We are no less in Christ when we doubt than when our faith seems strong; and we are no weaker when we doubt, because it was never about our strength anyway. Christ has risen from the dead by the power of his Holy Spirit, and he has breathed his Holy Spirit into us—the Spirit of resurrection, who makes the dead ones live and the dry bones dance. The power is not in our faith, but in the one in whom we put our faith; and he holds our faith firm even when we can’t. He holds us together even when we can’t. He has given us his life, which has overcome death. No matter how dark things may seem, he will bring us through, and in the end, we will see the Son rise.
You have to feel a little sorry for Pontius Pilate. He’s trying to work his way up the career ladder, and he’s been handed the most fractious, intractable province in the entire Empire to try to govern. He’s on notice, because he’s already mishandled one incident and provoked an official complaint from the local leaders—which means he’s under their thumb to some degree, because they could easily wreck his career. He brought it on himself (I only said a little sorry), but still—here he’s trying to do his job, and all of a sudden those local leaders come to him and demand he put some poor schmuck on trial because they don’t like his theology. Rome didn’t give a hang about Jewish religious disputes, and neither did Pilate, but here these infuriating old men were insisting that if he didn’t do what they wanted, they were going to get him fired.
And was that the end of it? No! He’s washed his hands of the matter—literally (Mt. 27:24)—but no sooner does he think he’s done with it then they’re back in his office. They got the execution, but that’s not enough for them—now they want him to guard the tomb! Guard the tomb! You might as well guard a manhole cover. But he has to deal with them somehow, and he has to keep them happy. A lot of our English translations have Pilate saying, “You have a guard,” but I think the NIV has the right of it here: from the context, I think it’s pretty clear he gives them what they want, a squad of Roman soldiers to seal and guard the tomb.
He gave them sixteen members of the greatest fighting force on the planet—four watches of four men each to secure the area through the night. A Roman squad was supposed to be able to form a square, if cut off, and hold their ground against any opposing force indefinitely; they were well-trained, well-equipped, well-disciplined, and ruthless, far more than necessary to deal with anything Jesus’ disciples might try. It was overkill.
And why? What are the Jewish leaders afraid of? They claim they want to prevent a hoax, but really? To quote the Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner,
in the not so long run religious hoaxes always tend to burn themselves out—as the chief priests and Pharisees had good reason to know, living as they did in an age when would-be Messiahs were a dime a dozen. . . . Even if the disciples were successful in their theft of the body, and even if for a time their claim of resurrection flourished, it could not really flourish long without something more substantial than merely rumor to feed upon.
The threat of a hoax wouldn’t have been worth their time.
No, there has to be something more here. Their real fear has to be something else—something they aren’t telling Pilate, and probably aren’t really admitting even to themselves. It’s ridiculous, but—Jesus had worked some powerful miracles; what if, somehow, he actually did come back to life? What if even killing him wasn’t enough to stop him? I doubt any of them had the courage to face that fear even for a moment, and I’m sure they would have laughed in the face of anyone who dared suggest it, but that had to be haunting the backs of their minds for them to go to such absurd lengths as this. If you’re afraid of a miracle—how are you going to stop it?
The thing is, they were going about it all wrong. As Buechner puts it in his sermon “The End Is Life,”
maybe it is not as hard as they feared. . . . I suspect that many of us could tell them that all in all there is a lot one can do in defense against miracle, and, unless I badly miss my guess, there are thousands upon thousands of ministers doing precisely that at any given instant—making it as secure as they can, that is, which is really quite secure indeed. . . . The point is not to try to prevent the thing from happening—like trying to stop the wind with a machine gun—but, every time it happens, somehow to explain it away, to deflect it, defuse it, in one way or another to dispose of it. And there are at least as many ways of doing this as there are sermons preached on Easter Sunday.
He’s right. As he goes on to say, you can spiritualize the Resurrection away without much effort at all. It’s a metaphor, it’s poetry—it’s a way of saying that the wisdom of Jesus is immortal like the works of Shakespeare, or that his example lives on in our hearts, or it symbolizes the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul—all of which miss the brute fact that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, there’s no foundation for any of that stuff. If he’s just one more great leader killed off by the establishment, then his story is just one more telling us that really, the sword is mightier than the pen after all.
All too often, we hear people reduce the Resurrection to a “miracle” of symbol and metaphor that leaves the substantial reality of our world untouched; and I’m with Buechner on this one.
If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. . . . If I thought that when you strip it right down to the bone, this whole religion business is really just an affirmation of the human spirit, an affirmation of moral values, an affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Great Exemplar of all time and no more, then like Pilate I would wash my hands of it. The human spirit just does not impress me that much, I am afraid. And I have never been able to get very excited one way or the other about moral values. And when I have the feeling that someone is trying to set me a good example, I start edging toward the door.
If the Resurrection is just a story, then it’s just what someone wants us to believe; it has no power to change the way things actually are. That’s the tragedy of modern versions of Christianity: but understand this, it’s also the reason for them. The reason we seek in so many ways to defend ourselves against miracle, against the reality of the Resurrection, is that just like the Jewish leaders, we’re afraid of what it might mean. If we can reduce it to an affirmation of the human spirit, or moral values, or the importance of hope, or the wisdom of Jesus, then we get to define what that means; it might not be able to do much for us, but it can’t do anything to us, either. We’ve made it something we can control—we’ve made it safe, tame, the seed of a nice, domesticated religion. Miracle pitches us right out of that; even uncontrollable joy is still out of our control.
That can be frightening enough; but if Jesus died and came back to life—not even was raised from the dead by another human being, amazing as that would be, but simply got up, by the direct power of God—then what is there that he can’t do? And if he really did that for us, with all the horror of the cross, then what might he ask of us? What he said about “anyone who would follow me must deny himself and take up his cross”—he might have meant that. When he said, “Love your enemies and bless those who hurt you,” he might actually expect us to do that. Jesus laid everything down for us, he turned everything inside out for us—how can we possibly accept that and take it seriously without our own lives being turned inside out and upside down?
Even if life is miserable, change is still frightening to most people; we know in our bones that however bad things might be, they could still get worse. “Better the devil you know,” and all that. Even when we know we don’t have much control over our lives, our egos tell us we need more control to make things better—not to give up what little we have. If the problem with our faith is that our God is too small, as I and others have said often enough, it’s only fair to say that we shrink him out of self-protection; Easter shows us a God untamed and untameable—we can’t possibly know what he might do.
The thing is, the desire for control of our lives is just another version of the primal temptation: to be our own gods. There’s no life in it; it is the road to death. The gospel doesn’t offer us a tame, reasonable faith that lets us feel like we’re in control and we understand what’s going on; Jesus doesn’t promise us a safe religion with a god who makes perfect sense to us. The gospel proclaims, and Jesus gives, life—life that has overcome death, and will overcome it. Life that takes the thousand and one little deaths that we suffer in this world and transmutes them into seeds of growth. Life that raises dead hopes, dead relationships, dead souls, not as they were before, but better—not merely earthly and human, but eternal and divine. “Safe” and “reasonable” are limited to our imagination; Jesus is good beyond our ability to imagine, and alive beyond our experience of life. Let go your grip on control, drop your defenses, and let the miracle of the Resurrection overwhelm you. Let go, and live.
The desire to feel superior to other people is one of the most basic, and base, of all human temptations. What we call racism is one expression of this, as is sexism; another is cultural chauvinism. The ancient Greeks, for instance, considered anyone who didn’t speak Greek inferior. We see prejudice related to economic and social class. Perhaps the most insidious form, however, is what C. S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery”: the belief that our age is wiser and more enlightened than those that came before, and that we are better people just for living now rather than in some earlier time.
This attitude is deployed by many modern folk against the word of God, and particularly against the accounts of the Resurrection. You will hear it snidely suggested that people 2000 years ago were ignorant and gullible folks who believed in miracles because they were too dumb to know better, but that modern science has proven that miracles don’t happen. The assumption seems to be that the people of Jesus’ day would have found it much easier to believe he rose from the dead than we do, and thus that it wouldn’t have been hard to fool them. This assumption is completely ludicrous.
The fact of it is, the ancient world knew death far better than our clinical modern age, because they lived with it much more closely than we do; people didn’t die out of sight in big antiseptic buildings, they died in their homes, right in the middle of their communities—and when they died, they stayed dead. There were no resuscitations, and there was no life support; people didn’t wake up from comas, because if they didn’t eat and drink on their own, there was no way to keep them alive. Resurrection? They knew better. Dead was dead, and that was that.
We see this in Luke 24. No one sees the empty tomb and assumes that Jesus is alive again. The women see it and are at a loss for an explanation, until the angels show up and tell them Jesus has risen from the dead; they go back and tell the disciples, and most of the disciples dismiss them as a bunch of hysterical women.
And then we get this story that begins in verse 13, of two of the disciples walking back from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. They’re talking about everything that has happened, trying to make sense of all of it—without much success—when Jesus comes up from behind. And here’s the reason this story has always fascinated me: they don’t recognize him. In fact, Luke tells us, they were kept from recognizing him.
Why? And kept by whom? The second question is easier to answer: this is probably what we call a divine passive, a way the Old Testament writers developed of saying that God did something without using the name of God, and thus avoiding any risk of using his name in vain. But why would God keep them from recognizing Jesus?
I can’t say for sure, but I think Luke suggests a reason. I think God kept them from recognizing Jesus because they weren’t ready to see him—it was because of the blindness of their hearts. He had to open their minds and hearts to understand him before their eyes could be opened to see him. And so, rather than declaring himself at the beginning, he leaves their eyes blind and begins to teach them from the word of God, showing them all the ways in which the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to him and prepared the way for his coming.
Why were their hearts blind? Because they were too much of the world. They had hoped Jesus was the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel, but like everyone else, they understood that in worldly terms; and more than that, their faith was limited by the world’s horizon. Luke tells us that when Peter heard the news, he ran to the tomb and looked in, and went home amazed at what had happened; we know from John’s gospel that he went with Peter, that he also looked in the tomb, and that he came away believing the women’s report. But all Cleopas and his friend seem to have taken away from their stories is “they went to the tomb and it was empty, but they didn’t see Jesus.” Whether Jesus is in the tomb or not, they still believe he’s dead, because that’s the way the world works; that’s how things go, and the word of a few overly excitable women isn’t enough to convince them otherwise.
The reality here is the same that we talked about as we worked through the letters in Revelation: idolatry leaves us spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb. The nations worship things made by human hands, things which cannot see or hear, which cannot speak, or walk, or feel, and all who put their trust in those things become like them. If our attention is focused on this world and the things of this world, then we fail to understand that our God is in the heavens, and he does all that he pleases; we end up with a shrunken faith, confined and circumscribed by the limited possibilities of this world as we know it.
We end up, as you might say, with just another world religion. I don’t want to beat up on the word “religion” or pose some sort of false antithesis between religion and faith, but at the same time, Christianity is not religion the way anything else is. It isn’t about making our way to God or making the best of this world; those things definitely are religion, but they are not the gospel. It isn’t about being morally good people or finding fulfillment in life; those are good things, but they are not the gospel. It isn’t about making our country strong or building healthy families; those are certainly desirable things that tend to come when the church is strong, but they are not the gospel. They are not enough. They can give you a goal and a purpose through the ordinary times, but when you come up against the brute fact of death, they are silent.
Any religion that depends on life going well is going to fail you when you need it most; any religion that is primarily about making you happy is insufficient. Any faith you can accept without straining your sense of the possible, any faith that makes sense to you because it plays by the rules of this world, is ultimately no faith at all. I find it rather ironic when I see a church named “Emmaus” or “Emmaus Road,” not because I don’t understand, but because a lot of people have an Emmaus Road faith—it goes no farther than Cleopas’ faith did. It’s easy to see Christ when he looks like we expect, and when he does what we want him to do; but too often, when he departs from that, we can’t see him. Too often, if we’re honest, our churches don’t teach us to.
Which is a crying shame, because we have been given a mighty word to declare to the nations, a word to bring hope to the hopeless and deliverance to the captives, a word to make the blind see and the lame walk, a word even to raise the dead: we have been given to proclaim a God who is in the heavens and who does all that he pleases. All that he pleases, even beyond the limits of our feeble possibilities. We have been given the word that there is no failure that is final, no grief that cannot be healed, no enemy that cannot be overcome, no shame that cannot be restored, no sinner who cannot find forgiveness, because God has overcome every enemy and broken down every obstacle. We have been given the good news that in this world of sorrow and failure and pain and death, sorrow does not have the last word, and failure does not have the last word, and pain does not have the last word, and even death does not have the last word, because God has spoken the last word, and that word is: resurrection.
The task of the church is to clear out our ears so we can hear that, and to be the servants of God to one another to help each other learn to see—to see Christ, not as someone who lived a long time ago and said some interesting stuff, but as the one who is risen and is here among us now. The ministry of the church is to proclaim, over and over, at the top of our lungs, to all who come and anyone who will listen, that there is a resurrection. Christ is risen from the dead, and with him we are risen from the dead—we are no longer merely human, and we are no longer slaves to ourselves and our sin: sin has been defeated, and death itself has been put to death. Our lives are no longer up to us, and we do not have to figure out our own way through this world, because wherever we go, Jesus goes with us—even when we don’t recognize him. We only need to open our ears to hear him speaking to us, and let him open our eyes, that we may see.
Talking with Aaron last week down at 1000 Park, I commented on the price of coffee; in response, he noted that it’s expensive right now in part because of natural disasters in coffee-growing areas. Most recently, there was the eruption of Mt. Merapi in Java last October and November, combined with an earthquake off Sumatra that spawned a tsunami. Between the two events, hundreds of people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated; the coffee crop was far from the greatest loss. It only makes things worse that this was just the latest in five-plus years of disasters for Indonesia, beginning with the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in 2004. That one is estimated to have been the third-largest earthquake, and the fifth-deadliest, in recorded history.
It’s not just Indonesia, though; doesn’t it seem like we’ve had an awful lot of major natural disasters in recent years? We no doubt tend to overestimate our own experience, but there’s some reason to think so; of the 25 earthquakes I know of that are believed to have been of magnitude 8.5 or greater, five have struck since Christmas, 2004. Add in the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010—which was “only” magnitude 7.0 but one of the deadliest in history—the upsurge in hurricanes that has given us storms like Katrina, and volcanoes like Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, and it’s been a rough time for our poor planet. What’s more, human action often makes these things worse, as we saw with Katrina, and most recently in Japan, where the natural disaster of earthquake and tsunami set off a very human disaster in the nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture.
Equally part of the pattern is the human impulse to turn someone else’s disaster to our own advantage; it’s Rahm Emanuel’s advice: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Mostly that seems to be political in nature; but when there was no obvious political gain to be had, with the Boxing Day tsunami, the responses were theological. This was especially true from atheists such as Britain’s Martin Kettle, who wrote a column titled “God and the Tsunami” which concluded with the question, “Are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?” Later, novelist James Wood wrote, “If there is a God with whom we can communicate, who (sometimes) hears our prayers, why does He not hear our suffering? Or why does He hear our suffering and do nothing about it? Theology has no answer, and never has had.”
It’s exasperating; as my colleague and friend Jim Berkley noted at the time, it seemed that the secular press had all of a sudden discovered the problem of evil—and assumed that the discovery was equally sudden for the church. Actually, they were the ones who were late to the discussion, and asking the wrong question. They wanted an explanation for the disaster—as, I admit, a great many Christians did as well; as a result, they fell into the trap identified decades ago by H. L. Mencken when he wrote, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong.”
The truth is, we can’t find a satisfactory explanation for such things as the Boxing Day tsunami, or the abuse of a child, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or any of the other myriad ways in which human and natural evil devastate lives—there just isn’t one out there; and that should lead us to ask whether an explanation is really what we want. After all, let’s suppose that someone came along and offered an explanation of evil which really was sufficient, which really did explain everything in a satisfactory way, with no holes in it. What would be the cost of such an explanation? What would that mean? It would mean that evil is explainable, and thus that evil makes sense.
And for that to be the case, evil would have to belong in this world—there would have to be a proper place for it. For us to be able to explain why evil happens, evil would have to fit in with the way things are supposed to work; it would have to be somehow necessary to the proper order of things, which would mean that God deliberately created this world flawed from the beginning. If that were so, we would never be able to get away from evil; evil would be as eternal as good, because good would not be able to exist without it. That would be far too high a price to pay for any mere explanation.
Truth is, we could either have a world in which we can find a rational answer to the problem of evil, or a world in which the final defeat and total destruction of evil is a possibility; and it is the consistent testimony of Scripture that the latter is the world we have. Scripture doesn’t explain evil, because it offers no compromise with evil at all, only unrelenting denunciation of evil in all its forms. Trying to make sense of evil is futile, because evil doesn’t make sense. It can’t be rationally explained, because it doesn’t belong to the world God made; it’s fundamentally alien to the way things are supposed to be, and so it’s fundamentally inexplicable.
Does this mean that our faith has no answer to the problem of evil? Does this mean that God has no answer? No; he offers us the only answer possible: he offers us himself. Thus when Habakkuk complains about the evil God allows, what is God’s response? “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. . . . The righteous live by their faith.” The apostle Paul picks this up in Romans 1:17, applying it to the gospel of Jesus Christ: it is through Jesus, by faith in Jesus, that the righteous live by faith. It’s faith in a God who doesn’t fob us off with explanations, as if such thin soup would really make our lives any easier or any better, but instead comes down to bear evil with us, and ultimately to defeat it by his death and resurrection.
This is what Easter is about; this is God’s answer to evil. He doesn’t explain it, for to explain it would be to dignify it, to give a reason for it, and ultimately to excuse it, when evil is utterly inexcusable. Instead, he says, “I have overcome it.” He takes it on himself, paying the price for all of it and thus taking away the claim of evil on our lives; and then, when evil has done its worst, he undoes all of it, exposing its ultimate futility by rising again from the dead, unbeaten, unbroken, uncorrupted, undiminished. Evil takes its best shot, it does the most and the worst it can possibly do, and accomplishes . . . nothing. Indeed, it accomplishes worse than nothing, because it undoes itself; as John Piper put it, “God did not just overcome evil at the cross. He made evil serve the overcoming of evil. He made evil commit suicide.”
In the resurrection of Jesus, life has defeated death, and love has broken the power of sin, once and for all. Yes, there are still times when the pain of this world drives us to cry out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”; at times we wonder why God is waiting so long to raise the curtain. But we know that at the cross, he turned evil against itself, and on that first Easter, he broke it; and when the time is right, he will complete the victory he won that day. Evil will be banished, and all things will be made new; God will live among us, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, for death itself shall die, and grief and sorrow and pain will be no more. This is the promise, and the one who makes it is the beginning and the end, and all that he says is trustworthy and true. This is the meaning of Easter; this is why we celebrate this day; for the day of resurrection is the victory that has secured the promise.
Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodblock print, 1830-33.
Some of you are probably familiar with the novelist and memoirist Frederick Buechner; if you’re not and you like good writing, you really ought to check out his work. He’s a luminous writer, whether he’s telling the difficult story of his childhood or recasting the legend of St. Brendan’s voyage to America, which is why he’s so widely praised. He’s also a Presbyterian minister; and of all the things he’s written, I think I value his sermons the most. I appreciate him because he has a wonderful way of sliding his words sideways through our pretensions and our comfortable assumptions, puncturing them before we even see the needle coming; and I appreciate him because while he’s not necessarily straightforward, he’s always unflinchingly honest about our human condition. Take, for instance, this observation from his sermon “The Magnificent Defeat”:
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.
He’s right: we tend to hear what we expect to hear; and that’s because what we expect to hear is, at some level, what we want to hear. After all, while “something elevating, obvious, and boring” obviously isn’t going to excite us much, it won’t threaten us, either; it’s safe and comfortable and allows us to walk out of here with our spirits raised a little, feeling a little better about ourselves. That’s understandable, given the ways that the world in which we live tends to beat us up and wear us down; a lot of the time, I think that all that many folks really want out of their faith is just to be able to feel a little better.
The problem is, though, that that isn’t all our faith is about, nor is it all God is trying to do with us; to settle for something safe and inoffensive when he’s offering us infinite joy is to do both God and ourselves a vast disservice, because he’s about something far, far bigger. You see, if we unshackle the word of God from our expectations and assumptions about what God is saying to us, there really is no telling what we might hear. We might hear about a God who does things we don’t believe can happen, who explodes all our comfortable certainties and upsettles all our fixed ideas about possible and impossible and how the world works, and how it ought to work. We might even, if we really listen carefully, find that we have to change.
And so instead of listening, we often try not to; and we build defenses against having to. In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, that’s a process that began right at the beginning—look over to Matthew 27, and you can see that, as the Jewish leaders go to Pilate and ask him for a squad of his soldiers to make the tomb secure. Secure against what? Against Jesus’ disciples coming and stealing the body? Well, that’s what they tell Pilate, and I’m sure they meant it, that they were afraid someone would try to hoax the public. But you know, I think Buechner’s right when he suggests in another sermon that in the back of their minds, nagging at them though they refused to think about it, was another fear: the fear that Jesus might actually, somehow, come alive again. He’d done enough other unbelievable things—could they be quite, quite sure he wouldn’t do this one, too? And so I think, at some level, they were trying to make the tomb secure against—miracle. Against being wrong, against losing control—really, against God.
And of course, it didn’t work; no band of soldiers, however capable, can stop a miracle of God any more than they can stop the sun from rising. The problem was, they were going about it the wrong way. As Buechner goes on to note, “all in all there is a lot one can do in defense against miracle, and, unless I badly miss my guess, there are thousands upon thousands of ministers doing precisely that at any given instant . . . there are at least as many ways of doing this as there are sermons preached on Easter Sunday.” If you don’t believe that, just take a look at history for a while, and you’ll see how many ways people can come up with to try to defuse the resurrection of Jesus, to try to turn it into something safe, something they can live with; the endless creativity of human beings on this point is truly staggering.
Perhaps the most popular approach is to try to spiritualize it in some way. For instance, some people say that the story of the Resurrection means that the teachings of Jesus are immortal, that their wisdom and truth conquered death and will live on forever. This is the same sort of thing we mean when we say “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which is complete balderdash; when it comes to a direct contest of pen vs. sword, the latter wins every time. Others will tell you that the story of the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus lives on among us in the lives of all who follow his great example. Which begs the question: why would anyone would follow the example of a failed Messiah who got himself butchered by the authorities? There were a lot of those back then, and nobody follows any of the others; why this one? Yet others have written that the story of the Resurrection is a metaphor, that it means the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul; which still leaves one asking if there’s any actual reason for the rebirth of hope if it’s all just a nice story, not something that actually happened.
These are all attempts to make the Resurrection “an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring”; and the Scriptures just don’t go there. There are lots of stories in the Bible, of which many come with moral lessons attached, and there are lots of metaphors, and lots of poetry of one sort or another, but we find none of them here. What we find, instead, is the Bible proclaiming a brute physical historical fact: this Jesus whom you crucified didn’t stay dead. He lay there in the tomb three days, and then his eyes opened, and he sat up—through the bands of cloth which had been wrapped tightly around him—and he got off the stone slab on which he had been laid, and he walked out of the tomb—through the half-ton stone covering the entrance; Jesus’ resurrected body was a little different from ours—and went on his way, no mere ghost or spirit or metaphor, but alive in the body once again.
Of course, even if you accept that, even if you accept the real miracle of the Resurrection, you can still defuse it, defend yourself against it, make it something safe, without too much trouble; all you have to do is treat it as something that happened long ago—not quite “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but something of that sort. Yes, Jesus died and rose again, and yes, that’s a good thing, because it means we get to go to heaven when we die, and yes, I believe all that, and can I get on with my life now? It’s something that happened so we could be saved, and so we celebrate and sing songs, but in the last analysis, it’s something that happened 2000 years ago, and not anything that we really need to think about all that much as we go about our daily lives; after all, it is, as we might say, ancient history.
Except that to say that is to miss half the story, because it isn’t just ancient history, it isn’t just something that happened once long ago; it’s not just that one man who was God came back from the dead, but that because he rose from the dead, so we, too, have been raised from the dead and will rise from the dead. The New Testament hammers this point home, that the death and resurrection of Christ isn’t only something that happened to him, it’s something that happened to us, by the power and grace of God. At the point of our conversion, in his death, our old selves died; in his resurrection, we were raised again to new life. Because Christ is risen, when he comes again, we will receive new, perfected bodies, and we will live forever with him; and for now, though we still have the same old bodies, we have new spiritual power, from the Spirit of God. We were enslaved to sin, under the power of death, but no more, for those old selves are gone, and in Christ we have been given new life—his life—the life which triumphed over sin and broke the power of death. We are free from sin, free to live for God, free to be more than we have been, free to be the people we were meant to be. We do still sin, for old habits die hard, but we are no longer bound to it; our chains have been broken.
This is the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s not merely something Jesus did so that we could choose to be saved if we wanted to; it’s our resurrection—our re-creation as people. It’s the beginning of our transformation, not into new people, but into the people God created us to be. It’s about being set free, completely free, from all the things that haunt us and weigh us down—free to go forward in the power and the grace of God to live as his new creation, for we are no longer who we once were; we are no longer “only human,” we are no longer bound to what is “only natural,” for that life is dead, and the life we now live, we live by the Spirit of God.
This means that we can’t reduce the Resurrection to merely an edifying story or an uplifting thought; it isn’t a metaphor, or an image, or a poetic expression; indeed, it isn’t about anything else, whether hope, or faith, or how wonderful Jesus was—it simply is, this utterly new thing God has done for the healing and the recreation of the world. The Resurrection isn’t about anything else at all; rather, everything else we do and say and know and live as Christians is about the Resurrection, and if we’re not talking and living that way, we’re missing the point.
This is why Paul says that if Christ hasn’t been raised, if our hope in him is in this life only, that we are of all people most to be pitied; which says something about what our lives ought to look like. If this world and this life are all there is, then we might as well devote our lives to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, because there’s really nothing more to life than that; pleasure is the best this world can give, and suffering doesn’t get you anything worth having. For each of us, death comes as the end, and that’s that. From that point of view, living for the hope of another life that isn’t there, giving up pleasures and accepting suffering for the sake of another world that doesn’t exist, is simply pitiable, the dedication of life to a delusion.
But in fact, Paul says, Christ has been raised from the dead; yes, in Adam, all die, but in Christ, we have been made alive. In him, we have been given new life that is stronger than this world and new sight that sees farther than its bounds; we can see beyond death, we can see through this world to the new world coming. We don’t have to settle for what this world has to offer, because we don’t have to bow to the powers that rule it; this world tells us that death is final and pain has no answer, it tells us to come to terms with our sin because we cannot defeat it, and in Jesus Christ we know better.
In Jesus Christ we know that none of these things has the last word—we know that pain doesn’t have the last word, sin doesn’t have the last word, grief doesn’t have the last word, loss doesn’t have the last word, even death itself doesn’t have the last word, because there is a resurrection. If your hopes have failed and your plans gone awry, there is a resurrection. If you’re grieving the death of someone you love, there is a resurrection. If you’re suffering, if you’re in pain, there is a resurrection. If you’re worn down and beaten down by guilt for something you’ve done, there is a resurrection. If you’re alone and lonely, there is a resurrection. If those you love have hurt you and let you down, there is a resurrection. Whatever you have done, whatever this world has done to you, whatever is wrong in your life, take heart, for there is a resurrection.
Christ is risen, and with him we are risen; this world is not all there is. We don’t have to settle for what it can offer, nor do we have to let our circumstances determine our lives. We can rest in the assurance that in the hard times, God is always with us, and that in time, there will come an end to all hard times and all pain; when Jesus returns, all his faithful ones who have died will be raised from the dead, just as he was raised—in resurrection bodies, perfected bodies, free from sin and all its effects, free from the power of death, free from all the things that go wrong—and we will live with him forever in his kingdom, all the heavens and earth made new. “See,” Revelation 21 declares, “the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” That’s the promise of God to us because Jesus rose from the dead. In his death, we died; in his resurrection, we are risen; in his kingdom, we will live forever.
From the beginning, God’s plan has been to rescue the whole world. He chose a man, Abraham, and gave him a family, which would become a nation to worship him and honor his name. At least, that was the idea—that Israel would be a light to the nations to draw them to the worship of the one true God. But there was one small problem: Israel didn’t live like that, and didn’t really want to; and if they didn’t, who had more reason than anyone else to trust God, what hope was there for the rest of the world? Why would the other nations be drawn to worship God if even his own people wouldn’t stay faithful?
In the place of his servant Israel, then, to carry out the task they had refused, God raised up a new Servant, to be his covenant to his people and a light to the nations, that he might be God’s salvation to the very ends of the earth, establishing justice in the world and freeing those held captive in the darkness of sin. He was to be God’s answer to the problem of the evil and sin in this world, not by explaining it or overpowering it—which are the sort of answers the world thinks it wants—but by an entirely different way. God chose to offer us, not the answer for which we were looking, but the answer we actually needed: he offered us himself. He came down to live our life, to identify with us, to endure the darkness of our fallen world with us, and to defeat that darkness, not with its own weapons, but with light.
People sometimes ask, “Where’s God when it hurts—in the tragedies we see so often, and the large-scale injustices of this world?” and often they assume the answer must be “Nowhere”; after all, if there really is a God out there, and he actually heard our suffering, wouldn’t he do something about it? But the truth is, as Easter shows us, God has heard our suffering—he has heard every cry of anguish, felt every blow and every betrayal, and caught every tear in the palm of his hand—and in Jesus Christ, he has done everything about it. In Jesus, he came down to share our suffering with us, drinking that cup to the very dregs. He took the weight of all our sin on his shoulders—the entirety of human evil and human suffering, of all the brokenness and wrongness of the world—and he carried it to the cross, its cruel thorns digging into his forehead, its sharp splinters shredding his back; and there, for the guilt of all the crimes he never committed, he died.
He died for us. He died to pay the price for all the sins we’ve ever committed and ever will commit, for all the pain we’ve endured and all the pain we’ve caused, for all the darkness and brokenness and agony and grief in our poor misshapen world. Our sins deserved death, and more—even our death wouldn’t be enough punishment; not only could we never do enough in this life to make up for them, we couldn’t even die enough to even the balance. Morally, we were in the same position as so many mortgages these days: we were under water, owing more than we were worth. Only Jesus’ death—the death of one whose life was of infinite value and infinite goodness, the life of God himself—only his death could be enough to pay that price, to satisfy the demands of justice for the sins of the world, so that salvation could come to all the nations.
But if his death was sufficient to pay the price of redemption, it still wasn’t enough to accomplish the work; nor was it enough to satisfy God’s promise to his servant. “See my servant,” God says in Isaiah 52: “he shall accomplish his purpose; he will rise and be lifted up, and be exalted most high.” And again in chapter 53, “If you make his life an offering for sin, then he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; . . . Because of his anguish, he shall see and be satisfied. . . . Therefore I will give him the many, and he shall divide the strong as the spoils of his victory.” Justice for the Servant, the fulfillment of God’s promises to him, demanded that his death not be the end; and indeed, for his great work to end in victory at all rather than defeat required something more. If his story had come to its conclusion in that tomb, if he had died and stayed dead like any other man, then in the end, it would have been just another victory for the powers of evil; the price would have been paid for our redemption, but there would have been no redeemer left to complete the deal, and the sacrifice would have been for nothing.
And so, though the powers of evil capered and celebrated across that black, black Saturday, thinking they had won—thinking they had tricked the God of the universe into taking a bridge too far—God’s resounding answer to evil came on Easter morning. The Creed tells us Jesus descended into Hell, and I believe it; and after spending a couple nights there, that morning he got up, reached out his hands, and tore the gates of Hell from their very hinges. He stretched out his carpenter’s hands, those hands that could be so gentle to the weak and the suffering, and his shoulders flexed, and he tore the wall of Death apart. He heaved, and the grave burst open in a soundless explosion that shook the universe from one end to the other, a blinding flash of light that lit the sky from horizon to horizon; and he who had been dead got up, and was dead no more, never again to die.
And in that, you see, is the victory; in that, and nothing else. In that moment, the price that had been paid for our redemption was realized, and we were stripped from the power and control of the prince of darkness. That’s why Isaiah bursts out into song, calling out to his people that their redemption has been accomplished, that God’s salvation has come. God in his love has chosen to direct his anger at sin against his Servant—which is to say, against himself—and to take on himself the punishment that justice demanded; all that remains is for his people to accept the gift and revel in the love of God.
Isaiah 54 uses two different images to express this. In verses 1-10, the prophet pictures the people of God as a childless woman, abandoned by her husband; verses 11-17 portray them as a city that needs to be rebuilt. In both cases, he addresses them in the midst of difficult circumstances—poor, desolate, lonely, wracked by the storms of life—with the promise that the Servant’s victory has been won, and that the fruits of that victory are coming. With the first image, we see the fruits of restored relationships, beginning with the healing of their relationship with God. The exile of the people of Israel was the political realization of their spiritual reality—they had been alienated from the land God gave them to reflect the deeper truth that their sin, their rebellious disobedience, had alienated them from him spiritually, had broken their relationship with him.
That’s why Jewish leaders of later years have taught that the exile didn’t really end with the return to Israel, because their hardness of heart, their spiritual exile, continued; and it’s why the words of the prophets are as relevant today as they were in their own time, because while we no longer share the physical circumstances of the Israelite exiles in Babylon, their spiritual circumstances are our own. All of us begin life estranged from God; just growing up in the church, or even formally joining the church and being active in it, isn’t enough to change that, either. There are many in the church in this country, and perhaps even here this morning, who are still in exile and don’t know it, because they have no real relationship with God; like the people of Isaiah’s time, all the outward conformity is there, but the inner reality of faith is absent. What God wants from us is not good works, be it church attendance, volunteering, giving money, or any of that; those are all good things, but in and of themselves they aren’t enough. What he wants is for us to love him and trust him, to put him first in our hearts and minds.
This is the reason for the language we see in verses 7-10: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will gather you; in a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but out of my hesed—my everlasting kindness, my unchanging faithful love, my covenant commitment to you—I have had compassion on you. . . . Though the mountains be shaken and the hills disappear, my hesed, my unfailing love, will not be shaken, nor will my covenant of peace disappear.” It’s a promise of enduring love, and an enduring close relationship, founded on the committed faithfulness of God; this is the fundamental promise from which all the others flow.
Thus the one who has been shamed and humiliated before the world will be set free from her humiliation. To understand this, you need to remember that in that time, not having kids wasn’t a lifestyle choice; the common view in that day and age, as Asbury Seminary’s John Oswalt sums it up, was that “a childless woman was a failure, someone who had apparently committed some sin, or had been at least judged unworthy of bearing a child.” Thus being childless brought terrible shame and humiliation. It also meant economic difficulties—back then, you didn’t have a 401(k) or Social Security; your retirement plan was that your children would take care of you in your old age, as you had done for your parents—and the certainty that your influence would end with your death. Similarly, Israel had been shamed and humiliated before the nations by the failure of her God to deliver her, and left with no apparent future; but God says, “Don’t fear, and don’t be humiliated, because I have wiped away your shame. Shout for joy, sing songs of praise, because I’m going to undo your disaster; step out in faith, because I’m going to give you a future—and a brighter one than you ever imagined.”
Thus as well God promises his people peace, prosperity, and security. He will rebuild his city out of precious stones, so that its walls will be not merely strong but also beautiful. Incidentally, where the NIV has “I will build you with stones of turquoise,” the literal reading there is “I will lay your stones in mascara”; the NIV translators apparently weren’t sure what to make of that, but I suspect it means that even the mortar used to lay the stones will be beautifully colored, to highlight the colors in the stones. The point is, God will make his people glorious; the outer glory of the walls will reflect the inner glory of their character and spiritual life. “All your children will be disciples of the LORD, and great will be their peace.” You could preach an entire sermon on that, on God’s concern that our children are not merely kept quiet and happy while the adults do the business of the church, but are seriously discipled as members of the people of God. “You will be established in righteousness, and so you will have nothing to fear; yes, there will be those who will attack you, but it won’t be my doing, and you will prevail against them.”
And then look at verse 17—this is the victory of the Servant of the Lord extended to his people. “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and no charge raised against you will be sustained”; this goes back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago, that God has both the might and the right to deliver his people. This is not to say that there won’t be attacks on his people—we know that God doesn’t insulate us from the troubles of this world—but it is to say that they will always fail of their purpose in the end. There is no one who has the power to overcome God’s protection over us; even the destroyers of our world were created by God, and even their weapons are the work of his hands, and so even they must ultimately serve his purpose. They may be able to harm us along the way, but only as he allows. And there is no argument that can stand against him, because there is no one who can sustain a claim that he is unjust; if we’re following him, there will be times that we’ll be accused of injustice by those who reject his ways, but we’ll always be vindicated in the end.
Why? Because this is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord. This is the promise of God to his Servant and the victory he has won, which he has passed on to us. Notice the progression: first Israel was the servant, then God raised up his perfect Servant, who brought many from the nations into his people, and now all of us are his servants, disciples and followers of his great Servant; as his followers, we share in his victory. All we have to do is trust him for it and accept it with gratitude, to celebrate his victory and his gift of that victory to us, and then to live in his victory. That’s all the Christian life is, really: you’ve been redeemed, you have the victory in Jesus—now go live that, live like you believe it. Live out the truth of what we celebrate this morning, that we serve a living Savior who has forever shattered the power of sin and death by dying for our sin and rising again from the dead for our redemption. Christ is risen!
I saw a quote a while back from an older pastor, his spirit clearly broken, who had come to believe that funerals were the only worthwhile thing he did. He said, “The first couple I married is now divorced; the first person I led to Christ has left the church. But the first person I buried is still dead.” My first thought when I read that was, “How sad!” That’s someone who’s lost faith. There’s no resurrection there, no Easter hope, only the wisdom of the modern world: people die, and they stay dead, and that’s it. That’s why you see cars with the bumper sticker, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”—because what’s to play for except to make life as fun as you can while it lasts? That’s why you see T-shirts that say, “No one gets out of here alive,” or, “Life is a terminal condition.” For many people, the future fact of death overshadows the present fact of life, and anything that can be done to stave it off or deny its approach is worth doing.
However people choose to deal with death, most agree that it’s one of only two certain things in life: when someone’s dead, they’re dead, and that’s it. The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton has one of his characters, a Prussian general, say this to explain why he had ordered the execution of a poet: “Highness, . . . he would be deified, but he would be dead. Whatever he means to do, he would never do it. Whatever he is doing, he would do no more. Death is the fact of all facts; and I am rather fond of facts.” And because it is the fact of all facts, the fact which can silence all other facts, it’s the fact to which tyrants and brutes have always resorted in order to keep the upper hand. If someone becomes too much of a problem, you can always kill them; and then whatever they are doing, they will do no more.
And so the Pharisees saw the crowds following Jesus, then looked at each other and said, “This isn’t doing any good—see, the whole world has gone after him.” But they had one more hammer to use; and a few days later, they and the chief priests had manipulated the Roman who ruled Israel into sentencing Jesus to death. Whatever Jesus meant to do, he would not do it; what he was doing, he would do no more. Death was the fact of all facts; and they were very fond of facts.
Along with that fact came a few more. Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb; the stone used to close that tomb was a giant disc, a great stone wheel, perhaps six feet across and a foot or two thick. Once the body was inside, the stone was rolled down into a slot in front of the door that held it firmly in place against the rock wall of the tomb. You can imagine the horrible grinding noise that must have made, a sound like the death of all hopes; you can imagine how that sound must have echoed in the ears of Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and the others gathered there, and how they must have felt it in their very souls, as if the stone were rolling within them, crushing their hearts.
Still, there was nothing to do but go on, somehow; and as Jesus’ burial had been hurried, his body had not been properly anointed, so that needed to be done. That was something they could still do for Jesus, small as it was. And so after sundown brought the Sabbath to an end, they went out and bought the spices, and early the next morning, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome went down to the tomb. They left home while it was still dark, so they could be sure to arrive at the tomb at first light. As they walked, they fretted about the stone; after all, it weighed thousands of pounds, and would have to be rolled uphill to get it out of the way, and it all seemed too much for them to do. Plus there were those Roman soldiers set around the mouth of the tomb, who might be willing to help, or—not . . . you never could tell with Romans.
When they got there, though, they found the stone already rolled away, and no one there except an angel sitting in the tomb. Mark doesn’t use the word “angel,” but that’s what he means; you can tell from the clothes that shone white in the dark tomb, and from the women’s reaction: they were terrified. We have this Victorian image of angels in the back of our minds, of pretty young men and women in soft focus with beautiful golden wings and gentle expressions on their faces, but real angels aren’t like that. God’s angels live in his presence, they’re saturated in his glory and his holiness, and when they show up undisguised, they radiate that glory; it’s as if a small sun suddenly started burning right here in this sanctuary. Their presence is stunning, blinding, awe-inspiring, overpowering . . . terrifying. God is not safe, he isn’t tame, he isn’t comfortable, and neither are his servants. That’s why the first thing angels always say is, “Don’t be afraid.”
If the angel’s appearance is staggering, however, that’s nothing compared to his message. He tells them, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s been raised; he isn’t here. Look, there’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And how do the women respond? They run. They’re beside themselves with some crazy combination of fear, and joy, and disbelief, and awe; this is just too big, too much, too far beyond their experience for them to handle. Their emotions overwhelm them, and they run; they don’t know what else to do.
And here, Mark stops, creating incredible heartburn for generations of Christians, including the writer of the extended ending you have there in your Bibles. He doesn’t give us a resurrection appearance, he doesn’t show the women telling the disciples Jesus had risen, he doesn’t give us any of that; instead, he leaves us with the women running away in fear, saying nothing at all. Mark knows that they did in fact tell the disciples, that the word did get out; why doesn’t he tell that story, too? Why stop here?
It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems to me that this ending does something important: it drops the whole question in our laps. The other gospels end with Jesus appearing to his disciples and teaching them, and those accounts are important; but in wrapping up the story, bringing it to a conclusion, they allow us to stay outside it, if we choose. When Mark leaves us hanging, with no resolution, with the command to go tell the others still unfulfilled, it pulls us in and leaves us to finish the story. We don’t know, from Mark, what the women make of what has just happened to them, or what they’re going to do with it; as we wrestle with that fact, it brings us smack up against the question of what we make of it, what we’re going to do with it.
Which, for our lives, is the question that matters. I’ve known people who believed intellectually that the stone was rolled away and Jesus rose from the dead—they considered it to be the only historically plausible conclusion—but it didn’t matter to them; they saw it as just another odd historical fact that had nothing at all to do with their lives. And that’s not the Resurrection the Scriptures proclaim. Yes, they teach the Resurrection as an historical fact—Jesus physically died, then physically came back to life, got up, left the tomb, and went on about his work—but not only as an historical fact. It’s not just that the stone was rolled away from the tomb, but that the stone is still rolling; it’s not just that one man who was God came back from the dead, but that because he rose from the dead, so we, too, have risen from the dead and will rise from the dead.
The question is, do you believe that? Do you believe that this is your resurrection? Do you believe that in Jesus, you have risen from spiritual death to new life in Christ? Paul tells us that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death . . . so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In other words, our old selves, enslaved to sin, under the power of death, died on the cross, and in Christ we have been given new life—his life—the life which triumphed over sin and broke the power of death. We are free from sin, free to live for God, free to be the people we were meant to be. Do you believe that? Do you live like your chains have been broken?
And do you believe that in Jesus, death is not the end? Do you know in your gut that just as you have risen from the dead spiritually, so you will rise from the dead physically? Yes, in this broken creation, on this marred earth, death is still a reality, and people who die do usually stay dead—yesterday when we buried my wife’s grandmother, it was something like the sixth funeral in her extended family in the last six months, and they’re all definitely still dead—but that’s not the end of the story, because Jesus Christ has shattered the power of death. As Paul says, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection.” Death is only temporary. Funerals are only temporary. When Jesus returns, all his faithful ones who have died will be raised from the dead just as he was raised—in resurrection bodies, perfected bodies, free from sin and all its effects, free from the power of death, free from all the things that go wrong—and we will live with him forever in the new heavens and the new earth. “See,” Revelation 21 declares, “the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
What matters is that we understand, not just that there was a resurrection in a tomb outside Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, but that there is a resurrection for us. Yes, in this world, we suffer death, and pain, and grief, and loss, but there’s a new world coming; if you are in Christ, then you have the promise of God that pain doesn’t have the last word, sin doesn’t have the last word, grief doesn’t have the last word, loss doesn’t have the last word, even death itself doesn’t have the last word, because there is a resurrection. If your hopes have failed and your plans gone awry, there is a resurrection. If you’re grieving the death of someone you love, there is a resurrection. If you’re suffering, if you’re in pain, there is a resurrection. If you’re worn down and beaten down by guilt for something you’ve done, there is a resurrection. If you’re alone and lonely, there is a resurrection. If those you love have hurt you and let you down, there is a resurrection. Whatever this world has done to you, whatever is wrong in your life, take heart, for there is a resurrection. In Jesus’ death, we died; in his resurrection, we are risen; in his kingdom, we will live forever with him and with each other.