Thursday, April 15, 2010

One Last Easter

John 20:1-18

by Daniel Harrell

If you’re here tonight because you saw our sign outside advertising Easter services—I’m impressed. I say that because the sign has no date on it. It may be that we forgot to put the date on it, or it may be that we didn’t know the date. That’s the problem with Easter—the date changes every year. You can blame the moon. Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred during the Jewish Passover which is set in accordance with a primitive Babylonian lunar calendar. Passover commemorates God’s judgment passing over those whose houses were covered by lamb’s blood. The ancient church wanted to preserve the association between the Passover lamb and Jesus as the Lamb of God who also saves us from judgment by taking away our sins. So the church employed a similar dating method. But since the resurrection happened on a Sunday, the church also needed to guarantee that Easter consistently did the same.

Enter Constantine the Great, the fourth century Roman emperor who converted to Christ and thereby legalized Christianity. He convoked the Council of Nicea—three hundred bishops gathered from throughout the Roman Empire—who unanimously ruled that Easter should begin on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox.

Now while this sounds complicated, it made ancient sense for another reason. In addition to coinciding with Passover, Easter was also designed to overlap with spring (at least in the Northern hemisphere). The annual experience of new life from the dead of winter vividly symbolized the ultimate new life of resurrection. There were no bunnies or eggs involved of course; as ostensibly celibate bishops, fertility symbols would have been the last thing on their minds. Contrary to their pagan counterparts, Christians attributed the renewing of the earth, as they did the renewing of life, to the power of God alone. A sacred linkage between Easter and spring would have been obvious.

However the connection between Easter and spring can also be misleading. After all spring is entirely natural. In Southie I’m fortunate to have this little patio garden that Dawn and I get to dig around in. If you do any gardening yourself, you know that the daffodil or tulip bulbs you planted last fall have finally started coming up as glorious harbingers of spring. Though if you took a good look at one of those bulbs before planting it, you know that they hardly look like spring. They look dead―all brown and scraggly. But this doesn’t bother you. You just bury them in the ground, wait six months and in due time the bulbs predictably rise from the dead in living color. And though this never fails to marvel and delight, it never surprises either. Daffodils and tulips in spring, like spring itself, are entirely natural.

On the other hand, when you bury a dead person in the ground, the result is completely different. You don’t bury people with any expectation that they’ll pop up next season so you can pick up wherever you left off with them. When you bury a person, you say good-by. Funerals are solemn and somber occasions filled with loss, sadness and grief. You file by the freshly turned sod and pay your last respects resolving, somehow, to get on with life as best you can. What other choice do you have? Springtime only happens on top of graves, never in them.

Mary Magdalene was paying her respects at Jesus’ grave early that first Easter morning. John tells us that it was still dark. Yet the weak morning light was sufficient for her to discover a startling and terrible truth: the stone that covered the entry to Jesus’ tomb had been moved! Were the religious authorities not satisfied with killing him that they came and stole his body too? Or was this the sinister work of grave robbers? Robbing tombs was not uncommon in those times. And Jesus had been entombed with seventy-five pounds of pricey spices and costly linen cloth. Hysterical, Mary dashed back to where the disciples were hiding out and dropped the bomb on them: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Peter and John dashed with her back to the cemetery. John, as the narrator, makes sure to inform us that he ran faster. Getting there first, John looked into the tomb and behold, Mary was right! But he wasn’t going in there to make sure. Peter, however, perhaps in compensation for his cowardice a few nights prior, pushed past John and discovered the strips of burial linen, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. They were nicely folded. Surely, neither the religious authorities nor grave robbers would have taken the time to refold the burial wrappings, not to mention completely abandoning the expensive fabric.

John stepped inside and we read that “he saw and believed.” What did he believe? He believed Mary. Nobody was quite ready to accept the notion of anybody rising from the dead—despite what they’d seen Jesus do with Lazarus and others before. At this point, all that any of them believed was that Jesus was gone. Thus Peter and John sadly returned home like all grieving people inevitably must do. You have to get on with your life as best you can. What other choice do you have? But Mary wasn’t ready to get on with anything but her grief. She was left to grieve alone. Grief is like that. It is an intensely isolating emotion. It closes you off—even from those eager to give comfort. CS Lewis wrote how a grieving person is like a drowning person who can’t be helped because in their flailing distress nobody can get a hold of their hand. In this way grief is a lot like fear. For Mary, Jesus’ death had been horrific enough. Yet in a culture which emphasized the sanctity of a proper burial, the abomination she now confronted unbearably compounded her anguish.

She frantically bent over to look inside the tomb once more. Grief is like this too. It makes you want to turn back the clock. You imagine that by reliving a moment recently past, that somehow the outcome can be different. Maybe if Mary looked again Jesus’ body would be there. But there was no body. There were, however, two angels. Mary was too sad to care. Thus these angels did not utter the customary “fear not.” Instead they asked why she was crying. “Why do you think I’m crying!? They’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him!”

Of course the angels knew he was. I always imagine them pointing just beyond Mary, like in that last scene of the old baseball classic Field of Dreams. [In addition to Easter, today is also Opening Day]. In the movie, Shoeless Joe Jackson points Kevin Costner over toward home plate where a mysterious figure is standing. Mary turns from the angels and bumps not into a baseball catcher, but into the cemetery grounds-keeper. Unlike Kevin Costner and his dead father the baseball catcher, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. Grief distorts reality. The supposed grounds-keeper repeats the angels’ question: “Woman, why are you crying?” (Mary’s like, “What is it with these people?”) Jesus then slyly adds [smile], “Whom are you looking for?” But Mary is too distraught to get the joke. “Look sir,” she moaned, “if you have carried him away, you just tell me where you have put him, and I will go get him.” So Jesus helps her by saying her name. And at that moment Mary must have Freaked. Stinking. Out. She must have screamed, tackled Jesus and held on for dear life. No way he was getting away from her again! But rather than welcome her embrace, Jesus tells her to back off. Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me.

What a bizarre thing to say. Scholars have puzzled over its meaning for centuries, though artists have had a field day with it. In most of their paintings, Jesus pushes Mary away as if she has cooties or something. In a famous one by Titian, Jesus looks like he’s about to whack Mary in the head with his victory flag. What’s really weird is that Jesus tells Mary to keep her hands to herself while just ten verses later he’s telling Thomas to stick his fingers into the wound on his side. Does the Lord have something against women? None of the guys came to the cemetery that morning. Jesus explains that “he has not yet returned to the Father,” though a better translation would be “not yet ascended.” But what does that mean? Whatever the ascension meant to John, it at least indicated Jesus’ decisive parting from the way things were. In stark contrast to the mere resuscitation of Lazarus, Jesus’ resurrection meant that everything was about to change. Resurrection meant brand new life, not the old life lived over. This is why most translations, instead of “do not touch me,” have Jesus saying to Mary, “do not cling to me.”

You need to move on. That’s what people say when you’ve suffered heartbreaking loss. “You need to let it go.” But how do you do that? It’s not as if you can simply will your grief away. Sure, you can get distracted for a moment or two. Like now during church, you hear all this and think, OK, he’s right, I need to move on. But once you leave and start heading home, all thos emotions will sneak back up on you and you’ll be stuck again. “Let it go” is easy to say, but nearly impossible to do. Christian friends will tack on the caveat, “let go and let God.” But if God was going to do anything about it, wouldn’t he have kept the heartbreaking loss from happening in the first place.

Not exactly. Friends may say “Let go and let God,” but Jesus actually says let go of God. “Stop clinging to me Mary.” Let me hold on to you. It’s time to move on. Or better: it’s time to move up. “I am ascending to my God and my Father,” Jesus says. But by also saying that he’s ascending to “your God and your Father,” Jesus implies that he’s taking us with him. The end-all of human life has never been happiness here, despite the enormous amount of time and energy we spend (and mostly waste) pursuing it. Like daffodils in spring, we expect to find comfort, safety, happiness, success and peace of mind here and now. It’s totally natural. Only the search succeeds in disappointing you over and over again. That’s because happiness on earth-as-it-is was never God’s goal for human existence. Otherwise there would have been no cross and Jesus would still be doling out loaves and fishes.

Instead, the Bible talks about a new heaven and a new earth—a supernatural reality that Jesus died and rose to achieve. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “God has raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” But what’s amazing is that Paul wrote this while the Ephesians were still walking on earth. “You have been raised with Christ” already, Paul reiterated to the Colossians while they were still on earth too. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, your future is all set even now. So you can stop clinging to me Mary and “go tell my brothers” by whom Jesus meant his disciples who were hiding out for fear of being strung up like Jesus. Go tell them they don’t need to be afraid anymore. Jesus is living proof. Far from having anything against women, that Jesus sent Mary made a woman the first apostle (since an apostle is one who is sent). This is part of what makes the resurrection story so believable. Given first century attitudes toward women, if someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus alive, they would have never given a starring role to a woman; let alone a woman with a shady past like Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute.

So go tell my brothers to believe it. New life has already started. They don’t need to be afraid to die anymore—and once you’re not afraid to die, you don’t need to be afraid of anything. This explains why we see the weak-kneed disciples turn into emboldened and inspired apostles. Their faith eventually converts the Roman empire and the emperor himself, so that every year since, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, people all over the world pile into churches and totally unnaturally proclaim about Jesus “He is risen!” Alleluia. It’s time to move on because we’ve already moved up.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


Hosea 10

by Daniel Harrell

Today’s celebration of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem is darkly ironic. By week’s end, the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna” will give way to “crucify him.” It’s a sad reminder of how easily our own faith in Jesus can wane. Throw too much difficulty or disappointment in your path and what had been “praise God” easily becomes “why me Lord?” And yet even sadder for most of us is that difficulty and disappointment don’t diminish our faith nearly as much as prosperity and satisfaction. Throw too much prosperity or satisfaction in our path and what had been “thank God” becomes “God who?” Who needs God when everything’s fine? Or better, who needs a Lord who commands that you share your prosperity with others and be suspicious of your satisfaction. For the ancient Israelites in Hosea, the Lord could be quite the party pooper. Thus they decided that rather than hooking up with holiness they’d chase after idols and the parties they promised―a do-it-yourself kind of religion that allowed you to do whatever you wanted. Never mind that it was the Lord who had rescued them from slavery and given them land and lavished them with all they could ever need. Never mind that it was the Lord who had made all of their prosperity possible.

Normally the book of Hosea would be an odd place to spend Palm Sunday―except that Jesus himself alludes to the prophet in Luke’s Holy Week narrative. In the 23rd chapter of Luke’s gospel, with cheering crowds having soured into a jeering mob, Jesus tells a group of women who weep for him to weep for themselves and their children instead. “The time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ You will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” All of this echoes Hosea 10. Verse 8: “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed―it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’” And verse 14 too: “The roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated―as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle (a possible reference to 2 Kings 17), when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.” The last line the reason that childlessness would be blessed.

As we have seen, Hosea is hardly the feel-good book of the Bible. It’s all about God’s anger at Israel for their cheating ways. Bad enough that they chased after other lovers, but their other lovers weren’t even real. Instead of loving the Lord as their husband and worshipping him as Maker of Heaven and Earth, they settled for cheap imitations, idols made of wood and stone, tinker toys and Lincoln logs. Why the fascination? Why ever the fascination? As Americans we spend billions of dollars every year on all kinds of crap we have to have but never use, all in an effort to make us happy while while millions go hungry and suffer the ravages of disaster and war. Hosea can’t stand it. “Sow some righteousness!” he says in verse 12, “Reap some love! Break up your hard hearts! Seek the Lord!” All to no avail: “You have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice. You eat the fruit of lies. You trust in your own power.” Hosea’s anger is God’s anger. He knows how God feels. That’s because Hosea was married to a cheating spouse too. God commanded it so that Hosea would understand what infidelity felt like. Hosea understood God’s broken heart and thus could speak for the Lord.

We left off last in chapter 5, but you’re really not missing a whole lot by skipping to chapter 10. The intervening chapters read pretty much the same. Israel is one messed up wife. She had been a luxuriant spreading vine, we read in verse 1—one of the Bible’s favorite metaphors for the good life. But rather than giving thanks to God and spreading the wealth, the people bought more toys for themselves. As the Lord does whenever greed shows up in the Bible, he shows his anger in verse 2, promising to “demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.” Yet because Israel’s was both a religious and political promiscuity, he would destroy their nation too. On their border were the Assyrians, a mighty army that God’s people flirted with and then tried to buy off for their own personal protection. The move backfired. Assyria eventually invades and annihilate the northern kingdom. Verse 7: “Samaria and its king (the capital of Israel in contrast to Jerusalem the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah) and its king will float away like a twig on the water.” And verse 15: “the king of Israel will be completely destroyed.” It is God who unleashes the destruction. Verse 10: “I will punish them at my pleasure; I will call out the armies of the nations against you for your multiplied sins.” The end of Hosea would spell the end of the northern kingdom.

This is hard truth to take from a God whose calling card is supposed to be mercy. Readers of the Bible perennially struggle with the Old Testament portrayal of God’s anger. It’s why you should only read the New Testament. Except that when you read the New Testament it’s the same material. Jesus allusion to Hosea 10 in Luke’s gospel occurs in the context of history doomed to repeat itself: a vine grown proud withered to wickedness, the rejection of God, a terrible judgment to come as a result of infidelity and trusting in military might, the dire warning to mothers and their children, and finally, the death of Israel’s King. Israel the vine kicked their addiction to idols, but they did so mostly by idolizing themselves. They converted their disobedience to God into an over-obedience; a twisted kind of faithfulness achieved without faith. Go through the right motions and be good without God. This delusion led to different kind of infidelity, a proud self-reliance whereby their rejection of God took the form of indifference. It’s one thing to hate your husband—at least you still have feelings. It’s another thing to no longer need him.

Rather than the Assyrians, it was the Romans with whom God’s people tried to cozy up. But the results were the same. Only instead of the King of Samaria getting carried away in the current, it would be Jesus himself, the King of Kings. His death would be a precursor to the total demolition of Israel and Judah 40 years hence. The chosen people of God rejected their husband again—even though He had come to them in the flesh. “So save your tears,” Jesus said. “You’ll need them later.” Their children playing in the streets as Jesus spoke would become the adult casualties of the Roman onslaught. This concluding judgment on Israel’s infidelity would prove so disastrous that those same adults would beg the mountains and hills to cover them up just as Hosea promised—not as a means of protection or as a place to hide, but as a death wish to cut short the horrible misery.

Jesus alludes to Hosea, and then tacks on another one of his riddles in Luke 23:31: “If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

To understand the riddle, you need to appreciate the distinction between green wood and dry. If you grew up chopping wood like I did (with an ax and not a chainsaw―my dad knew better than to let me use a chainsaw), then you know how impossible it is to chop green wood. And then to burn it? All you get for your effort is a whole lot of smoke and hissing. By contrast, dry, dead wood catches fire like paper and roars into a blaze almost instantly. The green wood is Jesus (representative of faithful Israel, the true living vine), while the dry deadwood is historically unfaithful Israel. If crucifixion and death can happen to Jesus—blameless victim and Son of God—what will happen to everybody else? Having crucified one whom they considered innocent in Jesus, the Romans were going to have a field day against the deadwood Jews once they defied the Empire a few years later. Yet turn to the New Testament book of Revelation, and you read that Jesus’ riddle applies to more than deadwood Israel. The Roman assault foreshadowed Judgment Day. If God did not spare his innocent son a bloody death, how much worse will it be for people like us when God unleashes his final, righteous wrath?

In Revelation 6, a ferocious rider rides out on a horse the pale color of Death―one of the storied four horsemen of the Apocalypse. He’s empowered along with the Grave to affix further violence, famine, disease and persecution to the miseries of war, strife and economic scarcity already holding sway. That there are four riders indicates that the misery is universal. Together they shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy or in their own health and success. Making this all so disturbing is the fact that the horse-mounted misery rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike. More troubling is that the four horsemen’s global havoc is wreaked at the bidding of the Lamb who opens the seven seals of judgment. It is God who unleashes the destruction. “The sixth seal was opened and there was a great earthquake. The sun turned black …and the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth… People cried to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and cover us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of wrath has come. Who can survive it?’”

No wonder churches traditionally keep Palm Sunday so festive. Why dredge up this doom and gloom, not to mention all the gore of Holy Week? Jesus died and rose already, see you on Easter! The problem is that the chaotic doom and gloom of Revelation comes from a Jesus who’s already risen. The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world is coming back and he’s coming back mad.

The anger is nothing new. Jesus was angry when he took away our sins in the first place. We tend to envision Jesus silently limping his way to the cross in a posture of resigned, submissive obedience. But if Luke’s depiction is right, then Jesus was mad. Angry at the unwillingness of his people to embrace Him as their God though he had loved them from the foundation of the world and lavished them with the wonders of his good pleasure and kindness. Mad at their preference for self-absorption and quick gratification that shunned his deeper and more enduring intent for their happiness. Angry that His love for them never translated into their love of others, into care for the poor and needy, into compassion and forgiveness. Mad that they refused to honor his ways of peace and justice and goodness.

And now to top it off, his people rejected his own coming in the flesh, choosing to kill Jesus rather than follow him. Who wouldn’t be mad? “Save your tears for yourself,” Jesus snapped, in a passage that never shows up in any of the Easter liturgies. There’s no promise of new life, no hope for absolution, no apparent grace to blunt the serrated edge of Jesus’ troubling temper. “If these things happen to living green wood, what do you think is going to happen to deadwood like you?”

The remarkable answer comes in the next verse. Luke writes, “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the other criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. And Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How is this possible? How can God extend love even as he is unloved, rejected and hung to die?

That remarkable answer is found in Hosea who grants us a glimpse into the inner life of God; a God who is not some self-detached sovereign, but instead a passionate husband to whom deception and adultery come by way of his two-timing bride, but who nevertheless goes on pleading for her to be loyal, utterly longing for reunion, eagerly seeking embrace. As Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “Over and above the immediate and contingent emotional reaction of the Lord we are informed about an eternal and basic disposition. God still loves his people. And it is this love, expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment, that will find its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”

“How can I give you up, my people?” says the Lord in Hosea 11. “My heart is changed within me and all my compassion is aroused. I cannot carry out my fierce anger nor destroy you. For I am God and no mortal—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” But then God does come in wrath―a wrath described as the paradoxical wrath of the Lamb―a phrase summoning to our imagination both Good Friday terror and Easter joy. Christ comes as the Judge—only to be judged in our place. The Punisher is the punished. “Who can survive the great day of his wrath?” Whoever is covered not by falling rocks but with Christ’s own shed blood, his own awful grace: A grace that condemns in order to have mercy, a grace that kills in order to make alive, a grace that rides out in order to draw in—so that none may perish, but that all may come to repentance.

Jerusalem would be destroyed, but only to make room for the new Jerusalem, which Revelation describes as “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a faithful bride adorned for her husband.” In that new Jerusalem every tear will be wiped from our eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.” Our dry, deadwood selves, refined by fire, are resurrected into living green trees like Jesus It’s what’s always made Good Friday so good and Easter a Sunday that even marginal believers make it a point to show up for. “The LORD will roar like a lion,” Hosea will write in chapter 14, “And when he roars, his children will come trembling…” But “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, says the Lord, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; she will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon my people will send down roots; young shoots will grow. Their splendor will be like an olive tree, their fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.”