Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 2022
Some two thousand years ago, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went back to the towns their families had come from to be registered. The Romans were in power. What they demanded, happened. Even if meant a young couple travelling while the woman was heavily pregnant. Even if it meant that she gave birth far from home. After all, the Romans ruled the world.
And yet, whatever the Emperor Augustus might have thought, however he might have been acclaimed, he was not the world’s saviour. It was not Rome that would bring the world peace. The baby born to that young woman would bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; he would be the one who would fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. At his birth the angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!’
When that baby had grown into a man, he went to the synagogue at Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ At first the people listening spoke well of him, but the mood soon changed. They thought that having a local boy as a prophet would be particularly good news for them, that he would have a special loyalty towards Nazareth. But he didn’t. He told them: ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town,’ and spoke of the Gentiles to whom the prophets Elijah and Elisha had ministered. His good news was for the whole world, not just the people of Israel. So they were enraged, and tried to kill him. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
He continued to proclaim the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom in the synagogues. He healed the sick, and freed people from demons. People began to follow him, and he taught them what this new kingdom would mean, how it turned the values of the world upside down: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’ He told them of a new way to live, and he lived that new way out himself. Those who followed him knew that this new way was the way of God, because they saw God in his deeds of power. God had come to them in the person of this man.
When they journeyed with him to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, they rejoiced, praising God joyfully with loud voices for all they had seen. They echoed the words of the angels at his birth. The angels had looked down and sung of peace on earth; the disciples looked up and sang of peace in heaven: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ The man they called ‘king’ had reconciled heaven and earth and brought peace to both. His followers showed their loyalty and obedience to him by laying down their cloaks on the road, but they knew he was very different from Caesar and his governor, Pilate, or the puppet king Herod. They placed him on a colt, rather than a warhorse, because this man was no warrior. He was the Prince of Peace for whom the world had been waiting, but his peace was very different from the Pax Romana the Empire created through violence. It would be created through suffering and sacrifice.
It was not just the human world who had been waiting for his coming. The whole creation was waiting with eager longing for this revelation. The people of Israel had long known that creation both reveals God and worships God, that the non-human creation is as important to God as the human, and that it joins with humans in praising God. In this man creation itself was going be set free from its bondage to decay, and placed on the path that would lead to both a new heaven and a new earth. No wonder, then, that if the disciples had been silent as the king entered his city the very stones would have cried out.
It was a journey of great joy for the disciples. But there was a shadow over it. Before they had even entered the city, the mood changed. When the king had first seen his city, he had wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’ As he had set out for Jerusalem he had lamented: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ He, like the prophets who had preceded him, went up to Jerusalem to die.
There was nothing particularly unusual about his death. It was simply what people have been doing to each other for centuries. Those who speak the truth to power, who refuse to be cowed by the principalities of this world, frequently find themselves in trouble. And so the chief priests and the scribes lied about him to Pilate, saying: ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ Rome executed him as a terrorist, in the most painful way possible, as a deterrent to all those who rebelled against its power. His acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching. It looked as though all hope was lost. It looked as though Rome had won.
And yet … and yet … eucatastrophe! In the single greatest act of civil disobedience ever seen this man, executed by the powers of Empire, was raised from the dead. The very least that the world’s oppressive regimes expect when they kill someone is that the person will stay killed. They believe that they have ultimate power because they have the power over life and death. And yet, the Emperor Augustus might demand a registration and make all the world obey; the Governor Pilate might be able to execute those who threatened Rome; but ultimately the world does not belong to the political powers, and violence does not succeed. The motley group of disciples who had sung ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ the week before had got it right. God had come calling on Jerusalem, and God’s glory had been seen on the cross. Now the resurrection showed that God’s glory was greater and more powerful than even they had imagined. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us: goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.
This twist in the tale was so unlikely, so beyond anything that might be expected, that when it was first told those who heard it thought it an idle tale and didn’t believe. How could they imagine that what Isaiah had prophesied so many centuries ago had come true? That Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets, had been recreated as a joy, and its people as God’s delight? How could they believe in a world that was no longer divided between rich and poor, a world in which people could build houses and inhabit them; plant vineyards and eat their fruit; a world in which the poor no longer built houses for the rich to inhabit, no longer planted food for the rich to eat? Yet this is the kingdom of God and the resurrection of the one killed on the cross was the strongest sign of its coming.
This is what we celebrate today, the new world that God has created, a world in which the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. In the resurrection we have seen the defeat of violence and hatred and inequality and death. Our role now is to live as the citizens of this new world: to love our enemies; do good to those who hate us; bless those who curse us; pray for those who abuse us; give to everyone who begs from us; love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to do all this with great joy, because by doing it we are responding to God’s love for us seen most clearly in the crucifixion and resurrection.
Today is a day of joy not just for us but for the whole world, because of the way today inspires us as Christians to love and serve others.
Over these past three days, we have seen God’s glory in all its forms, in death and the new life that follows, in an apparent defeat that is in fact the ultimate victory. Today is the day of ultimate celebration. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
 The word eucatastrophe (my favourite word) was created by the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing about fairy tales, Tolkien said that all of them include a eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe, the sudden joy that comes amid despair, the moment of unexpected deliverance. The reason, Tolkien argued, that fantasy writers like him were able to offer their readers the Consolation of the Happy Ending is because the Creator had already given it to us: ‘The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits’. J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’ in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 156.