Are you living into these days of Easter? Feed your soul with this Easter sermon from Rev. Omar Rikabi, on covenant, redemption, reversal, and resurrection, all through the lens of…David and Goliath?
Click here to listen.
Are you living into these days of Easter? Feed your soul with this Easter sermon from Rev. Omar Rikabi, on covenant, redemption, reversal, and resurrection, all through the lens of…David and Goliath?
Click here to listen.
It was a heartfelt sentiment: “In honor of the dessert we never got to share.” Those words were penned by Dr J. Ellsworth Kalas in a book he gave to my wife Jessica and me. Due to flight delays and an already-busy schedule, we had to forego our plans and get straight to business. There was little to no time left for such things as ice cream, hot fudge, and toppings. It pains me to even write such a sentence.
I hate that we didn’t get to enjoy that dessert.
Scripture tells us that there is “a time to hate.” I think, perhaps, that word is used far too often in our polarized world. One party hates the other, or at least their policies. We hate this type of food. We hate that type of music. I wish we wouldn’t say such things. Language of any sort has the potential to lose its significance when it is overused.
Such is the case with words like hate, sin, depravity, repentance, grace, and even Easter and Resurrection. To be sure, the words do still have a great deal of meaning and significance behind them. The entire Christian faith hangs on these words and how we deal with them.
Consider certain hymns: my, how the early church did sing them with such enthusiasm! Our instructions were clear, at least from John Wesley’s perspective: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”
I think we follow those instructions, at least in the beginning. All too quickly though, the tune becomes familiar, the melody rote, and the words hollow.
Consider the words by another Wesley, John’s brother Charles:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Read those words again. What significance is held there! The sin and depravity in which we find ourselves bound is not casually removed – it’s completely cast off, the chains are on the dungeon floor, not on our wrists or around our ankles!
Here we are barely more than a week after Easter. The extra worship services are complete. The celebration is over…or is it?
The word hate is far too overused. However, I do hate that I missed that dessert with Dr. Kalas. I hate even more that sometimes we miss the significance of Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus. It’s not just language, it’s more than words: it’s life-altering, it’s history-making!
When flights get changed and meetings get shifted, we are forced to adjust our schedules accordingly…so over the past few months, having been to the cross, visited the empty tomb, and celebrated the Resurrection, let us now live in awareness of the sin for which we will never be crucified.
I’d hate for you to miss Resurrection living.
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. – Mark 16:9-13
It’s about time. I want to trust that it is true; good news comes in all different forms. I really want to believe it. I want to wake up one day to emerge from the dark of the room to find that things have changed, and that there in the cave of uncertainty I will find it, that our wait would be over.
I want to find…my child’s first tooth. A parent can expect teeth anywhere from 5-6 months to 18 months. Some are early sprouters and some are late bloomers…and then, well, there are the outliers. My daughter turned 18 months old last week and she passed this mile marker with an all-gummy grin.
When my child is grumpy, fussy, cranky, I no longer default to the thought that a tooth is emerging. Twelve long months of teeth not being the cause of her pain has made that feel silly. So many times we have been “faked out,” passing her teething rings, cold presses, sympathetic fingers to the mouth in order to feel whatever may be emerging.
I talked to my dentist. She assures me that she has never seen a child with no teeth. We have an appointment lined up with the pediatric dentist. I hear other parents say that it is strange to look at an x-ray and see baby teeth just below the surface in your kid’s mouth…and then oddly on the layer above these baby chompers is the row of adult teeth hanging back ready for their day in the sun. I am not ready for an adult, I have an outlying toddler. It’s appropriate for the season.
Easter exposes the outliers. That extra stretch of time in the darkness of three days, God is bringing about the best sprout of all time. During Holy Week we heard about those who approached the tomb expecting to find a buried reality, only to be shocked and surprised.
And it could be that Mark ended there with verse eight. It certainly could have ended there according to this Gospel writer. If you go to any Bible, you will no doubt find some cryptic words connected with verse nine and beyond. In some texts these verses even appear in brackets. In the earliest of manuscripts, these words that tell about the Jesus sightings, the actual glimpses of the Risen Christ after the tomb, were not found.
It begs the question: were the original verses lost? It is possible. Did later scholars seek to fill in the other elements of the story that existed from oral tradition and other manuscripts? Or did Mark truly end with the strange words that close chapter eight in reference to the women at the tomb: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (NRSV).
We are led to believe that there were those who thought that this was anything but a fitting end to the script. It leaves us hanging. It leaves us dangling in wait of what is to happen next. If it were a TV series, it would be the end of one season with a cliffhanger to the next. “Jesus really is alive, tune in next time.” But, something would come next. It could not possibly end there. And we the readers know it cannot, it does not end there. More verses emerge.
But why? In part because Mary Magdalene had to tell someone about what she had seen! She cannot keep the bottle on the best surprise. Some people do not have poker faces. Some folks telegraph joy or fright. There is no way Mary Magdalene is getting far before she explodes with the good news. Out of fear comes a wellspring of recognition: the cave, the tomb, could not hold the body.
For Mark, this is all bonus material. It is the spectacular extra tracks. Unexpectedly there is an uncovered song there, the important lyrics of liberation. You have to listen to several minutes of “dead space” in order to hear a guitar fire back up. Recall “Her Majesty,” the hidden, bonus song on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”?
In light of the risen Christ, each of our days, our opportunities here are like bonus days. That’s what my church member has said to me as she approaches her 93rd birthday. When I ask her how she is doing, she says that these days are all “gravy.”
I find myself a bit envious. I have some less years on me, but what if I treated these days, these now as they are—gravy days. Bold days are here. The resurrection is real. All these days past the tomb living into the Easter story of resurrection are extra.
I am guessing if we asked Georgina Harwood she may say the same thing about the days she has been given. I read the story of this remarkable woman who took a leap out of a plane…on her 100th birthday. She would go on in the next days to swim with sharks to commemorate a century on earth. She wants to make the very most of all the days she has.
Crazy? Perhaps. Crazier than resurrection? Not a chance.
And there is 19-year-old Lauren Hill you may have heard about. She tenaciously played college basketball until a brain tumor progressed last fall and she had to stop. She has since died. But ever since her diagnosis, she advocated and raised funds for research, and kept up a spirit of determination that transcends her death. She was an outlier (in her rare disease, yes), as a courageous woman who transformed a seemingly horrific situation. Who knew her mortality was not the end of her legacy.
We could make a long list of all the signs of death in our midst.
But here at the site of the empty tomb is our leap beyond lip service. When we take up the mantle from Mary and open our mouth to the truth. There is something bursting below the surface. A little seed of germination. This is Easter…we are the outliers who believe that despite all the impossibility of being raised from death that our God did just that.
Do you know what my daughter can do? No, she cannot eat cucumbers, or crunch carrots, or scissor her incisors into celery. But that smile. The way her nose crinkles when she is particularly happy—that has resurrection joy written all over it. And it keeps coming after each fall on the playground, each age-appropriate meltdown, each sniffly nose, each whiny protestation.
And such joy will come even after her teeth cut through the flesh in their painful way. Surely coming back into human flesh as Jesus did had its growing pains as well. The Scripture says that Jesus was now different. In light of Easter, we too are different. We Christian outliers know of life beyond death, life beyond pain—even when we are justifiably upset at our circumstances. As we name the death of this world, let’s admit that it is about time life showed up.
Whatever the state of your teeth: we know that each mouth has good news to share. We have been gifted the bonus tracks. Christ honors all life: aging and emergent, graying and green, nearing the earthly end and the just now newborn. Can we manage a smile in thanksgiving for our gravy, grave-defying days? Can we dare to keep the Spirit of Easter going, in motion, emanating from our flexible selves?
You know, a part of me already misses my child’s gummy grin. Even if we feel the lingering tug of death, Christ sustains his emergence from the empty cave. With our outlying smiles, we keep the promise that first burst from the mouth of Mary Magdalene.
Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles
The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light
Well you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die – Fourth of July, Sufjan Stevens
It was early in the morning of what we now know as Easter, and Mary awoke to look at the tomb. Matthew tells us that they “came to look at the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). What were they going to see? As those who stand on this side of Easter we make assumptions, and it’s difficult to truly understand what they were going to see or do there, but we understand why they went.
How long do you need to stand and stare at the tomb?
For some reason they just wanted to see it. They couldn’t even see him, for a large stone had been placed to seal the tomb shut. They were going to just look at the tomb. Even more, they couldn’t have a moment of peace to themselves because guards were put on watch. Would the guards be respectful of the mourners as they came or were they given instructions to chase them off? Were they given orders to make a note of who came to visit the tomb so that those people could be placed on some kind of governmental “watch list”? Mary came to look.
Before they were able to look at the tomb, it changed. Their lives and the world changed. There was no time to look, for they were called to go and tell, to be witnesses. The stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, and the resurrected Jesus did not give them time to mourn any longer.
Now that light has dawned, one cannot simply stand and look at a symbol of defeat and the past. New life has broken in and we are not allowed to just look; we are invited and commissioned to go and tell.
Sometimes I still want to look. In the early morning I want to go and stare at that which once was.
As an Easter people we are only allowed a brief glimpse at this thing we know as death. Death is not something to be feared or stared at. It has been defeated, its sting lost and its grasp on us loosened. Don’t go to look at the tomb now. Go and tell the good news of the resurrection. Be witnesses.
Note from the Editor: This piece originally appeared as the cover story for the March/April 2015 issue of Good News magazine, which offers practical resources for renewed and robust ministries, and which you can find here.
Though the Easter candy on store shelves has now reached the 90% off mark, Christians continue to celebrate the season of Easter as we move through spring. Have you felt the resurrection? How are you praying as we read of Christ’s appearances to his disciples and as our minds turn towards Pentecost?
I find myself walking in the semi-dark, friends clustered around me. Our hands are full, carrying materials to preserve a corpse.
It was a long Sabbath. We were supposed to rest, so we did. But there’s no rest from thoughts of despair and grief. They follow you into every room you enter.
Like we had followed Him. We saw the miracles – the joy in strangers’ faces when Jesus spoke them well, or touched them, or called them out of tombs.
Now I’m walking to a tomb. The sun is mocking me. It sets, it rises. He’s dead. Others may say he spoke blasphemy, claiming to be God. Maybe they didn’t have loved ones who had been blind and who could see the sunrise now. But we saw them kill Jesus, and we all stumbled as the earth shook when he died, like the universe itself was responding to what happened. Someone said there was damage in the temple. The earthquake shook some tombs open.
And now we’re walking. It feels like there’s been nothing but loss and evil at play for the past few days. What can we do? We weren’t the one calling a dead man out of a tomb; that was him.
I shift my spices. We’re getting nearer, and I feel the dread of anticipation ripple through the group. We want to do this for Jesus; there’s so little we’ve been able to do the past few days, and sitting through the Sabbath gave little outlet for grief.
We can’t heal his body the way he healed so many, but we can honor it. I saw where the wealthy man buried him. He began the care. We’re here to continue it. It’s all we have left.
I lead the others through the garden. We’re close now and I’m hearing birds when the earth begins to shake again. Again? I’m on my hands and knees again for the second time in three days. The myrrh is dropped and I smell it’s strong scent while my eyes are squeezed shut, waiting for the shaking to stop, to cease and let me be still.
My hands are clasped over my head and I hear voices around me, the other women are standing up and looking around.
I open my eyes.
There it is – only, I must be in the wrong place. It’s the tomb, I’m sure it is, but the rock has been moved. Only no one’s looking at the rock.
I’m shaking again, my knees are weak because I don’t know what I’m seeing – lightning with hands and feet? A thousand stars looking at me, blinking? I’m shaking all over, and then the light begins to speak, and it sounds like the voice is coming from the night sky, from the farthest stars, and from right next to me, at the same time.
I hear words, comforting words that calm and soothe and my hands stop shaking so badly. And then the lightning figure speaks again only this time I hear the voice but I can’t understand how the words make sense.
How does this face of fire know we were looking for Jesus? It’s telling me Jesus isn’t here, and my mind is numb as the lightning’s voice says Jesus is risen. My thoughts are stuck, I don’t understand and a quick glance shows me my friends’ shocked faces and I know I’m not alone in my daze.
Then the face turns and it’s like a prism and the figure shining so bright points into the tomb and I hear that voice echoing and close telling us to look and see where Jesus had been.
My hand still smell like myrrh. Am I still holding it? I look down at my hands and see they’re empty. I must have dropped it.
The lightning voice is speaking again and I hear it telling us to go, to go, quickly, and tell the others. I feel friends’ movement at my side and hear their feet running, running through the garden. My body’s not responding. I look down and realize my hands are clutching my head.
Look. Don’t look for the myrrh. I’m supposed to look in the tomb. Only I can’t move, and when I lower my arms, I discover my face is wet. I’m heaving sobs and can’t stop; I’m not sure why. I’m terrified, but this hope now living inside me, it won’t die. I will my legs to move, and I look down into the cavern. And then the figure wearing lightning asks me why I’m crying and my brain is stuck again. All I know is that I came with myrrh to this tomb and it’s empty and what do I say?
“They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.”
And I turn away from the tomb that doesn’t make sense and I’m still crying into my hands that smell like myrrh, when I see someone standing nearby. It must be the gardener.
That must be it. He saw something, he can tell me what happened. But I can’t ask. Instead, he asks me why I’m crying and who I’m looking for.
Please, I say. If the tomb was broken into, or that earthquake damaged it, and you carried him away, please, just tell me where. I brought myrrh. I have friends, they’re coming back, we’ll take him. Please, just tell me where.
But the gardener’s voice is different now, and he says my name – Mary.
And the world turns upside-down, only this time there’s no earthquake, because I don’t need to look for Jesus, or for my myrrh.
I’m looking at him. I hear my voice say “teacher?!” And I kneel at his feet, the feet we were going to wrap, the feet that were supposed to be still and now, with nail holes, are wriggling in front of my eyes.
And then Jesus – not in the tomb, not breathless and lifeless and cold – then Jesus tells me to go to the others with a message.
Suddenly my shaking has stopped. My feet are ready to run.
I whirl around and begin to run.
I don’t look back.
Selfies make us feel important. A quick snapshot with a mobile device and instantly our pictures are viewable by billions of people around the world. If we’re honest, we often take selfies with the intention of getting as many “likes” as possible by our followers.
Each year, Easter, for Christians, welcomes a different energy in our places of worship. Proclaiming with loud voices in song, “He Lives!” always stirs the soul!
What I did not realize, however, is that when I went to my office after Easter worship and checked social media, I would have an epiphany–Easter is the greatest “selfie” Sunday for Christians as well.
As I reviewed my timelines on Facebook and Instagram, the pages were saturated with selfies of worshipers in their Easter finest. Picture after picture of different colors and patterns from various denominations and cultures!
Religiously, we celebrate Easter because Jesus Christ rose from the grave, overcoming the power of sin and death and offering us the gift of eternal life and communion with God our Creator. Yet, because our post-modern culture has become saturated with the commercialization of major Christian (and non-Christian) celebrations, we must often approach those unfamiliar with centuries-old traditions with a new way of explaining the effect of the resurrection in the lives of human beings.
Here is the reality of Easter: Death and the grave are overcome. Good Friday is conquered by Resurrection Sunday. The Messiah lives and reigns. God’s Kingdom is here and now and is prepared for those in the eschaton (the life the come).
As a result, followers of Christ should be changed and transformed from the inside out. We should, in effect, have something glorious to capture–that is, a new life living in the power of the resurrection.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to the Order of the Flame conference sponsored by World Methodist Evangelism. It was a gathering of around 100 pastors and their spouses from the Pan-Methodist connection. We had seminars around our responsibility as witnesses for Christ and were encouraged to remain Faithful Leaders as Mission Evangelists (F.L.A.M.E.) throughout our ministry.
Many moments during this conference were powerful, but perhaps the most touching moment happened when the entire group prayed for one of our brothers’ infant daughter who is battling a rare form of cancer. With our hands laid upon him, we prayed that the power that raised Christ would also heal his daughter.
It was a request for a miracle.
What makes us think we can make such an audacious request? My answer is clear, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In his book on the “Dynamics of Faith,” Paul Tillich says that, “faith is not an act of any of [humanity’s] rational functions, as it is not an act of the unconscious, but it is an act in which both the rational and non-rational elements of his being are transcended” (Tillich, 6).
Believing in a miracle, a rationally unexplainable occurrence, takes exactly what Tillich describes–a faith that transcends our comprehension without excluding our consciousness. In other words, we should know what we are asking for but not expect the miracle to come in ways we can understand. This is the great mystery and power of our faith.
Do we know how God is going to heal this little girl? No, we do not. But we believe God is able. The resurrection gives us this hope.
This hope reminds me of a “witnessing” experience I had during my undergraduate studies. It was late one night and my friends and I were leaving the library. We departed in my vehicle and proceeded to our dorm. I parked, and as we were getting out, a homeless gentleman approached my driver’s side door.
His clothes were physically torn and he carried a trash bag that I assumed contained his personal belongings. It was dark and late and from my perspective, an inconvenient time for God to place me in a witnessing situation – especially after the gentleman explained to me that he had just been released from the state mental institution for stabbing someone with a knife.
Ten dollars is what he wanted. But God showed me something different.
Standing in front of me was a brother in Christ who was not only physically hungry, but also emotionally and spiritually hurting. So I asked, “before I give you the $10.00, may I pray with you?” He consented.
I prayed that the power of our risen Lord would overtake his life and heal any past or present pain. After we prayed, tears were flowing from his eyes and he simply said, “thank you.” I gave him the $10.00 and we parted ways.
My hope was that our interaction would be the gateway to his experience of a new life in Christ. But I did not know what would happen.
Some would argue rationally that this man’s life was unsalvageable. But where some rely on reason, God’s message is always, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Therefore, we believe that the power of Christ can change someone’s life–whether we witness it or not.
One Thursday evening about nine months later, I was leaving my father’s office which is close to the university. As I was getting into my car, a man yelled at me from across the street. “Hey, hey, brother!” he said, as he began running towards me. I asked him, “Sir, do I know you?”
He said, “You sure do! I am the man you prayed with in the parking lot at your university. I left that night and read the book you gave me; in fact, I still have it. I made amends with all of my family members that I hurt and now I am a changed man. I saw you and I knew I had to thank the man who led me to Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. But now I have to go, because I am volunteering today at the shelter up the street.”
He left jogging towards the shelter about a half-mile away looking and feeling physically and spiritually different. He had obviously experienced the power of the resurrection!
My only regret is that I didn’t take a selfie with him as proof of his transformation. But I finally realized that he had already taken plenty with Jesus on his personal Resurrection Day. They may never make it to social media, but Christ will assuredly remember them in his book of life.
I’m at the point in my life when I ask myself what I would change if I could relive my years of pastoral ministry. Mind you, they were 38 wonderful years, and I cherish the memory of the four appointments in which I served. And I’m smart enough to know that hind sight is not really twenty-twenty, because hind sight is never accurate in recalling the circumstances in which the decisions of past days were made.
Nevertheless, there are so many areas where I could have done better; things that had nothing to do with character, ability, or the nature of the church. That is, things that were really pretty much in my control, and not lost in generalities such as wishing I had made better use of my time (which is a generality made up of specifics).
This is a specific one, and nothing kept me from it except perhaps my ignorance. I wish I had celebrated Ascension Sunday more often, both in my preaching and in the order of worship.
I know why I was slow to learn. I grew up in a long-ago world of Midwestern Methodism when the church calendar had three days, Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. And sometimes Good Friday We learned much later about Advent, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and All Saints Day (rather than Memorial Day).
Ascension Day is actually a Thursday, of course, and the more liturgical bodies celebrate it then. But I would celebrate it on the assigned Sunday, knowing that I would reach far more people than on a Thursday.
And of course I would have a hymn from Charles Wesley: “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise.” Wesley wrote it in 1739, when Methodism was still in its first bloom. Its Anglican roots were evident in its sense of tradition, including the church calendar, but the tradition was now aflame with the warmed heart.
The opening line of “Hail the Day” sounds as if it were another Easter hymn — “Hail the day that sees him rise” — but the next line tells us that we have passed beyond Easter; to what does Christ rise? For a few days or years on earth, then to die like Jairus’s daughter or the widow of Nain’s son? If so there is no compelling reason to celebrate Easter. Easter, with such a conclusion, would be the memory of a miracle but not the end to the power of death. Christ has risen so that he may go “to his throne above the skies.”
Our Lord’s ascension is, as I like to phrase it, “Easter’s exclamation point.” It tells us that the resurrection of our Lord is not simply a miracle, something to astonish us as with thousands of other miracles; it is a re-shaping of the order of the universe; it is the death of death. It is not simply a lengthening of life; it is a re-definition of life.
And see what our Lord’s ascension means to us, the church today:
See! The heaven its Lord receives,
Yet he loves the earth he leaves,
Though returning to his throne,
Still he calls the world his own.
I wish I had preached this more often! I wish I had reminded my people that our Lord is still active on our world’s behalf, as our Intercessor. I wish I had told them often enough that both they and I would have got the reality of it.
My husband, John, is a soccer nut. Did you know that soccer is being played somewhere in the world at all times? It is. I know this. I know because the magic of digital cable brings it right into our living room. A lot.
That sounds a bit snarky on my part, but I actually love it. I love watching the Premier league and Barca & Real Madrid. Nothing beats curling up in a blanket on the couch in our basement and watching a good match. Every now and then, however, I’ll decide to close my eyes – just for few minutes – which inevitably leads to a nap (another thing I love.) The only downside is that when I wake up the game is almost always over.
Have you ever noticed that when you fall asleep the game doesn’t stop for you? The game will always go on even if you’re sleeping right through.
I suppose there are worse things than sleeping through a soccer match. That’s what I try to remind myself when I realize I’ve slept right through; but that experience reminds me that there’s an even more costly kind of sleep – spiritual sleep – when we go to sleep on the inside and become oblivious to the God-part of us.
When I nap, I’m oblivious to what is going on around me. Spiritual sleep is like that only instead of losing physical consciousness, we lose spiritual consciousness. We sleep right through all the things God is doing around us and we’re not aware of God’s presence or able to sense God’s direction in our life.
When my kids were growing up I would always check on them before I went to bed. Just go in and look at them, maybe give them a soft kiss if I could get away with it. My middle daughter, Maggie was always very aware of this habit and it meant a lot to her because sometimes she would wake up and accuse me of not checking on her. And every time I’d have to say, “Yes, Maggie, I did check on you. I just didn’t wake you up.”
Even though I was really there – in her room, right next to her bed, she was oblivious to my presence. When we’re spiritually asleep, even though God is intimately involved, right there with us, present with us, even speaking to us – we’re oblivious and unaware.
Now I’m not talking about being comatose. There are always going to be times when we’re jolted into consciousness. Maybe something intense happens in our life – either intensely good or intensely bad – and that intensity is enough to wake us up. But it usually takes something pretty major.
When I think about the resurrection that’s one of the things I think of. This huge God-jolt that’s big enough, intense enough to wake us up. It’s so powerful you don’t have to be right with Jesus to experience the miracle – even 2000 years later we’re still feeling the reverberations of that God energy released through the resurrection. That’s the way it is with miracles of God really. God never draws a circle around miracles and says “ok, we’ll do it right here.”
Sometimes I wonder whether or not as Christ followers we might be asleep, and if we are whether we actually like it that way. We can ask other people who won the game, find out what God was doing, but still stay safely oblivious. The problem with that is that God doesn’t stop the game just because we’re asleep. God actually doesn’t even wait for us to wake up. God just keeps on playing, keeps on doing God’s thing regardless of whether we sleep right through.
When I think about my own life though, and how it felt to suddenly “wake up,” it makes me sad that people might be sleeping right through the amazing things God is doing. It’s like you’re in some kind of dream state, thinking you understand who you are, and then all of a sudden you wake up and discover a part of you, you never realized was there – this whole new self in there that you never knew about.
Apart from marking one of the most world transforming phenomena in history, Easter is about experiencing the present reverberations of that mind-blowing event 2000 years ago. It’s about being jolted awake. In the resurrection God wakes up the sleeping part of your heart, the part that has been asleep to God. God wakes up those dreams God has placed in your heart that have always been there but that you were only vaguely aware of. Suddenly you realize that there is this incredibly exciting game going on and it’s unfolding right in front of you; and you don’t have to sleep through it but can actually be a part of it. That’s a pretty powerful jolt.
That’s why it’s important to keep talking about it. That’s why Easter doesn’t stop at Easter. That kind of God energy can’t be contained in a one day, once a year celebration.
If you know me, you know I’m not a big morning person. When the alarm goes off I don’t just hop out of bed. There’s always that choice to hit snooze and roll over for a few more minutes. That’s the way it is on our spiritual journeys as well. We can either get up or hit snooze; but no matter what we choose, the game is going to go on – with or without us.
Here’s the deal with the whole alarm clock thing – the wake part is God’s work, and God did a pretty good job of it in releasing all that God energy into the world 2000 years ago. But now it’s the get-up part. The question is, are we going to sleep right through?
During this Lenten season there was a lot of noise surrounding four movies: Noah, Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and The Son of God. When Easter is nearing it is commonplace for a proliferation of “evidence” to come forth that will now put this Jesus-rising-from-the-dead business to rest. Maybe these movies’ release dates were strategic so that they might combat any foreseeable onslaughts from secular cynics. Maybe not. Regardless, these movies generated copious criticism
in the Christian blogosphere, Twitterverse, Facebook, etc.
Various Social Media newsfeeds were fraught with fervent apologetic zeal. Everyday someone voiced his or her opinion in favor or rejection of this or that movie. I saw a few pastors urging their congregations to go see Heaven is for Real, whilst others urged their flock to not touch Noah with a ten-foot pole. With this kind of intensity, one might think that any movie or television show with a hint of Christian or biblical overtones would trigger an immediate response, especially one whose title is the basis for the Christian hope. Right?
This past Sunday was the season finale of ABC’s Resurrection. Over the past several weeks of the season, my newsfeeds have been completely void of any discussion regarding this series. Granted, my newsfeeds might not accurately represent the United States’ viewership of any particular television series or movie; nevertheless, one would think that a show whose topic it inextricably related to the linchpin of Christianity would certainly prompt just as serious or even more critical engagement as Noah, Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and The Son of God. From my vantage point, however, this has not been the case.
Why do you think that is? It’s possible that people prefer watching movies over a television series. Or better yet, maybe many Christians were busy on Sunday evenings with church (pastors wish). Neither one of these explanations is satisfying. For starters, I’d venture to say that people prefer saving money, and could always record a show, or watch it online, if they were busy at church on Sunday nights. (I know a plethora of Christians who wouldn’t miss The Walking Dead). My hypothesis, and I pray that it is utterly wrong, is that many Christians have lost sight of what our ultimate hope actually is, namely, the Resurrection.
The storyline of ABC’s Resurrection begins with a young boy (Jacob) waking up in a rice patty in China after being dead for 32 years. J. Martin Bellamy, an agent with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, retrieves Jacob and takes him home to reunite with his parents in Arcadia, Missouri. Obviously, everyone is shocked and scared, while others are in a state of skeptical disbelief. Soon thereafter, more thought-to-be-dead Arcadians begin to appear in town, causing controversy and uproar. If this piques your interest, check out the trailer, or watch it online at ABC.
Surprised By Our Hope?
Coincidentally, while ABC was airing Resurrection, I have been simultaneously leading a Sunday School class through N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. One of Wright’s main goals in writing this book was to provide a layperson’s version of his massive The Resurrection of the Son of God (700+ pages), but moreover, he has discovered that many Christians today do not know where their ultimate hope lies. Most Christians, Wright argues, assert that going to heaven when you die is the end goal, rather than being gloriously resurrected for the (re)new(ed) world. Some are utterly confused by Paul’s unwavering emphasis that
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
The initial pushback I received in my Sunday School class confirmed Wright’s overall impression.
ABC’s premiering of Resurrection was very timely and gave our class additional material to discuss each week. What we were learning about the resurrection could be compared and contrasted with this popular show: “Is this how the Bible depicts the resurrection? What are the resurrected bodies like? Does it align with the biblical picture? etc.” Resurrection provided yet another opportunity to examine and encourage one another about our hope.
I am unaware as to whether or not others have shared my experience. Have pastors and church leaders encouraged their congregations to watch this show to meditate and reflect more deeply about our ultimate hope? Have pastors and church leaders encouraged their congregations to engage the culture or to invite people over to watch the show and discuss it afterwards? Again, I’m not sure.
What I have seen, however, is that a significant amount of energy was invested in arguing about the recent slate of movies. Quite possibly we’ve placed the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. We’ve shifted our attention to life after death (heaven), instead of life after life after death (resurrection life in the new world). We’ve shifted our attention to the Flood, instead of focusing on when God will flood his creation with his loving presence. Don’t be mistaken, engaging in these movies is an important endeavor; yet, I honestly believe the majority of us Gentiles would not be discussing Noah, or the validity of heaven and God, if it were not for the resurrection of the Son of God.
I think it can fairly be said that Charles Wesley has given the world its best and most popular songs for both Christmas and Easter. The Christmas competition is substantial, because we all love so much of the music of the season. I dare to make the case for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” not only because it is so exuberant and so easy to sing, but also because it is so packed full of basic Christian doctrine. There’s enough there to summarize the whole plan of salvation and to set your soul to rejoicing while you do so.
But Wesley’s Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” stands alone in the music of Easter. There’s a vigorous “Alleluia!” at the end of each line, as if Brother Charles knew that he’d better write it into the poem because each lead-in line insisted on it – if Charles didn’t provide an “Alleluia,” the singers would interrupt the hymn to shout it. Besides, as the late Robert McCutchan noted, it was an early Christian custom for Christians to salute one another on Easter morning with “Hallelujah!”
Wesley wrote this hymn in 1739, which makes it one of his earliest hymns. As originally written, it had eleven stanzas. This means that there were forty-four declarations to which the people sang their “Alleluia.” There’s no question but that the first line ought to be the first line – “Christ the Lord is risen today” – because all else follows from that premise. If you accept that fact (and God have mercy on you if you don’t), it’s easy to “raise your joys and triumphs high,” and to know as you do so that the “heavens and earth reply.”
And if you know that He is risen, of course “Love’s redeeming work is done,” and the battle has been fought, and won, and you know that “Christ has opened paradise.” And you have reason to affirm Paul’s statement in melody: “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?” And you’re very sure that we can now, by grace, expect to “soar … where Christ has led, Following our exalted Head,” because “Made like him, like him we rise.”
It’s all very easy to sing if we believe the first line, that Christ is risen. And you’re glad that you can sing “Alleluia!” at the conclusion of each line because without that exclamation something inside you might burst. It’s a song that makes one sing like it’s Easter, because it is. And that’s the whole, holy fact of the matter.