Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12
An Idle Tale
When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women told the disciples that Jesus’ tomb was empty and of their conversation with two men in dazzling clothes, the disciples did not believe them. They thought it an idle tale. They were not the last to make such an accusation.
Popular atheist posters say Bigfoot has more eyewitness claims than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Or “The same power that raised Christ from the dead is living in you.” Yeah, it’s called imagination.
Or Richard Dawkins himself, who said: It all quite really comes down to the resurrection of Jesus. It has a fundamental incompatibility [with] the sophisticated scientist… It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.
Petty, trivial, local, unsophisticated. The resurrection was fragile to the first disciples, and equally so today. In fact I want to explore the fragility of the Easter faith, the better to sense its strange power.
Let us begin with Isaiah 65, today’s Old Testament reading. Like so many prophetic texts, it comes out of a situation of distress, of dispossession, exile, of injustice, of infant mortality, of early death. But this is a not journalism but a prophecy of hope. Isaiah offers hope for a new heavens and a new earth, where there will be no more weeping or distress, because life will be fair, people will live long, and all will know blessing.
But is this not an idle tale? You could read this text over images from Syria to Brussels, Eritrea to the Greek-Macedonian border, and it would sound like the same distress, the same longings. Those hopes from Isaiah have not been realized. The wolf does not lie down with the lamb, except to deceive and devour it. The biblical hope is not merely fragile: it seems already to be shattered. No wonder Marx called religion the opium of the people, fobbing us off with the temporary high of hope to distract us from the reality of injustice.
This was the world Jesus entered, hundreds of years later, still distressed, still dispossessed. This time it’s the Romans who were playing the role of oppressor, presiding over a land still full of injustice and violence, greed and unfairness, illness and death. A land where the religious leaders were as often as not in cahoots with the political masters.
But Jesus offered a different story: and the gospels tell it – a story of healing of children, women, desperate people; a story of compassion to the outcast, the despised foreigner, the sexual woman; a story of integrity in the face of oppression; a story of a kingdom, a nation, a community of love described in more stories. The authorities considered this Jesus far from an idle tale, and took his danger seriously. This narrative we heard on the walk through St Andrews on Friday, of the Jewish Council, Pontius Pilate, Herod and the crowd colluding to rub out this story, silencing the voice, burying the evidence. This story ends with the death of a failed prophet, a briefly-popular healer on a cross. The life of Jesus has been proved to be an idle tale, an already passing memory, a soon-to be forgotten agitator, petty, trivial, local, earth-bound. At the end of Friday, atheism is right. God is dead. No god rescued Jesus any more than he made the wolf and the lamb lie down together. It’s all false, all mistaken, all idle. Only the cross – regrettable but incontrovertible – is true. There is reason. There is history.
And yet, here we are, worshipping the risen Christ.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women found the tomb of Jesus empty on the Sunday morning, according to Luke. Two men in dazzling clothes said, He is not here, but has risen. They reminded the women of another tale, one told by Jesus himself that he would be killed and rise again. And the first people the women evangelized did not believe it. And why should they – such a fragile tale, such weakness in a a report, rumour, a probable error. Such stress placed on a single man whose corpse was missing. Such importance put on a handful of appearances over a mere 40 days. Such significance given to a breakfast of fish, a blessing and a departure. Where are his armies? his trumpets? his power displayed? It is petty, trivial, local, earth-bound.
One of the finest books on resurrection is by HA Williams, who writes:
The background of resurrection is always impossibility. And with impossibility staring us in the face, the prelude to resurrection is invariably doubt, confusion, strife and the cynical smile which is our defence against them. Resurrection is always the defiance of the absurd.
And so, we are here, absurdly perhaps, worshipping the risen Christ. It is not his power which draws us, but his fragility. It is not some sudden overwhelming of the world which we believe, but the tale of one empty tomb. For our faith is in the God who loves us. And that love does not overwhelm, does not coerce, does not drive a train through the nature of reality, but in the one man Jesus it never gives up, and continues against every obstacle to offer God’s presence and his hope. In other words, the very reason the resurrection seems so fragile is the reason it holds such a strange power. For it is not the God we expect, all guns blazing. It is a rumour, a disappearance and appearance, a persistence of love.
And so this petty, trivial, and local occurrence is enough. (I’m not so sure about earth-bound – there I may part company with Professor Dawkins – perhaps being bound to earth would have been easier than descending into hell.) The life of this one man, one death, one burial, one descent into hell, one rising is enough. Enough to shatter the rigid certainties of a closed atheism.
Enough to undermine the finality of death.
Enough to dry our tears, to give comfort in our distress, to inspire the work of justice, enough to establish the reality of hope.
For the resurrection is utterly focussed on the future. It means the weight of the past can and will be lifted. A weight which says, This is the way the world is:
that those who plant vineyards will not harvest them;
that the poor will die too young;
that the wolf will eat the lamb;
that we will never find a way to live with our difference;
that the refugee will never find a home;
that the rejected will never be loved again;
that the bereaved will never laugh;
that the guilty will never be forgiven;
that people will never resist the urge to harm themselves, or starve themselves, or end their lives;
that the healer, the lover, the teller of stories will be stopped.
No – Jesus’ rising from death says that all this weight can be lifted. It doesn’t weigh any more. One man’s love is weightier than all the rubbish. A single morning, in which the Crucified One was raised, is enough to remember this past no more. And generations of people who have followed Christ have known this in their own lives and communities.
Some 14 centuries or so after Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women told their idle tale, another woman told tales that some would call idle – Julian of Norwich. This mystic spoke of her visions of God, and I want to draw to a close with words from her of one of these visions:
These words, ‘You shall not be overcome’, were said very loudly and clearly for security and comfort against all the tribulations that may come. He did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved’, but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to pay attention to these words and wants our trust always to be sure and strong, in weal and woe; for he loves and is pleased with us, and so he wishes us to love and be pleased with him and put great trust in him; and all shall be well.
Resurrection? You shall not be overcome? An idle tale? Perhaps? Petty, trivial, local, earthbound? In great measure it was – but a single life will always seem so, until we join ourselves to it, to him. Unworthy of the universe? Why should the universe care? But unworthy of the Creator, who gave us this world in love, and its people as a delight, who promises life, peace and hope, who gives himself in Jesus, and will not let the story of his love end before the end? No – not unworthy, but the reason, ultimately, why we are here today, drawn somehow by an idle tale of love which never ever gives up. Happy Easter.