Easter Imagined (Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:12-26)[i]
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Luke reports that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, another woman named Mary, and several other unnamed women came to the place Jesus had been buried. Luke’s telling of this, as it relates to the women, may be the most helpful of the four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the women are grouped together and come to the tomb together. They see the angel and then the risen Lord together. In John, Mary Magdalene has individual experiences.
If the gospels were written, as historians suggest, at the earliest 35 years after the events surrounding the resurrection and maybe 50 years later, then it is plausible to think the gospel writers were fuzzy on details. We know there were women and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. We can’t be sure of how many or exactly what they saw.
Some Christians are comfortable with the thought that the reporting was inexact. Others hear this and say, “Wait a minute! If the reports in the four gospels are not precise to the finest detail, then the entire Bible is flawed and must be disregarded.” But look again at Luke.
In his account of the procession from Jerusalem out to the site of the crucifixion, he mentions a large group of people, many of whom were women. As he is being led to his death, Jesus talks directly to his female disciples who showed more courage in their faith than did the men (Luke 23:27-28). These women who were Christ followers, who provided financial support to Jesus and the 12 (Luke 8:3), continued to hang around all through the crucifixion and onto the 3rd day.
They came as a group to anoint his dead body, but not necessarily only one group. Luke indicates many women, more than those he named. Perhaps what is told in Mark and Matthew deals with one group of women who made their way to the tomb. John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s individual experience may relate another wave of Jesus’ female followers coming to honor him one last time. A skeptic wanting to weaken the Gospel accounts by focusing on discrepancies could disregard my idea as mere speculation. But, the facts as we have them are that Luke mentions many women and does not give a specific number. There is no declaration from any gospel writer that one group of women made one trip to the tomb the Sunday after the crucifixion. The implication is that between the female and male disciples, multiple trips were made. My suggestion is speculative, but plausible.
It is certain that all of Jesus’ followers, women and men, were pretty sure the Jesus story was done. Some sectors of Jewish society believed in a resurrection. But that belief was in an end-times resurrection of all people. Both the evil and the righteous – all – would be raised for judgment. Several New Testament scholars who claim that Jesus was truly dead and truly resurrected make the point. Jews at that time, even those who believed in the concept of resurrection, did not think the Messiah was going to die and be resurrected. They did not think a single person was going to be resurrected prior to the general resurrection at the end of history.
They were sure that Jesus was dead. They were sad, but not confused. They went to the tomb the way you and I would go to a cemetery. They went to visit a burial site and to remember the one who had died. There expectations were clear.
We know things did not go as expected. But even though we know how it turned out, how tears were turned to laughter, we may have a much difficulty with expectations as did those disciples who went to anoint a dead body and instead met a resurrected savior.
Expectations are tricky. Several years ago, I planned a hiking trip to Glacier National Park. It was my dad, my good friend, and me. We would backpack in the Rocky Mountains for five days and nights. Neither my dad nor I had ever been to the Rockies. Our friend was from Colorado. He tried to describe it. We looked at photos of the national park. We recalled our numerous experiences of backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains. But the mountains are higher out west. The vegetation is different. There is less humidity. The wildlife is different. I had great expectations for the trip. I anticipated a lot of fun. And thankfully, that trip greatly exceeded my expectations. As much as I tried to imagine Rocky mountain beauty, imagination was all I had until I was there.
That was 13 years ago. Because the actual experience was so far better than what my expectations could imagine, I will someday go back, I hope. Other times, I have great expectations and the anticipated event doesn’t quite end up as well as I hoped it would. This past baseball season, I expected the Detroit Tigers to make the World Series. They did. I imagined the joy I would feel when they won it. My expectations crashed to earth as their hitting dried up and they were swept by San Francisco. Expectations can be tricky.
We know that the women expected to find Jesus’ dead body and were utterly blown away when they instead met Jesus alive and in the flesh. That’s the story. When historians analyze it scientifically, the best conclusion from the available evidence is that the resurrection actually happened. Even if other accounts from the Bible are scrutinized and even is some of the evidence is discounted for being unreliable, still, the weight of historical proofs that are as close to indisputable as can be indicates that Jesus really did live, die, and rise to life. Whatever else we conclude about Christianity, the resurrection happened.
Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 15. “If Christ has not been raised … then your faith has been in vain. … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have died” (v.14, 20). That phrase “firstfruits” means more resurrections are to come, following his. Paul continues, “[Christ] must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v.25-26). Jesus’ resurrection was with a purpose. He died to take on himself the penalty for sin. His death undid the consequences of the fall. His death accomplished victory over sin and his resurrection accomplished victory over death. When we are in him, we surely will be resurrected. We will all die, but our deaths will be temporary. Our lives after resurrection will be forever.
We have to deal with that. How do we anticipate and prepare for eternity? What expectations do we have? We know details of the story Jesus’ disciples did not have when they went to the tomb that morning. But, we are a little like I was preparing for the Rockies. I could read about Glacier National Park and look at pictures. But until I went, all I had was my imagination. As Christ followers, we live as resurrection, Easter people, but until we move past death and past the interim period spent in a paradise-type of state, we can only imagine what that will be like.
We get glimpses in the gospels. The risen Jesus sat with the disciples at a campfire and ate fish. He took bread in his hands and broke. His was a tangible body that occupied real space. Some of the women took hold of his feet and he invited the disbelieving Thomas to touch him. At the same time, he passed through closed, locked doors. He suddenly appeared amidst a crowd. To Paul on the road to Damascus and to John on the Island of Patmos, his appearance was spectacular and otherworldly.
These 2 dimensional photos help as we picture resurrection in our minds, but photos, while they whetted my appetite for Montana, did not enable to taste the mountain air. I had to go there. I had stand under the big sky to be overwhelmed by it. Prior to being resurrected, we have to live imaginatively.
Someone who lived several hundred years before Jesus can help us. The prophet Isaiah was given by God a vision. He was shown God’s angry judgment against sinful humanity, but then he saw how God would restore the world after judgment. Isaiah did not know judgment would reach its fulfillment on the cross. But his picture of the restored world after the judgment was completed adds depth and color to our imagined mosaic of the world resurrected.
Isaiah writes God’s words, words God also gave to John, the author of Revelation. “I am about to create new Heavens and a new Earth” (Is. 65:17a). Think in terms not of a new Heaven and Earth replacing what currently exists, but think instead of this earth made new just as you and I are made new when we are in Christ. It is a renewal, a return to the perfect goodness that was the earth when God created it, before Adam and Eve first sinned.
Remembering how conquered nations are plundered by invaders, Isaiah says in his vision of the new Heaven and Earth, “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” (v.20a). In other words, there is no need to fear invasion or war. In God’s new world, we can concentrate on building things and growing things without fear of war. It is a world of production and peace, growth and new life.
“Be glad and rejoice forever in I am creating,” God says, “For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight” (v.18). The ultimate expression of the peace and serenity comes at the end of Isaiah’s vision. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox; but the serpent – its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (v.25). If I was walking in nature and a lion came walking toward me, I would be stricken with fear and would frantically seek some place I could go to be safe from the powerful predator. What kind of world is it where the fiercest of animals quietly grazes alongside harmless, domesticated beasts?
We can’t really see it, but we can imagine. We can imagine complete freedom from fear. We can hope for a world where there is no need for any envy or jealousy. Happiness and joy never get old and never run out. We can’t know it now, but we can imagine and imagine does not mean pretend or fantasize. Imagining is the act of anticipating what we know will one day be reality. Imagining gives hope.
Imagining also directs our approach to life as we anticipate resurrected, eternal life. Because we know we will live in the world Isaiah described, we work toward that world in our everyday relationships. We are peacemakers. We seek the good of others. We are driven by love and we long to love our neighbors even in the most difficult of circumstances. We forgive, we do not seek revenge, and we go the extra mile to help others in need. All of this is an outpouring of the resurrection of Jesus and an imaginative expression of our own resurrections which are coming on the Day of the Lord.
Today is our biggest day. Nothing matters more for Christ followers than Easter. Douglas Groothius writes, “Without there is no Christianity.”[ii] For the rest of the world, the 4 billion or so people who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, today is not a big deal. More cards are sent at Christmas and on Valentine’s Day. A bigger deal is made of anniversaries and of New Year’s Eve. Easter passes almost unnoticed. Our job is not to prove that Jesus really rose. The argument can certainly be made, but it is a fact of history whether people believe it or not.
Our job as His followers is to live the reality of resurrection every day. In this way, we show who Jesus is – the savior, the forgiver, the Lord. We point the way, and He draws the world to himself. And regardless of how others feel and regardless of whatever temporary setbacks we suffer, we know resurrection is our permanent condition. So we live imaginatively and we live in unending joy.