April 21, 2019
Did you hear the one about . . . ? – J. Barry Vaughn – Easter Day – April 21, 2019
About four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a Hebrew writer took the name Qoheleth, or the Preacher, and wrote these words: “Vanity of vanity; all things are vanity.” They are the opening words of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher went on to say, “All things are wearisome; more than one can express… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes makes a lot of sense. There is a reason that it was included among the so-called Wisdom books of the Old Testament.
Ecclesiastes expresses what we would call a cyclical view of history. History is a circle that goes around and around: “What has been is what will be…” Or as Henry Ford said, “History is just one damn thing after another.”
But Ecclesiastes should have known better. Israel changed our idea of time and history. The Hebrew slaves in Egypt were not content with their lot. They cried out to God, and God heard them and brought them out of Egypt into the land of promise.
The scribes of Israel taught us something new about history, namely, that history has a direction. It is going somewhere. It doesn’t just go around and around in a circle. History goes in the direction of God’s promise, and God’s promise is freedom… liberation… hope… resurrection.
No one expressed it better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
History is often frustrating. It plugs along day after tiresome day. For ages nothing seems to change, and then it turns on a dime.
Early Christians were not as somber and pious as you and I are. In the early church the week after Easter day was a time of feasting and merriment and even telling jokes! In many Eastern Orthodox country there is a tradition of the Easter Joke. Some think that the tradition of the Easter joke may have come from St. John Chrysostom, the patriarch or bishop of Constantinople, who said that the risen Christ laughed in the devil’s face.
The very first Easter joke is in the gospel according to Luke.
The women who came to the tomb of Jesus had been to other tombs. They knew what to do. They knew what spices to bring, how to prepare a body for burial, how to wrap it in strips of linen. So they gathered up the spices that had brought to a dozen other tombs, and early in the morning, while it was still dark, they set out. But this time it was different. This time the great, heavy stone like the stones that had covered every other tomb they had ever visited was gone and the tomb was empty. The grave clothes were discarded. And two mysterious strangers in bright, glowing clothes poked them in the ribs and told the first Easter joke: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” We don’t laugh at the joke the way we should, because none of us have yet been to a funeral at which the guest of honor did not show up. But on that Easter day two thousand years ago, the women who went to the tomb found the guest of honor missing. The joke was on them. They had prepared for death but found life. And I hope they roared with laughter.
Christians should laugh more, because the essence of Christianity is the greatest joke of all. We are too solemn and joyless. Oscar Wilde said that a fundamentalist is someone who is afraid that somebody somewhere is having a good time. But if Christians can’t have a good time, then who can? Certainly not atheists! Atheists have nothing to laugh about, because in their world there are no surprises.
But you and I worship a God of surprises, a God of joy, a God of laughter.
I would even say that joy is one of the best arguments for Christianity.
The Risen Christ helps us let go of anxiety.
There are a thousand reasons for anxiety: There isn’t enough money to pay the credit card bill or even the rent; you are single and want to find a partner; your health is bad and you are afraid of being disabled or even dying. Those are all good reasons to be anxious. But you and I both know people whose lives are far worse and yet they are filled with joy. That is an argument for the resurrection.
The Risen Christ liberates people from the demonic power of addiction. If you know anyone who has overcome alcohol or drug addiction, then you know someone who has met the Risen Christ.
The Risen Christ frees us to live lives of abundance and gratitude instead of scarcity and complaint. It is a terrible thing to live in scarcity, to be afraid that there is not enough to go around, to be afraid that others are going to take what we have. I’m afraid that scarcity thinking is a big part of the reason that so many people are afraid of those who are different, of immigrants, of people of other races and nationalities. But generosity is a sign of strength. The Risen Christ frees us to be generous.
The Risen Christ frees us to be people of hope. It is easy to look around and see only the dark shadows, but the Risen Christ summons us out of the shadows and into the light, out of despair into hope.
God had played a trick on the women who came to the tomb. God played a trick on all those who expect history to go around and around in a circle for all eternity; he played a trick on us and still does. In our world-weary way we believe that we know the meaning of life, know how the story ends, but we do not. God surprises us. Just when we think that there is nothing new under the sun, God does a new thing. Just when we think we have seen it all, God pulls a rabbit out of a hat, or rather pulls a dead man out of the tomb.
Ecclesiastes was wrong: There IS something new under the sun.
Did you hear the one about the man who was crucified? You’ll never believe the punchline!