John 20:1-18; Isaiah 25:6-9
I didn’t go back and look, but I have no doubt.
My most frequent way of opening an Easter sermon at Park View,
over the many years I’ve preached them here,
is to make some remark about how ready we are for this day!
About how we’ve never been as ready for Easter,
as this year.
I’m sure that’s the case,
because every Easter I feel that deeply,
in my Spirit and in my bones.
I am ready. Ready for the light and life of resurrection.
It has to do, in part,
because the rhythms of worship require
that we spend seven weeks in a fasting season of Lent.
Seven weeks is a long time to wait to break the fast,
come out of the shadows,
and enjoy the light,
and join in the feast.
And it has to do, in part,
because the rhythms of the natural world call for it.
The dark and frigid winter is beginning to thaw,
new life is pushing up out of the cold hard ground.
And we are always more than ready for that.
And it has a lot to do with the state of our world,
the darkness of our human condition.
Every year seems to be a little heavier than the last one.
I still remember the first Easter after 9/11,
the fear and anxiety that gripped the world in the spring of 2002.
The U.S. and our allies had launched a war in Afghanistan.
And the first invasion by ground forces
came just a couple weeks before Easter.
During Holy Week, in Israel,
a suicide bomber with Hamas killed 30.
It’s been known ever since as the Passover massacre.
And Israel responded with a massive military operation,
in which 30 more Israelis were killed,
and 497 Palestinians were killed, according to the U.N.
That was our world . . . on Easter Day of 2002,
when I’ll bet I stood in this pulpit, and said,
at least to myself, if not to you—
“Never before, and maybe never again,
will there be a year that we need the Easter message,
as desperately as we do now.”
But almost every Easter since then, for 16 years now,
a similar thought has crossed my mind.
So . . . if the Easter message is true—
and yes, I believe it’s truest truth I know—
then why isn’t the light and life getting the upper hand by now?
Why is there still so much darkness?
I don’t even need to recite the litany of despair that stays with us—
in a world of war and oppression,
in a country of increasing polarization and hatred,
in communities and churches and families
that are suffering from brokenness and division.
We humans continue to inflict unimaginable cruelty on each other,
and offense against God.
And yet, here comes Easter again . . .
with the persistent message of hope and the power of light and love,
and the defeat of death and darkness.
Every year, this word of Good News for the world
circles around again.
But does the world look any different for it?
I wonder if the prophets in the Old Testament ever felt that way.
their message was a little repetitive, too.
They also spoke of a bright, new day,
when God’s anointed would show up and set all things right.
And there were some times and seasons,
where the people would repent and turn to God,
and things seemed to shimmer just a little brighter,
for a while.
But eventually . . . it would flame out.
Human rebellion would rear its ugly head.
Violence and oppression and greed
would overtake the people of God.
And they would sink back into darkness.
During Lent this year, in the shadow season that preceded this day,
we have been reviewing a whole series of covenants
God made with God’s people.
We titled our worship series, “Living Between,”
because we were exploring this space between us and God,
and between ourselves,
and the covenants that help us navigate that space.
There was the covenant with Noah:
a promise God made to all creation,
never to destroy the earth again.
Then there was the covenant with Abraham.
“I will bless all nations through you and your descendants.”
Third, we looked at the covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai,
written on stone that Moses brought down from the mountain.
Then there was a “covenant for healing,”
when God told Moses to lift a bronze serpent up on a pole.
everyone of these covenants was deeply marred by rebellion—
on the part of the human partners in the covenant.
But . . . Covenant #5 would surely be the last,
in Jeremiah, the covenant written on the heart.
But no, even that one failed to usher in a golden age of human goodness.
As we look back . . . down the Lenten path that brought us to Easter,
we see . . . strewn along the roadside,
piles of rubble, the detritus of broken covenants.
None of these covenants turned the world on its head.
But God is a persistent one.
We celebrate a new covenant today,
one made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This covenant was foreshadowed by the ones that came earlier.
And the prophet Isaiah was given a clear vision of it.
Remember the words we just heard? Isaiah 25.
7 The Lord of hosts . . . will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people
he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
Now there’s a striking metaphor.
“The Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples.”
This shroud cast over all peoples . . . is nothing but a death wrap.
Not to be morbid,
but we’re talking here about a cosmic body bag.
This is a direct reference to the customary burial practice
of wrapping the dead in a shroud,
to create a visual and physical separation,
between the dead and the living.
We have a different cultural practice in North America.
We dress people up.
Put makeup on their faces.
Make them look like they’re sleeping peacefully.
In Jesus’ day, and in many middle eastern cultures still today,
the body is enshrouded,
from head to toe.
And an extra cloth is placed over the face,
as an extra barrier.
The shroud, and the face cloth,
are strong symbols of the finality of death.
When a body is shrouded,
that visual separation between life and death
is what defines that body.
At that point, death is the defining reality.
The person cannot be mistaken for being asleep.
So hold that metaphor in your mind,
as think again about what Isaiah said.
All peoples. All nations.
Are now, already, wrapped in their death shroud.
Death and destruction define the peoples,
and define creation itself.
There is no mistaking the situation here.
We are not peacefully sleeping.
The whole world is shrouded.
The whole world is under a covenant of death, you might say.
But . . . the Lord of hosts, says Isaiah,
the Lord of hosts is preparing a feast.
Not a funeral meal, a wedding feast.
A feast for all peoples,
“a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.” (v. 6)
And then . . . then . . . when the banquet is ready,
God is going to rip off that death shroud
that is covering all peoples.
And not just remove it—rip it to shreds!
God is going to destroy the shroud, says Isaiah.
It can never be used as a death shroud again.
It’s a forever kind of thing.
It’s a for all peoples and for all nations kind of thing.
The resurrection covenant was foreseen by Isaiah,
and sealed in God’s decisive action in Christ that first Easter.
We are asked to participate in this covenant.
We are invited to live in light of the resurrection.
Because of that ripped up shroud,
the covenant of death is no more,
we are under a covenant of resurrection.
Resurrection now defines us.
Of course, that does not mean we don’t . . . still . . . deal . . . head on,
with the ugliness of death.
Easter did not undo Jesus’ crucifixion.
Easter gave the crucifixion of Jesus its meaning.
Easter did not undo Jesus’ suffering and death.
Nor does Easter nullify the continuing suffering and death
in our lives and world today.
Rather, Easter is an invitation to us who believe,
to live full lives here in this broken and sinful world,
to actually move toward that brokenness, and pain, and death,
and meet the saving, death-destroying God
who is right there in the middle of it.
For Easter people, the death shroud no longer defines our lives.
The separation has been removed.
There is nothing between!
Believing in resurrection is not an escape from death.
It’s an invitation to live in genuine hope,
while surrounded by pain and suffering and death,
because we know who God is.
So as we look at all the evidence around us,
that the world is falling into a deeper and deeper darkness,
we will not be full of fear and despair.
As resurrection people, we will not shun death.
We will not conceal death under a shroud or a face-cloth.
We will not fear, deny, hide, or cover up death.
We will face it full on, and claim God’s power over it.
Resurrection does not make us turn away from death.
No, it allows us to incorporate death fully into the stuff of life
over which Jesus is Lord.
Death is not an ultimate power, it is a subservient power.
It is subservient to the power of God.
I love that the Gospel of John,
in its version of the Easter story,
makes a special point
about the linen wrappings left behind in the tomb.
John even mentions the detail about the face-cloth.
They were left behind by the risen Jesus.
No longer needed.
No more final separation between the dead and the living.
There is, now, finally, nothing between!
God’s intent, all through history,
from the very first covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Israel,
until the present day,
God’s aim is life.
God’s purpose is wholeness.
God’s agenda is to restore and to save.
Easter is all the proof we need,
to live fully and joyfully,
even when death surrounds us.
Thanks be to God!
The communion we are about to celebrate
is about life in the company of death.
We will soon experience the joy of communing
with tangible symbols of Christ’s suffering and death.
It’s no accident that in these nourishing elements,
which we will eat and drink with thanksgiving,
in these very elements
are reminders of the death shroud,
of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.
But we partake of these elements
knowing that shroud has been destroyed,
that death will never again have the last word.
Read together . . .
Lord, it is with great joy that we gather around this table.
It is with praise to you our loving Creator God,
who from the founding of the world
have been seeking us, drawing us toward you.
It is with thanksgiving for the work of your Son Jesus Christ,
who was born in the flesh, lived and walked among us,
and showed us how to live in the kingdom of God;
who suffered and died, taking on himself the burden of our sins
and the sins of the world, and who, by your might,
broke the power of sin and death
and rose to new life and lives still in your presence.
And it is with thanksgiving
for the work of your Spirit among us,
that we invite your Spirit to come among us anew,
to comfort us, convict us, shape us into your people.
So Lord, we come to the table,
Nourish us, strengthen us, sustain us, as we partake of this food,
and as we come into your real presence.
In the name of Christ who lives and rules,
and walks beside us. Amen.
—Phil Kniss, April 1, 2018
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