Sunday, April 9, 2023

April 9, 2023 -- Easter Sunday

                           Biblical Words                                               [822] 

Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10. 

Things become new, victories celebrated, living set in a heavenly light – God’s work of resurrection.  

Jeremiah 31:1-6.  

This prophetic passage speaks of new age of reconciliation and prosperity for “the families of Israel,” who have known conflict and suffering for ages.  God speaks the ancient promise:  I will be your God and you will be my people.  All begins from that!  
The middle part of the oracle is about refugees returning from exile who find “grace in the wilderness.”  From a distance, they sight the goal of their journey, the holy city.  God speaks to the city:  “Again I shall build you and you shall be built, O virgin of Israel.”  The personified city will go forth with “tambourines,” as the women always did in victory dances welcoming home the successful warriors (see I Samuel 18:6).  
And the vision extends into the future:  “you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria ... and shall enjoy the fruit” (verse 5).  

Three big things here!  (1) Vineyards take time to become productive; they represent a long-term investment of labor – and hope!  (2) These vineyards will be on the hills of Samaria, the heart of the old Israelite northern kingdom.  That can only happen if the Israelite tribes are re-united and working together in peace and harmony!  (3) Those who plant the vineyards will enjoy the fruit!  Peace will prevail for long periods so those who invest the labor will be around to share in the harvests!  
And, lest we forget:  All this is promised for the holy city.  “Sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim [the old north], ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God” (verse 6, NRSV).  
The prophetic word heard at Easter is about a great age coming of peace and welfare for God’s people!  

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24.  

The Psalm reading returns to the great liturgy heard on Palm Sunday.  Only now we hear not only the triumphal entry that climaxes that liturgy, but we hear also of the great struggle that preceded it.  
In the royal rituals of ancient Jerusalem, the king fought a ceremonial battle against the nations.  (The battle is reported in the verses omitted from our reading, verses 10-13.)  The symbolic battle was fought somewhere away from the temple, probably at some ominous place on the Mount of Olives or in the Kidron Valley.  The king himself describes the violent struggle.  
All nations surrounded me; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  
They surrounded me, 
      surrounded me on every side; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  
They surrounded me like bees; 
      they blazed like a fire of thorns; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, 
      but the Lord helped me.  (Verses 10-13.)  
The chorus breaks in, speaking of the king as “the right hand of the Lord.”  
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; 
      the right hand of the Lord is exalted; 
      the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.  (Verses 15-16.)  
The king himself declares that he is not overcome!  
I shall not die, but I shall live, 
      and recount the deeds of the Lord.  
The Lord has punished me severely, 
      but [the Lord] did not give me over to death.  (Verses 17-18.) 
After violent effort, the king has been victorious, and that is the occasion of the triumphal entry into the city gates performed in the rest of the psalm.  
The ancient rituals and liturgies of the sacred king in Zion became revelation and reality for the followers of Jesus the Messiah.  
The word of victory for the ancient Davidic kings has become flesh for the Jesus followers who have been swept up by the resurrection of their Lord.  That resurrection was the enactment in their world of the ancient triumph of God’s Anointed One on behalf of those who belong to God’s reign. 
The victory of the resurrection makes possible a new entry into the realm of God’s righteousness.  The Easter throng can shout with exuberance, 
This is the day that the Lord has made 
      let us rejoice and be glad in it.  

Colossians 3:1-4. 

Easter should not, perhaps, be only exaltation and celebrating.  Perhaps some exhortation to live a higher life is also fitting.  The Epistle reading suggests that.  
The persons caught up in Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of their own new lives are told:  “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verses 2-3, NRSV).  To be joined with the resurrected one is to have died to the self-centered ties to earth.  
The great paradox of the Lord who died in order to bring new life is that one can now live fully in the world because one has died to the world!  Being “in the Lord” will lead one to the kind of acts of love by which he fulfilled God’s will.  

Matthew 28:1-10.  

The Gospel reading on Easter is always the women coming to the empty tomb.  
In Matthew’s version, the women involved are those faithful persons who stood at a distance to watch the death on the cross (27:55-56).  Some of them also followed the body to the tomb when it was sealed (27:61).  “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” wait out the sabbath before returning to the tomb.  They go back to the tomb two days after the crucifixion, which in Biblical idioms of time-reckoning is “on the third day.”  (In counting Biblical days, today is always the “first” day.)  When they get to the tomb, something special is waiting for them.  
All the Gospels have an angel (or two) appear to the women at the tomb, but only Matthew visualizes for us the splendid arrival of this heavenly messenger:  
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  (Verses 2-4, NRSV.)  
Only Matthew tells us this.  He is demonstrating that something very extraordinary is happening here.  What we have here is the work of God!  The heavenly forces are active.  
The word “angel” means “messenger” (in both Hebrew and Greek).  So the business of the angel is to tell the women what happened.  “You are looking for Jesus who was crucified…he has been raised…Come, see the place where he lay” (verses 5-6).  It is certainly one of the functions of the women that they must see the place where the dead Jesus was put.  The narrative has made clear that these are the same women who saw him put into the tomb and the stone rolled in front of it (27:59-61).  
But the climax of the messenger’s mission is to direct the women to the future.  “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you [disciples] to Galilee; there you will see him’ ” (verse 7).  The women get the message, though with a mixture of “fear and great joy,” and they start out quickly to carry the word.  
“Suddenly” the women’s excited flight is interrupted (verses 9-10).  Jesus himself looms up before them and says, “Greetings!”  (How did the Gospel reciter express this?  What kind of intonation and volume might she or he have used for this one-word confrontation? One can imagine several options.)  The women apparently say nothing.  They only fall down before Jesus, take hold of his feet, and they “worshiped him,” which means they prostrated themselves before him.  

"Mary Magdalene in the garden with Jesus."  Mosaic in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. 
Rowan and Irene LeCompt.  Picture courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity School Library.  
What Jesus now says adds nothing to what the messenger had already told them.  Do not fear; go tell the disciples to go to Galilee.  
The unqualified purpose of this little interruption scene is to show the women worshiping the risen Jesus.  Unlike John’s version of this scene, the risen Jesus is not too fragile to be touched (see John 20:17).  His feet can be grasped in the adoration of his closest followers, perhaps especially by these perceptive and faithful women.  
The women at the tomb is only a beginning.  They receive instructions to help get some new things started.  For a moment they have had the ecstasy of direct worship of their Lord, now in his glory, but then they are sent on their way.  
The Easter message is intended to do that.  

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