Easter: Hope in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
April 12, 2020 – Rev. Donnell T. Wyche
Good morning church. We are grateful for you and the gifts of God that you represent. As a church we partner with the liberating presence of God to cultivate joy, hope & belonging as Jesus invites us into freedom, keeps us free, and helps us free others. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home, and I, in particular would love to become your pastor.
Today is Resurrection Sunday.
As my grandmother Jolethia would say,
He is risen,
He is risen indeed!
He is risen. A simple shorthand to explain so much.
Last week on Palm Sunday, we entered into the Holy Week story. As Jesus entered Jerusalem from the East gate, the Roman governor of region, Pontius Pilate, entered from the West. Neither Jesus nor Pilate were very aware of each other, but as the week came to a close, Pilate would would order Jesus’ death on a Roman cross, a death usually reserved for those who threatened the Pax Romana.
From the point of view of the Empire, Jesus was another in a long line of usurpers claiming that their God had anointed them to accomplish something significant. Each one met the same fate: execution, a separation from life and love.
Yet, tangled very deeply within the mystery of the Easter story is a life that was freely given, and a resulting death that seems to open the world to new possibilities.
You may already know this story, it’s about the first humans who were planted in a garden by God.
“Adam and his wife, Eve, were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25)
Then someone else came along. Instead of being planted in this garden and given freedom, authority, and space, an enemy told them that God wasn’t really providing, caring, or loving them, God was really just trying to control them.
In one sense the first humans weren’t really satisfied, they were looking for something better, which set them up to believe the enemy’s false claim that they would become like God. Instead of seeing God as the source of life, their desires for something better gets the best of them, making them believe that they were in competition with God.
We are so driven by the fear of rejection, failure, and being taken advantage of that we abort who we are and how God sees us, as human beings, and become something distorted: defined not by who we are, but by what we do. A lot of us are having to confront this false image of ourselves as we adjust to our new reality.
When we join with the first humans and participate in the rebellion, we experience a death. Like the first humans, we experience a death in our relationship with God, which causes us to become afraid of God, to flee from him, and experience shame in his presence.
We fear death the most because we believe that the universe and everything within it is operating around this idea of a zero-sum game. This is the idea that my gains come at the expense of your losses.
If my gains come at your expense, then I can’t see you sharing in my humanity. We become self-centered, greedy, willing to lie, steal, and cheat to protect ourselves, our image of ourselves, and our stuff. These are the fruits of the rebellion.
The fruits of this rebellion have been made clear to us over the past four weeks as we witnessed increases in racialized attacks, especially targeting Asian Americans, as we saw neighbor attack neighbor over toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and wine. We saw this unfold as many resisted limiting their rights and privileges (what we might describe as our rugged individualism) over the common good.
Returning to the garden, disappointed, but not defeated, God, turns his face in love toward the humanity that had rejected him. God protected them by exiling them from the garden so that they wouldn’t live forever in their rebellious state. As the first humans start their exile, their future is uncertain, but there’s hope. There is always hope!
Because hope doesn’t start with us.
The scripture says in Romans 15, that God is the God of hope.
Hope doesn’t happen just because we have a positive outlook, or think happy thoughts, or sign happy songs. Hope’s constitution is centered in God. Therefore hope emanates and arises out of a God who is active and involved in our everyday lives.
We have hope because hope is built on trust and anticipation that God will act.
Into the fog of broken peace, Jesus proclaimed what we all wanted to hear: that God’s favor was reversing what was lost in the rebellion. Jesus was coming to save the world and us in it… this was Good News….
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Anyone joining the story at the end would be forgiven for assuming that Jesus had failed in God’s rescue mission, finding himself in need of rescuing.
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:39-40)
Yet, it is on the cross that Jesus wages battle with the powers unleashed in the rebellion: sin, death, and evil. Jesus doesn’t join the Empire and use military or political power. Instead, on the cross and under the curse, Jesus takes on the full force of cosmic evil, and in so doing exhausts its power. For Jesus, the battle would not be won by killing the enemy, but in allowing himself to be killed, to give up his life on the cross.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13)
His act of surrender forever enthroned the rule of love.
In his act of self-less love, Jesus exposes the lie that the world and universe is some kind of zero-sum game. No longer would humanity have to fear death. That’s over too. Jesus declared it so, “It is finished” (John 19:30). With his death, Jesus opened a new way for us to enter the very presence of God.
Jesus’ death isn’t the end of the story, so let’s push in… We find his disciples living in the shadow of the valley of death. Their master and friend, has been arrested, charged, and condemned. And because of their association with him, they are now fearing death as well. I think we can understand a little bit better what the disciples might have been experiencing. As we confront new realities in the midst of pandemic, many of us are contending with fear, uncertainty as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
But I want you pay attention to what John is doing in John 20 because John wants us to know that we won’t be isolated and abandoned forever!
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. (John 20:1)
It was the first day of the week, and it was dark. Does that sound familiar? It should! It’s the beginning of the creation narrative, where we find the earth unproductive, empty and dark (Genesis 1:2)
John is invoking our memory. Though it seems that there is no reason to hope, John is inviting us to keep hope alive.
Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters before creation, God’s Spirit is at work again.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” (John 20:11-16)
Where does Mary have her first encounter with the resurrected Jesus? In a garden.
Mary confuses Jesus with the gardener. Why? Because, the Gardener is back in his garden with his creation again.
Just as Adam stood as the first human of the old world, Jesus now stands at the gate of the new world, the first of the new creation.
And what does Jesus say to his disciples when he appears to them, together, locked in an upper room?
“Peace be with you!” (John 20:19)
Here’s echoing Psalm 23:4:
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, [God], are with me.
Jesus isn’t dead, Jesus is echoing something that God says in Revelation, “Look here! I’m making all things new!”
Behold, I’m Making All Things New – Whee
The only time we hear from God in Revelation is when God declares,
“Look here! I am making all things new!” Revelation 21:5
There’s this invitation from God for us to see the Resurrection. Easter isn’t the happy ending of the Gospel story; it’s deeper than that. Easter ushers in a new reality, where all things are being made new.
The good news is the age to come is breaking into our present reality, if we let it. This is what it means to follow Jesus into life through death.
No fear. No shame. No death. Yeah! Instead of you having to give your life in order to come alive, God has already acted on our behalf, destroying the hostility, and the alienation that separates us from God.
We are invited to activate our faith, accept God’s grace, and to be transformed.
We do as we give up our hatred, our revenge, our predilection for violence, and live a new life, one that is worthy of the work Christ performed on the cross.
God invites us into life, a new kind of life, a resurrected life. A hope-fill life.