Text: Mark 16:1-8
This past Advent one of our children’s Sunday school classes was discussing the meaning of Advent. Well into the discussion one of the teachers noted that Advent is the time when we, as a church, are preparing for the baby Jesus to be born. After a moment of pondering this statement, one astute young lad replied, “But Jesus has already been born. He was born last year.” This child’s response reminded me of Nicodemus’ question to Jesus when Jesus said to him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” To which Nicodemus asked, “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?” In minds young and old there is a logical way of thinking about the progression of life. We are born, we live, and we die. It is the natural cycle of life. Jesus intentionally used the linear language of our physical lives in order to challenge our thinking. And so we find ourselves struggling to understand how old people may be “born again” and grappling with the concept that an infant has embodied the great divine and that a dead man can be raised from the dead and live again. The liturgical calendar, with its persistent 365 day cycle, also challenges our linear understanding of life. Within the liturgical calendar, the life cycle is condensed into one great arc, one calendar year, one rotation of seasons. And each year, as these milestone dates pass, we are challenged to find and re-find and then look even deeper to find our meaning.
The Easter story, a story of resurrection—of life after death—invites us again and again—year after year—to consider the dead places in our lives and seek new life. It offers us the opportunity to set aside dead dreams and hopes for new dreams and new hopes. And beyond the personal, it challenges us as people of faith to look for where Jesus is alive today in our world. Every Easter, Jesus is resurrected and once again we are asked to ponder what it means to be alive, to seek life out of the dead places, to live in hope and faith, and to trust that God’s justice does indeed prevail.
“The story of Holy Week as Mark and the other gospels tell it enables us to hear the passion of Jesus—what he was passionate about—that led to his execution. His passion was the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king; and the rulers, domination systems, and empires of this world were not. It is the world that the prophets dreamed of—a world of distributive justice in which everybody has enough and systems are fair”(Marcus Borg, The Last Week). A world where a family living in rural Nicaragua has access to clean drinking water. A world where children don’t die from preventable diseases. A world where people get to make covenant and marry whomever they choose. A world where the elderly are treated with dignity and respect. A world where no child suffers abuse and neglect. A world where one country doesn’t levy political trade sanctions on another country participating in the creation of poverty, hunger, and hardship on a whole people. A world in which a young black man wearing a hoodie and eating skittles can walk down the sidewalk without being gunned down by a vigilante. A world where the human species understands its interdependence on the non-human species and cares for the natural world. A world where there are more churches like Pullen Memorial Baptist, where people are committed to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. And it is not simply a political dream. It is God’s dream, a dream that can only be realized by being grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice and love. Jesus’ passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the central meaning of the Easter story and we must tell it again and again until our world stops living in the dead places and chooses life. Oh, how often are we like the disciples showing up at the tomb—those dead places in our lives—looking for Jesus. That is why we need this Easter story. It is why we need to tell it again and again. Jesus doesn’t want us living in the dead places of our lives and of this world.
As real as they are, it can be difficult to say out loud or even to ourselves where those dead places are in our lives. I know for me they represent those moments in my life when I don’t feel like I am good enough at my job or at being a parent; or when I feel undeserving of another’s love; or when I feel my worth as a pastor is tied up in saying “yes” to being on another community panel around whatever the hot button issue of the day is. These are not new issues for me, I have literally been naming and trying to “fix” these exact issues of worth and value my whole adult life. I don’t know where your dead places are, but I know that all of us have them. Maybe it’s an old picture of how you saw your life that you can’t quite let go of. Maybe it is a long ago hurt or more recent hurt that you can’t make peace with. Maybe it is a hope that you had for where you would be in life at this point, but you’re not there because your life took one of those unexpected turns. The dead places are real—they are a part of our humanity. But they do not have to be the last word in our lives. The Easter story comes along and offers another word.
The angel said to those early disciples who showed up at the tomb—the place of death— “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He had been raised; he is not here.” The Easter story is first and foremost about being raised from dead places—those places where life drains rather than nurtures us. It is a real life story of seeking new dreams and hopes. It is a narrative that embodies redemption and reconciliation. At its core, it is a story of finding new life—a life beyond what we thought possible. Regardless of whether or not we believe the Easter story to be factually true or not, we must tell the Easter story again and again to ourselves and to others because deep in our hearts we know the meaning of it is real. We know because we have experienced the truth of that beautiful hymn of promise we sing: “In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” At this time of year, every year, the world displays the truth of resurrection. Indeed, our very lives bear witness to the truth of resurrection every time we have chosen and every time we choose to step outside those places that would keep us going to the tomb. There may not be another story that begs our telling over and over again more than the Easter story. For it is in this story that we find our hope, our joy, our peace, and the fullness of life.
Soon after I returned home from adopting Nora I began telling her stories of the two weeks I spent in Vladivostok with her finalizing her adoption. I would tell her about the first day I saw her and how she didn’t pay me any attention. And then how on the second day she reached out for me. I would try to recreate every detail of the first day we had on our own and how I ventured out to take her to a nearby bakery where upon entering she got so excited about all the pastries that the bakery owner had to actually help me get her out of the store. Her favorite story was hearing how she would run from me in the hotel lobby trying to get to the potted plants to eat the dirt before I could get to her. And of course, there are the stories of our two-day trip home that included four flights—one which included surviving 5 people seated in 3 seats (two of which were toddlers)—spending the night in the Frankfurt airport, and her screaming for the full six hour flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Dulles airport in Washington, DC.
At some point, as Nora got older, she would ask for the stories with more and more detailed and leading questions. She would say, “Mom, tell me about the first time I saw you and how I didn’t pay you much attention.” “Mom, tell me about how I would eat the dirt from the flower pots in the hotel.” “Mom, tell me about the day we went to the bakery and I got so excited.” As much as Nora still loved hearing me tell those stories to her, there was a turning point in which she had internalized them to the point where she knew them, and she began telling the stories to me. Easter is one of those faith stories for us. Yes, we already know how the story ends, and we know that we will hear the story read and talked about every Easter Sunday. The question is, have we internalized it, and are we willing to tell it to ourselves, in our own voices, with our own stories. This question of owning the story, of making it ours, is one place where I can easily agree with the old hymn. I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
Every year, Jesus is born again. And every year, we gather on Easter Sunday to proclaim once again that Christ is risen—that he is alive. In proclaiming the Easter story we are invited the other 364 days of the year to rise from our dead places into new life and new hope. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!