Monday, April 04, 2005

The Living Among the Dead

One of the ongoing projects is to return several years worth of sermons to electronic, and therefore less spacious, form. Starting up that project again tonight, I began with this sermon. From Easter Sunday, 7 years ago. somehow, it seemed apt.

Text: Luke 24:1-12

"[O]n the first day of the week, at early dawn," the women went to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared." But they found what they were not prepared for; the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and the tomb was empty. And while they wonder about this, "two men in dazzling clothes" suddenly appear beside them, and ask a logical, but illogical, question: "'Why do you look for the living among the dead?'"

It's a fair question. God says to Isaiah: "See, I am creating new heavens and a new earth! The past will no more be remembered nor will it ever come to mind." (Isaiah 65:17, REB) But the past is all we remember, and all that comes to our minds. God says "see," but we cannot see it; God says "Rejoice and be forever filled with delight at that I create," but we fall down on our faces in fear. And the angels have to ask us: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" The angels have to ask us: What are you afraid of?

Because we live among the dead. We fear them, but we prefer their certainty. We know who the dead are; we can't be so sure of the living. The dead are unchanging; the living can surprise us. They can surprise by not being where we expect them to be. They can surprise us as God can surprise us: by creating, in their living, a new heaven and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But that kind of promise scares us. It takes away our certainty. Truth be told, the living scare us even more than the dead.

So the women fall down in the presence of the angels; and they are afraid because the open tomb means the living have been here, and not the dead. And the living are always unexpected; are always new. It is the new that is truly frightening.

But what are we afraid of? Why do we fear the new? Because the new is truly the unknown. But the new is also life; and God is the God of the living, not the dead. God is the God of life. And life is always unexpected: like an empty tomb. Like a new heaven and a new earth, and" the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." What could be more unexpected than that?

And we are afraid of the unexpected. The women didn't expect angels; they expected a body they could perfume. Death brings rot and decay, but the dead don't care; the perfume is for the living. But this is a new thing: in a place of death, they find only the living. The riddle for samson was that, out of the eater would come something to eat. Like the honey from the carcass of the lion, a riddle is posed by the angel's question: how can the living come out of the place of the dead? What wondrous love is this? What do we make of it?

This is the foundation of our belief. This is where it all began. "If there is no resurrection of the dead," Paul says, "Christ has not been raised either. If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and vain, too, your faith." For "[i]f it is only in this life that we have hope in Christ, then we are more pitiable than all men." So this is our hope, our faith. this is our gospel, our good news, our salvation. But when we experience it, when we encounter it as something real in our lives, not just a story on a page, or something we hear on Easter morning, when we go to the old familiar tomb, the place of the burial of the dead, the place of yesterday that is all the past, the past comfortably interred and safely buried, when we go there expecting calm and quiet and the familiar body we just left three days ago, and instead find the place empty and the darkness dispersed by a brightly shining light and the silence broken by the noise of people talking to us about the living: why are we afraid?

We are afraid because it is too new. Because life is the greatest gift of all and so God promises to Isaiah: "No child will ever again die in infancy, no old man fail to live out his span of life." God promises that "He who dies at a hundred just a youth, and if he does not attain a hundred he is thought accursed." What wondrous love, indeed, that this should come to pass. We are afraid, because to claim this new life, to live in this new world, we now understand we first have to die. We have to let go of the past we cling to, in order to live in the new world God offers us.

The promises of God to Isaiah came after the death of Israel. They came during the Exile, when the glory of Jerusalem was just a memory, the reality of Jerusalem a smoking ruin, a city long abandoned. The people of Israel lived in captivity for two generations; they only knew of Jerusalem from what their parents, and their grandparents, had told them. They had to die to the past, to the relics of this world, in order to live in the new one. The death was forced on them.

Just as death was forced on Jesus. He didn't climb onto the cross, stretch out his arms, and relax. He was beaten, whipped, scourged, forced there. He was nailed up and hung high in the air. He had to die, to show us he was the way. This is the only way to the new heaven and the new earth. But still the angel's question challenges us: why do you look for the living among the dead?

The disciples have to release the past, in order to see the new future that has come. Peter has to go to the tomb and look for himself; hearing is not enough. Even then, he doesn't understand. He doesn't yet believe. The women see and hear, but do not yet believe. Because this is the first moment of the new heaven and the new earth, and unless they can forget the past, everything they know is wrong. You have to struggle against yourself, you have to learn again and again that everything you know is wrong; you have to work out your salvation with fear and trembling in a wholly new place: a place of a new heaven and a new earth, in a life that is as much like death as life can be. Because everything you knew was true, is proven untrue; and yesterday all the past, and yesterday is gone.

Can it be said more simply? No. Can it be understood quickly? No. When you go to the tomb, what do you see, what do you hear? What you expected to see? What you expected to hear? No. You hear strange new people speaking in strange new tones, and they ask strange and perplexing questions: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" But we do not look for the living here. What are you talking about? What wonder is this, that out of death's door can come new life? And immediately you begin to understand, that you no longer understand, that nothing you thought was finally true any longer has meaning in the world. You have taken your first step on the new heaven and the new earth, where life is the greatest gift of all.

You can't go on with your ordinary life, after this event. You can't go back to searching among the dead, because from now on, you are looking for the living. Yesterday is all the past. This is today. This is the day the Lord has made. God is God of the living; and the living change; the living surprise you; they don't stay put. Theydon't lay down in little tombs where you can keep them safely, and always know where they are, and always know what to expect. What are you afraid of? Losing the past? It is not lost; it is transformed; it is in God's hands. This is the new heaven and the new earth. This is the entirely new thing that God has promised. Can you not perceive it? Even now it breaks forth!

Let it be so. Amen.

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