Do you ever say things the wrong way, like you respond or you don’t respond the right way? One of my favorite comedians, Brian Regan, shares a series of instances of “foot in mouth” disease- like when you ask someone when the baby is due – and then you realize they’re not pregnant…
Like when the attendant at the concession stand hands you your buttered popcorn and says, “Enjoy your movie.” And you say, “you too.”
When the waitress brings your dinner, and says, “Enjoy your food. Let me know if you need anything.” And you say, … “you too.” Ah! Like she is actually able to afford any of the food in the restaurant or will get to eat until her shift is over and there you are rubbing it in her face.
Regan takes it a step further though, he says he finds himself in positions where he wants to wish someone well, and ends up tongue-tied. It’s symptomatic of our lives, isn’t it? Losing track of the words we’re supposed to say…
When someone is heading into something tough, and you want to wish them luck but you also want them to be careful. So you say, “take-” but halfway through, you realize they need “luck,” too, and it comes out “take luck.” But you realize that’s bad so you say something that comes out jumbled like “take good luck and care…” It’s tongue-tied and stumbling but the thing is, sometimes, we need something like that: “good luck and take care” all mixed into one.
Easter is like that. It’s both/and. Jesus’ story changes our story but the reality of the situation we live in still involves pain and struggle sometimes. Jesus’ resurrection ends the story but it also doesn’t end the story. Jesus’ kingdom is here and not yet. Jesus’ death and resurrection changes what after-death looks like, but it’s also supposed to change the here and now, too.
It’s kind of confusing if you haven’t thought about it much. Actually, it can be confusing even if you have!
Seriously, what other story has the punch line halfway through, and then keeps going? If the Death Star blew up for good in The Empire Strikes Back, or if Iron Man destroyed all of the bad guys in the first Avengers movie, or Harry and Sally decided that they could be friends in the diner scene? Wouldn’t it change how the rest of the story played out?
In our Old Testament scripture from Isaiah 40, scripture that U2 made even more widely known through song, we hear a lament – a cry for help from one of God’s prophets. This is pre-Jesus, pre-Messiah, but it cries out for some things that I hear people crying out for today.
Peace. Justice. Love.
We hear a cry for help, a cry for God to come through, to raise up the valley, to lower the mountains, to reveal the glory of God (Isaiah 40:4-5). It’s a cry to make things fair and right again, to settle things so that the people looking to God can find peace and rest. They’re not crying because the people are doing well, because they’re happy – that’s not when people cry out to God, right? They cry out when they’re under fire.
And yet, in the midst of the people’s struggle, in the occupation of their land by people who didn’t understand them or care about them, the prophet reminded them that God had promised that everything would be redeemed one day. God promised them everything would ultimately work to their good – even when it didn’t always feel like that. God promised that in the midst of everything, good and bad, that God would be there.
That’s good news, right?
Maybe you don’t feel like that today. Maybe you have been struggling with financial stress, marital discord, health problems, the death of a loved one – something that makes you feel like you are here and God is way, way over there.
Isaiah gets how you feel. That’s why he uses the shepherd imagery to get his point across: that God is the good shepherd who will lift up his lambs and care for them. It shows that God leads, and provides for, and protects God’s followers. It shows that God, the shepherd, who keeps things close. It shows that God sees and knows things that God’s people, the sheep, can’t even comprehend because the sheep are the ones looking for the next blade of grass, the stream of water, the place to sleep – the immediate needs.
In the midst of oppression and opposition, in a world pre-Jesus, God sees the big picture: the God of the universe promised that the covenant, originated with Adam, and Noah, and Abraham would not be denied. We have scripture post-Jesus to comfort us, but sometimes we don’t find comfort there.
Whether it’s those people back then or to us today, Isaiah delivers some tough love, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak… Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah knows what it is to experience the grind. He knows what it’s like to live in a world where fear exists, where worry grows, where the people around us that we need more, we deserve more, we should have more, that we’ll never have enough.
And in the midst of this, before the Messiah has even come, Isaiah remembers God to the people. He tells them not to fear, but to hope. Isaiah tells them to hang on, to hold on, to simply believe in the goodness of God.
But what about us? What do we hope in?
You can hope in money, or power, or your job, or your relationships. But most, if not all, of that is going to fade.
I know some people who, when their lives get rough, they get walking. Walking away from their responsibilities, their families, their church. When they have problems, they cut out the things that they think are ‘extra,’ and church is one of them. When they deal with emotional or physical pain, they hit an addiction, figuring that masking the pain is better than dealing with it.
I know some other people who, when things get bad, they get serious. Serious about prayer, about church, about accountability, about how they can find God in the midst of all of the other stuff. They don’t have all the answers and God knows they’re not perfect. But they place their hope and their need for grace in Jesus’ nail-pierced hands.
Those people are like the women we heard about in Luke 24.
Luke writes that some struggling, distressed women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried. They went to see their best friend, their teacher, their leader one last time. He was already dead, their hope was gone. They weren’t thinking about what he had said, that he would rise again in three days, but rather, they were focused on the reality right in front of them. They didn’t know how to go on, but they knew they needed to honor Jesus.
They were hope- less. But they weren’t ungrounded.
We know from reading the various gospels that what the women found was not what they expected. Jesus wasn’t there in the tomb, not in person or as just a corpse. The angels in Luke are pretty blunt: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee.”
The angels could’ve quoted Isaiah 40:21: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?”
The disciples, these women, were supposed to know. They had been told; they had received the message. They had relationships with Jesus that would have backed up what he told them, so that they understood they could trust him. They could’ve known better, but who knew that people rose from the dead? Who comes back from that?
The thing is, once the disciples saw it for themselves, they couldn’t stop talking about it. They told everyone they could, but those people had to go and see it for themselves. But the stone rolled away, the vanished Roman centurions, and the disappeared Jesus himself – those were too amazing to be ignored!
So, consider that for a moment. The disciples were still under occupied rule. But they weren’t just enslaved – they were persecuted because they wouldn’t obey their own rulers and made outcasts. The term “Christians” was a slur, intended to defame and slander.
And yet, here we are. Because when they realized Jesus was risen, they couldn’t keep quiet. And the story of Jesus teachings, and miracles, and resurrection showed something about how God cared for the world that people hadn’t gotten before.
But, still, bad stuff happens.
In some ways, things haven’t changed. We still live in a world where we’re told we should be afraid. Whether it’s the nightly news or the talking heads on a twenty-four-hour news conglomerate, we’re told how much “those people” and these issues affect us.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who mentioned the ways that the “news” had become agenda-driven by someone else. Whether it was single-parent families or same-sex relationships, some would have us to believe that this is the downfall of our society and our church.
What about the way that we’ve overspent and borrowed our way into debt?
What about the failure as a community to put “loving God and loving others” before our own needs and desires?
What about forgetting the fervent prayer of Jesus lived out even to the death on the cross that we would forgive others, even when they continued to wrong us? [Sidebar: seriously, Jesus is on the cross, and he’s saying, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Forgive these people nailing me to a cross. Forgive these people who hate me and persecute me and slander my name even though I’m your son, even though I’m God. Jesus’ forgiveness quotient is unbelievable! End sidebar.]
Are we guilty of forgetting all those things? Are we guilty of getting stuck looking at the ground when we should be looking up to a great God in a great world made for us to live and thrive in?
My favorite Switchfoot song (“The Shadows Prove the Sunshine”) goes something like this:
Oh Lord, why did you forsake me?
Oh Lord, don’t be far away away
Storm clouds gathering beside me
Please Lord, don’t look the other way
Crooked souls trying to stay up straight
Dry eyes in the pouring rain
The shadow proves the sunshine
The shadow proves the sunshine
We can’t see how bright it is until we’ve seen the dark. We can’t see the glory until we’ve experienced the pain. We can’t understand grace until we admit that we’re sinners in need of a savior, that we can’t get by on our own. The shadows in our lives show us that the sun/Son still shines!
Jesus had to die so that real life could be proven in God’s grace. Just like an acorn falls to the ground “dead” so that a great oak tree can rise to life, just like we die to ourselves in baptism and confirmation so that new life can occur, Jesus died so that we would see that real life was possible!
Friends, Easter is a great day. It is wonderful to remember and to celebrate, to sing and to shout. But if it is not lived out in our daily practice, if we don’t forget that the point of the story has already been told to us – that is, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, crushing death in his wake – then Easter doesn’t mean a thing.
If we are content to let others tell us what to buy, who to fear, what we need, and who is “out” so that we are “in”, then Jesus might as well have stayed in the tomb. Because Jesus didn’t die for us to be scared or judgmental.
Jesus died for us to be free.
If we let the darkness in life steal our hope and our joy and even our faith, then the fact that we’re here right now doesn’t mean much. If we don’t hold onto the hope of the empty tomb, then our lives are missing the mark – one definition of sin – and we leave the potential God has for us unfulfilled. Because Jesus didn’t die for us to be miserable or stuck in sin.
The angels coronated Jesus at his birth singing a song of freedom and salvation for all, and Jesus preached it all along. But if we don’t live like we’re saved, if we don’t remember that Jesus died for us and for everyone else, even Isis, and our terrible next door neighbor, and the bully at work or school, then we’ve supplied the nails and forgotten that the tomb door is left hanging open and the passover sheep has escaped…
Jesus died and rose again so that you could have life and have life abundantly.
Jesus died and rose again so that you would recognize that you could and should live differently.
Jesus died and rose again so that you would know that you were loved by the great God of the universe who created the world, covenanted with the people, and refuses to give up on us even when we worry, fear, and sin against God.
Jesus died and rose again so that we could see, that hope sung about by Isaiah was a hope fulfilled not a dream deferred, that hope was the unquenchable, unconquerable, unassailable quality instilled in us for the way that the world should and will be.
Jesus busted the hinges off of the tomb, left them broken behind him, and announced that the kingdom of God is coming.
All of your worry – which is just fear that’s been allowed to fester, all of your anger over life not going the way you hoped, all of your desperation in seeking to have more – all of that is left nailed to the cross, if you’ll let it. And in return, in his nail-holed hands, Jesus offers you salvation, and love, and a place in the center of God’s will. It’s all wrapped up, not in care or luck or wishing on a star. But in one simple gift:
So, that just leaves one question on this fine Easter morning: what are you going to do about it? How will you fight the darkness in your own life?
Will we leave here and choose to give up judging others, gossiping about them, thinking less of them, knowing that only God’s love truly gives us power?
Will we leave here and choose to live tomorrow like it’s a gift, and make each day a tribute to what God has done and is doing?
Will we recognize that to celebrate Easter means living tomorrow in the grace and peace of Jesus, casting out all anger and fear?
I hope we will. Won’t you join me in living out life with an eye toward heaven and two feet in this life? Won’t you join me in wishing us all well, not in luck or care?
Won’t you, “Take hope”?