4.20.14 Stronger Than Death
Easter Sunday A 2014 April 20, 2014
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I just love a good ending, don’t you? That’s why I love this British TV series that PBS is showing right now. “Call the Midwife” is the show. It gives a good taste of what it was like to live in the London slum of Poplar a decade or two after WW II ended. So many of the stories feature people with no hope whatever. But so many of them end with a reaffirmation of the power of Godly love and human kindness. Hope in the slums. New life when it seemed that all was lost.
What is a happy ending, anyway, but another chance at renewed life?
And of course we have the ultimate example of God’s renewing love in the resurrection of Jesus—and wouldn’t it be great to be able to bottle today’s Easter joy, and shake it all over ourselves when we get to those times of our lives when hope is hard to come by?
What IS the resurrection to us? It’s nothing more than the assurance that God’s love is stronger than death. That God’s love will overpower death in the end. And that we, too, in the words of Paul writing to the Colossians, will “be with him in glory.” If that isn’t a happy ending, I don’t know what is…
Now, let’s move backwards in time from that Colossians passage and take a look at our first reading—the one from the OLD Testament. I love this reading from Jeremiah and I’m thrilled that we get it on Easter Sunday. It has meant a lot to me personally. It brought me hope—it threw me a lifeline--when I was in a very dark place many years ago. It’s an Old Testament reading with the ultimate happy ending.
It’s an incredible anthem of hope.
The part that really grabs me is in the second verse—“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.”
So---what does that mean—“the people who survived the sword”? Scholars think this has several meanings—the people could be the Israelites, led out of Egypt away from Pharaoh’s army / and into the Promised Land all those years ago. It could be the people who were exiled in Babylon – they survived the siege and assault on Jerusalem and were then force-marched to the land of their conquerors.
And God goes on through the prophet to remind the people that those who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. Grace in the wilderness. Isn’t that a wonderful phrase?
It can refer to God’s help when they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years between Egypt and the Promised Land. It can refer to God’s grace and kindness poured out on the exiles in Babylon, promising forgiveness and hope.
And God’s reassurance that follows is nothing more than everything: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” An everlasting love….isn’t that wonderful?
And this assertion leads right to the 3 promises of God—“Again I will build you. Again you will rejoice. Again you will plant vineyards // and Samaria and Judah will be united.” These are all promises of hope. And I love how they are tied together by “again, again, again.” This refrain of the 3 “agains” is a beautiful example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry—and it is a stunningly effective reminder that God’s love and restoration—God’s bringing resurrection—is RELENTLESS. It’s relentless in the face of human attempts to bring destruction and death.
These promises aren’t just for the people who lived 2500 years ago. We can see situations in our day where God’s love has rebuilt what was broken, where there was grace in the wilderness, and where people are again planting and enjoying the fruit. Think of the recovery of the Jewish people and the establishment of the state of Israel after the Holocaust, some 70 years ago. Think of recovery from the Rwandan genocide, 20 years ago, where Hutus massacred Tutsis and those sympathetic to them. Today there have been strong efforts to bring reconciliation—this is the work of God. And the efforts are bearing fruit.
Think of Apartheid, still being dismantled in South Africa, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Tutu those years ago, at the forefront of the reconciliation efforts.
Think of the people of Boston, especially many of the victims of the Marathon bombing last year, making new lives and overcoming obstacles. Surviving the sword. Grace in the wilderness. New chances at life.
Now I don’t want to sound too much like a Pollyanna here. There are, of course, many situations around the world where the sword is still being brandished. Where there seems to be no movement of grace in the wilderness—not now. Not yet. Think of Syria, of places in central Africa, of the continuing, unhealed relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, of Russia and Ukraine.
So I think it’s very important for us to remind God in our prayer that there are places where grace in the wilderness is so very needed in this world. It’s important for us to ponder what we may do to help bring that grace—to be God’s hands in the world. Perhaps all we can do is pray. But surely that is enough!
And what of those who have died in worldwide strife of all kinds? What does “grace in the wilderness” mean for them? Simply that our history on this planet is not the final word. That there is life after death, and that God will right the wrongs not fixed here and now. Sometimes it feels like a cheap cop-out, this reliance on God to bring healing in the next life if not in this one. But that is where all the signs in the witness of Scripture are pointing. Healing, reconciliation, grace in the next life if not in this one. And all shall be well.
These promises of God: grace in the wilderness, // again, again, and again, are also meant for us as individuals as well as for us as peoples. Each one of us here has had at least one time in our lives when we did battle in the wilderness. One time when we were assaulted—by despair or depression; by illness or unemployment; by the death of a loved one or by the threat of our own death on a battlefield.
And we come back to the truth, the word of God given through the prophet for each one of us here: No matter how lost we are; how dry we are; how without hope we are—there is grace for each of us. Grace in the wilderness. And God makes us right and brings new life // again and again and again.
Mine this passage. Find a phrase or two that really speak to you. Maybe it’s “again, and again, and again.” Maybe “grace in the wilderness.” Maybe “the dance of the merrymakers.” And then use that phrase in prayer, over and over. Sit and ponder it. Use it as a mantra to calm you down when you’re in a wilderness and remind you of the higher Truth. And touch the wisdom of today’s Prelude hymn:
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again.
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been,
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
[Hymn 204, words by John McLeod Campbell Crum]
Go out and celebrate new beginnings. Go out and tell the people you know and love that there is MORE. Celebrate the best ending ever.