There are a number of certain commercials I think we’ve all seen. They go along these lines: “But wait! Your culinary experience isn’t complete until you’ve savored our luscious dessert. Layer after mouth-watering layer of deep, rich chocolate! It has a taste that is absolutely decadent!”
I realize, of course, that the intent is to describe a delight that is a guilty pleasure. However, unless one has a particular preference for the flavor of rotten rations, that dish might be one to avoid. After all, the original meaning of “decadent” refers to something in a state of decay—something in the process of decomposing!
Still, at some level, descriptions of decadent dessert are true. Nothing lasts forever. I’m reminded of the song by R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” (And I should add, “And I feel fine.”)
As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31). The Revised English Bible says that “the world as we know it is passing away.”
Plenty of cosmologists say the same thing. At some point in time, all of the current creation—everything we now see—will be reduced to its constituent elements. And even they won’t hold together. If the cosmos continues to expand, that would mean we have in the neighborhood of 20 billion years before every atom, every subatomic particle, in our present universe gets ripped apart. (At least, that’s one school of thought among many!)
In an Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah, the prophet has a vision truly looking beyond our present reality. In the first verse of the passage, he relays the message God has given him, saying, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (v. 17). Today we recall and celebrate an event that in the timeless, eternal mind of God, shows a door opening to that new dimension: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The scripture reading ends on a note recalling the Garden of Eden—and the reversal of what went wrong. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (v. 25).
If we recall in the book of Genesis, the serpent was given the sentence “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (3:14).
The resurrection is often thought of as the eighth day of creation. “And on the eighth day…there was a new creation.” On the eighth day, God raised Jesus from the grave.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why the text in Isaiah 65 is one of the Old Testament lessons read at Easter. All of that stuff about a new creation, a new vision, a new Jerusalem—all of that lends itself very well to reflections on resurrection.
Still, having said that, we have to be aware of trying to shoehorn Jesus Christ into the Hebrew scriptures.
I said how the passage begins with God’s promise of a new creation—how the former things won’t be remembered. Hear verses 18 and 19: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”
There will be no more crying. The infant mortality rate will drop to zero. “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (v. 21). There are also the images I mentioned earlier that recall the Garden of Eden.
This poetic language of a seemingly unreal, dreamlike, future appears throughout the Bible. It’s in some of the prophets, some of Jesus’ words in the gospels, and the book of Revelation is filled with it. It’s called apocalyptic language. “Apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.” It tends to emerge when the community of faith is under great persecution. It states, in often very colorful terms, that the high and mighty will be brought down and the lowly will be lifted up.
The prophet is telling the people that, besides the need to get their act together, they need not worry about the past, the former age. It is said earlier in Isaiah, God is “about to do a new thing” (43:19). What they’ve been doing hasn’t worked. It has led them to a dead end. That’s true in more ways than one.
They’re no longer ruled by the Babylonians (these words come after the return from exile in Babylon), but they’re still subject to the Persians. The prophet is trying to expand their vision, to help them see how they are slaves to their own corruption, to their own decadence. They are slaves to the powers of death.
In Luke’s version of Easter morning, angelic visitors pose the question to the women coming to the tomb: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5).
What does that mean for us this morning? In what ways do we look for the living among the dead? In what ways are we trapped by the past, trapped by the former age? In what ways do we reject God’s new creation? And on the flip side, in what ways do we yearn for that eighth day to dawn?
There are plenty of ways to approach this. Recall verse 18, where the prophet, speaking for God, says to “be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” We are called to joy.
Is there room in our hearts for joy? I’m not talking about painting saccharine smiles on our faces. I’m talking about something deeper than emotion; something that’s present, even in times of extreme sorrow. Is there room in our hearts for the joy of resurrection—for the hope of life, where once there was only death?
In Matthew 28, that’s something Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” are facing. (By the way, “the other Mary” could be any number of people. Mary was a very common name.)
They are coming to the tomb of Jesus, preparing to care for the body. There’s an earthquake, caused by the angel rolling the stone away from the mouth of the tomb. (Please note: in Matthew’s gospel, there is only one angel.) He took a seat on the stone, which prompted the Roman guards to tremble with fear and become “like dead men” (v. 4). Maybe they passed out or were paralyzed with dread.
The angel comforts the women, saying he knows why they have come. They’ve come looking for a body, but wait, the body has disappeared! They are searching for Jesus, but he has been raised—just as he predicted.
Then he gives them an assignment: go back and tell the others. You all (y’all) will be reunited in Galilee. But then Jesus gives them a surprise visit. Greetings! As one might expect, Mary and Mary are terror-stricken. Jesus repeats the angel’s message. “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).
I did mention joy. You might ask, “Okay, where is it?”
I want to especially focus on verse 8. We are told, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples.” With fear and great joy. The Greek words are φόβος (phobos) and χαρά (chara). We get our word “phobia” from phobos, and “cheer” comes from chara.
Along with love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22-23). Joy is part of God’s very nature.
For that precise reason—and this shouldn’t be a surprise—the devil has no part in joy. The devil has no joy. The devil laughs, but it is cruel laughter. But as for joy, the devil hates joy. The devil fears joy. The devil is “joyphobic.” Joy is a weapon against the darkness.
The women are filled with fear and great joy. With great joy. The word is μέγας (megas). It’s mega-joy! How often have we experienced mega-joy?
I am reminded of Psalm 126. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1). We couldn’t believe it. We were in a state of euphoria. We were plunged into an ocean of joy. However, what did we do to deserve it?
Again, hear the word of the prophet, speaking for the Lord. “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear” (v. 24). Before they call I will answer. Friends, that is a picture of grace. Grace doesn’t ask if we are deserving. Grace doesn’t ask if we are worthy. If we do deserve it—if we are worthy—then it isn’t grace. Grace empowers the joy that floods our soul.
Still, remember we’re told the great joy is joined with fear. How can fear be joined with joy? What is this phobos? This fear is not a fear of punishment. It is not a fear of retribution. It is not a fear of being caught red-handed. It is not a fear of being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
This phobos, this fear, is one of reverence. It is one of awe. As the psalmist says, it is like those who dream. But this exceeds even their wildest dreams. It is unimaginable. The message Jesus gives the women is just that. To their disbelieving ears, he tells them to bear forth the gospel. Spread the good news: our Lord has risen from the grave.
Here are some prayerful words for us all on this day of resurrection: Come to the altar of the heavens, seeking the vision of the new heaven and the new earth. Lay aside your fear and hatred of the other—our phobia of the other. Watch your words. Guard your heart because that is where evil festers. Practice agape—God’s selfless love.
Indeed, bear forth the Gospel. We stand on holy ground. Pray for each other; refrain from gossip. Pray for the community of the remnant in which God is shaping the harvest. There is not a sin which cannot be redeemed. Welcome the mega-joy of the Lord.
To God be the glory.