Trembling and Astonishment – A Sermon for Easter Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8                              

Despite the pastel palette, despite the chocolate, despite the fake grass, Easter is jarring. Easter is the unexpected bump at the bottom of the slide that throws you into the air. Despite smiles and joy, Easter is not a neat landing. Easter is a surprise. It is a jolt. Easter is an illogical conclusion.

And thankfully so.

Death is the ending we know. Despite our differences, differences in biology and social location, differences in wealth and history, differences in family status, age or race—we all share a future reckoning with death. That is the logical conclusion. Our future is a one-way slide.

The oldest parts of the Bible do little to challenge this expectation. In much of the Hebrew Bible, the hope for is a full life–Psalm 90 suggests 70 or 80 years–and then a quiet death in the presence of friends or family. The pain that such a death would bring is not so much the limit to life, but the separation at it’s end. We spend a lifetime building connections, weaving our stories with those of others, only to have the tapestry ripped apart. The natural hope is not for a life to be limitless, but for it to be comprehensible, to have a shape, to end in fullness and love.

The death we know, however, is not so tame. It often comes earlier than it should, before a life’s arc bends downward, before things have been made right. And too often we face death alone. What’s more, in our world death has been weaponized. Death is weaponized when our fear of it prompts hoarding. Death is weaponized through last-ditch attempts to make one’s mark on the world.

Our economy uses the threat of death to increase profits. Late last year a Canadian mining company found it’s way into court. That in itself in not uncommon. However, this particular company was accused of using forced labour at a site in the Horn of Africa. The enslaved were military conscripts, made to work at the mine, beaten when they tried to leave, detained, tied up and left to roast in the sand as temperatures soared over 40 C.

Another Canadian company operating a silver mine in Latin America, is said to have had private security forces assault local protesters who were worried about the impact of the operation on their livelihoods and on their families. Here death is weaponized by secretive financial interests almost beyond the reach of the law. Ironically, both these companies are headquartered in what is said to be one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the world.

Death has been weaponized. We need Easter’s jolt.

One of the key passages within the Hebrew Bible that begins to show the confrontation between God’s zeal for life and the weaponization of death is the one in front of us today. It’s this clutch of verses from Isaiah and the chapters that surround them. Here we see, like an image loading slowly over a poor web connection, the victory of God’s life-giving love over weaponized death. Let us think along with Isaiah for a moment. Let me give you a bit more context for these verses.

Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was a prophet. He had visions of God and of God’s intent for the world. Isaiah wrote down these visions and shared them with his disciples. Isaiah lived in a time of idolatry, greed, injustice, bribery, and evil. It was a time, we are told, when murder replaced righteousness, when the rebel was the one with authority. Isaiah’s time was one when the wine was watered down and the was silver contaminated. It was a time when justice depended on one’s ability to pay for it.

Isaiah put it this way: he said the powerful had, “made a covenant with death”; they had made an agreement with Sheol (c. 28). It’s in that context, a context where death had been weaponized, that Isaiah envisioned God coming on behalf of victims. God would come as a purifying fire set upon the whole system. Isaiah envisioned his own mouth being cleansed with a live coal—a metaphor for an entire people.

Within it’s ancient context Isaiah’s vision is remarkable because of it’s breadth and it’s equity. Isaiah saw the purifying work of God starting with his own people but then involving the surrounding nations. In chapters 13-23 Isaiah reals off an indictment of the powers controlling the world he knew: Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, Egypt, Edom, Arabia, Tyre. In each the powerful made death a tool for exploitation.

Isaiah saw this in contrast to the life-giving breath of God. But Isaiah saw too that death’s grip was deep. Fear, violence, selfishness—the covenant with death had long tendrils. It’s logic was unassailable. To remove it root and branch would be upturn much. Isaiah writes, “Therefore my loins are filled with anguish; pangs have seized me, like the pangs of a woman in labor; I am bowed down so that I cannot hear, I am dismayed so that I cannot see. My mind reels, horror has appalled me” (c. 21).

But that is not all that Isaiah saw. After the fire, Isaiah saw a stump, and from it a green shoot, and then a branch. And he saw one who is unafraid of death, one who would serve the poor with righteousness and deal fairly with the vulnerable. The covenant between death and the powers would be undone.

So, what we read in Isaiah 25, is a vision of the old regime being swept away. At the start of the chapter Isaiah exclaims, “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. . . . For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.”

And then in our reading the tie between death and power is shattered. Isaiah says, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines . . . . And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations he will swallow up death forever. Then the LORD GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces. . . . It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

The picture of death’s disarmament becomes clearer, as clear as anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. And it is a universal vision. The feast is for all peoples, the shroud is removed from all peoples and all nations, the tears wiped away form all faces. The threat and fear of death will be destroyed everywhere. But it is almost too much to hear, too jarring to take seriously.

So on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome walk to the tomb, they do not anticipate the end of death’s reign. Mark tells us that these women had watched as Jesus breathed his last. They had watched as his lifeless body was taken from the cross, wrapped in a shroud, and placed in a tomb. They saw the stone rolled across the opening. They saw death at work. They saw in crucifixion the ferocious way in which the empire wielded death to preserve itself.

And so the three women went to the tomb intending to anoint Jesus’ dead, linen-shrouded body—if they could somehow move the stone that sealed the entrance. But Mark tells us that what they found was an open tomb bereft of the expected corpse. In it’s place sat a chatty young man clothed in white. Mark tells us that the women “went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Notice that none of them walked to the tomb expecting the resurrection of Jesus. Despite the hint that Isaiah had given, the empty tomb was an illogical conclusion. Death was, for them, a one way slide. Jesus was dead. They had watched him suffer. They had already experienced the sting of separation. The shroud of death was final and irrevocable. And so what they found in the empty tomb was not the predictable bulb emerging in spring, it was not the logical bud of the willow, it was not annual baby lamb, it was certainly not the iconic mother rabbit with a nest full of kits.

God’s grace is in all those things. It certainly is, but those things don’t make us tremble with astonishment. Those things don’t make us flee in fear. No, Easter is more jarring, less possible, more discontinuous, less predictable, more upsetting. Easter is the same loving reset that filled Isaiah’s loins with anguish and caused his mind to real.

The Easter story is hard to tell. The regime of the usual way of things, the regime of death weaponized-that is what is interrupted.

Easter is impossible and preposterous. But that is exactly what we need. The regime that relies on the fear of death’s shroud must go—impossible as it seems. The regime that relies on exploitation must go—impossible as it seems. The regime within our own mind that fears death must go, impossible as it seems.

Jesus has been there before us. Death is no longer final. The shroud that is cast over all peoples begins to disintegrate on that first Easter morning.  

The women who found the tomb empty took the message back to the other disciples in Jerusalem, and they carried the message over space and through time. As Mark says, to “all the world,” proclaiming “the good news to the whole of creation.” The message is that the power of death has been broken and the regimes that covenanted with it are losing their grip.

It’s precisely that which is jarring and hard to explain about Easter that make it so very significant. Had there been nothing to surprise the women who visited the tomb, there would be little for us to celebrate. Had Isaiah’s vision been less dramatic, less fundamentally restructuring, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. For us Easter is an invitation. It is an invitation to anticipate the bump at the end of the slide. It is an invitation to build our lives unafraid of death expecting the jolt of God’s eternity.    

For some further reading on the death-aligned elements of the Canadian mining industry see:

Andrew Findlay, “Canadian mining companies will now face human rights charges in Canadian courts,” in The Narwhal (June 2019).

Elizabeth Steyn, “Slavery charges against Canadian mining company settled on the sly,”  The Conversation (Oct. 2020).

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