The First Easter Sermon
Text: Isaiah 65:17-25
The first Easter sermon was preached long before Mary stood weeping in the garden, long before a young man told grieving women that the Risen Jesus was awaiting them in Galilee, long before Thomas was out running an errand when the Risen Jesus paid the disciples an unforgettable visit.
The first Easter sermon was preached not by a Christian pastor mounting a pulpit surrounded by the beauty and aroma of fresh lilies, with trumpets sounding their glad alleluias and choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus. The first Easter sermon was preached not by a pastor, but by a prophet, not by a Christian but by a Jew.
After years in exile, the prophet Isaiah and his kin came home to Jerusalem. Home, though, looked like hell. The streets looked like the worst blighted neighborhood you can imagine and the temple was still in ruins. Isaiah and his kin had returned home to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon with high hopes only to be met by a disaster in weeds. Into this situation of dramatic despair, Isaiah preached the first Easter sermon.
There is much I remember about Easter as a boy, but as hard it is for this preacher to say, I don’t remember one Easter sermon. Maybe it is because the minds of young boys tend to wander on Easter Sundays when forced to sit on a hard pew while wearing freshly shined Buster Brown shoes, unarguable instruments of childhood torture. Or, maybe it is because I was distracted by the latest Easter bonnet worn by Mrs. McBride. Or, maybe it is because I had my mind fixed on strategies to finish with a bulging basket at the end of the annual neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt.
Maybe, though, I do not remember any Easter sermon from my childhood or youth because way too often preachers dumb down Easter. We domesticate Easter into a tame, fangless, rite of spring. We turn Easter into feckless fantasy, a wish-upon-a-star holiday, convinced that if we just preach passionately enough, sing loudly enough, sound the brass long enough then we will drown out all the world’s and our own doubts about this day, all the world’s and our own misgivings about the idea of resurrection. Way too often we privatize Easter into a get-right-with-Jesus one-on-one holiday in the hope that one day after we have breathed our last breath, Jesus will persuade God to reach down and also pluck us up from the jaws of death.
I do not remember one Easter sermon from my childhood or youth, but I bet there was not a single person within earshot of Isaiah who ever forgot his Easter sermon. Long before the first Christian shouted, “Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed,” Isaiah knew that Easter is all about imagination – not our imagining what we wish were true, but never is or will be, but our imagining what God is making true in us and around us despite strong evidence to the contrary. Easter is about imagining not so much what God has in store for me or you, one day in the great afterlife, if we only we mind our religious manners, but imagining what God has in store for us in this world right now.
Before starting the first Easter sermon, Isaiah looked around at the deadly conditions surrounding him and the walking zombies wandering the ruined streets of Jerusalem. He spoke about God like the preacher from Genesis: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” The Easter God we meet in Isaiah speaks not in the past tense but in the present and future tenses. The Easter God is always going ahead of us, just as the disciples will later be told to look for the Risen Jesus ahead of them in Galilee.
No, there is no empty tomb in Isaiah’s Easter sermon, for it was preached long before Jesus walked the earth. But, Isaiah’s Easter sermon does point to the new life God is making possible for those who can see beyond desolation, despair, even death. Isaiah declares the Easter promise from God, a promise that every parent or grandparent I have even known clings to: “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
Isaiah’s Easter sermon does not announce that God’s justice will be done someday, in some just afterlife; it announces that the God of justice is at work this day; our God is not sheltering in place. The Easter God of justice is listening to the cries of all the innocents: “Before they call, I will answer and while they are speaking I will hear.”
The Easter God cares about resurrecting new life wherever death has cast its ominous pall. The Easter God cares that the most vulnerable in our land have no masks or gloves to wear, no place to sleep tonight, must keep looking for any work and often when finding it, must work without any or adequate protective gear. The Easter God cares that far too many children in the land of plenty will go to bed hungry tonight, cares that far too many mentally challenged adults will sleep on prison cots rather than in mental health treatment facilities tonight, cares that the greatest crop growing in America today is poverty.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” says our God in Isaiah’s Easter sermon. Those are not just the words of the prophet, they are Gospel words, whether preached in the accent of Mark or Matthew, Luke or John. Each Gospel says that the old preacher from Ecclesiastes was wrong, dead wrong. There is something new under the sun and God is making it happen. Isaiah knew that about the nature of God long before Jesus was born, long before Jesus healed the paralytic, fed the multitude, preached from the mountain, rode into Jerusalem, and climbed onto the cross. Isaiah knew that our God is an all-things-new-resurrecting God before that dawn when the women brought their spices to anoint a dead man.
In his Easter sermon last Sunday, the Pope spoke to what you and I are given at Easter: “the right to hope. It is a new and living hope that comes from God. It is not mere optimism; it is not a pat on the back or an empty word of encouragement, with a passing smile. No. It is a gift from heaven, which we could not have earned on our own. Over these weeks, we have kept repeating, ‘All will be well’, clinging to the beauty of our humanity and allowing words of encouragement to rise up from our hearts. But as the days go by and fears grow, even the boldest hope can dissipate. Jesus’ hope is different. He plants in our hearts the conviction that God is able to make everything work unto good, because even from the grave he brings life.”
Our Easter hope does not come with all the answers. We do not know when we will worship in this sanctuary again – though I can’t wait for that day! We do not know when this pandemic will end. We do not know when we will hug each other again or watch a football or basketball or baseball game from the stands again. We do not know when we will stop homeschooling and again put our kids on buses to head to school. We do not know when it will be safe to shop in stores and touch products without wiping them down. We do not know when we will get back to work, get a paycheck, and start to dig out of debt.
What you and I do know is that the Pope is right. We are given a living hope at Easter, a lively hope that guides us even in the corona chaos, because our Easter God is not keeping a safe distance from us. What you and I know is that what Isaiah preached so long ago is still true today. Our Easter God is making all things new, is inspiring innovation right now, is stirring the scientific minds doing the research that will lead to a vaccine for this virus. Our Easter God is giving us the courage and tenacity to shape a world “where they do not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
No, I do not remember one Easter sermon from my childhood or youth. Thanks to Isaiah, though, there is one Easter sermon, at least, that I will never forget.
Live in hope, my friends. The tomb is empty. Our hope is not.
Christ has risen!