[This sermon was preceded by bass guitar and drums accompaniment of the Gospel reading from Matthew 27:57-28:2a, which ended abruptly with “And suddenly there was a great earthquake …” and an improvised drum solo.]
To be good at improvisation in music, in dance, in acting, in anything, you have to lose your inhibitions. Improvisation uses all of the learned and practiced technique, but it transcends technique by becoming a force for creativity, for generating a new thing that has never been experienced before. God creating something “new” is the essence of the resurrection, and the “new creation” was prophesied by Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
So much of life is about following the patterns and routines established for us by our parents and others who have come before us. We grow up learning these patterns, routines, schemes of thought, value systems, but seldom does life permit us opportunity to improvise over and against these patterns. In this respect, life has not changed much in 2000 years since Jesus walked this earth.
All those years ago, many thousands of people gathered from near and far, Jews and non-Jews, to celebrate Passover. Can you see all of them gathering from the hillsides and the plains? With their animals scurrying about them? With their children excitedly running around with their cousins? Towing their possessions in wagons to Jerusalem to encamp for the days of the feast? There was so much preparation and work to be done to make the journey to Jerusalem, a journey families and clans likely made year-after-year. There must have been so much routine built into their preparations and the roles assigned to each family member. Yes, not much has changed in the last 2000 years. We still work hard to plan for the holidays, travel to a destination to celebrate, assign roles and tasks for friends and family to prepare food and to make accommodations. The purpose of Passover as a “secularized holiday” apart from its religious significance was not all that much different than what Christmas and Easter have become to us today.
Beyond the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, Passover had become a seasonal holiday to celebrate the arrival of spring and the clearing out of the old grain stored for the winter, which had become stale. Also, as part of Passover, the shepherds would sacrifice a lamb to give thanks to God for the new lambs born in the spring. Today, we do “spring cleaning” and also sacrifice our time and money to prepare feasts of food.
We’re doing the “holidays” not too differently from how people have always done them, as heightened opportunities to celebrate being alive, the glorious changing of the seasons, and as times to be with cherished family and friends.
For Jesus’s followers during those three days of the Passover festivities when Jesus was crucified and before he was raised from the dead there was so much turmoil, anguish, grief, and perhaps anger and vows for revenge, all the while Jesus’s insiders had to prepare for burial. Because it was Passover, there was also the general hustle and bustle from the thousands who had gathered, there were political machinations, plotting and scheming, ongoing troublemaking from revolutionaries, and violent repression from the Roman authorities when things got too out of hand.
Again, not much has changed. Jesus himself warned us in Matthew 24 worldly things don’t change much:
4Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
“There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Yes, not much has changed.
And yet, on that first Easter Sunday morning, an earthquake announced something different. Instead of simply being what would be for us the source of another headline, that earthquake announced the resurrection! An earthquake is a shocking thing to experience, but even more shocking is someone rising from the dead! And even more shocking still than someone rising from the dead is the flat-out surprise that God could be killed in the first place!
Surprise! God in the flesh, God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was killed. Despite Jesus’s own warning to his disciples that he would be betrayed, arrested, and killed, his disciples were still shocked when he was actually crucified. Dying a humiliating public death like that did not square with their views of what the messiah was suppose to do. The messiah was suppose to usher in the messianic age when, for example, in the words of Isaiah:
one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth [and the] wolf and the lamb shall feed together.
After Jesus was killed on Friday and raised on Sunday, none of those “messianic age” expectations came true. To this day there is still crying and distress.
Surprise! The cross and the resurrection are not about our expectations, they are about God improvising his creation over and against the established patterns and routines of our daily lives and our warring ways. In Matthew, one chapter before what we heard this morning, we encounter Jesus teaching about God’s improvisational skills in the garden when Jesus was arrested and one of his followers pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant:
53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” 55At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Jesus fulfilled the scriptures not because the events of his life were pre-arranged like notes on a musical score of history, but rather fulfillment came through God improvising in the face of free-will human decisions. From this perspective, the scriptures were “fulfilled” because … surprise! … everything did not happen according to how people expected them to happen. Again, remember what the prophet Isaiah preached:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
The fulfillment of Jesus is not in the fulfillment of our expectations that he died for us, that he died for our sins. Such a theological idea would have been completely foreign to first century Jews, that one person could die for billions of people in the distant future and somehow atone for their / our sins. This is not to say that Jesus did not die for our sins, it is to say that our hindsight interpretation of the purpose of God coming in the human person of Jesus should not be confused with the surprising, improvisational acts of God in the heat of the moment.
What’s the difference? I will illustrate with two short stories.
Someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded theater. The shout surprises and startles everyone. A few people get up to look around. The shout comes again. A few more people get up. The first people make their way for the exits. And the shout comes again and again, louder and louder. And now everyone is in full blown panic and everyone race out of the building, which becomes engulfed in flames and burns down. Everyone is spared, thanks to the one who shouted “fire!”
Someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded theater. The shout surprises and startles everyone, including a gentleman who is a researcher in neuroscience, specializing in hearing. After feeling the initial shock to his system from the loud, unexpected shout, he sees a few people get up. He thinks for a few seconds about the science of the instinctive fight-or-flight response and how the sympathetic nervous system is activated through the startle response to help the body prepare for fight or flight by releasing adrenaline, increasing heart and breathing rates, increasing blood supply to the muscles, enhancing reflexes, and dilating the pupils. All of this is automatic, pre-conscious, and happens faster than visual information is processed in the brain. He starts to calm back down a bit. The shout comes again. And then the shout comes again and again, louder and louder. Everyone, including the scientist, race out of the building. The fire department comes. The police come. There is no fire. Everyone is extremely shaken and irritated. The prankster is arrested and charged with creating a public disturbance.
The two stories have completely different endings, and thus we naturally interpret in hindsight the rightness of the person shouting fire in the first story and the wrongness of the prankster in the second story. But the shouts of “fire!” are aurally exactly the same. The startle response as a pre-conscious, biological mechanism for survival is the same for all the hearers. The difference is in the intentions of the shouter, the circumstances of why the shouter is shouting, and the ultimate outcome of the shouter’s provocations.
The resurrection of Jesus is the loudest shout this world is ever going to hear, and it is up to you, each and every one of you, to figure out the intentions of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, the circumstances of Jesus’s resurrection, and the ultimate outcome of Jesus’s resurrection.
To many people, Jesus’s resurrection shouts to a sinful world that if they don’t repent, they’re going down with the burning building, so to speak.
To many other people, Jesus’s resurrection proclaims to a hurting world that this life is not all there is, and that there is a better life to come.
To yet other people, the shout of Jesus’s resurrection was so long ago and so irrelevant to today’s circumstances they completely ignore its echo.
And to some people, the shout of Jesus’s resurrection is merely an interesting phenomenon of sociological wish-fulfillment deserving of analysis and study.
The first century Passover practices of clearing out the stale grain and sacrificing a lamb are the practices to which the Apostle Paul alluded in his letter to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8:
6Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul called the people to celebrate the festival with “sincerity and truth.” The context of Paul’s words were a clarion call for righteous living.
For us today, what is the “unleavened bread” with which we should celebrate a holiday like Easter?
In and through whatever way you decide to react to the shout of Jesus’s resurrection, God is at work, improvising in your life a new way to live life, a new way to encounter divine fulfillment.
Maybe you need, as did Corinth in Paul’s day, “sincerity and truth.”
Maybe you need to get out of the proverbial burning building.
Maybe you need to reach out to a hurting world.
Maybe you need to push beyond chronic unbelief and reconsider the impact of Jesus’s resurrection on your life.
Maybe you need to move beyond the scholarly minutiae of the “historical Jesus” and biblical interpretation.
Whatever you need, God is there in the resurrection, startling you to respond by losing your inhibitions to his grace. After Jesus was raised to resurrection life he appeared to his disciples and said, “Do not be afraid.” God does startle us, but once we overcome the initial surprise of God’s action in our life, we should not be afraid of God. We should lower our defenses and open ourselves up to be changed and to be change agents.
“And suddenly there was a great earthquake …” was not the end of the story. There’s so much more than being startled. Get into the Bible. Read the stories for yourself. Practice your faith, whatever form it may take, get better and better at living out your faith, and then, when God is ready, he will startle you on occasion, and that is your opportunity to improvise with God in playing the beautiful music that is your life. Amen.
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