Sunday, May 05, 2024
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“The Dead Will Rise and Give You Praise”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, May 5, 2024

Reading: Isaiah 26:14-21

We had a guest in our church recently who told me her last name is Davidson. Wow, that’s my grandmother’s maiden name, my middle name, my son’s middle name. Did you know, I asked, that only one Davidson family made it out of Scotland? The McPhersons killed the rest of us (Game of Thrones is a documentary, basically). That means you and I are cousins, however distantly. She said uh, okay, thanks, I guess. She hasn’t come back since I narrated our family reunion.

Lots of folks are using DNA testing to learn “who they really are.” Spit in a cup, send it off, and you’re 27 percent Eurasian or whatever. I’m a little skeptical. When US Senator Elizabeth Warren used one to “prove” she was really Cherokee, as her family lore said, the Cherokee people said, “not so fast.” To be Cherokee is to share our lot. Not just our affirmative action opportunities.

As Christians we know that DNA is not destiny. Who we really are is not where or who we’re descended from. Who we really are is . . . baptized. Those whom Jesus Christ will one day raise from the dead.

We’re in a series at our church called More Resurrection. It’s nearly done, so don’t worry if you’re sick of it. Today is my last chance to scandalize you with the resurrection of the body. Not just the resurrection of Jesus’ body—our Protestant forebears fought about this a century ago with long knives. Was Jesus bodily raised or is this a metaphor of some kind? Too small a question. Will we be bodily raised or is this a metaphor of some kind? Okay, that’s a big enough question, and the answer is, of course, both. Christ is coming to raise the dead and bring a whole new creation. And we can begin resurrection life right now. Take our passage for today.

The prophet Isaiah starts out skeptical that the dead can rise.

The dead do not live;
shades do not rise
because you have punished and destroyed them
and wiped out all memory of them.

This is gritty, Old Testament impatience. Hey God, I’m not asking for help in heaven. I’m asking for help now. In this life. Earlier Isaiah makes things even more explicit. He imagines the death of an enemy king:

 “Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
    who shook kingdoms,
17 who made the world like a desert
    and overthrew its cities,
    who would not let his prisoners go home?”
18 All the kings of the nations lie in glory,
    each in his own tomb,
19 but you are cast out, away from your grave,
    like loathsome carrion,
clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword,
    who go down to the stones of the Pit
    like a corpse trampled underfoot.

Not much hope for heaven there, or hell maybe in this case. The Old Testament often prays, hey God, you like being praised, and I like being alive. So, let’s make a deal: you keep me alive, and I’ll keep praising you, okay?

The rest of our passage proceeds like a lament. It pours out scalding rebuke of God. ‘Hey, we’ve been good, and you haven’t delivered. Where are you?’ Did you know some one-third of the Psalms are laments like this? Fifty out of 150. Most of our prayers are very polite, WASPy prayers. Oh Lord, if it’s not too much trouble, please adjust our attitude a little. No. Scripture prays this way: ‘God you promised. And you failed. And you call yourself God?’ Here’s the thing. If God knows what we think anyway, why hold back? Blast away, God can take it. That’s what the Bible does. Isaiah prays:

17 Like a woman with child
about to give birth
writhes and cries out in her pain,
so we were because of you, O Lord;
18 we were with child; we writhed,
but we gave birth only to wind.

Childbirth is something my gender doesn’t experience firsthand. Mothers get practice sacrificing themselves to make way for another, which non-mothers have to learn some other way. Then sometimes they get amnesia enough to be willing to do it all over again. Good thing those little ones are cute. God give us 100 more infants in this service. But imagine all the agony of childbirth and no baby comes. Those who miscarry or suffer stillbirth can. ‘God, we have suffered, and for nothing. Explain yourself.’ No polite WASPy prayer there. Just Jewish grit, and a God who can take it.

St. Paul compares all creation to a woman in labour. And now you know he got this from Isaiah. What’s happening right now is creation is giving birth.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

What if everything the world suffers is a labour pang? A longing for new life? Paul is clear: what’s coming is the birth of a whole new creation. Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest theologian, said this: “This time in which we live bears in its womb the eternal living unborn Future.”

Salvation is so much bigger than souls going to heaven or hell. It’s all creation being delivered, a whole new world getting born.

And then Isaiah suddenly pivots. With one of the greatest passages in scripture. Martin Luther said you can put on your tombstone. In our day folks are getting buried in their favourite team’s sports gear. What you wrap your dead body in is pretty clearly what you trust to save you. I mean, we all love our hockey teams, but wearing those sweaters is no guarantee of the result we want, let alone can they raise us from death. Luther says wrap yourself in this instead:

19 Your dead shall live; their corpses shall rise.
Those who dwell in the dust will awake and shout for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

Woah. What happened? How’d we go from death is the end in verse 14 to all corpses rising in verse 19? From realistic, there-is-no-tomorrow honesty to supra-realistic unimaginable emptying out of graveyards?

If you’ve been around here any length of time you know our own Charles Sweetman. He’s a longtime leader in our church, an usher, a trustee, our archivist, he arranges our cabinet back there, gives of his time and wisdom and kindness. He’s also a funeral home director, sort of our resident funeral home person. We use other homes here too of course, but this is Charles’ home ice. He knows the building and what we do better than anyone on paid staff. I asked Charles about these scriptures about bodies rising. And he said we speak of the finality of death a lot. The nail in the coffin, dust to dust, all that. But when I’m at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery I think, ‘actually, this isn’t quite the end. This coffin will open one day.’ God bless him. Tombs are temporary. That’s from someone in the business!

Resurrection is not just true of our bodies. Resurrection is the truest thing about every state of death we find ourselves in. In this series I’ve pushed the resurrection of the body pretty hard. But John Calvin, no liberal pushover, says this passage in Isaiah is about new birth in Christ. When we come to faith, it’s like the graveyard is robbed of a tenant. Life in Jesus Christ is life for a former corpse. That’s a spiritual reading. Remember the resurrection, Christ’s and ours, is both physical and a metaphor. All God does is bring new life.

Sometimes you can even see it, even in Toronto. We finally have spring, just passed peak cherry blossom time. In Vancouver they’ve had spring for months. We’re not bitter. We’re just tougher here in central Canada. Lots of you gardeners tell me you see the resurrection when green shoots start to come up. What’s dead and mulched becomes what’s alive and hungry. Nothing lives without something else’s death. Soil requires the fertilizer of dead things to grow new things. When we die, we go into the ground as seeds too, and other things live off us. Everything that lives is dependent on the death of others. That’s why we pray before food: something gave its life so that we could eat. That’s true even if you’re vegetarian or vegan: plants are life. The resurrection of the body shows we are animals, we are nature, we only live with and because of other creatures. Lots of other religions, especially indigenous religions, seem to realize this better than most of us Christians. We moderns westerners tend to think food comes from the grocery store. Yeah, well where’d that food come from? Others know better: it all comes from God, including what’s at the store.

Our speaker this week, Stefan Paas, is a gardener of churches. He studies what makes for new life after churches close. You’ll hear him next Sunday but Tuesday day and Thursday night you can ask him questions: tell us about life after death. He’s seen it.

Be careful with this analogy between springtime and Resurrection, flowers and Easter. This only works in the northern hemisphere for one. In the southern half of the globe, it’s autumn now. Things are dying. For another, Easter is a total surprise. No one saw Jesus’ resurrection coming. Not the Romans who killed him. Not the disciples who deserted him. Not the women who stayed close and tended to his dead body. None of us. It was a shock, as great a shock as the first day of creation. Christians call Easter Sunday the 8th day of creation. It completes what God started in the beginning. God creates for 6 days, takes a nap for shabbat, wakes up on the 8th, and says okay, Ima recreate. Starting with dead Jesus. You can prep for springtime, as gardeners do. There is no anticipating the resurrection.

Here’s why else to be careful with equating spring and resurrection. Biblical imagery for resurrection tends more to harvest time—this might be clearer in South America or Africa or Australasia. I take this from Fleming Rutledge, who I quote in nearly every sermon. Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the first fruits. The first crop to come in, tender and good, you’ve not tasted it since last season. The whole harvest is coming. So much resurrection no one can count it. In some places in the rural southern US, you only lock your car in squash season. Because everyone has so much squash to unload. No one’s going to carjack you. But they might ambush you with a bushel of squash in your car. The very first squash says so much is coming you can’t give it away; people will lock their doors to keep it out. Easter says so much resurrection is coming no one can lock it away. Not just Jesus. But everything Jesus created in the first place. The poet Christopher Wordsworth said this:

Christ is risen, Christ the first fruits of the holy harvest field
Which will all its full abundance at his second coming yield
That the golden ears of harvest will their heads before him wave
Ripened by his glorious sunshine from the furrows of the grave.

You may have heard a strange development in the US political season. Someone said living in Canada in the Trump era is like living upstairs from a meth lab. Vivek Ramaswamy told Americans they’ll appear before the founding fathers one day. And Thomas Jefferson et al will ask what they did for democracy. Now that’s some impressive degree of blasphemy. Here’s why I call this blasphemy (not a word we use a lot): it ruins the song. Tells the story wrong. The story is Christ reigns and judges. And he judges with mercy. First for your enemy, and then for you. Someone asked Karl Barth when he visited America: will we see our loved ones in heaven? He responded, not just our loved ones. God bless Canada, I’m so grateful we don’t use John A or Wilfred Laurier in visions of heaven. You’re not going to let me down on this, are you?

We sang earlier the song that inspired me in this series. It’s by a group called The Porter’s Gate, who our own John A. has worked with often.

The dead will rise and give You praise
Wood and nails will not hold them down
These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon
And fashion them into flower beds
The curse is done, the battle won
Swords bent down into plowshares
Your scar-borne hands, we’ll join with them
Serving at the table You’ve prepared.

Can you imagine? The implements of death: coffins and nails, become flower beds. Weapons become farming tools. Scar-borne hands serve a feast God prepared, where the last are first. And we’re kin not just with those who share our last name, but all the resurrected. It’s too good to true, isn’t it? Or maybe, as someone wise said, it’s too good not to be true. Either way, let it be so. Amen.