A sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day
“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings; Glory to the Newborn King!
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Please excuse us, but we figured that was too good of an opportunity to pass up! Besides, people are always saying we need to sing more Christmas carols, anyway. We knew everyone would be gathered this beautiful morning to sing hymns about resurrection and the empty tomb, but it’s also April Fool’s Day, so why not throw in a favorite Christmas carol? We knew everyone would be filing in this morning, on this fresh new day of spring, expecting nothing but Easter lilies around the altar but it’s April Fool’s, so why not arrange for a Christmas tree? And we knew that the last time so many of us were gathered together like this was on Christmas Eve, but today’s April Fool’s Day so why not just play a little prank and roll the two days into one? Christ is born…Christ is risen…which one is it? They’re both good news, right?
The fact of the matter is, the carol works remarkably well, as if it is written as much for Easter as it is for Christmas. Listen again:
“Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n (that’s the word!) with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth,
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald Angel Sings, Glory to the Newborn King!”
Today we realize that the journey which began in Bethlehem reaches its intended conclusion in Jerusalem. The joy that we first beheld at the manger is only amplified as we see the stone rolled away. Angels announced his arrival in the stable, and now an angel announces his absence from the grave. There was no room for him that night, but there is no him for the tomb today. Because Jesus was born for me and you we know that he was born to die and rise again. The two days are connected and cannot be separated, and one leads inevitably to another, through a cross and then a tomb.
It makes me think of a Christmas a few years ago when I was on an errand in Dollar Tree. As I wandered the aisles I noticed that one of the store clerks was high up on a ladder switching out the large holiday decoration signs which were hanging from the ceiling. As I watched what he was doing, I noticed he was removing the red and green “Merry Christmas” placards, sliding them out of the holder, flipping them over and then sliding them in again to show what was printed on the other side. To my shock, they were not for Valentine’s Day, but were instead all yellow and pink and read “Happy Easter.” It was December 27. Easter that year was going to fall on April 20. We were two days in and they were ready to move us to Easter…a whole four months early! We may sneer at the commercialization of our holidays, but Dollar Tree had some seriously good theology going on there!
And so, April Fools to you this Easter day. May you know God’s love for you is eternal, that the Newborn King is born again today. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
All that is nice and clever, but it still really doesn’t deal with the elephant in the room—that is, the Easter message actually feels a lot like an April Fool’s prank. Whatever happens, as Mark tells it, especially, sounds exactly like a cruel joke, and the candid camera is off in the bushes somewhere. First of all, we’ve got some perfectly unsuspecting victims. Every April Fool’s prank needs unsuspecting victims. The three women are all ready to come to the cemetery that morning and do exactly what they’re supposed to do with their spices and their prayers after someone has died. They’re walking right into this one!
Second of all, someone’s been messing with the tomb. As they walk along, they even wonder about the stone covering its entrance. Who’s going to move it? How will they get it out of the way? But then they get there and it’s already out of the way! Someone must really want to get them good.
Most of all, of course—the body they’ve come to anoint is missing! Good April Fool’s pranks typically involve replacing something usual with something people would not expect, and this definitely fits that standard. A mysterious angel figure at the tomb says that Jesus is risen, something that’s never happened before, and essentially tells them to continue to prank on Peter and the other disciples. He’s like, “Yes, yes, yes…go on to Galilee, ladies. He’ll see you there. I promise.” And if there had been anyone else there he would have winked and given a nudge. Then it ends perfectly when the women run off, frightened and amazed. Perhaps they’re embarrassed. They don’t say anything to anybody! Someone got them good.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is particularly abrupt and a bit ironic. It’s abrupt because it just ends as quickly as it began. It kind of leaves us hanging. We never hear whether they bump into him up in Galilee. And it’s ironic because the women don’t say anything to anyone even when they’re specifically told to do so. Throughout Mark’s story of Jesus, Jesus has tried very hard to control the message about him. Many times he performs a miracle or completes a teaching and immediately he tells people not to say anything about him. He acts as if everything he is doing is a secret, that things won’t make sense until the end. And each time he does that along the way, people go and blab about him anyway. Now, when we’ve apparently reached the end and they are instructed to spread the news…they clam up.
Easter feels like a prank, and if it weren’t for the other gospel writers and the apostle Paul, who did see the risen Lord and who give us other accounts of what happened that day and in the week that follow, it’s not altogether clear that we’d be here this morning. All the same, are we fools for believing this? Have we been suckered into thinking that Jesus is risen, that our sins are forgiven, that death is defeated, when there might be a more logical or ordinary reason for the unexpected events at the tomb? Is this really plausible, that God would physically step into creation like this in the person of Jesus and make it new?
For as long as there has been the news of Easter there have been doubters and nay-sayers, people who hear the message and figure it’s just a fun tale or who, like those first women, don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t know where each of you stand on it. If you’re like most of us, you probably find your faith fluctuates from time to time. You waver, you question. You find yourselves in need of gathering now and again with others who’ve come to trust the story. You find yourselves digging a little deeper, listening once again a little harder, hoping to have belief rekindled. Or maybe sparked to start with. That’s fair.
The fact of the matter is that the first people to experience the news of Easter moved from fear and amazement to bravery and insistence very quickly. They ended up so convinced they’ve actually encountered Jesus, wound up so persuaded they were dealing with real resurrection of his body, found themselves so sure that God had changed the course of history by raising their teacher and leader from the dead that most of them ended up dying for their faith. These were not powerful or influential people, by any means. The women at the tomb and the disciples were essentially nobodies, and yet they were so sure and so emphatic that the Jesus who was crucified had risen and appeared to them they were willing to give up everything in order to spread that word. That is no prank, my friends. People don’t allow themselves to be handed over to ridicule and torture, to the jaws of hungry lions and death by the sword in order to continue circulating a silly rumor. An outlandish message entrusted to some women does not within a generation become a worldwide movement of new life if it’s some idle tale about an empty grave. Christ is risen, and through him God is bringing about new life to all of creation.
If there is a prank somewhere in all of this, then the brokenness of the world is at fault. It’s the evil one trying to pull the wool over our eyes each and every day. Easter and Jesus’ new life are the real deal and every day we wake up surrounded by forces that are trying to fool us—trick us into thinking that this life is all we’ve got, that putting self before others is the key to happiness. It’s as if every day we’re being tempted to believe that God can’t forgive our sins, that love doesn’t win, that through every death and darkness is just emptiness and more despair.
But today and every Sunday, in fact, we hear the real version of things once again. Sin is the fool! Let us not be unsuspecting victims to its clever wiles! Let us gather to be reminded in the (real) water of baptism…in the real bread and wine of his meal…in the real comfort of God’s Word and friends’ prayers…that God in Jesus has conquered death and flipped the sign around to reveal the message. And now we go out and share that, too:
That…Christ is by highest heav’n adored,
He is the everlasting Lord.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail, incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, Our Emmanuel!
Hark! That herald angel sings, “Glory to the RISEN King.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.