Mark 16:1-8; Acts 10:34-43; Isaiah 25:6-9
The theme of death and resurrection is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible from beginning to end. In the Book of Genesis, we have stories like the flooding of the earth and God saving Noah and his family in order to ensure that human life will continue to populate this planet. In the psalm that we read at the beginning of our service for today, we heard testimony about a God who restored life to a person who had been put down into a pit by his foes and left to die. In our first lesson for today, Isaiah talks about God swallowing up death forever shortly after Isaiah had predicted that God would destroy the earth because the inhabitants of the earth had polluted this entire planet. In the Book of Revelation, the author describes how God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which death will be no more and all things will be made new.
In the midst of all of this Biblical testimony and witness to the paradigm of being raised by God from death to life, we have this story about Jesus who was put to death only to be raised up by God from the dead in order to give hope to his followers that they also could and would experience this new life. This promise and hope of new life was meant to turn our sadness and mourning into gladness and rejoicing. Such is the cycle of life that plays out in our world each and every day of our lives. Every day, we look for evidence that God will save us and all peoples and all nations from the bondage of death and liberate us for a life of faithfulness and obedience to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
Drawing upon the imagery of Isaiah today, let me ask you, “What is the shroud that is cast over your life? What is the sheet that is spread over you and causes you to grieve and mourn either for yourself or for what you see happening to other people in this world that brings tears to their eyes or evokes fear in their hearts? In the midst of all of this pain and anguish, where do you find hope? What keeps you from falling into the pit of despair where all that we can do is wail and gnash our teeth? How long do we have to wait before God will raise us up and save us as well as all peoples and all nations?
We actually don’t have to wait very long for God to save us, because God already has saved us by raising Jesus from the dead. “How so?” you may ask. What is the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation? The long-standing traditional explanation for this connection goes something like this: Given that God raised Jesus from the dead, we also can count on God raising us from the dead and taking us to heaven after we die so long as we believe in the resurrection of the dead as we recite in the Apostle’s Creed. What is left out of this explanation is the importance of God’s forgiveness that ultimately will save us. By raising Jesus from the dead, God has assured all of humanity that God’s answer to Jesus’ final prayer on the cross was a definite “Yes!” By raising Jesus from the dead, God affirmed that all of our sins have been forgiven as Jesus had requested, and that this gift of forgiveness actually is our salvation.
As we listen to our second lesson for today and read through the rest of the Book of Acts, we soon discover that when the early disciples of Jesus talked about the benefit of Jesus’ resurrection, they consistently emphasized the importance of everyone receiving the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. For example, on the day of Pentecost, after Peter told the crowd that God had raised up Jesus, the people asked Peter, “What should we do?” Peter answered them, “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 3, Peter talked about Jesus being raised from the dead and in the very next sentence explained how the people acted in ignorance and how their sins would be wiped out if only they would repent. When the disciples were arrested and brought before the council in Acts 5, Peter told the council that the God of their ancestors raised up Jesus and exalted Jesus as a Leader and Savior so that he might offer to them the forgiveness of sins. In Acts 7, when Stephen was being stoned to death, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God so that before he died, he could cry out in a loud voice, “God, do not hold this sin against these people.”
In our lesson for today from Acts 10, Peter is informing Cornelius and his household that God shows no partiality, that God raised Jesus from the dead for all people, and that God’s forgiveness of sins is meant for Jews and Gentiles alike. In Acts 13, Paul begins his ministry and in his first speech at Antioch, he gets to the part about God raising Jesus from the dead, and goes on to say, “Let it be known to you that through this Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all their sins.” As you can see, this direct correlation between Jesus’ resurrection and the forgiveness of our sins is so prominent throughout the proclamation of the early church that we are compelled to take note and recognize that the hope that we experience on account of the resurrection of Jesus has as much to do with the promise of God’s forgiveness of our sins as anything else that we may read into or take away from this story.
During the time of Isaiah, the people experienced a similar hope because in Isaiah 24, the prophet describes one of the most horrendous pictures of doom and gloom that a prophet could ever proclaim. God is about to lay waste the entire earth, make it desolate, and scatter its inhabitants over the face of the earth. The earth is going to dry up and wither, and the heavens shall languish together with the earth which lies polluted under its inhabitants who have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant of God. Therefore, a curse shall devour the entire earth, and its inhabitants shall suffer for their guilt because the transgressions of the inhabitants lie heavy upon the earth so that the earth shall fall and not rise again.
However, in the very next chapter, which is our lesson for today, Isaiah paints a completely different picture of hope not only for the tribes of Israel and Judah, but also for all peoples and all nations because the death that is experienced as the result of all of their transgressions and sins will not last forever. God will take this disgrace away from all the earth so that all peoples will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation. Without ever using the actual word, the prophet is describing the forgiveness that God will offer to all peoples and all nations whose wine has all but dried up and whose gladness has all but been banished forever. The death that the people have experienced as a result of their violation of God’s holy covenant will be no more because God will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, God was renewing this everlasting covenant with everyone who had anything to do with Jesus’ suffering and death, including his own disciples, and telling all peoples that “yes” their sins had been forgiven and that God would remember their violent transgressions no more. As a result of Jesus’ testimony and witness to God’s unfailing love and his own non-violent way of making peace in this world and being an ambassador of reconciliation up to the very moment that he died, God made sure by raising Jesus from the dead that all who put their trust in this Jesus would be liberated from their sin and know that they could die tomorrow as a people who have been set free from their bondage to sin forevermore.
Let’s face it!! Evidence of this sin is all around us, and, quite honestly, is in each and every one of us. There is no escape from what we do to others, or to ourselves, for that matter, that isn’t oppressive, corrupt, or violent. We are good people who are meant to strive for the common good of all people, and yet, we allow our pride, our fear, our greed, our envy, our lust, and our anger to get the best of us. Obviously, our news media picks up on this human condition and concentrates on all of the terrible things that are happening in our society and throughout the world, and pays little attention to anything that is really good. Nevertheless, this concentration is a constant reminder to all of us about how much we are in need of God’s forgiveness and salvation. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God assured us—all of us—that we have been forgiven and saved, and that we do not need to fear death ever again.
Given this assurance, what then shall we do? To answer this question, all that we have to do is go back to the consistent message of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and of Peter, all of whom began their proclamation about the good news of God’s reign with the exhortation for people to repent—to turn back to God and conform our lives to Jesus’ way of loving all people with God’s impartiality and striving for God’s justice and peace in all the earth. For many of us, we began this journey of repentance when we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and marked with the cross of Jesus Christ forever. At that time, we were liberated from our bondage to sin and called to be followers of Jesus whose Spirit lives in and through us to reflect and reveal to all the world the love of God that is responsible for destroying the shroud that is cast over all peoples and the sheet that is spread over all nations.
To rejoice on this day at the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is to acknowledge and celebrate this love of God that was made evident when God raised Jesus from the dead and assured all of us that our sins are forgiven. In this way, God has swallowed up death forever, and nothing that we do or fail to do will ever separate us from this love of God. As we rejoice in this promise and hope, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto the risen Jesus, our Leader and Savior. Amen.