In the early part of World War II, a Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. In one last attempt to rescue the sailors from the steel coffin, the U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot on the surface, directly above the wounded submarine. A Navy diver went over the side of the ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the exterior surface, and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness they tapped in Morse code, "Is there any hope?" The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signaled by tapping on the exterior of the sub, "Yes, there is hope."
This is the picture of our dilemma as we worship this glad Easter Day. Humankind is trapped in a dreadful situation. All around we are running low on hope, and we look for a word from beyond offering it to us. This world in which we live is plagued with war and famine, mounting debt and continual destruction. The more we try to rescue ourselves the more we seem to fall behind. We wonder: Is there any hope?
At a personal level, we are no different than the early disciples who stood at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. They saw their hope for the future die at that place. How would they live? How could they go on? This Easter Day those of us who preach see our pews filled with widows who have seen their hope of a comfortable future slowly die in hospital beds, or parents who have done their best watch the culture destroy the children for whom they had so ardently prayed. As a pastor, I see faithful fathers work tirelessly at a job that will not guarantee that they can feed, clothe or educate their family. Hope is snuffed out when the word comes from the battlefield that an explosive device has taken the father of two beautiful children.
We all face the burden of aging, the destruction of family life, debilitating diseases, unstable economy, and a culture that appears to be crumbling from within, not to mention the fact that there seems to be violence everywhere. We see in all of this the emptiness of secularism in the celebrity culture. We long for a word from the outside; and we cry out to God, "Is there any hope?"
As we read the Easter story, we see that the word does come back, and that the sum of that story is yes, there is hope. It comes in the form of a Galilean carpenter, crucified and resurrected from the dead 2,000 years ago in an obscure part of the world. The accounts written about him give witness to ten appearances after he was raised from the dead, and the event of his resurrection has become the spinal cord of a new community of faith that formed around him. Not only was he resurrected, but also he ascended to his father in heaven and now gives the hope that we long to have.
Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist missionary preacher of the last century, was about to address a group on Easter Sunday morning. On his way to the pulpit two young ladies met him and said to him simply, "If you have anything to say to us, say it now." He preached his heart out, and one of the young ladies made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and her life was changed. The other went out, and he never heard from her again. I think the same thing is true of the church today. If we have anything to say, this is the day in which it must be said.
The historian Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work "The Study of History" notes that there are four kinds of saviors that have appeared on history's stage. There is the savior with a scepter who is a politician, the savior with a book who is a philosopher, the savior with the sword who is a military leader, and the savior who has presented himself as a demigod. However, they all have succumbed to the last enemy - they died. The Christian faith contends, and I agree, that the only savior who is qualified to deliver us, bring us hope, and to save us is Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean carpenter, because he is the only one to conquer death.
Many years ago I was privileged to hear a lecture by Alan Watts, a Zen Buddhist whose books at that time were very popular. He said that Christians are too reticent in their proclamation, too restrained. He said, "If I were a Christian and believed my savior had been raised from the dead, I would shout it from the rooftop, and I would not be silent on the subject." We must be reminded that the belief of Jesus' resurrection is not the belief that Jesus had simply gone to heaven after his death. The Easter faith was always the belief that Jesus went through death into a new sort of bodily existence in which his original body was transformed into a body with new characteristics and properties. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that our bodies are not abandoned but rather are transformed. The early Christians believed that this same thing actually happened within this real world and that there is not only life after death for all God's people, but also God's people will be given new bodies like Jesus' body to share in the new Heaven and the new Earth that God will make. This is why we pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."
Easter Day was the first answer to that prayer. This means that Easter is about more than meets the eye. It is more than "pie in the sky," but instead it is the "Kingdom … on Earth as it is in Heaven." This turns the focus from our feelings to the needs of this world.
N. T. Wright, the British preacher, reminds us that this needs to be clearly said, shouted from the rooftops, that "the living God in principle dealt with evil once and for all, and is now at work, by His own Spirit, to do for us and the whole world what He did for Jesus on that first Easter Day."
This resurrection was not a once-in-a-lifetime, take-it-or-leave-it event. It is not optional equipment for the Christian. Without it, Karl Marx was probably right to say that "Christianity is a wish-fulfilling religion." Take it away and Friedrich Neitzche was probably right to say that "Christianity is a religion for wimps." Put it back and you have a faith that can take on this unbelieving world that has Marx, Neitzche and Freud as its prophets. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. This day is saying, "Hallelujah, Christ has risen!"
This day it must be clear that all of us must realize that the identical divine energy, which at first took Christ out of the grave, is available still, not at the end of life, not at the hour of death, but available here and now to help us to live. Therein lies our hope. We say that Jesus is Lord of the world and the rulers of this world are not. It not only gives us personal hope but also gives us the strength to work with other Christians around the world against unjust systems and speak the truth of the Gospel wherever we can. The power which on Easter Day shattered death is now given to us to live. This vitalizes the most oppressed and disillusioned and defeated of all people into a resurrection personality and conquering soul. This is the theme that inspires our music and preaching and empowers our witness. The same power that rolled away the stone that day is the power available for us for living as well as for dying. In the words of John Donne, "Death be not proud, thou hast died." Christ has risen.
Hallelujah! Yes, there is hope!
Let us pray.
Eternal God, on this Easter Day, give us a renewed vision of the hope that you have given to each of us and let us know that we do not walk in this world alone, we do not carry these burdens by ourselves, and that you love us enough to give us care and comfort, for we pray in the name of the resurrected Christ. Amen.