(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 5, 2015)
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there is always a deeper layer of meaning to discover in these huge moments in Jesus’ life, these holidays that truly celebrate holy days.
I used to think that all these big events were just sort of self-evident, just obvious. Sometimes that made me feel like I was missing something, because I couldn’t really articulate exactly why Easter or Christmas were such a big deal. Other times it made me feel sort of superior, like I was in the “in” crowd, I understood this, and all these other people are just missing out on something so obvious.
But I see it differently now. Things like Jesus’ resurrection are so monumental, so outside the norm of the rest of life, that they aren’t self-evident at all. From the first sight of the empty tomb long ago, followers of Jesus have had to work to unpack the meaning of Easter. It’s challenging! It took awhile for the disciples to really grasp what was happening, to begin to grapple with the implications.
So if you feel like you are missing something in this faith journey…or if you are feeling sort of smug, like you’ve explored all there is to understand about the meaning of Easter…I want to invite you and challenge you to dive in today. Wrestle! Think! Look to unpack a new layer of meaning to Easter for you, and let that journey and exploration be a step of faith toward God today.
As I said, it took awhile for the disciples to really grasp what happened on that first Easter Sunday.
You can watch them through the New Testament make more and more connections, come to more and more conclusions about what it meant for them and for the world that the cross was not the end for Jesus. A good place to start when you are looking for meaning is to clearly state the facts of the situation.
Peter does just that in Acts chapter 10. It’s a good place to begin.
Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached– how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
‘ We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.’ (Acts 10:37-40, TNIV)
I love that Peter’s words are blunt, acknowledging the things that just don’t make sense.
“You know,” he says, about all that happened. God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing people, because God was with him. That’s who was killed. That’s what we have to wrap our heads around. One who did good, whom God was with, who WAS God…that’s who was killed.
“We are witnesses of everything,” Peter said. They all saw him killed. “They killed him,” Peter said. Not to put the blame on Jews instead of themselves; that’s been one of the horrible mis-interpretations through the thousands of years since. Those first disciples WERE Jews. No, the ones in charge, the ones who should have searched the scriptures and known better, those were the very ones who killed the one from God, the one who just had gone around doing good.
Then come the best two words in the world when things are at the worst. When we face the worst things we can imagine, when all hope seems gone, these two words make all the difference: “But God.”
They killed him, but God raised Jesus from the dead. But God acted! But God refuses to let evil and death have the final word or the last say. And just as God does not stay inactive or silent, God also doesn’t let his biggest acts of redemption stay invisible. “But God raised him from the dead and caused him to be seen.” The disciples were witnesses of the worst, but they were also witnesses of the best. They saw Jesus alive, and Peter and the rest of the disciples will not be silent.
Those are the facts…and now, in verse 42, we start to see the first hint of what this great redemption act by God might mean…the first hint of what Peter and the disciples began to see as the meaning behind it.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:42-43)
Now those are some big claims! Peter believes that God raising Jesus from death is proof that God has “appointed [Jesus] as judge of the living and the dead.” Not only that, but everyone who believes in Jesus “receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Huge, huge implications! Here is what Peter and the early church first grasped as central to the meaning of Easter, the meaning of the resurrection. God’s power over death made Jesus an authority of the living and the dead, and made Jesus the key to forgiveness for all who believe.
Where do these implications, where does this meaning come from? How does Peter get there from an empty tomb?
I’m sure some of it comes from Peter and the other disciples remembering Jesus’ words. Jesus told many of the ones he healed, that their sins were forgiven. The disciples remembered and thought about what Jesus taught. Their hopes of Jesus taking over as king had been dashed; but now they realized God hadn’t forsaken Jesus. God had brought him back to life, showing that Jesus was far more important than they ever imagined. Bigger things were going on than a political kingdom of Israel.
Peter himself had been the first to name Jesus as Messiah. Their understanding of what “Messiah” meant had died with Jesus on the cross, and since the stone was rolled away they were thinking and praying and searching for what “Messiah” really meant. They remembered Jesus’ own words, and verse 43 reminds us of another way they were searching: they studied with fresh eyes what the prophets had spoken.
This clue in Peter’s words shows how from the beginning and down through the centuries, followers of Jesus have looked hard at what the prophets said about God’s salvation and deliverance, in order to understand and unpack the meaning of Easter.
One of the most beautiful and image-packed parts of those prophet words is found in Isaiah 25.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine–
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8, TNIV)
Such hope in these evocative images!!
Where Peter was all facts, this is imagery and poetry and symbolism. “A feast of rich food for all peoples”! “The best of meats”!
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had? Let’s bring this evocative image to life in the present day. [ASK]
Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten came almost exactly 10 years ago. Elaine and I used frequent flier miles and travel vouchers to celebrate our 15th anniversary in the Caribbean. (Which means, as the people who are quick at math already know, that this year we’ll celebrate our 25th anniversary).
We went to Dominica, one of the Caribbean islands which is not like what you imagine the Caribbean to be. There are very few white sand beaches, because it’s mountainous and tropical. It’s more for hiking and exploring than resorts and beach life. We loved it!
It’s also where they filmed the second and third “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies…while we were there. We saw the Black Pearl.
And we saw them filming.
When the trailer for the second movie came out, I’m pretty convinced this part was what we saw filmed.
Anyway, sorry, I’m digressing. For the second part of the trip, we stayed in the mountains in the rain forest at this place called Crescent Moon Cabins.
It was great! The owner was a guy who had gone to culinary school in New York, worked as a chef for years there, and got burned out and left it all.
He was working to make his little venture completely self sustaining. He grew his own food, using this greenhouse and farm land; raised goats and other animals; built a water wheel and bought a generator and was generating his own electricity from the creek on his property.
So the ingredients were fresh and organic, and his skill as a cook was unbelievable! We ate our meals on this outdoor patio with this view, often in the pouring rain underneath a thatched roof. I think the three dinners I ate there were in the top ten best meals I’ve had in my life!
So when I read Isaiah 25, that’s the memory that comes to my mind, and it’s a great one. For me, for most of us, the image of a great meal focuses on the food.
But for ancient middle-eastern culture, for the Jews, they would have had much more than food in mind.
A meal was about the community, about the people. It was hospitality, it was connection. And in many ways, the meal was about social standing. “A meal,” I read this week, “was never simply a time to ingest food and quench thirst; at meals people displayed kinship and friendship…They are loaded with messages about who is up and who is down in status; who is in and who is out of the social or political circle…. The messages had to do with honor, social rank in the family and community, belonging, and purity, or holiness.” [“Meal” and “Banquet” entries in the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery]
For Jews, meals were in many ways about exclusion. Not a Jew? Not welcome. Not ritually pure from sin? Not welcome. And there were so many ways to be ritually impure!
Isaiah’s vision turned everything upside down. “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples.” And then two more times in these three little verses we read all peoples and all the earth.
The table, the meal, the place where Good Jews set themselves apart from all the unworthy and impure…one day God is going to open it up to all people. All will be welcome, all will be celebrated! No more haves and have nots, no more in and out. One table. One feast. All welcome.
Oh, my, did Jesus pick up on this and live it!
All through the book of Luke, banquets and meals are prominent. Jesus is always making trouble. He refused to kick out the sinful woman in Luke 7 at Simon’s house, but welcomed her and honored her above Simon the host. He told parables about banquets AT these banquets, pointing out the petty way people jockey for a good seat at the banquet, and then turning it all upside down and inside out with who gets the invitations.
Mark 2:16 has the Pharisees’ frustrated question: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus summarized their accusation in Matthew 11:19: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”
I love the beauty of what Jesus has done! He’s lived out God’s promise through Isaiah! He’s broken all the rules and opened the table wide! God is God of all the world! Jesus is Savior of all people! All the social stigma and exclusion were destroyed. This, the early disciples began piecing together as they looked at the prophets…this was a deeper meaning of Easter resurrection. Jesus is bringing the open feast of Isaiah 25.
If we jump back to Acts 10, we see how this slowly dawns on Peter.
Peter’s boundaries are blown. He’d always been a good Jew, not keeping bad company, not eating with the wrong crowd. His table manners were pure and Godly, at least as he understood them and had always been taught: keep separate. Keep pure. But as we see earlier in Acts 10, a dream pushes Peter to reconsider this common understanding of staying separate. God says in the dream, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
He wakes up from the dream, and can you believe it? Right at that very moment, God has brought actual people to the door who should have been excluded. Gentiles in real life, right in front of his face. He invites them in, something he shouldn’t do as a good Jew.
He said to them:’You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. (Acts 10:28, TNIV)
Cornelius and the other outsiders talk about their journey. They tell Peter how God led them, with an angel announcement, right to Peter at this exact time. Peter recognizes God in this, and the pieces come together.
Then Peter began to speak:’I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10:34-35, TNIV)
I want to be bold for a minute and speak to those of you here this morning who have felt unwelcome, excluded, not worthy by followers of Jesus. I want to apologize for that. Would you read those words of truth again, and hear that God does welcome you?
This is the Isaiah 25 picture! Peter realizes that not only is Jesus alive, but God is still at work stretching them all, bringing all people to God. People are streaming to “the mountain”, people are streaming to God. In fact, God is working directly through dreams and angels to bring all people together.
Wow! This is Peter in real life having to live into and step up to the metaphorical image of everyone at the table! And he does it.
God’s wide open welcome…I wonder if that is also what is behind another powerful example in the gospels. When Jesus took his last breath, the veil that separated the holy of holies, the very place where God dwelled…that veil was torn in two from top to bottom.
It’s like God’s love exploded and could no longer be contained in one little room in the temple in Jerusalem. God’s love was enveloping the world and everyone in it!
Easter is the greatest example of: “it’s finished, but there’s more to come.” Easter is victory in the now, but the fullness is not yet here.
When you look even over the course of the New Testament, you see how those early disciples grew in their understanding of the meaning of Easter. Over the centuries since, you see even more understanding and development…not “development” as in drifting away, but rather development as in deepening, as in OH THAT’S WHAT THAT MEANS!
Think of all the other beautiful images in Isaiah 25. Verse 8: The shroud and the sheet of death that covers all people…it gets swallowed up. Death is swallowed up, forever!
No more tears! Revelation 21 picks up the same idea. You can picture the early church having light bulb after light bulb go off in their brain. Hey!!! Jesus is the first OF MANY to be resurrected! Wow! It’s not JUST that he’s alive and the story isn’t over, but oh my, he’s leading the way, showing us a path of life forever that WE will one day walk!
Why should we be any different than the early church? Why shouldn’t we keep digging and discovering, with joy, more and more layers to Easter? What new and deeper meaning of Easter is out there ahead of you?
Because God surely isn’t done. There’s a whole lot more reconciling to go. We haven’t hit the full beauty of the open picture of Isaiah 25. We haven’t seen the crying stop, we haven’t seen Revelation 21.
But the direction is set and accomplished and God is moving toward it. How do we need to move toward it? By trusting in God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.
This is why we celebrate today! And why we can celebrate always.
I’ll give Isaiah the last words.
In that day they will say,
‘Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:9, TNIV)
Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation!