Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's Time to Celebrate

Jeremiah 31:1-6

It may have come early this year, but today is Easter Sunday. Therefore, it’s time to celebrate. Easter is one of those holidays that combines religious and nonreligious elements, and you get to choose which part to emphasize. For many people, it’s a time to color eggs and hide them; a time to eat chocolate bunnies, and it’s a time to bring out our new spring clothes. Yes, today is a day to wear our spring best; maybe, even put on a new hat.

Back in the day, if you can believe the movies, Easter was the day when people got all dressed up and paraded their new stuff in front of their neighbors. Irving Berlin wrote the music for a movie with the title Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Now that musical really didn’t have anything to do with Easter, but apparently they did have fashion parades back in the old days – before any of us were around.

Easter is also a celebration of spring. We celebrate the rebirth of nature, of the flowers and the trees, which are breaking out their leaves and their flowers. It’s a time to plant and expect good things. Yes, Easter is a time to celebrate.

1. Wilderness Time

When it comes to Easter preaching, we expect to hear the gospel stories of an empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. So, why Jeremiah? Well, one reason is that it’s in the lectionary for today and I’ve never preached on it, but the real reason for choosing it is that it catches the essence of the Easter Spirit.

If you read Jeremiah, you know that he understands darkness and wilderness. He preached against his political leaders and got thrown into jail for not being patriotic enough. He watched as his country was conquered and the temple destroyed. He watched as his people were carted off to a strange land. Yes, Jeremiah understands darkness and wilderness.

The image of the wilderness plays a major role in the biblical story. When we think of wilderness, we usually think of mountains and lakes, places where we can hike and camp in the midst of breathtaking beauty. Yosemite and the Sequoia’s, that’s what we think of. But in the biblical sense, wilderness is very different. It’s a place of loneliness, desolation, darkness, want and despair. Think of the desert, a place that’s barren, and where life is difficult. It is full of danger and desperation.

The season of Lent, which ended yesterday, remembers the wilderness. It brings to mind Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert, where he experienced temptation and testing. Those forty days mirror the 40 years of Hebrew wanderings in Sinai. They too were tested and tempted. At times they also felt abandoned and on their own. They had to go on even when they weren’t sure of the direction. But even as Jesus was ultimately strengthened by his time in the desert, so were the Hebrews. They learned, as he learned, to depend on God.

The Lenten stories aren’t meant just to inform us about Jesus’ journeys, they’re there to remind us that we too are tested, that we have our own wilderness experiences, when we feel abandoned. But as we go through these difficult and stressful times, we learn to depend on God.

2. Restoration Time

Jeremiah understood the wilderness, but in this section of his book, we find him speaking a word of consolation and hope to people returning home from exile. He speaks to the survivors who "found grace in the wilderness." They may have lost their homes, their lands, and even their Temple, but now they’re heading home and Jeremiah wants them to know that God is with them.

The word he brings is a word of restoration, and he calls on them to embrace it with a sense of anticipation and joy. Their mood is described in Isaac Watt’s hymn Marching to Zion:

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song in sweet accord
and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful City of God

The exile is over and its time to rejoice.

For Jesus, Good Friday marked the beginning of his exile. Remember the song we sang Thursday evening as we remembered his last supper. We sang: "We’re you there, when they nailed him to the tree" and then "Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?" But today, we come to celebrate Jesus’ restoration to life. We come to bask in the glow of his resurrection.

And the key to Jeremiah’s Easter message is his promise that God loves us with an everlasting love. There may be times when we don’t feel it, when we feel alone and abandoned, but Jeremiah says to us that God’s "steadfast love," his hesed is the foundation of a covenant God has made with his people.

Later in this chapter, Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God is making with the people. It’s a covenant rooted in this love, a covenant written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of the people. Because it’s written on their hearts, they won’t have to learn it ever again, for they’ll know God’s law from the very depths of their hearts, from the greatest to the least. Here is the promise of that covenant: "I will be their God, and they will be my people."

This is also the promise of Easter. We have gone through our wilderness time with Jesus. We’ve gone with him to the cross and we’ve shared in his experience of abandonment. We’ve heard him cry out, "it is finished." But today we come to bear witness to the truth that God is faithful and that death doesn’t hold the final card. God is faithful and we will be restored. We will experience reconciliation with God and with one another, and all things will become new.

Listen as Jeremiah uses the word "Again" three times. Speaking for God, he says:

  • "Again I will build you, and you shall be built."
  • "Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers."
  • "Again you shall plant vineyards of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit."
Indeed, the relationship that was broken is now healed.

3. Celebration Time

When a team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl, they hold a ticker-tape parade. If we’re to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then perhaps we should have an Easter Parade. I don’t know if you need to go out and buy a new bonnet or hat, but it is appropriate, I think, to bring out that tambourine and do a little dance!

This is the attitude that Mary takes after she sees the risen Lord: She goes and tells the others: "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18). This isn’t a descriptive statement, it’s a declarative one. It’s a call to celebrate.

In the words of the ancient Eucharistic rite for Easter: We can say:

"Alleluia: Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

Indeed, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God, and give thanks. Happy Easter!

Preached by:
Rev. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Easter Sunday
March 23, 2008

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