“The Death of Jesus, Undone (Easter)” by Mike Solberg
Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on March 27, 2016 at the 10:00 a.m. Service.
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The Death of Jesus, Undone
(Luke 24:1-12, Easter 2016)
A friend of a friend went to medical school and found himself, for the first time in his life, in a delivery room where a woman was giving birth. He’d always heard that delivering a child was a fairly painful experience, so he was surprised that the mother entered the final stages of the birth screaming “Joy! Joy! Joy!” A couple of hours later, with the baby safely born and the mother now holding the treasured new life, this doctor-in-training had the chance to speak with the woman. “I was so moved,” he said, “to hear you shouting for joy with all your heart.” “You do have a lot to learn,” said the mother. “I was shouting for Joy because I was in agony. Joy is the name of the nurse.”
Hopefully, even if you knew nothing about Christianity before our worship began today, you would have figured out by now that this is a day of joy. Seeing the bright colors streaming above us. Drawing in the aroma of the flowers before us. Adding your voice to the swell of music among us. Maybe noticing something in the expression of the people sitting around you, I think it is there, a little twinkle in the eye, a little raising of one cheek, a smile, someone, anyone, you there, stand and show everyone, see, this is a day of joy.
Like child birth, however, the joy of Easter only comes after some real pain. Or to put it more starkly, this joy of new life only comes after death, death literally and figuratively. Truth be told, the resurrection of Jesus is even more wondrous and disorienting than a child emerging from the womb. The birth of a child is crazy, but it is a perfectly natural process. With Jesus, though, new life springs unnaturally, unexpectedly, from the nothingness of death.
When Jesus was killed, his body wasn’t the only thing nailed up there on the cross. After he died, his body wasn’t the only thing lying in the tomb. Along with him there, also pierced, bloodied and dead, were the courage and the hopes of the people. His death was not simply the end of a life, it was the end of life’s meaning for his followers.
You see, there was a lot riding on Jesus. The hopes and fears of all the years, so many years of longing and struggle. There were years of oppression and loss of identity. Five hundred years before Jesus these people lost their homes, their ways of life, the pillars of their faith. The Babylonians invaded and burned their fields, destroyed their homes, tore down the ancient walls of Jerusalem, and flattened the Temple. It was such a terrible time that it has a proper name, like the Great Depression, or the Holocaust. We call it the Exile.
In the last couple of years, you’ve probably seen images from the Syrian civil war of entire towns reduced to rubble and void of people. You’ve probably seen images of refugees scattering across the globe, trying to find somewhere to escape the devastation. It was like that. As heartbreaking as the Twin Towers falling on September 11. As soul-crushing as a three year old boy’s body washed up on a beach. The Exile – and it was an exile from everything the people knew about life, about God, and about the future.
If you look at a time-line of Biblical history you will see that this Exile lasted 50 years, but if you asked the people who lived through it, and asked their children and their children, and on down through the generations, you would hear the people of Jesus’ day say that the Exile was not yet really over. Yes, they had come back to their homeland from Babylon and wherever else they were scattered on earth But their enemies were still on top: first the Babylonians, then Persians, then Greeks, then Syrians, and now, in Jesus’ day, the Romans. It’s like if you lived in a beautiful home, and were head of a wonderful family, but were one day kidnapped, and kept in seclusion for years. Finally, you are released, and you go home, only to find that your kidnapper had killed all your family, taken over your home and now you had to live in a room in the basement. In Jesus’ day, the Exile wasn’t really over.
In Biblical vocabulary, the people still needed “redeeming,” and that meant they needed a new Exodus. From the anger and despair of exile, the people looked even further back in their history, before the Exile began, 1000 years, to their birth as a people, when they were slaves and God redeemed them from their slavery in Egypt. The reason they had a wonderful home and family to begin with was because in those ancient days, God heard their cry, and saved them.
What they needed now was a renewed relationship with God – a renewed covenant that would bring redemption. We may imagine that when they prayed Psalm 43, they had their present ongoing exile in mind and that they had some very clear notions as to what they hoped God would do: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me. For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off? Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out your light and your truth!”
So the Bible offered to Jesus and his contemporaries an unfinished story, a story in search of an ending. An exile in search of a true homecoming. An injustice in search of a reckoning. A brokenness in search of a wholeness. A death in search of life.
How had they thought this ending would happen? It would come in two ways, they believed: a new zeal for God, and military revolt. The holy remnant, with God on its side would defeat the pagan hordes. Thus it had always been in scripture, and thus, they believed, it would be when the great climax came, when Israel’s God would become King of all the world. There would be a leader, one anointed by God to lead them in both holiness and might (the title of this anointed one was Messiah, or Christ), and the ancient story of exile would be brought to an end.
And as is always the case, the political was deeply personal. The Exile was not just about being an alien in your own land. It was about being an alien in your own skin. Being alienated from God. I don’t think the people moped around all day, shedding tears in every quiet moment, or bursting out in misplaced anger at every family member in the house. But life was harder than it needed to be, less joyful than it ought to be, and God seemed more distant than he promised to be. And always the Romans were not far away – with soldiers and taxes and contempt.
Jesus’ followers had thought that in him, the search for an ending to all this was over. They thought he was the anointed one, the Messiah.
But then they saw the end. The crucifixion of Jesus was therefore the complete and final devastation of their hope. Crucifixion is what happens to people who think they are going to liberate Israel and find out, too late, that they are mistaken. There was no up-side here. Jesus’ followers knew from the book of Deuteronomy that a crucified person was under God’s curse. So the crucifixion already had, for them, a perfectly clear political and personal meaning: It meant that the Exile was still continuing, that God had not forgiven Israel’s sins, and that pagans were still ruling the world. Their thirst for redemption had still not been satisfied.
They saw Jesus killed. Simple, clear, undeniable proof that nothing had changed.
It seems to me that the right image here is a black hole. As black holes gather everything, even light itself, in their inescapable grip, so Jesus death was a black hole for meaning, for hope, for anything worth the name “life.” There was no way for his followers to think about the days to come and believe that the future still had meaning. Meaning, hope, life, all of it, was scattered there in the tomb alongside the body of Jesus.
But wait, the body of Jesus isn’t there. How can that be? The reading from Luke earlier said that the women who came to finish burying him were “perplexed,” but I don’t think that quite captures the tone. The better translation is “they were completely at a loss.” They couldn’t even begin to make sense of this. Because everything had collapsed into that black hole of meaning, there was no thread of hope, no strand of the future to grab on to.
“The men in dazzling clothes” – and who wouldn’t have on dazzling clothes when they have a message like this – said “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He’s not here, he’s been raised.”
And you know what that means! It means that meaning, hope, anything worthy of the name “life” is also no longer laying there scattered on the floor of the tomb. It is no longer locked in the apparent nothingness of a black hole. The future is in the hands of the God who brings our Exile to an end through resurrection. There is no more being an alien in your own land. No more being an alien in your own skin. No more being alienated from God. Because Jesus has been raised, his followers, we, are able to look at the days to come and know that the future has meaning, meaning that pours forth from the heart of God.
There will be times when we cry out from our pain and tears, Joy, Joy, Joy, hoping that the nurse will come and fix everything. But in the end God is delivering to us new life. We can be free from our pain and tears, delivered from our exile, we can be united with God, we can see that the future has meaning, because Jesus’ death has been undone, every form of death has been undone, and we can sing Joy-ful, Joy-ful, Joy-ful. Thanks be to God!