For the past several years, as winter gives way to spring and my decompression from Christmas gives way to anticipation for Easter, I've been overcome by a strange but familiar anxiety - what will we say on Easter? As someone who serves on staff in a local church, focusing much of my energy on preaching and teaching, this time of year feels more pressure packed than it ought to. On one hand, this is a silly question. Several friends of mine who serve in local churches have kindly responded, "Simple. The Resurrection. Don't over think it." Well said. I agree. But my anxiety is not so much born out of the destination of Easter but rather, the path we'll take to get there. I'm not concerned with jazzing up the story, for the story of a dead man coming back to life to rescue humankind doesn't need anything added to make it compelling. My anxiety has more to do with effectively provoking angst, curiosity, and desire in our collective hearts and minds, so that by the time we arrive at the already well-known climax of the empty tomb, this two thousand years old story leaps into our everyday realities in fresh new ways.
I'm not alone. Around this time of year, church leaders everywhere are immersing themselves in this story. We're studying, praying, exegeting, and excavating the text to find some brand new way to tell this timeless tale. Again, the ending is already well-known; the punchline is already embedded in the psyches of both the faithful and the faithless, whether they believe it or not.
The tomb is empty.
Jesus is alive.
Herein lies the challenge of not only preaching on Easter, but the challenge of Easter itself. The ending never changes. The final destination is always the same. So how do we open ourselves up to receive, anew and afresh, a story we've already heard countless times? Is it possible to encounter the resurrection story with a sense of sacred surprise? I'm not talking some catchy new branding or clever metaphor. I'm talking about a genuine sense of surprise born out of the sacred narrative itself. Not only is it possible, I believe the Easter story is teeming with this sort of potential, asking us to see it with new eyes and receive it with new hearts and minds, each and every time we ponder its significance. I believe Easter is (still) surprising and always will be. Here are two reasons why.
The Surprising Problem.
While the answer (Christ is risen) never changes, the problems change endlessly. Each and every person walking through the doors on Easter brings with them a specific and distinct set of circumstances - you, me, and every person we know. Followers of Jesus believe that resurrection is the ultimate answer to every human problem. Death, both literal (e.g. loss of loved ones, terminal illness, etc.) and figurative (e.g. loss of relationships, hopes, dreams, etc.), is swallowed up in Christ's triumph. Yet the steady march of time is nudging us closer and closer to our graves every minute of every day. Age is undefeated and it catches up with everyone; additionally, we experience little "deaths" along the way as marriages implode, hopes and dreams are dashed, careers take unexpected turns, relationships are torn apart. Whether we arrive there tragically or inevitably, death of any and every kind seems, both viscerally and intellectually, completely unnatural. Almost everyone will agree on this point. You don’t have to be a religious person to feel the searing pain of loss. You just have to be human. And we're all human; therefore, we all have a set of problems unique to our histories and our futures.
When we lean into the problem of death (both literal and figurative), rather than shying away from it, the Easter story we thought we knew so well will begin to confront us in surprisingly new and personal ways. When we approach the resurrection by carrying our brokenness and pain, naming the wrongs done to us as well as the wrongs we've done, the mini-deaths we've been dealt and the mini-deaths we've dealt toward others, we may begin to experience the risen Christ as if for the first time, as our deep and desperate longing for resurrection life bubbles up to the surface.
Last Easter at our church, we filmed a video of a few beloved older people in our church talking about the inevitability of their physical deaths, as well as the tragic loss of family they'd experienced. What seemed a bit morbid on paper was experienced as a powerful and undeniable reminder of the universal human desire for eternal life. It set a very particular tone in our gathering and gave the resurrection story a remarkably fresh resonance. As we sang the modern chorus of the old hymn Jesus Paid It All together - "Oh praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead" - the words took on a depth of meaning and purpose I'd never experienced before. This is what can and often does happen when we lean into the problem of death that Easter alone can answer.
The Surprising Scope and Scale of the Story.
Most people assume that the resurrection story is found solely in the four Gospel accounts - Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20. This is where most Easter messages land; understandably so. But the full scope and scale of resurrection in the Bible is incredibly robust. Throughout the Scriptures, from the earliest pages of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) to the final pages of Revelation, there are echoes of the new life found in and through Christ's victory over the grave. Diving into these depths requires a lot of prayerful study and devotion to the Scriptures. This sort of work demands an ongoing commitment to living in the story of the entire Bible year around and not just in the months leading up to Easter. But if and when we commit to doing this work, we will surprisingly discover resurrection everywhere.
A simple line in Matthew's Easter account is a beautiful example of this. In Matthew 28:1, we read that, "After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb." While the emphasis is usually placed on what happens next (an angel appears and declares that Christ is risen), Matthew is wonderfully intentional in letting us know that this happened after the Sabbath at dawn on the first day of the week. Matthew knew his Hebrew Bible and is here connecting the resurrection to the earliest moments of the Biblical story. In Genesis 2:2-3, after a good God creates a good world, the story tells us that, "By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." The Hebrew word for "rested" is shabath, from which we get the word Sabbath. After creating his good world, God inaugurates the Sabbath tradition and a brand new week begins. In both a similar and brand new way, Christ rises from the dead at dawn after the Sabbath and a new week begins as Jesus inaugurates new creation, the opening stanza of God's restoration project, his good new world reborn.
This is just one of countless examples of the robust scope and scale of resurrection in the Bible on full display - the power of the Easter story, saturating and leaping off unexpected pages, leaping into our unexpectant lives, in surprising and necessary ways.