurrection.
God is all about saving and restoring and redeeming.
God is all about making whole.
Easter people say, “God has, and God will.”

To believe that, is not to deny the reality of pain and death.
It is to take a God’s eye view of life.
It is to choose stubborn hope in the midst of a dying world.
It is to believe the words of the prophet Isaiah,
when he spoke for God, saying,
on this mountain, this mountain,
in this holy city that now lies in ruin,
here . . . God is preparing a feast,
and God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples.

The enemy of God, the Prince of Darkness,
had already pulled the shroud of death over the human race,
had already pulled the sheet over the corpse, and covered it up.
That’s the image we see here, in Isaiah 25.
But God says,
I will destroy that shroud.
I will swallow up death forever.
I will wipe away every tear.

Resurrection is still God’s agenda.
We are called to live that way, even though people are dying.

I love the line from our epistle reading today in 1 Corinthians 15.
This is a letter from Paul to a church under severe persecution;
to a church that honestly believed that any day now,
Jesus would return and rescue them.
They lived in full expectation that God was about to save them,
to keep them and their family from dying,
to take them straight-away to heaven.
But time was passing, and some people had started to lose hope,
were starting to doubt what they earlier believed.

Paul is telling them, v. 1,
“Let me remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news I proclaimed to you.”
“Hold firm to the message,” he said.
And then he repeats the message of Easter,
“According to the scriptures, Christ died for our sins,
was buried, and raised on the third day,
and appeared to Peter, and the twelve,
and to five hundred brothers and sisters,
most of whom are still living . . .”
And then here’s the line,
“ . . . though some have died.”

To a church that is expecting Jesus to come any day now,
and protect them from persecution and from death,
Paul stubbornly proclaims that resurrection is still true,
“though some have died.”
The fact that some had died,
did not change the basic plot of God’s saving story.
And Paul didn’t cover over the fact that people still died.

The good news is that Jesus lives,
though some have died.
God is a God who saves and preserves life,
though some have died.
God destroys the shroud of death over all peoples,
though some have died.

In the midst of a world where people still die,
and living things still decay,
it is nevertheless true and right for us to proclaim,
God has conquered death.
Death is real, but it does not define the experience of life.
It is not the last word.
God owns the last word!

Listen to this verse of a glorious Easter hymn we all love,
“Glory to God, in full anthems of joy;
The being God gave us death cannot destroy:
Sad were the life we may part with tomorrow,
If tears were our birthright, and death were our end.

But you see, as bitter as tears and death may be,
they are not what defines the life God gave us.

So, as the hymn goes on,
Lift then your voices, in triumph on high,
for Jesus has risen, and we shall not die.

Let’s raise the roof, and lift our glad voices!

—Philip L. Kniss, April 12, 2009

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