The whole story of God and Israel is like one of those awful love stories—you know the kind I mean. It starts out all lovely and hopeful. God calls Abraham and speaks to him and reveals himself to him, and Abraham loves God, more even than his own son. And then Isaac loves God, and then Jacob. And God tells each of them who he is and they each build an altar and praise the Lord. And then there’s great tragedy of Joseph being betrayed by his brothers but God is there for him and the power of God’s provision overwhelms the whole family and they are restored to each other in Egypt. And then there’s another huge tragedy. The people of God, Israel, fall into slavery and trouble and they begin to cry out to God and remember that God had made himself known to their ancestors. And God hears them and comes to rescue them and brings them out of this immense and terrifying crisis, bringing them through the 10 plagues and rescuing them from the Egyptian Army, bringing them out into the desert to marry them, to make vows and a establish a covenant with them.
He gives them the Law—this great expression of His perfect character and order and life.
He gives them food, miraculous food and water.
He gives them his presence—a visible pillar of fire in the night to light and cheer and guide them, and in the day a cloud that they can see and know that the Lord is near, he has come to save.
And then, just when everything seems settled and safe and perfect, Israel cheats. Right in the midst of all this love and provision, Israel, right there, in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, right there under God’s very nose, gives herself to another god. She falls down before a human made bestial image of a cow, a lifeless, provisionless, loveless object, and gives it the name of God, calls it The Lord. And so begins the ongoing painful story of God going to buy back, to rescue, to yell at Israel, whom he loves and who does not love him back, who would rather die than be with him. It is an endless back and forth of Israel loving God and then rejecting him, loving him and then rejecting him, trying to love him but then ultimately and completely rejecting him in the person of Jesus. When Jesus stands, in the week before his life, looking out at Jerusalem and weeping ‘O Jerusalem, how I loved you, how I longed to gather you to myself as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not have it’, it is the culmination of a thousand years of pain, a thousand years of rejection.
Why would God do this? In our daily lives if someone hurts us one time it’s enough for us to cut them out, to move on. When we say that God is Love—Aedan read in something the other day, that the name of God is love and he scoffed, ‘that’s not God’s name’ he said, ‘but it’s who he is,’ I said, ‘he is love’—We don’t have a way to understand this. Our vision is so narrow. Our hearing is so dim. Why bother, why does God bother? Why, when before Adam and Eve had had time to even to, I don’t know, do anything, the First Thing they do is reject God, before they do anything else they reject God, and God, sets into motion the plan he had always had to restore them to himself, to love them to the very end. Why?
The women racing along to the tomb in the first light of the dawn didn’t consider this question. They weren’t asking themselves, ‘why did Jesus do it? Why did he die?’ They sped along in total grief. They had dropped everything to follow this man up and down the length of Israel. They knew the ordinariness of his everyday life—the exhaustion of dealing with the crowds, the deep humility, the strength and power of his word and person. They loved him. And Simon Peter, even while he was shouting to all the passersby that he, Peter, didn’t know Jesus, had never seen him before, he loved him. How awful the grief of seeing someone die whom you let down, whom you betrayed? And the other disciples, cower in the corners of Jerusalem, devastated with guilt and grief. Most of them had run away at the critical moment. All of them, like Israel loving God, they loved him, but not enough.
The women speed along in the rising dawn of Sunday morning to anoint the body of their beloved, to do for him that last thing before they tried to put their lives back together.
Midweek, as I was freaking out over the heavy weight of my to-do list, Matt made the not funny observation that its really easy to get all lyrical and gushy about the cross. When writing about the cross, the stuff just flows out. It’s so easy to describe. There’s so much to say. We understand death. We are well acquainted with grief and suffering. Even this evening as we sit here in this beautiful light, many of us are grieving for Bob who died on Thursday. And I am so worried about so many people I know fleeing from Mali as that whole country falls into ruin and devastation. As I think of them and pray I feel right there, sitting at the foot of this instrument of death, the cross, gazing at the body of Jesus and crying out, ‘see, everything is ruined.’
The women speeding along to the tomb--I say speeding because I imagine they would have been wanting to get this painful and agonizing task over with, but they could have been going slowly, after all, they didn’t know how they would get into the tomb, and maybe the spices were heavy—it’s easy to stay, spiritually, with these women. They aren’t filled with hope and expectation. Sometimes it seems like I’m always on the way to the tomb, expecting death, sad about how bad things are, going to see a Jesus I don’t believe in and haven’t listened to. In this way I am not so different from the woman sitting in the camp of Israel in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, waiting for Moses to come down the mountain and tell me something about God and deciding, along with everyone else, that God isn’t going to do anything, that we might as well do the best we can with what we have. The person throwing herself down in front of the golden calf, or throwing great big stones at the prophets or shouting ‘Crucify Him’ or even running along in the half light to anoint the dead are all in the same place—the place of death. And that is what we are surrounded by in this life, suffering and death.
But that was never the plan. God, who through the centuries had called and suffered and finally died, never intended for this to be it. God is not like us. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. When his word goes forth from his mouth, it does not come back empty.
The only thing empty is the hewn out stone tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. The women feel the ground shake before they arrive at the grave. They are met by an angel who tells them that he isn’t there. They look and see that he isn’t there. The grave clothes are there. The grave itself is there. But not Jesus.
How do we even begin to conceive of this? That a person who was dead would be alive—not just spiritually, but physically? The angel tells the women to go tell the disciples and then, as they go, Jesus meets them and they see him. They hear him. Alive, in his body.
Jesus, in his resurrected perfected body is, as Isaiah said about the branch in verse 5 of chapter 4, so glorious that when he is first seen, those closest to him didn’t immediately recognize him. Whereas before he was nothing that anyone would have remarked on him, now he is beautiful. And then in verse 5, Isaiah writes
5 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. 6 There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Over all this will be a canopy—the canopy under which a man and woman stand on the day of their marriage to each other—the day they covenant, the day they bind themselves together in love. The power that raised Jesus out of the grave was not this mechanical power like something out of battlestar galactica. This power is the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The power of that love holds all things together and brings the created order into existence, and that love was concentrated and focused on the tomb on Easter morning. Death has no power over the love of God.
And it is this love that God concentrates and focuses on you when he brings you to life in himself. When God calls you to himself and saves you, he takes your dead stone cold heart and resurrects it, brings it to life. And every day that you love him, both now and forevermore, every day it will get bigger and more alive and more full of him and his love. Can you imagine Bob, right now, in the presence of this risen Christ? I bet he’s still in shock. But he has a long time to get used to it. And you here tonight, if you love Jesus and he knows your name, he himself is living in you through the Holy Spirit. He is preparing you every moment for the shock of seeing him face to face. You will rise in your body when he returns, but right now, right now he is making you alive in glory, he is making you holy and clean and whole. As chaos and destruction rein on every side, you are brought further and closer in to the glory of God’s love, the cloud of God’s saving presence, the fire of God’s perfecting love.
The women arrive at the tomb in grief and leave in glory. He is alive. He is risen. Go out from here and tell everybody you know that he is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.