(a sermon for April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday, based on John 20:1-18 and Isaiah 65:17)
Well, let’s just start by stating the obvious: this year Easter feels different… very different.
I realized at some point this week that as I’ve been talking with family and friends about my plans for our worship today I’ve almost always begun with the words, “Well, under ordinary circumstances…” as in, “Well, under ordinary circumstances we’d have a sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers (not to mention a sanctuary filled with beautiful people!)… under ordinary circumstances we’d be all here together singing out the triumphant hymns of our resurrection faith, and we’d be shouting our alleluias and our “Christ is risen, indeed’s” so loud and so often that our voices might go hoarse in the process… under ordinary circumstances, our Easter Sunday worship would be such a wonderful time of freshness and renewal and true celebration that we’d all leave church today with the feeling that everything around us had suddenly and gloriously become brand new… and us along with it!
But of course, these aren’t “ordinary circumstances,” by any means; in an unprecedented set of new circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic we’ve had rethink and reconfigure how to “do” Easter… or at least how to do it from a distance! So yes, this year Easter does feel very different; and I’ll confess that like most of you I’m really missing all the traditions, both in and out of the church, that have made our Easter celebrations so great every year! But that said, I also have to confess that lately I’ve been thinking that maybe this idea of our “feeling brand new” on this particular day should maybe have less to do with how we “do” Easter than what’s been done for us on Easter.
Believe it or not, it’s reminded me of how once many years ago, on a whim I decided to shave off my beard. Now I’ve had this protuberance of whiskers on my chin for over 30 years now (I actually grew it so I could look older (!); I know… 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 literally 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! On the other hand, my lovely wife Lisa – my lovely, supportive wife, Lisa – started laughing hysterically; as 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.” From that moment, you see, it didn’t matter to her that I looked so different; I felt the same and inside I was the same, 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 can and do drastically shift, who we are deep down inside remains 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 Easter, beloved, and the real reason for celebrating today: it’s that God can make us brand new, and does. The same God who promised to “create new heavens and a new earth,” makes us brand new as well and has done it through Jesus, who is the Christ: Jesus, who in rising again has conquered the one absolute certainly of our human 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 day of 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 how it can utterly transcend our being unable to gather together as the church “in person!” It’s the resurrection that makes our lives – yours and mine – something 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!
Christ is risen; and because of that, friends, this world and our lives in this world can never be the same as it was before; and thanks be to God for it! In fact, in the words of the late British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, in this world the resurrection can only be viewed as “a total starting point… the ultimate protest against things as they are, in the name of what ought to be,” the proclamation that “the world as it is is not God’s last word.” It is no wonder that throughout the history of the church, Easter has often been referred to as “Day of Days,” or, more pointedly, “The First Day.” Because from this first day on, everything is brand new.
Of the four accounts of the resurrection that are contained in the gospels, I think I’ve always been drawn the most to John’s version of the Easter story. 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 am always moved by how 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… how she assumes Jesus to be the gardener, of all people!
Isn’t it interesting that it’s only when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” only then does she recognize him; only then that she can begin to understand this incredible thing that had happened; only in that moment did her world and her life become brand new, and the overwhelming tears of grief and anguish are replaced by tears of joy and even laughter. Suddenly, despair turns to hope, defeat becomes victory, and what was impossible now becomes not only possible but real! Where before there was nothing but death staring Mary in the face, now there’s life with this brand-new future laid open before her!
That’s an incredible moment; for what we sometimes forget in remembering the great theological and cosmic implications of the resurrection is that while God so loved the world, God also so loved the one. In this exchange between Mary and the risen Christ we discover that God does indeed seek to bring each one home to him in a love that is as real and close as our very hearts.
But then, this shouldn’t surprise us. One thing Jesus was always teaching us is that God is not about to let us go, that he calls us by our names, and that he will transform heaven and earth if it’ll bring us home. And now, through Christ, crucified and risen, God makes the world brand new, and makes us brand new along with it.
And that’s why, even in these most stressful and uncertain of days: even in these times when the struggles of the world have become our struggles; even as in life we suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous, cruel and sinful humanity; even now, we can still dare to love; even now we dare to wonder and to trust that even in the bleakest of times that God is good.
We 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 we dare to work boldly as persons and as a people for the sake of God’s kingdom; all 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, friends, that is what makes all the difference for us not only today, but also tomorrow and every day to come.
Someone once asked the poet G.K. Chesterton 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 day of resurrection, we dance! Wherever and however we happen to be today, we sing and celebrate that Christ is risen, and we praise the God of resurrection and new life… today is for dancing!
But tomorrow, when life continues in this strange “new 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; we fight because of a new sense of who we are and what our lives are about; we fight because we are made brand new and our lives are starting all over again!
Can you imagine what that means? What do you think could happen to us and to this world if we could just be bold enough to live that way?
My prayer for all of us amidst the “extra-ordinary circumstances” of this Easter Day is that the Risen Christ, the one who is alive in the world and alive in our hearts, will give us courage and grace to dare to live that kind of life: not only on this day of days, this first of days, gut also on every day that’s to come. And may we always be joyful and bold in proclaiming…
…Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)
Alleluia, and AMEN!
© Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.