Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Evensong Sermon: Resurrection then and now

Dan 6,1-23, Mark 15.46-16.8

There is an ancient and obvious connection between the two stories we’ve heard today: Jesus being raised from death and Daniel being drawn out of the lions’ den. Both have been delivered from a stone tomb – or at least a place which was meant to be their tomb. The cave where Jesus’ body is buried is intended to be his last resting place, and the lion’s den is somewhere no one expected Daniel to emerge from. There should have been nothing left of him in the morning but a few bones.
This was meant to be it for both of them, the end. But it is not so. Although we might think of just the second of them as a resurrection story – THE resurrection story – in fact both of them witness to the belief that God is a God who brings life from death, a God of resurrection.

It is easy to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a one-off, something utterly unique, which happens to him because he is different from the rest of us, the Son of God. But if we do that, resurrection can easily become something which has nothing to do with the rest of us, at least not in the here and now. Pairing the story of his resurrection with the story of Daniel, though, reminds us that resurrection is a far greater theme in the Bible than simply one tale of one man coming through death to a new physical existence. God was in the business of resurrection long before Easter Sunday, perhaps not in the literal sense, but in many other senses. He was a God who defied the powers of death and despair time and time again. No matter how hopeless things looked, God was not defeated.
Christian commentators over the centuries found numerous stories in the Old Testament which they claimed foreshadowed the resurrection of Jesus, pointing forward towards it. They called these “types”. I have some misgivings about that approach, because it can narrow our appreciation of the Old Testament, making it no more than a trail of clues to lead us towards Jesus, rather than having a wisdom and a life of its own, but is worth recognising the ways in which Old and New Testament resurrection stories echo and enrich each other, so I thought tonight I would look at three of those Old Testament resurrections, starting with this one we’ve heard tonight from Daniel.

Daniel’s resurrection isn’t a literal one. He doesn’t die. But he might as well have done. Death looks certain. There is no human agency which can save him. Even the king, who has been manipulated into condemning him to death isn’t able to save him, because the decrees of the Medes and Persians were irrevocable. He tries, but there’s no way round it. He tells Daniel it is up to his God to save him. Daniel is clear that he can’t fight off the lions by himself either. It is an angel sent by God who has shut their mouths. His life should be over, if it weren’t for God’s actions. That’s why this is a resurrection story, even if it is one without any actual death in it. Daniel is as powerless as he would be in death, but God is not. He can act when we no longer have the power to.

Another “resurrection story” in the Old Testament is that of Jonah. He spends three days in the belly of the whale, as Jesus spends three days in the tomb. He assumes he will die. But God has other plans, and he is spewed forth to new life. But his “resurrection” isn’t just about life and death, it is the resurrection of his calling too. He has been told to go to Ninevah the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, the ruling force of the time to preach a message of repentance to the inhabitants. This a terrifying prospect – surely this notoriously brutal people are not going to take kindly to some two-bit Israelite prophet telling them what to do. But more important than that, Jonah doesn’t really want them to repent anyway, because he believes God will then forgive them, and he doesn’t want that to happen. They can rot in hell for all he cares.

His time in the belly of the whale makes him aware of his own dependence on God and his own weakness and fallibility. His self-righteousness and smug assurance dies inside that whale. It’s not all plain sailing when he gets to Ninevah; he still hopes they won’t repent and be forgiven, and is very cross when they do, and are. But at least he goes there. The message of his story is that if our vision of God is going to big enough to believe we can love even our enemies , it will often mean that something in us needs to die, so that there can be a resurrection of compassion in us.
A third Old Testament resurrection story is that of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones.

Ezekiel was in Babylon, an exile there, when this vision came to him. All around were the dried up bones of a might army, the aftermath of a battle. “Can these dry bones live?” he is asked. “You know, O God” he answers, not wanting to say yes or no. He knows that God is beyond his understanding, and sure enough, as he fulfils God’s command to “prophesy to the bones” he sees them come together, cover themselves with flesh and sinew and skin, and eventually, filled with the breath of God, stand upright. Why does God show him this? It is a way of helping him to understand that though the people are in exile in Babylon, their own city of Jerusalem in ruins, and every indication is that this is the end of their national identity, actually God is more than capable of rebuilding the nation. It is a resurrection of hope.

The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, was once hauled over the coals by some sections of the church and media for describing the resurrection of Jesus as “more than a conjuring trick with bones”. He was accused of denying the reality of the resurrection. I think this was entirely unwarranted, and in fact it was his critics who were failing to see the true scale and depth of the meaning of that first Easter Sunday.

Resurrection, for Jesus, for those Old Testament characters, and for us, has many meanings. If we make it simply about life after physical death, however important that is, it is we who are making it too small. We may long for life after death, but we also ought to long for life before death too, life that is lived in all its fullness, life that is lived compassionately, with hope and dignity. We can be conscious and breathing, but still feel dead inside, and for many around the world, the constant struggle to exist means that the kind of rich and satisfying life God meant us to have is a pipe dream. We need resurrection now, and so does our world.
The question all these resurrection stories ask us is what kind of resurrection needs to happen in our lives, now, today. We might need a resurrection in our relationships, the healing of old quarrels or resentments. We might need inner resurrections as we deal with the faults and failings that pull us down. We might need resurrections in our attitudes to those around us, so that we don’t write people off, considering them beyond redemption but trust that God can help them, even if we don’t know how. And I often come across people glumly predicting the death of the church, though personally I think it is far from moribund myself. Perhaps we need a resurrection of hope there – God is not dead, so how can his church be?
It is easy to despair, easy to give up, but if we say we believe in a God of resurrection, we should at least leave room for him to surprise us. We may be gazing sorrowfully at a sealed tomb or a sealed lion’s den, but these stories tell us that God is at work, just as he always has been, bringing life out of death and hope from despair. Amen

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