This Bright Surprise: An Easter Sermon

It was a Thursday evening when they took him, guards appearing at the prayer meeting, all his friends scattering to the four winds. He went meekly, like the lambs being lined up outside the Temple, waiting for the Passover.

Earlier that evening Jesus had sat up a hillside surrounded by olive trees, with his three best friends. James, Peter, and John. He prayed and prayed for he knew what was coming, his friends fell asleep after too much wine but Jesus waited the night, slowly sweating blood as he thought of another hillside covered in trees.

Friends, Jesus knew his Old Testament, he would have remembered Adam sat under a tree in the middle of a garden in the middle of Eden. He would have remembered Adam refusing to wait for God, refusing to endure suffering, and choosing to listen to a snake. He would have remembered Adam taking what he was told he could not have.

Jesus thought long, he prayed long, and he choose to wait, choose to endure suffering. He called it drinking his cup. The cup that Adam refused to drink.

Then they came for him, and through that long night he was tried and tried, taken from pillar to post, from Annas to Caiaphus to Pilate to Herod, each questioned Jesus, each was flummoxed by his answers, and each hoped the next would condemn him.

The crowd, whipped up by the priests did the snake’s work and asked for the famous murderer Barabbas to be released in Jesus’ place. So they took Jesus, and whipped his back raw, and dressed him like a king, a purple robe, and a crown of thorns. It was made to mock him, though they crowned him in truth as well as derision.

Does that sound like any stories you know from the Bible? As the priests stood and watched the guards spit and mock, I wonder if anyone remembered the story of the thorny crown, of Absalom the traitor, (don’t teach this in kid’s work) which might seem fitting. I wonder if they remembered the earlier crown of thorns, the ram with the thorny crown, that they slew instead of Isaac. If they did remember, they thought little of it.

The crowds continued to cry, “Crucify him!” and so they did.

They took him up to the hill outside Jerusalem, the bare one, they called it the place of the skull, where once David had carried Goliath’s head. Did you know that when David slew that Giant with a stone, he was wearing a coat of scales, he was dressed like a snake.

They lifted Jesus up and nailed him to a beam of wood. To a tree, in the middle of a garden. His arms outstretched, as though to embrace the world. His feet, lifted above that snake’s head hill. They did not think of God’s promise to Eve, that one day there would be a King would stamp on the snake’s head while the snake bit his heel. They didn’t think of it, but Jesus did.

To match his thorny crown, they hung a sign that “the King of the Jews” and they spoke truer than they knew.

He hung dying, agony coursing his body, for many hours. Watched by the women who had faithfully followed him, and by John his closest friend. He spoke to the thieves hanging either side of him, he spoke to the crowds gathered to mock, words drying up on parched lips

He asked for water, they gave him vinegar. Perhaps some remembered how he had said that he would give living water to any who thirsted. His claims seemed ludicrous now, in the face of imperial brutality.

As the clock struck three in the afternoon, he cried out “It is finished.”

What was? They wondered. His life. His mission. The hope he’d given. Or more? The stain of sin. The snake’s foul machinations. The curse God spoke over Adam and Eve as they were removed form the Garden by Angels with flaming swords. Death itself? Or more? The end of the creation, on the sixth day of the week.

Because that’s what it was.

Few, if any, believed.

And then the sun went out. And the earth tore in two. And dead men walked out of broken graves. And the Temple’s curtain, guarding the presence of God from sinful men, was ripped from the top down by an unseen hand. An old creation ended, right in front of them.

But then there was silence. And he hung there, dead.

A solider approached, and thrust his spear into Jesus’ side. Maybe John remembered when Adam had lain as dead and God had cut open his side, and out had come his bride. Perhaps that was what was…? But no, just blood and water.

So they went home, distraught. All their dreams had died.

Other followers came, powerful men, and took his body and laid it in a rich man’s tomb, in a garden, in the very middle. They took myrrh and aloes and cloth and swaddled him like he had been wrapped as a baby.

They smelled the spices, I wonder if Joseph turned to Nicodemus and quoted from that most famous Song, “he lay in his bed of spices,” Nicodemus’ mouth would have twisted in sorrow. The husband sang of the bride in Solomon’s song. Where was she?

They walked away, too tired to cry. Every hope crushed and placed in a cold grave.

Soldiers rushed in, rolled a stone, and placed a heavy wax seal on it. Get through that if you can, they joked to each other.

I wonder ifthose old men remembered the old stories of the scriptures, and told them to each other as they walked away. Remembered Joseph in the pit, later exalted to the right hand of the king. Remembered Jonah in the belly of the whale, spat out on the third day. Remembered Daniel, placed with the lions, a stone rolled across the mouth and a heavy seal placed upon it.

Perhaps they smiled sadly, knowing the stories, that if you put a righteous man in a pit, put him in with lions, then you knew what would happen next, the lions would not win. Perhaps they remembered that the pattern of God’s story is always death first, then life. Perhaps they remembered that he had said ‘on the third day’ and something about that phrase echoed in the air. Perhaps they remembered, but it was hard to believe.

Then Saturday dawned, the second day, the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath day, and it stood quiet as everyone grieved for Life had died.

Friends, we too live on the Saturday, pulled between sorrow and joy. Waiting for the third day to dawn. We live in Saturday, but Sunday is coming.

So morning dawned, the third day, the first day of the week, the first day of… forever, in the cold dawn as mist hung wreathed on the hilltops, on the fifth of April, one thousand nine hundred and ninety years ago, a group of frightened women approached a tomb, sealed with a round stone and Empire’s might, they came to encounter Easter’s bright surprise.

Not that they knew it, bearing in their hands held tight over burdened hearts, spices: nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and aloes.

They came up the hill in the mist, Mary, Mary, Joanna, Salome, and all the rest. And there before them, the spices clutched in tight hands, cheeks stained with too much crying, there before them, after Thursday’s betrayal and Friday’s pain and Saturday’s mourning, there before them stood Easter’s bright surprise.

The stone rolled back, the seal long broken, the soldiers all in a heap, the tomb in which they laid him open, and a lion of a different kind released.

They stop, mouths open, not knowing what to do. Some run back to get the disciples, others stand opened mouthed. What fresh horror is this?

Peter and John arrive, racing. John stops with the women, struck in his tracks. Peter bundles in and John follows him. It’s empty. It’s empty. It’s empty! The clothes are neatly folded, the cloth for his body there, the one for his head over there.

Figures in blazing white with swords of flame say that he is not here, just as he said. They wander home, amazed.

But Mary stays, wondering at Easter’s bright surprise. The tomb is in a garden, right in the middle, and maybe she ponders the stories she learned in the synagogue as she walks. Maybe she thought of those two trees in the middle of the Garden when Adam fell and he named Eve. Maybe she remembered a song often sung that spoke of spices and  said “my beloved has gone down to his garden.”

If she did, I imagine she laughed at herself. As though something that good, that pure, that wonderful could happen in this dark and broken world. But where have they put his body? Still clutching her spices, she saw finally a man walking among the trees in the cool of the day.

Thinking him to be the gardener, she walked over, spices in hand, and asked where they had put the body of her Lord.

The gardener turned, in his garden, to look at the woman.

“Mary” he said

Then all as a flash she saw she saw she saw, for it was he, the Master, the Lord, raised to life again, Jesus declared the Christ, Adam’s curse undone, so she fell at his feet and wept, spices tumbling, anointing his feet with sweet perfume.

For this is Easter’s Bright Surprise: he is risen. And here to greet his bride, the church.

Dear Friends, here ends our story. But what has it to do with us? Death is dead.

But what has it to do with us? The wrath of God is turned aside.

But what has it to do with us? Our future can be secured.

But what has it to do with us? The dragon, that cursed snake, is defeated

But what has it to do with us? Our sin can be forgiven

But what has it to do with us? The new creation has begun on the first day of the week.

And Hope sits over the horizon, nearly here. Any day now. The one man who has walked the future and returned, Jesus the Christ, says this to you: a day is coming, coming very soon, when every tear shall be wiped from every eye, and every sadness shall be undone, and every sorrow will be ended, and life will reign forever more.

And all of this because of Easter’s bright surprise. He is Risen.

Photo by Clicker Babu on Unsplash