Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Luke 24
When I walked outside on Thursday morning, there was color in the sky, a bit of blue decorated with wisps of pink and orange and salmon and peach. But by the time I finished my chores and exercises, and sat on my stool for a time of meditation and prayer, the sky had gone monochrome. Shades of grey. I was disappointed, then I noticed the trees. Below the sky, to the east stands a solid wall of trees. A backdrop of dark, towering Doug firs. In front of the firs stand alders and maples and a few cottonwoods. For months I have noted the dull gray of their trunks and branches. Thursday morning, as my eyes dropped from the monochrome sky to this wall of trees, my heart skipped a beat. I almost got up from my stool in excitement. The maples and alders and cottonwoods were not gray. They were green, a light, almost iridescent, green. I imagined I could feel the throb of new life rising in the sap.
It is the magic time of year. The time when even nature itself seems to whisper hope and resurrection.
In the Bible story Abraham is a wanderer, a pilgrim. God promises that someday he (through his descendants) will possess the entire land of Palestine. But for Abraham, the land is always a foreign country. He is a wanderer, a stateless pilgrim, an undocumented alien.
Decades pass. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, dies, and for the first time Abraham owns a piece of his promise. He purchases a field and a cave as a burial place. Now he owns it. It is a dramatic act of faith. This purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite is Abraham’s way of saying, yes, I believe the promise. This land will be my country, my people’s country. There is a future here, a long future, a bright future.
This confidence in the power and good intentions of God becomes more fully developed in the writings of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Let’s hear again this morning’s Old Testament reading:
O LORD, I will honor and praise your name, for you are my God.
You do such wonderful things! . . .
You turn mighty cities into heaps of ruins.
Cities with strong walls are turned to rubble.
Beautiful palaces in distant lands disappear and will never be rebuilt.
This is a celebration of God’s power. At this point in history, Israel was a smallish nation. Like Taiwan or the Philippines next door to China or Mexico next door to the United States. They were an independent nation but always at risk of domination or subjugation by their powerful neighbors, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria. They were constantly afraid of being squashed.
But not to worry, the prophet assured them. God was more powerful than Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria combined. Those beautiful palaces in Babylon—gone in an instant if God so decreed. The great cities along the Nile River in Egypt—turned into rubble at the mere whisper of Yahweh.
God was mighty. Stronger than every enemy, every foreign nation. Take heart.
But sometimes the enemies are not across the border. Sometimes the enemy does not speak with an accent and wave a different flag. Sometimes the enemy is here. Sometimes the enemy is our own people, our own system. Even when the oppressor and the victim share the same accents and same passports, the oppressed can count on God, the prophet says.
You, O Lord, are a tower of refuge to the poor,
a tower of refuge to the needy in distress.
You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.
For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall,
or like the relentless heat of the desert. . . .
As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.
Because we are a church, because we see ourselves as the people of God, we aim to order our lives in harmony with the principles of God’s kingdom.
But even if we learn to cooperate perfectly with God, even if we are able to eliminate every act of injustice and every systematic unfairness, even if we organize help for every poor person, provide adequate help for every person with mental illness, even if we were able to remedy every problem caused by human blindness and immorality, we would still face the dark truth that life is fleeting. Here on earth, love and life are temporary.
Which brings us to the final paragraph of this prophetic message:
In Jerusalem, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet . . .
There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shroud of death that hangs over the earth.
He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. . . .
In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God!
We trusted in him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD, in whom we trusted.
Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!”
Hope is a constant theme in the Old Testament. God will vanquish enemies. God will topple oppressors. God will rescue the poor and widows and orphans and immigrants and even eunuchs and residents of Babylon, Egypt, and Philistia. Then there are the few passages that say God will even one day triumph over death.
It is this final triumph that forms the very center of our faith as Christians.
Jesus, the rabbi, teacher, healer, prophet, Messiah. Jesus who had raised people from the dead, was himself dead. Buried in a tomb closed with a solid rock door and an official Roman seal.
Then very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.
They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus.
As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.
The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?
He isn’t here! He is risen!
The women–Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several others–rushed back from the tomb to tell the disciples what had happened.
But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it.
That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them. But God kept them from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?” They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.
Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said. “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him.
We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.
“Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.”
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, but they begged him, “Stay the night with us, since it is getting late.” So he went home with them.
As they sat down to eat, he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them.
Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!
They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”
And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them. The two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him as he was breaking the bread. And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them. “Peace be with you,” he said.
But the whole group was startled and frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost!
“Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt?
Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do.”
As he spoke, he showed them his hands and his feet.
Still they stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder. Then he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he ate it as they watched.
Then he said, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day.
Beneath the dark clouds of war and atrocities, beneath the dark clouds of illness and disability, beneath the cacophony and clamor that demands our attention, we focus our eyes on the vivid green radiance of the story of Jesus and the divine promise.
We will rise.
He is risen. He is risen, indeed.