God Came Back
A sermon for Easter Sunday morning by Nathan Nettleton, 7 April 1996
Resurrection faith is far more than belief in a resuscitation. It is a radical trust in the God who keeps coming back when all seems lost.
The events we celebrate today are at the very heart of Christian faith. The Apostle Paul said that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain. The resurrection is the central feature that sets Christianity apart from other faiths. But what is it? What exactly is resurrection faith?
Its not just believing in the empty tomb. Matthews gospel tells us that there was an explanation circulating that the body had been stolen. Its not believing that people can be raised from the dead, because those who had believed that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead and those who saw Lazarus raised from the dead are not described as having resurrection faith. Its not even just believing that Jesus came back to life after he had been dead for a few days, because Matthew again tells us that the guards and the chief priests actually knew that that had happened. The guards in fact were the only eye witnesses to the resurrection. But the guards and the priests formed a conspiracy to suppress the information and they are certainly not examples of resurrection faith, even though they believed that Jesus had come back to life. Resurrection faith is also not the unwavering belief in a particular concept of the resurrection. The appearances of the risen Christ are described in so many different ways in the gospels that it is impossible to hold steadfastly to any one detailed explanation of the resurrection and still make sense of them all. The gospel writers seem to deliberately undermine any possibility of being dogmatic about the nature of the resurrection.
So then, what is resurrection faith? What is it that is so significant about this day? Were going to try to tackle that question today, but first lets together acknowledge some of the uncertainties and misgivings with which we approach the question.
The book of Exodus tells us that there arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph of the Technicolour dream coat, and he made the Hebrew people into slaves. He had them forced to do unbearable work under whip wielding tyrants and when they complained he had all their male babies killed. The first of many genocides against the Jewish people. And if you know anything about human psychology you wont be surprised to know that many of them were quite happy with their slavery. Sure the work was hard but they got three square meals a day and it wasnt so bad once you learned to adjust and not upset the masters. The bent back grows calloused to the sting of the whip and after a while you hardly feel it. At least you know where you stand. Theres no uncertainties. Adjust. Adapt.
But God came back.
First to Moses, minding his own business in the paddock when a bush burst into flame. Ive heard the cry of my people, said the voice from the bush, and Im going to set them free. Im going head to head with Pharaoh and guess whos going to help me?
Moses is stammering But, but,... But there is not buts. God came back.
Once free, Israel didnt manage to stay free for long. Just a few hundred years and then down from the north came the chariots, war horses, and iron spears of the Assyrians. Cities burned and pillaged. Whole tribes carted off into cruel exile. And within a few years the Babylonians marched down and finished off what the Assyrians had left behind. Back into slavery. Deportation. Death. Serbia. Bosnia. Timor. Assyria.
But God came back.
A fiery tongued prophet named Jeremiah, promises return to the downtrodden exiles. In a speech of inspiration and consolation (todays first reading) the prophet points the way to a great home-coming party, a great dance of the merry-makers to outdo anything youve ever seen down at the flying duck.
Tyrants, Assyrian or any other variety, get pretty edgy and call out the troops whenever the people on the bottom begin to dance and sing and make music. When the tambourines begin to beat out the freedom songs, the secret service and the thought police want to know why. And how come they had the guts to sing and dance under the noses of the guards?
Because God came back.
A little two-bit town in the back blocks of Galilee, first century, Roman troops on every corner, registering these Jews, enrolling them in order to better control them, oppress them. The greatest, most powerful army the world had ever seen in service to the most ruthless dictator; what can anybody do? Assyrians, Romans, its all the same. Adjust. Adapt. Keep your head down. Say your prayers. Dont draw attention to yourself. But
Down in the back streets, in a stable out back, a young woman begins to sing. My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. . . for God has scattered the proud, and God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones.
Mary, theres Romans on the corner, why do you clench your fist and sing? Mary replies, Well Im going to have a baby.
God came back.
Friday didnt take anybody by surprise. Not anybody who knew anything about the ways of death anyway. If you knew the way the religious-political-economic establishment works, then you knew that Jesus was doomed from the start. He disregarded too may social conventions, associating with the wrong people. He invited too many disreputable outcasts into the sanctuary. Went to too many parties with publicans and whores. And the public insults he cast at the clergy. Fridays bloody business at The Place of the Skull came as no surprise. You cant fight the Legislative Assembly. Caesar had the troops. The crowd turned against us. The one who came inviting us all to life finds himself nailed to the cross. Death adds another trophy to its cabinet.
The campaign went well but we didnt get him elected Messiah, we said. We told the women, You go on out to the cemetery and take these flowers to show our last respects to Jesus. Well come out later in the day. And so the women went out to deaths memorial park and peered into the tomb. Surprise!
God came back!
And on the way back from the cemetery Jesus meets them and says Greetings! The funeral wreaths theyre holding look a bit silly at that point, and the fall down and worship.
God came back.
The joyous shouts of the women had been heard before. In Miriams song as the sea surged back over Pharaohs chariots. In the tambourine dances of the homecoming exiles promised by Jeremiah. In the war chant lullaby of the pregnant Mary. Its been heard before. God came back. What else can you do? Sing, celebrate, worship. God came back.
When will we stop adapting to the ways of death and begin to expect God to come back and overthrow the powers of death and tyranny? When will we get it into our heads that God is the Come-back King, that resurrection is Gods way and that Easter Sunday was not the opening shot but the climactic victory of Gods war against death?
Look at the stories of Jesus life. All the way through you can see that death is losing its grip. Every time somebody once crippled stands and walks, or blind eyes begin to see, or prisoners of fear break free, or the outcast dance in the temple, death is being pushed onto the back foot, and fullness of life is having its way over deathliness and despair. Every time Jesus is confronted with the finger prints of death, life breaks through. By the time we get to Easter, how could the tomb be anything but empty?
This is what resurrection faith is all about. Its got nothing to do with theories and doctrines and speculations about the nature of Jesuss post-Easter body. It is a radical trust in the God who keeps coming back when everything seems lost. A willingness in the face of overwhelming odds, of oppressive power-mongering and the might of dollar and dictator, to entrust ourselves to the ways of life and love. To sing and dance and celebrate in the face of those who would stifle joy and measure out existence by the spoonful. To rejoice even in the face of our own doubts, because as Matthew said, even face to face with the risen Christ some still doubted. So used have we become to the inevitability of the ways of death that we suspect weve lost our grip when we see with our own eyes that it is not so. But it doesnt say they were kicked out of the church.
Life is bigger than our doubts. Bigger than our accommodation to the ways of the lifeless. Bigger than any army or dictator or power monger who would stand over you and wrest your life from you hands. Even if they kill the body, they have no power to stop the one who keeps coming back and resurrecting us body and all back to life and life to the full.
Easter Sunday is not an isolated event. It is unique in its climactic nature, but we had glimpses of it over and over again as God repeatedly responded to people faced with the power of death and led them forward to freedom and fullness of life. Easter is everywhere, wherever the Spirit of God comes back in the hearts of downtrodden people and they begin the dance of life, with futures resurrected as they follow the resurrected Lord of life and become part of Gods great movement of raising life from the midst of death when all hope seems gone.
We are here today, singing and celebrating because in the face of it all, God came back.