(a sermon for March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday, based on Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-18)
Not long ago I heard a very simple but apt description of what makes Easter a great holiday: “It’s fine, and fun, and just a little bit frivolous.”
That seems right; after all, this is a day when, no matter what the weather happens to be outside, spring fashion finally reigns victorious over winter clothes; when pink and yellow pastels are the primary colors of the day and eggs aren’t just for scrambling anymore; and just for today, mind you, when it can be said with all certainty that chocolate bunnies and jellybeans are legitimately part of a balanced breakfast! I mean, what’s not to love about Easter? Everything we do today – from music to flowers to family gatherings – quite literally shouts of freshness and renewal and celebration, and that’s one reason I absolutely love Easter Sunday, friends; it’s as though our spiritual rejoicing ends up touching everything else in our lives for the better, and you and I, we are made brand new because of it!
Of course, to be fair, that only takes us so far. That’s the thing about holidays: no matter how much we might want it to be otherwise, holidays don’t last forever; and soon enough the Easter candy will all be gone, our new “Sunday best” hung back up in the closet, and it’ll be back to work, back to school, and back to the same old routine of daily life! In other words, today is Easter Sunday, and this morning you and I cannot help but feel exhilarated, refreshed and inspired; but brand new? That’s something different; not to be sound like a downer here, but the truth is whatever fun and frivolity we all engage in today, come Monday morning, we’ll still pretty much be the same people we were on Saturday! And that’s because while holidays and celebrations are great – and I might add, necessary, especially on this day of resurrection (!) – ultimately, becoming brand new is not something we can do on our own, either through celebration or any other means. Simply put, we don’t change ourselves!
I remember once many years ago, on a whim I decided to shave off my beard. Now I’ve had this protuberance of whiskers for almost 28 years now (I actually grew it so I could look older (!); so much for that concept!), and I’d never totally shaved it off before nor have I since. But for some reason on this one day I got it into my head I needed something fresh and new in my life – I needed to be fresh and new – so just like that, off came the beard.
Now at this point, (our youngest son) Zach hadn’t been born yet, and it was just Jake and Sarah; and Jake, who I don’t think was even in school yet, took one look at the “new” me and cried his eyes out! My lovely wife Lisa, on the other hand, laughed hysterically; if I recall, her first three intelligible words were, “Grow… it… back!” But my daughter Sarah, who was barely a toddler at the time, eyed me warily at first and then as I drew closer to her, she took her two little hands, tapped me on the cheeks and said, rather nonchalantly, “Daddy.” And from that moment, it didn’t matter to her that I looked so different; I felt the same and inside I was the same, and so she could tell that I was still her Daddy! I was grateful for that, but I also immediately realized that shaving off the beard wasn’t going to give me that “newness” of life, so to speak, that I was seeking!
My point here is though appearances may change and circumstances around us may drastically shift, deep down inside we remain the same; try as we may, we can’t make ourselves to be “brand new” simply by our own effort. We can’t do it by wealth, it can’t happen through the exercise of power, and it doesn’t occur out of the sheer force of will and determination. In the end, you see, no matter what kind of “extreme makeover” we attempt for ourselves, there’s nothing we can do that makes us brand new.
But here’s the good news of this Easter Sunday, beloved, and here is the real reason for celebrating today: and it’s that God can make us brand new; and has done it through Jesus, who is the Christ; Jesus, who in rising again has conquered the one absolute certainly of our existence – our death – and has opened for us the gates of life abundant and everlasting. By the resurrection, we become a new creation, a people of a new heaven, a new earth and a new future. And the experience of that is what moves this particular celebration far beyond the realm of candy and flowers and new spring clothes; it’s what makes our worship this morning infinitely more than simply an exercise in hymn singing and alleluia shouting; and it’s truly what makes life a thing that’s fuller and greater than we had ever thought possible. For you see, when God enters into our lives in such a way that we are enabled to see this world not as a place of death, decay and defeat, but as the place awaiting God’s final victory of life, we are, in fact and forevermore, made brand new.
It’s actually what the 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was talking about when he spoke of our being “eastered.” It might sound strange grammatically, but that’s how Hopkins used the word “Easter” – as a verb rather than a noun – in the last stanza of his poem entitled The Wreck of the Deutchland: “Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.” It’s a beautiful reminder to us that Easter is more than simply a day on the calendar or a yearly festival of the church, more than even a doctrinal statement, but in fact an experience; something that by God’s grace and intent happens to us and in us: Easter in us, O Lord! It’s when the resurrection of Jesus Christ gets to us where we are, and then permeates our very souls; and then, as we heard in that passage from Colossians this morning, “When Christ who is [our] life is revealed, then [we] also will be revealed with him in glory;” in other words, made brand-new by the God who wants us – each one of us! – to be with him today, tomorrow, for every day of life and for all eternity.
I think that’s why of the four gospel accounts of the resurrection John has always been my favorite; for while in this version of the story we very definitely get the message that God so loved the world, we also are assured that God so loved the one! At its heart, you know, the Easter story is actually very quiet and intimate: I love, for instance, how John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning early “while it was still dark,” suggesting that the day hadn’t even begun yet, but rather that time between darkness and the dawn when things still seem so gray and uncertain. I am always struck by how Peter and the other disciple race to get to the tomb first, but then, so amazed by what they discover there, end up wandering back home and leaving Mary alone, weeping outside the entrance of the tomb. And I’m always moved by how much she cries; that so great is her anguish and grief, first over the death of her Lord but now also over the apparent theft of his body, that she doesn’t even recognize the voice of Jesus when he speaks to her; assuming Jesus to be the gardener!
Isn’t it interesting that it’s only when Jesus calls her by name – “Mary” – only then does she recognize him; only in that moment between them that she begins to understand this incredible thing that had happened; only in realizing what God had done that her life changes forever and that she becomes brand new. Suddenly the overwhelming tears of grief and anguish are replaced by the tears of joy, and even laughter; despair turns to hope, defeat becomes victory, and what was impossible before now becomes not only possible but real! A few moments before there was nothing but death staring Mary in the face; but now there’s life, with all eternity laid open before her. She’s immediately been made brand new… she’s “been eastered,” by divine love that is as real and as close as her very heart.
And it is love that never fails to surprise us… though, in all faith, it should not surprise at all. One thing Jesus was always teaching us is that God is not about to let us go, that he was bringing to us a new and everlasting covenant, that he was calling each one of us by name that we may truly have life and have it abundantly, and that he will transform all of heaven and earth if that’s what it will take to bring us home with him. And that’s what we have here in its glorious fullness, beloved: that through Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior, God makes sure, once and for all, that we are indeed “eastered,” making the world brand new, and us along with it.
That’s why, though the sand will inevitably shift beneath our feet in this world; though the struggles of life and living will sooner or later become our struggles; and while we will most certainly suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous, cruel and sinful humanity, we can still dare to love, dare to wonder and to trust that even in the hardest of times that God is good. That’s why we can dare to hope in God’s shalom to bring forth a new day of resurrection and hope to every dark place in the world; and why we dare to work boldly as persons and as a people for the sake of God’s kingdom; because we know that Christ has overcome the world, and that there is a new heaven, a new earth and a new future for you and for me. And the best thing of all is that it’s ongoing… for even now and even here, beloved… we are being “eastered,” and made brand new by the power of the resurrection: and that does make all the difference for today, tomorrow and in every day that’s to come.
Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton – another late 19th/early 20th century poet – what personifies a Christian, and he replied that “a Christian will do two things: dance out of the sheer sense of joy, and fight out of the sheer sense of victory.” Well, beloved, today on this wonderful day of resurrection, we dance! We sing and celebrate that Christ is risen, and we praise the God of new possibilities and resurrection faith: all the songs, the fellowship, the beauty of flowers and, yes, even jelly beans and chocolate bunnies serve as the vessels of our joy! Today we dance!
But tomorrow, when life goes “back to normal,” we fight… we fight out of a sheer sense of victory; we fight because by the power of the risen Christ we are not the same as before, but different; with a different sense of who we are and what our lives are about and what we can do with each new day that comes; with the profound awareness that having been “eastered,” we are made brand new, and in the risen Christ our lives are starting all over again!
Can you imagine what that means for you and for me? What do you think could happen – in our lives, in our world, in our church (!) – if we would just dare to live that way?
Let’s not leave here returning to business as usual, beloved! Let the Christ who is alive in our hearts give us courage and grace to dare living unto God on this new day, the first day, and on Monday, and Tuesday, and every new day that’s ahead of us!
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)
Alleluia, thanks be to God…
c, 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry