Preached at Meltham Methodist Church
20th April 2014: Easter Day
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Matthew 28:1-10
It was the first day of a new week. It was dark. The sun hadn’t yet dawned. The streets were empty and silence filled the air like a thick fog. Even the dawn chorus was still fast asleep. It was that time of the morning that nobody really knows exists until they have small children: too early to get up, too late to fall back asleep. It is the notoriously-named graveyard shift, and this morning the two Marys were staffing it (literally, in their case).
No doubt, they couldn’t sleep. Who could blame them? It must have been the longest, hardest, saddest Saturday of their lives. Just two days ago, they’d seen the man they thought would change the world nailed to a cross like a common criminal. They’d given up everything for him, ministering to him from Galilee to Jerusalem. What now? Now he was dead and their hope lay dead with him. All they could do now was to pay their last respects to a departed friend, a captivating preacher and a mysterious miracle-worker for whom they’d left family and friends behind and in whose footsteps they’d lovingly followed.
Carefully they negotiated the narrow, cobbled streets of the city and went to the tomb. But as they arrived, something happened. The ground beneath their feet started to tremble. The earth shook. The whole world seemed to wobble and shake as if it was a jelly poked by a curious finger. An earthquake. It was as if the entire planet were in the throes of labour, heaving an enormous, deep, rasping sigh in order to muster the strength needed for that one final push which would bring a new world to birth. There was a scream like piercing thunder. And there was lightning too, an angelic bolt from the blue descending to roll back the heavy stone door as if was a mere child’s marble.
Never has imperial red trembled as much as the two soldiers Pilate stationed at the tomb. They stood there, lifeless, like statues fixed to ground on which they stood. Their knocking knees and chattering teeth only added to the growing cacophony of sound as their highly polished, imposing, metal armour now clinkered and clattered like a drawer of cheap cutlery. They cowered in fear from the heavenly visitor who had tossed away the stone door of the tomb so effortlessly; and like the discarded stone itself, they crumbled as the colossal tremor tore through the garden.
When we think of Easter, we like to think of it as all daffodils and lillies, hot cross buns and chocolate eggs, cute chicks, spring lambs and fluffy bunnies. But this soft, safe, domesticated scene is about as far away from the first Easter morning as it could possibly be. It is a ground-breaking, earth-shattering shift in the very running of the universe. It is an upheaval of the world order which is of the very highest magnitude on the cosmic Richter scale. Resurrection is frightening; it trespasses into our lives with an almighty crash and rumble. Easter is an earthquake.
At Easter, a new reality came into being. It’s about more than a dead person coming back to life again, miraculous though that is. It’s about God shaking the earth like a snow globe and laying out the foundations of a world transformed, restored and renewed. It’s about God pulling the rug from under our feet and opening up for us a whole new way of living, free from the stranglehold of death. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a truly seismic event. The earth shook. What’s more, it’s still shaking…
Oh, I know what you’re going to say: “There wasn’t really an earthquake. It’s just a metaphor, like Jesus’s resurrection is just a fancy, theological way of saying that Jesus died and went to heaven.” But it isn’t true. The earth shook. Jesus is alive. “Okay” you might say, “he’s alive and lives on in our hearts and that’s what Easter’s really all about, isn’t it?” No. It isn’t. Jesus is alive, more alive even that you or me. Now this is really important right here, this is something I really need you to understand, so I want you to help me out by turning to your neighbour and telling them, “Jesus is alive.” Go on; do it for me now.
Do you know that? Do you know that Jesus is alive? Because if you do, it will change everything. It will change the way you think. It will change the way you look at the world. It will change the way you pray, the way you make your decisions, the way you spend your money, the way you pass your time, the way you live and behave; everything. To know Jesus alive and risen from the dead is to know that our lives are no longer conditioned by death and darkness. We are made for more. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth once put it, “The goal of human life is not death but resurrection.” Easter is an earthquake because it alters the entire landscape of our lives. Nothing escapes Easter unscathed, all is changed. The simple fact is that an encounter with the living Lord Jesus will shake us to the core.
But you still don’t believe me, do you? Some of you are sitting there thinking, “I don’t feel anything. The ground under my feet feels pretty solid to me.” But let me tell you this: it’s not as solid as you’d like to believe. Mark Twain famously once said that “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” But now death has lost its sting, and Caesar and the powers of this world have been toppled by a landslide. Everything has changed. Those old certainties we once took for granted are now looking decidedly shaky. When God’s unstoppable, irrepressible, death-defying life becomes a reality in our lives and in our world the ground beneath our feet starts to feel decidedly less certain. Easter is an earthquake.
And so the question is: have we felt it? Have we begun to feel the earth moving beneath us? Because if we haven’t yet begun to feel it, we haven’t yet begun to experience all that Easter is about, to know resurrection for ourselves. When the apostle Paul came into contact with the risen Christ on the Damascus road it blinded him and knocked him clean out of the saddle. It shook him up. It changed him. Now, we don’t all have Damascus road experiences like Saul, but when we like him and the two Marys realise that Jesus is alive the ground beneath our feet will shake, our lives will be transformed forever. Easter, for it to truly be Easter, has got to change us. It has got to sweep us up into the bold new life of Christ, because resurrection isn’t just for Jesus; it’s for the whole planet.
Last week I was talking with someone about the Saturday before Easter and how it’s an odd kind of day—a day of waiting, a day of silence and a day living in limbo between Friday and Sunday. She described how in her faith she’d felt like she’d been stuck in Saturday for a long time. She received God’s forgiveness won for her on Good Friday, but she hadn’t yet experienced Sunday in her life, the power of Christ’s resurrection to renew us and make us new people. She told a story of how she had been at a training course in Nuneaton with YWAM, a Christian missionary organisation, how one day she was walking around the town and she had a powerful encounter with Jesus. She ran back to the base, startled and amazed, telling all her friends, “Jesus is alive! Do you know that?” And apparently, they all did. But for her, it was a dramatic discovery and afterwards her life changed completely. Sunday was a long time in coming; but when it came, it was an earthquake.
This, I’m sure, is not uncommon for a lot of people. I’ve been there myself—knowing what Friday was about, but not really sure what was so special about Sunday. The Indian Christian missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh puts his finger on the tension perfectly: “Forgiveness alone,” he says, “is not enough … Complete release only comes when we are free from the urge to sin. It is completely possible for us to receive forgiveness and still die from the consequences of our sin. The Master came … to deliver us from the disease of our sin, from its consequences and from death.” And that’s what Sunday’s all about—God infusing the life of the living Lord Jesus into us. That’s the treatment we need. That’s the power of Sunday—the power to live as new people in Christ.
Jesus came not to make good people better, but to make dead people alive. That’s why the realisation that Jesus is alive is always such a dramatic experience. We can’t come face-to-face with the crucified-but-living Jesus and go back to the kitchen sink, peeling the potatoes as if nothing had happened. When you know that life and not death has the final word, a whole new world opens up before you. You’ll start looking at the world in a very different way. You’ll be braver and more courageous. You’ll notice shoots of new life springing up in places you never could have seen or imagined them before. You’ll learn that with God, there’s no such thing as a lost cause—whether it’s a person, a relationship or a situation—because if Easter teaches us anything it is that God doesn’t believe in lost causes.
Matthew says that after the two Marys had seen the angel, they ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy”. They’d been at the epicentre of an earthquake. They were afraid, filled with awe and wonder for what Easter would mean. But at the same time, this terrifying earthquake had turned the world upside-down the right way up again; it was something wonderful, something magnificent and so it was a cause for celebration. Resurrection does that to us. Easter is an earthquake. When we meet with the crucified-but-risen Jesus, our lives will be changed. How could they remain the same?
After the resurrection, the two Marys are sent from the tomb with the call to be messengers of God’s new life breaking out in the world. And so are we. Whether it’s picking up litter in the street, whether it’s buying a Big Issue from the scruffy guy on the corner, or whether it’s popping in on an elderly neighbour who doesn’t get any visitors, what we do here and now matters. In all of life, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we are called to be the needle of the seismometer, telling a world waiting for resurrection that a great earthquake has struck, that Jesus is alive and that the world as we know it is being renewed.
Easter is the only solid foundation for Christian living, because if Jesus isn’t alive, if he isn’t risen from the dead, all he’s gone to prove is that love is pointless, that all the will in heaven (let alone earth) can’t make our world a better place. There’s no point giving anything away. There’s no point sacrificing anything for the sake of others because in the end, it doesn’t really make a difference. Easter, however, prevents Christians thinking like that. If Jesus is alive, everything changes. The way of suffering love and sacrifice is transfigured into the way of life and joy and peace. Because Jesus is alive, we know that the end of the story is not death but resurrection, and we are called to be couriers, agents, envoys of that new life in the way we live. Because Jesus is alive, we have work to do. And we do it in the “sure and certain hope” that each act of love, generosity, kindness, gratitude, compassion and God-inspired creativity is a participation in what a world renewed in Jesus Christ will look like.
Now that’s a massive challenge because it means that we are either working with Christ for the renewal of God’s world, or we’re working against him to keep propping up the status quo of sin and death, of alienation and estrangement from the love, power and presence of a gracious and loving God. The Good News of Easter is that Jesus is alive and is setting about bringing his new life to you, to me, to Meltham, and to the whole world. God’s new life is breaking out among us and you and I are being called, like the two Marys were, to be messengers of that new life. We are called to implement Christ’s victory over death in the world, to push back the dominion of darkness, oppression and misery and to seek to see Christ’s rule take effect in every sphere of life.
What we need, then, is the energy of Easter to be released into our lives. What we need is the God-given realisation that Jesus is actually alive, that he is actually risen and victorious over the grave. Only that can give us the indestructible hope we need to go and take God’s new life into the situations and places of the utmost death and despair. And so, that’s my prayer for us this Easter: that we’d feel the ground under our feet tremble and shake with the knowledge that Jesus is alive, that we’d know the power of his resurrection to change our lives and the lives of others, that we’d learn to pour ourselves out in love as Jesus poured himself out in love for us, knowing that because he is alive, nothing we do in him is vain.
Do you know what day it is? Do you know it’s Sunday? May God open our hearts and make it so.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.