Easter is a day of celebration. The church sings alleluias after a quiet season of Lent. People dress in new clothing in springtime colors. Children and a few sneaky parents consume a lot of chocolate. And many, many people gather around full tables.
On Easter day, Isaiah's ancient poem begs the question, "What's for dinner?"
Check The Food Channel or Better Homes and Gardens. Everybody offers suggestions for a tasty Easter menu. On one website, you can find recipes for glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, citrus salad, and molasses biscuits. If that doesn't do it for you, there's a Greek-themed menu featuring Herb Crusted Leg of Lamb and homemade baklava, or an Easter Brunch Buffet with poached salmon and passion fruit Mimosas.
Hey, what's for dinner?
As the prophet Isaiah describes the generous work of God, that's where he starts to sing with the promise of a generous banquet. "The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines." (25:6)
One thing you can say about the people of God--they love to eat. The two great Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are celebrated in our homes by extravagant dinners. One of our sacraments is a meal that we call the Lord's Supper. If that isn't enough, you can always find a mountain of donut holes at many of our churches during coffee hour.
Isaiah knows that God's best work is celebrated with food, particularly when the table has been empty and the cupboards have been bare. This text comes as a surprising interruption to a very painful section in this book. The country of Israel had gone amuck, and Isaiah sees everywhere the signs of God's punishment. He declares, "The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken...the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed." (24:19, 23).
Everything has been laid waste by God, even the wine cellar. Isaiah says, "The wine dries up, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh, the mirth of the timbrels is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased." (24:7-8)
But suddenly in chapter 25, a great feast is announced. Nobody expects it. It comes as a surprise. Somehow it signals that God is doing something new. Whatever pain and distress the people have been feeling, God will now wipe away the tears from every face. The people celebrate with a festive banquet, because God himself has had something to eat. God has "swallowed up death forever." This is the astonishing claim of Easter. God has swallowed up death.
How does death taste? Ever since I was eleven, death has tasted of brown mustard. That was the year my grandfather died. He and my grandmother had spent the night at my aunt's home. Grandpa woke up that morning, drank a cup of coffee, went in to shave, and collapsed from a massive heart attack. Nobody saw it coming. It was the first time death ever slapped me in the face.
A few months later, we gathered around Aunt Peggy's table. I remember the muted conversation of adults and can only guess what they were discussing. The conversation turned to a family down the street. They had a boy named Eddie, and I had just come in from playing with him. We were stomping in the mud or throwing sticks or whatever it is that kids do in springtime.
We were called inside for lunch. Aunt Peggy put a platter of hot dogs and buns on the table. I grabbed one and slathered it with brown mustard. As I took a bite, she said, "It's too bad about Eddie. His father died just about the same time that Daddy did." That was how I discovered how death tasted--like sour brown mustard. From that day forward, all my feelings of loss were forever grounded in that taste.
Ever have a memory of a taste? It can linger with us for a very long time. To this day, even though I have come to enjoy that particular brand of condiment, it still reminds me somehow of death, of loss, of tears. Maybe on this Easter day you find yourself with a similar taste in your mouth. It may surprise you how that taste lingers for years.
Yet in the mystery of the Gospel, Isaiah declares the Easter message. "God will swallow up death forever."
This is one of the few passages in the Jewish scriptures that say something like this. Most of the Old Testament knows what everybody else knows: that death is an ongoing reality. Sometime after we are born, we die, and this is the one perfect statistic. Nobody gets out of this world alive. We fund medical research to postpone the event. We try to give up the bad habits that could shorten our lifespan. We even joke about death, because our best jokes are always about things that are most important. Yet death stands right there, right in the middle of the road, blocking the way to our hopes and dreams.
But suddenly in this text, Isaiah declares that God will swallow death, that death is the main course for God's Easter dinner.
This is a strange promise. Some scholars say this is mythical language, that it is large and comprehensive language. In Isaiah's day, one of the local Canaanite gods was named Mot, the local god of death. And Yahweh, the God of Israel, will finally swallow Mot, the death-god who has, up until now, been consuming everyone. It is a battle between good and evil, a comic battle that the God of Israel is certain to win.
God swallows death. That is the great Easter Dinner. When the apostle Paul thinks about the resurrection of Jesus, he announces it is the first in a chain-reaction of events. Christ is risen; death is defeated. That means death no longer has any power over God's people. The power of Easter gets larger and larger until, Paul says, "death has been swallowed up in victory." (1 Cor. 15:54).
It is clear from the Gospel stories that Easter is the beginning of something big. According to all the accounts, women go to the tomb to remember their crucified Lord. They discover the tomb is open, there is nobody inside, and someone in white declares, "Jesus is alive. He is going ahead of you." What does all of this mean? They don't know yet, but something new is beginning. God is doing something new.
As Isaiah looks ahead to this extraordinary meal, he sees that everything and everybody will be changed. All people shall eat the feast, he says. All people shall have the death-shroud destroyed. All the tears will be wiped away by God. All the earth shall see the disgrace of God's people taken away. All-- All--All--All. Something really big has begun by the resurrection of Christ.
The Bible word for this is "salvation." It's the experience of being rescued. It is the knowledge that nothing will ever be able to beat you. It's the trust that God is stronger than any competing threat. It is the confidence that nothing in death or life can ever separate us from the power of God's love. On Easter, death has been swallowed. Abundant life is here.
This is why so many Christians celebrate Easter morning around a Table--around the Lord's Table. What is on the menu? The body of Christ, the blood of Christ. A few days ago these were the very signs of his death. Yet we eat and drink in the power of his resurrection and declare that Jesus is alive, that God has swallowed up death. Now we take into ourselves Christ's very life. In the largest possible sense, this is our Easter Dinner, because for Christian people, death does not have any power any more.
"Take, eat. This is my body for you. Take, drink. This is the cup of salvation." Every time we gather at Christ's Table, we hear the promise that something amazing is accomplished for the children of God. "Death has been swallowed up in victory." (1 Cor. 15:54). It began when the tomb of Christ is found empty. And suddenly those who love Jesus discover he is eating with them. They are filled with hope. They are given strength. They begin to hear that they are called to join Jesus in his ministry. One person after another discovers that, not only are they beginning to change, the whole world is turned upside down.
Like Isaiah said, this is the start of something really big. And now all of us are a part of it.
Let us pray. Blessed are you, Almighty God. You are the author of life and the savior of our souls. We thank you for the power that raises Jesus Christ from the dead, and through him we trust you to overcome every power that threatens to hurt or destroy. Receive our thanks and praise, through Christ our Risen Lord. Amen.