Death is Conquered

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Yes, today is the day that we proclaim that even in a pandemic, even when things are not at all as we would want them to be, the truth remains: God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die for us; and rising triumphantly from the grave, trampling down death by death, breaking the curse of our disobedience, and conquering the enemy, he opened the path for us to share in his eternal life.

…And this pandemic certainly has a way of putting things in perspective.

Yes, we’re getting tired of being cooped up.  Yes, we miss the pool, and the library, and the rink.  Yes, we miss dropping in on our neighbours.  Yes, we can’t wait for school to open again (and, if you’re trying to work from home with young kids, yes, we have a new appreciation for our teachers!).

Yes, some of us here today are anxious – those with weakened bodies who would suffer greatly if someone not following the rules brought this invisible enemy to your home.

Yes, some of us here today are grieving – and the pain of grief is real – as plans we had made: vacations, parties, dinner with grandparents and grandkids; and bigger plans like weddings, baby showers, and even funerals are cancelled, as we are confronted in a harsh way with the reality that so much, so much, is beyond our control.

Yet, the pandemic has a way of putting things in perspective. 

Sure, Easter is a time for turkey dinners with family.  Sure, it’s a time to buy flowers and send cards and celebrate eating a month’s worth of chocolate in a single morning.  Sure, it’s a time to celebrate the hope of new life and new beginnings.

But, at a time like this, the message of Easter becomes so much more focused: there is light shining in the darkness; and though the darkness is vast, though the light at times is hidden from view, we know that the darkness cannot and will not overcome the light, that light that enlightens all of us, whether or not we’re able to realize it, as times like these remind us all too well that, in spite of our plans, we’re not all powerful; we’re created.  We’re part of God’s grand design, and every day, every breath is a gift: as we’re reminded that we’re powerless even to plan our next vacation, let alone chart our own path for the future.

It’s about Relationship

You see, we were created for relationship.

We believe, our faith handed down from generation to generation tells us that, from before time began, the love – the life – of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was so great, so overflowing, that God called into being everything that is, He Created you and me, so that we could share in the eternal life of their relationship. 

That’s why we’re here.  That’s why we’re all here – because God wants to share his overflowing life with us in relationship with Him.

But, in that relationship, we children were unwilling to acknowledge the wisdom of our Father.  For us, even one simple rule made for our protection was too much for us.  From the beginning, we wanted to pretend that we’re the masters of our own destiny – that we’re the ones in control, that we’re the ones who make the plans and chart our own course.

…and it’s times like these that remind us just how little control we have.

But the Good News is that, while this world continues to ripple with the consequences of that disobedience, and every selfish, greedy, and prideful action since, Easter isn’t about flowers, chocolate, and bunnies.  Easter isn’t about hoping that we can try harder and maybe do better with a fresh start. 

Easter isn’t even about thinking fondly about an empty tomb in a far away place long ago.

Of course God, the source of life, rose from the dead.  That’s the easy part.  How could the source of life not rise?

No, the Good News of Easter is that God’s desire, God’s Will to share his unending life with his creation is so great that He would come as one of us to fix that one, ultimate reminder that we’re not in control: Death.  Death is that final proof that we’re not in charge.

But God wants to share his life with us so much that He was willingly swallowed by the jaws of death.  But as the grave closed around him, as darkness closed in as it would on any man, the source of life was revealed, the unquenchable light of life shone forth and broke the system.  The gates fell down, the chains fell off, and all those who died saw that death isn’t in control either.  As the Light of Life stood in the grave, there was a new option, a new path that we couldn’t forge by themselves: if we wanted, we could let those chains fall and follow God Himself on the path to life.

And, to do so, there was only one condition: we have to acknowledge that we were made to be in relationship with God.  We have to acknowledge, in the face of consequences beyond our control, in the face of consequences because of the actions of others, in the face of death itself, that He’s God, and we’re not; that God’s the Father, and if we share in Christ’s death by baptism, and follow with lives of repentance on that new path, then we will be sons and daughters, living in relationship, realizing that everything we have, all our strength and health, all that we work for, is dependant on his goodness toward us, and seeing that even the darkness of the grave is not a threat, but is the means through which our relationship with our Father is restored.

Even in dark times like this, because of this day we can stare the darkness in the face, and we can boldly proclaim the truth:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Death took a body, and met God face to face.
Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.

Christ is risen, and Hell is overthrown!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.[1]

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

[1] Adapted from the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

Save us… from what?

All the events of Palm Sunday are wrapped up in one little word: “Hosanna”.

For ‘church’ people, it’s a familiar word: every time we celebrate communion we join our voices with angels and archangels to proclaim “holy, holy, holy … blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!”

But as familiar as it is, what does “Hosanna” mean? 

What, exactly, were those crowds singing and shouting on that morning in Jerusalem so long ago?  And, what exactly do we proclaim when we, together with all Christians across time and space, join our voices with theirs?

One Little Word

On the one hand, the answer is simple, though it might change or even challenge how we’ve come to read and picture the Palm Sunday gospel.

First and foremost, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise, or a shout of triumph for a parade through town.

No, “Hosanna” isn’t a shout of praise… it’s a plea.

The Hebrew word הושענא (hosanna), used throughout the Psalms, means “save us”.  “Please save us, we beseech you to save us; be our saviour; be our rescuer; please, please, be the one who saves us.”

As Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, riding humbly on a donkey in fulfilment of the sign given by the Prophets,[1] the crowd lines the street, coming out of houses and workrooms and marketplaces to shout “Save us, O Son of David”; “Be our saviour – please be the one who comes in the name of the Lord”; “Hosanna in the highest – please be the one to save us from on high”.

Save us.

The Palm Sunday scene in scripture isn’t a triumphant throng singing a victory chant: no, the scene is that of a longing, unfulfilled, anxious crowd trusting – hoping – that this Jesus is the one who will save them.

But as we join our voices in their plea for salvation, we have to ask: save us from what?

Save us from oppression.

The obvious answer for those people gathered to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem is oppression.  Save us from oppression.

As we know, the entire region was under Roman control, with heavy foreign taxes imposed, foreign soldiers in the streets to keep people in line, and constant political unrest as people and families were divided about the solution to their problems.

It’s this freedom from oppression that was front and centre in the minds of the crowd that day.  That crowd really was no different than ourselves – it’s part of our fallen human nature to focus on our own needs, on our own immediate situation rather than seeing the big picture, or how things will end up when the paths we’re on are stretched out across eternity.

They were thinking about the here and now.  They faced high taxes and low income.  Businesses were held hostage by high-interest loans from wealthy Romans, and the livelihood you worked a lifetime to build could be crushed by a single decision by a government hundreds of miles away.  Really, times haven’t changed that much, have they?

The crowd called out from freedom from this oppression: Hosanna, save us, Son of David, our earthly king.

But Jesus was more than they bargained for. 

As the anxious, unsettled, oppressed masses gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover – the annual celebration of God’s deliverance of his people, saving them from slavery through the waters of death – the oppression from which Jesus will deliver them on Good Friday goes much deeper than bank accounts, job security, and food on the table.

Yes, without a doubt, all of those matter, but the oppression that Jesus breaks is so much more.

Jesus enters Jerusalem not to fill their bellies or their pockets, not to break the yokes of an oppressive government, but to break the chains of death and hell: to untie, for those willing to let go, the weight, guilt, and shame of sin that weighs down our heads so that all we can see is the decay and squalor of this fallen world.

Jesus hears their plea, he saves them, not by magically wiping away the consequences of the greed and pride of the world around them, but, in the words of the Psalms, by being the one who lifts up our heads, who takes off the blinders, casts off the heavy yoke around our neck, and allows us to look heavenward, to see the big picture as it unfolds, to recognize the blessings of God at work around us, and to praise God for his salvation, as we, too, have been delivered from slavery to sin as we die to self in the waters of baptism.

Save us from oppression, they cry.  And he will.

Save us from false religion.

And, as we join our voices in that plea to save us, Jesus has even more in store.

As you read through your Bible this week from Matthew 21 onwards, you see the first thing Jesus does is walk into the temple and overturn the tables of the moneychangers: what we call the cleansing of the temple.

Again, Jesus gave them more than they bargained for.  He saves us from false religion.

There’s so much we could say here, but the one point I want to make is this: Jesus saves us from the many ways we find to give ourselves cheap and easy hope by trusting in things that cannot last. 

One of the proofs that we are made in God’s Image is that every person alive finds something to worship.  We worship our bank accounts, we worship science, we worship family, we worship our image, we worship relationships, we worship mindfulness and positive thinking.  But, as Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers; as the holy curtain of the temple is ripped in two as Jesus dies, he shows us that no real and lasting hope is to be found while our heads and eyes remain weighed downward by shame and grief. 

No false idol on our level, no matter how good it makes us feel, can do for us what Jesus does when he is lifted up on that tree, and just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness, we must cast off our weight and look up if we’re to see His salvation.  Finding hope, finding something to hang our trust on in the world around us is like finding the most comfortable armchair on a sinking ship.  Lasting hope is found in the one who overcame death and the grave.  True religion isn’t made in our image; it’s found in the One in whose Image we were made.

Save us from Ourselves.

But the biggest surprise for that crowd on that first Palm Sunday was something they never saw coming.

“Save us, O Son of David”.  “Be the one who saves us from on high”.

Save us… from ourselves.

That’s the drama of this day.

The same crowd that cries for salvation is the crowd that cries “Crucify him”.

The Church, and you, and I, every time we gather, every time we share the Eucharist, every time we sing “Hosanna”, need to realize that we are the same crowd that shouts “Crucify”, that we are the ones who call for his death. We are the fickle crowd that is never satisfied, that is weighed down, chained down by our own sin to only see the decay around us.

“Save us”. 

And that’s the glory of this week. 

The King of Glory emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

He died to save us from ourselves.

He died that we might take his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light, and lift up our heads and see him on that awful tree, as we cry “Save us”, knowing full well that His love for us held Him there.

Save us from oppression.  Save us from false religion.  Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves.

And seeing him, seeing his love for us as by death he overcame death, as the grave loses its sting, and the gates of hell could not withstand the Lord of Life Himself: then, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of the Father.

Hosanna.  Save us.  Amen.

[1] Zechariah said the Messiah would come from the Mount of Olives near Bethphage (Zech. 14:1-11), and riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9)