Easter Sunrise Service
Christ United Methodist Church
April 5, 2015
Scripture: Psalm 137:1-6
I was a member of a church once that was into leather. Specifically, we were into Bible leather, the leather binding that fits around the paper, holding it all together. We loved the way it felt and smelled. We especially loved the way it held all that paper together while continuing to allow it to flop and flap. We loved to wave that leather-clad Bible around; it felt like we were issuing a veiled threat that, should you disagree with us, we just might let it flop and flap about your head and shoulders awhile. When brought down suddenly upon a hard surface (like, say, a pulpit) it made a deeply satisfying THUMP! Yep, we loved us some leather.
Of course, we liked the paper, too. We even liked to read it sometimes, although looking back I get the impression that we loved the idea of the Bible, and we loved it as an object, a bit more than we loved spending time in it. Could it be that, when we talked about the Bible we thought that it was one thing, while upon opening it up we discovered that it’s a lot of things? Could it be that when we were holding it in our hands and waving it about menacingly we could call it “THE WORD OF GOD,” while when we cracked the pages we found, not just a word, but a whole bunch of tangled, messy conversations?
And could it be that, by being the tiniest bit intimidated by all those fraught and complicated conversations, we missed what most makes the Bible the word of God? Because that’s what the Bible is at its heart: a bunch of conversations. One part of Scripture makes a point about the human encounter with God, and another section answers back with a point of its own, sometimes clarifying, sometimes questioning the first. Thousands of these conversations, some big, some small, take place in Scripture. Such conversations are Spirit-breathed, and it’s only by listening to them in all their complexity and messiness that we hear the word of God speak from between these leather covers.
The conversation we come to listen in on today is the big one, of course; the one about Resurrection. That conversation has four main participants: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Paul likes to jump in on that conversation a lot, even interrupting the others at times, (because, you know, Paul). Peter, James, whoever it was who wrote the book of Hebrews; they all try to get in a word. But, as you may have noticed, we haven’t read from any of those folks today. Instead, we heard from the psalmist and the Prophet Isaiah–not the people we’re accustomed to find on the panel when resurrection is the topic.
But like I said before, this is THE conversation; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is, for Christians, the linchpin of history. It’s what makes sense of everything else. The scriptural conversation tells us that God is all about the business of resurrection. And if that’s the case, then that conversation about resurrection is rumbling around all over Scripture, not just the New Testament.
More to the point, it’s a genuine conversation, not a monologue. When Scripture speaks to itself, we learn something from all the voices, if we listen carefully enough. Easter tells us that yes, God is first and foremost a God of resurrection. What’s more, God has always been about bringing life where there was no life. If we listen in on the Old Testament side of that conversation, we just might hear echoes of our own stories–stories about the God who refuses to let death have the last word.
One of the things we can learn from the Old Testament is that sometimes we grow so accustomed to being dead that we don’t think we need resurrection–but God knows better. I think that’s the situation we discover Moses in when, in Exodus chapter 3, we see him tending his goats out there in the wilderness. He’d had a pretty remarkable life before, being rescued as a baby from Pharaoh’s population control plan, and then winding up as an adopted son in that same Pharaoh’s court. He’d seemed destined for big things until thge day he saw that Egyptian dude beating up the Hebrew slave. Letting his temper get the better of him, he killed the Egyptian, and fearing for his own skin as a result, promptly got out of Dodge. So here he is, on the lam from the Egyptians, trying to keep as low a profile as he can by becoming a back country goatherder. And that’s where God finds him and, getting his attention with a bit of arboreal pyrotechnics, starts hollering at him about becoming a great leader and telling Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
Which is when Moses, seemingly satisfied with his newfound career in animal husbandry, tries to turn down God’s job offer. He stammers out a set of excuses, each one lamer than the last, until finally all he’s got to say to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is, in essence, “I don’t wanna!” But God isn’t buying it. It seems that when resurrection is on God’s agenda, when God intends to bring life to the death we’ve accepted for ourselves, we don’t have a lot of say in the matter. Death might seem more comfortable; we might have lowered our expectations so much that death feels like a pretty good business plan. God doesn’t care. God will settle for nothing less than the new life for which God went to all the trouble to create us in the first place. Sometimes we’ve grown so accustomed to being dead that we don’t think we need resurrection–but God knows better.
Other times we’ve hit rock bottom so hard that nothing short of resurrection can save us. Now, of all the biblical characters you know, I’m willing to bet that David isn’t the one who sprang to mind when I said that last sentence. Of the many folks who show up in the Old Testament, David is clearly the one with the best PR firm. He’s remembered as the scrappy little champion in the fight against Goliath, the great king and ruler, the one who began construction on the Temple, the “man after God’s own heart.” He was so popular that, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem centuries later, what do they say? “Hosanna to the son of David! Now that’s what I call an approval rating!
But read the book of Samuel–our source for most of what we know about David–and you’ll see that he was a character of almost Shakespearean complexity. Prior to becoming king, when things went south between David and his predecessor Saul and Saul was chasing David around the countryside trying to kill him, it’s often hard to tell just who was the cat and who the mouse. The Book of Samuel shows us a David who was, at the very least, highly motivated to acquire power, and highly skilled in pursuing it.
And once he got that power; how did he use it? Well, does the name “Bathsheba” mean anything to you? She was, of course, the young woman whom David ogled from his roof while she was bathing one day, and then “invited” to come join him for what, given the disparities in social power between the two individuals, can hardly be called a consensual activity. And when she became pregnant David conspired to have her husband Uriah the Hittite killed in battle in order to marry her himself and keep the whole thing hushed up (at which he failed apparently, given that the story is right there in Bible where anyone can read it).
These are not trivial matters. In David’s story we see murder, gross abuse of power, and more. Such sins do something to us, blackening the heart and cauterizing the conscience. In Hinduism they say that, if you do stuff like this, your soul is going to compact and shrivel within you, shrinking down so much that when you’re reincarnated the only appropriate body for your soul to be reborn into is that of a cockroach. While I don’t agree with the Hindu understanding of the end of the process, I find this picture of how sin truncates the human spirit compelling.
And I’m pretty sure this is what happened to David. I think it’s why he didn’t understand the parable with which Nathan the prophet confronted him. Remember it? Nathan told David a story about a poor man whose only joy in life was his little baby lamb. It seems this poor man’s rich next-door neighbor threw a party for his friends and, rather than slaughter a sheep from his own abundant flock, stole the poor guy’s baby lamb and fed it to his guests. Now, for the rest of us it’s as plain as the nose on our face that Nathan’s story is a thinly-veiled version of what David had done with Bathsheba. But David’s sin has so blinded him that he jumps up and vows to have the head of the villain who would do such a thing, until Nathan (in one of the bravest things anybody ever does in Scripture) points at David and says, “You’re the guy!” David finally sees what he’s done, repents and, though the rest of his life is hardly perfect, God uses him all the same.
David’s response to Nathan’s story is nothing short of resurrection. Like us, his actions had taken him to the far country, from which no return was to be had. Without the extraordinary grace of God, that’s where he–and we–would have stayed. Into the darkness of the grave we’ve dug for ourselves God shines a light and extends a hand. Some times we’ve hit rock bottom so hard that nothing short of resurrection can save us–and so that’s what God does.
And sometimes we get the resurrection we need, not the one we think we want. Remember the scripture passages we read a while ago? The first one was from Psalm 137, without question one of the most beautiful of all the Psalms. The setting is the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians were hauling a number of the leading citizens of Jerusalem off to Babylon. The psalmist tells of how their captors were trying to get the Israelites to sing a happy song for them. Yet how could they be happy when they remembered the destruction of Jerusalem? In words of haunting poetry the psalmist declares that he would rather lose his right hand than lose the memory of his home (the King James says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning . . .”).
Now a little while ago we read verses 1-6, which are, of course, not the whole psalm. Here’s what the rest of the psalm says:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Yep, that’s right; at the tail end of this heartfelt song of loss and longing for home is an addendum speculating on how nice it would be if someone were to round up a few Babylonian babies and smack their heads against a rock. (I know what you’re thinking: between David’s sexual misconduct and this imagined act of violence, the sunrise service ought to come with a PG13 rating! All I can say is that I didn’t put this stuff in the Bible; I just have to preach on it. I’d be more than happy to preach about lambs and bunnies and little baby chicks, but there’s a distressing lack of biblical material on those subjects. We just told one of the only stories about a lamb, and you can see how well that turned out). Now as you may or may not know, the psalmist here is engaging in an extreme example of something that shows up pretty often in the psalms. Frequently the writers tell God how they’d like to see bad things happen to their enemies. The technical term for these are “imprecatory” psalms; their purpose is to take the anger we feel at the world’s injustice and lift it up to God, allowing God to deal with the situation. The idea is to take seriously the pain we feel when we’ve been wronged, while leaving it up to God to find a solution.
Yet because the psalmists were, like us, flawed and fallen human beings, it’s not hard to hear in their words sometimes, not just a prayer that God would right the world’s wrongs, but also some advice on how God should get the job done. And from giving God the benefit of our wisdom in such matters it’s a pretty short step to dispensing that justice ourselves on God’s behalf. So in Psalm 137 we find someone praying for remembrance and maybe resurrection–as long as that resurrection gets to involve a little revenge as well.
The bookend to Psalm 137 is the other text we read a few minutes ago, Isaiah 40. As the psalm speaks of the Israelites’ experience in leaving their home to go into captivity, so the prophet declares that the time has come for the descendants of those Israelites to leave their captivity and return home. And what is the first word that God speaks to Israel through the prophet? Comfort. “Comfort my people” God tells the prophet, and “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Make a highway in the desert; knock down the hills, raise up the valleys, and smooth out the gravel so that the children and grandchildren of Jerusalem can return to the holy city.
The prophet’s words, every bit as lovely and haunting as the first verses of Psalm 137, speak of healing and forgiveness. They tell of those who wandered, but now return, of those who were lost but are now found, of those who were dead but now live. They speak of resurrection. But notice what they don’t talk about: revenge. Washed away are the anger and the thoughts of doing harm to those who have harmed us. In the healing light of resurrection, such darkness is chastened, and done away with. God gives us the resurrection we need, not the one we think we want.
Later today we’ll hear the main resurrection story, the one that makes all these other stories possible. We’ll hear the story of how God raises Jesus from the dead that first Easter morning. Into the darkness of death God speaks the word of resurrection. Starting with those female disciples who had come to prepare Jesus’ body, we haven’t stopped talking about it ever since. We’re here today because we hope to find our own stories of resurrection. As we seek them, we should listen to Moses, David, and the Israelites returning from captivity. They tell us that, just like them, God invites us today to leave the grave and step into the dawn of resurrection. God grant that it might be so. Amen.