Date: April 4, 2021
Bible Text: isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-20 | Bailey Pickens
Alleluia! Christ is risen!!
Not to put you on the spot but I’m going to put you on the spot: What does that mean? We say that every Easter and we’ve said it every Easter for literally centuries, so it’s clearly supposed to mean something. So tell me what? What does it mean to say that Christ is risen?
——thank you, that’s very helpful, now I don’t have to preach seven sermons to get it all out. Because what I need to talk about this morning is joy. Not happiness, exactly—there’s overlap, but when I say happiness, even deep happiness, I think of something contingent, something to do with circumstances. Joy is not contingent on circumstances: it’s a vantage point from which we are able to see the whole connected knot of everything and realize that there is life at the center.
Joy is what happens to Mary Magdalene, because joy is for those who have experienced everything. Mary who watched him die; Mary who got up the moment she could and went to mourn; Mary who went to show tenderness even to what had been lost; Mary who called the disciples to see, and watched as they took one look, two looks, and then left, having seen enough. Mary who stayed. This is the Mary who sees the risen Christ: Mary who has gone through all of it, the first to have her world cracked open by joy.
Joy is for mourners.
But it is not just for mourners. Peter and the other disciple, probably John, and the rest of them who hadn’t gone to the tomb at all: Jesus went and got them. He brought himself, the overwhelming truth of his real and living life, the life he promised them, into their room and gave it to them there. And they were filled with joy.
Joy also comes for the afraid.
Yesterday was Holy Saturday. The first letter attributed to Peter, who spoke with the risen Christ, says that on that day Jesus brought the good news even to those who had died, that they too—the ones whose deaths had taken them out of the world Christ came to—might live in God. Paul says in Ephesians that before he rose Jesus also descended into “the lower parts of the earth,” a name for where the dead went. The creeds declare that Jesus descended first to hell and then rose.
Because joy, my friends, comes first to the dead.
Everything is connected. The world is a rat’s nest, a knot of a thousand strands, and so many of them lead back to Sin and to Death. I am pronouncing those words with capital letters: I don’t mean the mistakes you make, I mean the ordering principles of the world. Your mistakes, my mistakes, they are real but they are not the core of the problem, they are symptoms. But the cross gets to the core. The place where we kept ending up was death, and that’s where Jesus went: Into the breakdown of community relations, into abandonment by friends, into the maw of an empire’s system of punishment, into scapegoating and physical suffering and real death. Into the place where every broken thread leads. His followers were not wrong to mourn: He was dead.
And then he was alive, and they were full of joy. He is alive. He is alive and he has left the cross behind, jamming into the jaws of death to hold them open and pulling everyone in there out by the hand. Alive and placing life at the center of the tangle we thought could only lead to death. Death’s bargain was, if they sin, they die; Jesus did not sin and yet died, and when he jailbroke death the doors wouldn’t lock anymore. Death is over. It cannot hold us anymore. Everyone it has swallowed, everyone it has snatched out of our world, every one of them has been taken back. The realm of death is empty.
And joy is first for the dead, the mourning, the afraid. It is not happiness. It comes to these first because they know the brokenness of this world best, because it has touched them. Joy is for those who have drunk the sour wine of the world to the dregs, those for whom happiness is no given. Joy does not paint over loss, pain, fear, death: it looks at them and sees beneath and beyond them to the truth of resurrection: That nothing is lost, nothing is wasted.
You do not have to muster happiness after a year of negligence and cruelty by the powerful, a year of loss after loss, of grief, of isolation, of nobody to mourn with. Joy is coming for you because you have been weeping. Joy is weeping with you.
And there is nothing that you need to do. Joy will find you, too.
Nothing you have done, nothing you can do, excludes you from joy. There is no wrong, no hesitation, no bad choice, no flinching, that God will not redeem. Joy is for you if you go to the tombs to show care for what has been taken from you; joy is for you if you hide in the locked room; joy is for you if you refuse to believe until you are given the proof that you need. Joy is for you if you have labored hard; joy will be for you even if you have not. Joy will show you everything.
You do not have to seek out suffering to redeem yourself; Christ has redeemed you.
You do not have to prove that you have always been good; Christ has loved you since before you knew to want love. You were given everything before you were able to ask.
What are you worried is lost and wasted? What are you worried will bear no fruit? What are you worried will never mend? Christ has found it, sweeping the floor like a woman seeking her last coin, like a shepherd combing hillsides for one lost sheep. Christ is digging around it and giving it rich soil, and its fruit will decorate the table set before the nations in the presence of God. Christ has taken it in his hands to heal. Joy is for you.
Joy will not leave you when things are hard. Joy will not vanish in the face of pain. Joy can see everything, and it will show you too: That every strand of this world, twisted and knotted though it might be, is woven into the tapestry God has been fashioning, is transformed in time into the purest gold. That death severs nothing; that this life and the next are unbreakably bound. That as he rose, we will rise.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.
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