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'Tis Pleasant to Repeat

Paul’s starting place in 1 Corinthians 15 is our starting place on Easter Sunday. “I would remind you of the good news,” Paul writes. And that is our task as preachers on this highest holy day of the year.

It is reminding that we do. It’s unlikely that anyone will come to your church this Easter without knowing at least the basic gist of the story. And many of the people in our pews will have heard the story preached dozens and dozens of times before. It is not news, therefore, in the sense of being unfamiliar information. And so we stand in the pulpit to remind them of what they have already heard.

Yet we are haunted in our task by the threat of being redundant. I was part of a lectionary study group with a group of colleagues a few years ago, and during the week leading up to Easter, there was a palpable dread in the room. Rather than feeling inspired by the opportunity before them, so many of these preachers were burdened by the assignment. And their objection was that the assignment is so familiar, so predictable.

Our primary association with the word “redundant,” of course, is “repetitive.” But the word also means “unnecessary.” This, then, is our emotional and intellectual challenge. We are called to preach something that the people have heard before. That makes our message seem repetitive. And if it is repetitive, doesn’t that also make it unnecessary?

Paul didn’t think so. He unapologetically repeated “the good news that I proclaimed to you.” Our calling this week, then, is to lay hold of two things. First, to claim strongly the message that we preach. And, second, to own the rationale for repeating it.

Isaiah 25:6-9
Isaiah is remembered as one of that group we refer to as the judgment prophets. The judgment prophets had a tough assignment. They were bearers of bad news that no one wanted to hear, and that most of the audience didn’t really believe. And, to make matters worse, for almost all of the judgment prophets, the bad news was close-to-home: not a calamity that was going to occur over there, but catastrophes from God that were coming here, to the prophet’s own place and the prophet’s own people.

God’s judgment is both cause and effect. It is effect inasmuch as it is a response to the recalcitrance and sinfulness of the people. It is a cause, meanwhile, of a greater good. There is purifying, there is redemption, and there is a remnant as a result of God’s judgment. We might say, in that regard, that judgment is both cause and effect in the same way that surgery is both cause and effect. There is a precipitating need that calls for the surgery, but there is a better end result because of the surgery.

And so, while the judgment message was often opposed and rejected, we mustn’t misunderstand it in the same way as its original audiences did. At some level, you see, judgment is good news. If God is intervening to correct what is wrong. It is a form of salvation.

Within the scope of the judgment prophets’ messages, we also have passages that foretell of God’s future restoration. That juxtaposition of judgment and restoration, however, is not a case of “I’ve got bad news and I’ve got good news.” It is all good news. The judgment and the restoration are natural companions, both reflecting the heart of God.

It is with that background in mind, then, that we read our brief selection from Isaiah 25. It is, in a single passage, a message of both judgment and restoration. The great, all-inclusive feast, the wiping away of tears, the removal of death and disgrace, and the rejoicing -- these are all images of restoration. Yet those happy prospects are all the result of judgment, of God stepping in to vanquish what is evil. Hence he uses the strong language of destroying, swallowing up, and taking away.

As Christians, we look back and read Isaiah 25 through the lens of the cross and the empty tomb. That Friday afternoon and Sunday morning combine to fulfill both the judgment and the restoration elements of this prophetic passage. We associate the hill called Golgotha with the mountain on which God destroyed “the shroud that is cast over all peoples,” and at the tomb in a nearby garden he “(swallowed) up death forever.”

The conclusion of the selection from Isaiah speaks of salvation from God. In all likelihood, the original audience understood that salvation in nationalistic terms. That, after all, was how they perceived their crisis -- the threat to their nation posed by other, advancing nations. Yet we know from the pointed messages of the judgment prophets that the real, underlying issue was not military or political but spiritual. The problem was sin. And reading Isaiah 25 through the lens of this weekend, we see how truly it anticipates the real salvation of God.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
We live in a world of reminders. We deliberately surround ourselves with reminders. Our calendars, alarms, sticky notes, lists, tickler files, notification settings, and on and on: so many tools designed to remind us of things we want to be sure we don’t forget.

So it is that the Apostle Paul serves as a reminder to the Christians in Corinth. And you and I have the opportunity and responsibility to serve as reminders to the folks where we live and work. This Easter Sunday, we get to remind people “of the good news.”

Why should they need reminding? Because they are human. All human beings need reminders. And the reminders are not always so prosaic as reminders to pick up the dry cleaning or pay the electric bill. We need reminders about bigger things in life, too.

So often we find that a crisis reorients our perspective on life. We gain new clarity about what is truly important and what is not. We resolve to live differently in light of our revelation. But after a few weeks of ordinary life, we realize -- or perhaps we don’t! -- that we have reverted to most of the same patterns that characterized us before. And so we need to be reminded. We need to be reminded about what’s important. We need to be reminded about our resolutions. We need to be reminded about the truth.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis defines faith as “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” And to that end, he says, “we have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979, pp. 123-4)

So Paul fed the faith of the Christians in Corinth by reminding them. And that is our calling, yours and mine, come Easter Sunday. Most of them will arrive already knowing and, at some level, believing what we will tell them. Yet we must not hesitate to remind them of what they believe.

Paul offers three pieces of evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and these deserve our consideration this Sunday.

The first issue is captured in the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The death and resurrection of Christ should not be thought of as either accidents or surprises, you see. Jesus himself clearly knew in advance what awaited him in Jerusalem. And the Gospels and Epistles understand those events to be the fulfillment of Old Testament scriptures. What occurred on Calvary and in Joseph’s tomb was foreshadowed and promised centuries in advance.

The second piece of evidence is the eyewitnesses. Interestingly, there are no known eyewitnesses to the resurrection itself. Perhaps that’s appropriate, however, since the issue is not an event but a person. And so Paul recalls for the Christians in Corinth the concentric circles of people to whom the risen Christ appeared.

These first two evidences for the resurrection, incidentally, are divinely comprehensive. For the testimonies about the resurrection come both before the event and after it. And they combine to form the foundation for our own faith as individuals still today.

Finally, the third branch of evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the testimony of Paul’s own life. The Apostle Paul counts himself as the last and the least of the eyewitnesses. And so, in this reporting of the event, he doesn’t brag about what he had seen and experienced, but rather confesses his own, past misguidedness. Christ’s gracious choice of Paul, combined with the dramatic fullness of Paul’s conversion, bears witness to the risen Lord. And this, of course, is where you and I may come in, as well.

John 20:1-18
Each of our major holy days has a time of day associated with it in our minds and hearts. When we think of Christmas, we think of night time, for we recall that the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Good Friday, meanwhile, is attached to the afternoon, for it was during the unnaturally dark hours of that early afternoon that Jesus hung on the cross. And Easter Sunday is a morning event. And not just morning, but early morning, for it was “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” that Mary came to the tomb. Hence our tradition of sunrise services on Easter Sunday, as well as morning worship services every Sunday morning of the year.

It is worth noting that the initial response to Easter was hardly the chorus of alleluias that we associate with our celebration of the day. Mary had completely misunderstood at first what had happened. Rather than rejoicing, therefore, she was frightened and confused. And as we look at the larger landscape of both the male and female followers of Jesus during the first hours and even days after his resurrection, we see evidence of fear, doubt, and grief.

I wonder if there is within the story a parable. That is to say, the stories we read are factual accounts of what happened. But within the plot and the dialogue we may find a larger metaphor for the ongoing human experience with God.

My suspicion is that there is almost always a lag time. There is God’s promise, but it is rarely met with immediate rejoicing. There is God’s action, but seldom is it recognized and celebrated right away. I am reminded of Jesus’ word to the men on the road to Emmaus. That episode is not part of our assigned reading for this week, but his word on that occasion applies beyond that occasion. He said of them that they were “slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25). Perhaps we always are.

Mary went and reported her confusing experience to Peter and (presumably) John. They ran right away to the tomb. Interestingly, John ran faster, but Peter went into the tomb first. I won’t make much of the relative speed of the two men, but the relative boldness is unsurprising. That Peter forged right into the tomb is no great shock to those of us who have seen his uninhibited behavior all throughout the Gospels’ stories.

It is fascinating what the two men did and did not find within the tomb. The body of Jesus was missing. The linen wrappings for his corpse, however, were still there. And not only still there, but rather neatly set aside. It’s a beautiful image, for it is a quiet evidence for what had occurred. Clearly the dead body of Jesus had not been stolen, for there would have been no purpose in removing the wrappings. Indeed, that would be quite the opposite of what a graverobber would likely want to do. Also, the folding of those linens suggests an unhurried departure from the tomb. We sense throughout the Gospel accounts that Jesus was never frantic or rushing about. And so it is consistent with his style that he would carefully leave behind what he no longer needed.

When John followed Peter, observed the situation in the tomb, “he saw and believed.” This is a central issue for John. He traces the story of the other disciples coming to belief, including the famously delayed Thomas (John 20:29). He promises early in his Gospel the centrality of belief (John 3:16). And he concludes his Gospel by noting that “these things are written that you may believe” (John 20:31).

The next scene, meanwhile, is lovely and personal. After the men have gone away, Mary is still there. The image resonates with what we have observed during the preceding few days. When Jesus was arrested, it seems that the male followers of Jesus fled. The women, however, were there by the cross. The women were there at the burial. And so here, too, it was a woman who remained.

And Mary’s abiding devotion was rewarded: she saw Jesus. Interestingly, she seems unfazed by an encounter with angels. Her heart belongs to the Lord, and so she is neither frightened nor distracted by the spectacle. Her aim is singular: to find “where they have laid him.” And so it is Jesus that comes to her himself and reveals himself to her.

Just as Mary was the first to report to the disciples that the tomb was empty, so she was also the first to report that she had seen the Lord. She came earliest and she stayed longest. And she became, therefore, the one who experienced and who declared the good news of Easter.

We have in our Corinthians passage a model for what you and I endeavor to do this Sunday. We are, like Paul, dealing primarily with people who have already heard, already known, and already believed. Yet, still, we “would remind (them) of the good news.”  

We affirm with them, first, that the good news about Jesus does not begin with Jesus -- at least not in the sense of his earthly life and ministry. Rather, centuries in advance of the events of the Gospels the Lord had laid the groundwork for what was to come. The Isaiah passage assigned for this week is just one sample. Dozens of passages -- prophecies and promises, types and figures, foreshadowings and foretellings -- became the dots of, as it were, a great dot-to-dot puzzle. And then, with the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the dots were connected and the picture colored in.

As Isaiah anticipates the event, John reports the event. It is marked by a gradual awakening in Mary and in John. Confusion and sorrow give way to belief and rejoicing. What begins in darkness resolves to light.

And then Paul writes as one looking back on the event. From his perspective, he is able to report about the hundreds of witnesses who had seen the Risen Lord. The tiny set of witnesses in John’s pericope is magnificently expanded. It eventually reaches Paul, and Paul eventually reaches the Corinthians.

The line continues. We do not know all of the names and relationships that connect Mary, John, Paul, and the first-century Corinthians to us, but we know there is one. The testimony has been handed down through the generations, and in every generation it has been met with belief and experience.

Which brings us to today. We remind ourselves of the good news that has been passed on to us. We believe -- though sometimes we are slow of heart. We rejoice -- though sometimes we battle through confusion and doubt to get there. And we celebrate the risen Christ, saying with Isaiah, “This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Alternative Application(s)
John 20:1-18 -- “While It Was Still Dark”
We must take notice when it was the Easter happened. John tells us that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “while it was still dark.”

As you know the Gospel accounts of Easter are not identical. They are, of course, all in agreement about the central issues of that day, but the particulars -- who went to the tomb, how folks responded to the news, the presence of angels or Jesus at the tomb, etc.-- are areas where the four evangelists include different details and emphases. One of the themes that is constant across the board, though, is that it began very early in the morning.

At a human level, part of the issue here is the eagerness and devotion of the women. They were prevented by the Sabbath regulations from coming to the tomb any earlier. But our sense is that, at their very, very first opportunity, they went there. That is a lovely model for us to observe and emulate.

In John’s Gospel, however, that detail of early morning takes a poetic turn. John tells us that “it was still dark.” And, as you know, the themes of light and darkness are prominent and meaningful in John’s writings. It is no accident, therefore, that he portrays it as he does. There is, for John, theology and gospel in this detail.

We remember that it was dark “in the beginning.” Darkness was the context in which God began his creating work, saying, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:1-3). And darkness, likewise, is where he began his redemptive work, for it was “while we were yet sinners” that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We were still in darkness, you see, when he came to speak light into our lives.

And so it is a lovely, gospel truth that the Easter Sunday story begins “while it was still dark.” That was the condition of Mary’s understanding and circumstance when she set out for the tomb. That is the context in which God begins his work. That is chapter one in each of our testimonies. And that is good news for us and for every one of our people on this Easter Sunday.
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