I don’t’ think anyone would have ever imagined that would be celebrating Easter from behind ‘closed doors’. And yet, when we put it like that, suddenly we realize that, in fact, the first Easter was celebrated from behind closed doors. As we’ll hear next Sunday, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews…” All we have to do is substitute, “for fear of the virus” to realize that we’re actually in good company – the only difference being that WE KNOW MORE THAN THEY KNEW. And so, even from behind our “locked doors” we are nonetheless bold to declare: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
But we do long for the day when we will celebrate the Feast of Victory for our God – not in the isolation of our house but together in the Lord’s House. Who doesn’t have a much clearer idea of just what the Psalmist was saying about when he wrote, “I was glad when they said, ‘let us go up to the House of the Lord”? (Ps. 122:1) And so will we be glad when the quarantine is lifted and the word goes out, “let us go up to the House of the Lord,” and we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” together, with one voice in the congregation.
I do think that the circumstance of this Easter being what it is, allows us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ a bit differently than we might have done with flowers and organ and trumpet all in their fullness. So, I’d like to go back to Palm Sunday and retrace the pilgrimage that we took during Holy Week and reexamine some of what we heard, but now in light of Easter.
As we followed the four gospels through Holy Week, we were all impressed with the utter reality of our Lord’s suffering – both physical and emotional – especially as we got to Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The Passion of Our Lord has been the focus of some of the greatest works of art and the some of the most powerful hymns and the most moving preaching – and rightly so.
But now, as we look back over last week in the light of Easter, we can’t help but be struck with just how ‘in control’ of all things our Lord is.
All four of the gospel writers make it clear that Jesus is not ‘forced’ or ‘tricked’ into going to Jerusalem – but He goes on His own terms and in His own time. Matthew writes, “he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests, and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Mat. 20:17-19)
Nowhere is the quiet and confident majesty of our Lord on display more clearly than during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. He is the Victim. And yet while everyone else is doing their planning and plotting, He is the One who is clearly in control.
Matthew told us that “the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest… and plotted together to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘not during the feast lest there be an uproar among the people.” (Mat. 26:3,4). They’re actions were dictated by their fear of the reaction of the people since they admired Him. And as we saw, they can’t even follow the timetable that they had set – but everything gets changed when Judas comes to them.
On the other hand, it was Jesus, who determines the timing of His arrest by keeping the location of the Supper a secret and then, at the Supper, in His own time, He hands Judas the morsel of bread, saying to him, “what you are going to do, do quickly…” (Jn. 13:27)
Even Judas himself, who had made up his mind to betray His Lord, was dependent on Jesus for the ‘opportunity’ he was looking for.
Not until the Passover meal was concluded and He had instituted His ‘Lord’s Supper’ does He leave the Upper Room and make His way to the Garden of Gethsemane. And even in this – they do not arrive at the garden until He has told them everything that wants to tell them. Three times, Jesus says, “I have told you these things before they take place, so that when they take place, you may believe.” (John 13:19; 14:29; 16:24)
Once they reach the Garden of Gethsemane where He knows the arrest will take place, it is not until He has FINISHED praying to His Father does Judas, with the soldiers arrive. Matthew makes it very clear that He is not cornered or trapped by His captors, but rather, he went out to meet them. “Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mat. 26:46).
The confrontation in the Garden is a chaotic scene – soldiers with their swords and clubs, unsure of who it is that they are there to arrest. Disciples reacting on pure adrenaline, swing their swords with little control over what the might come in contact with – an ear of all things. It’s a chaotic scene.
Jesus alone is in complete control. Calmly answering, “I am He,” which throws the guards into fear and falling. Sternly commanding His disciples to sheath their swords, and even explaining to them that He is in control of His destiny – not them. “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
At His trials before both the High Priests and the governors Pilate and Herod, he is so composed and quite – that they’re all astonished and frustrated that, even with all their power, THEY CAN’T GET CONTROL OVER HIM.
Certainly as we come to the cross we would expect to find even the bravest and strongest of men melt under the fear of what is coming and resist and fight and curse. Matthew reports that before they nails are hammered through His wrists and feet, the executioner who was able to offer the convicted some wine mixed with gall to drink which would dull the senses and numb the pain. “But when He tasted it, He would not drink it.” (Mat.27:34). He would not relinquish any control for the sake of avoiding some of the pain.
The way in which all four gospel writers document the event itself is absolutely striking by its stark frankness. Matthew simply writes, “and when they had crucified Him…” Mark writes, “and they crucified Him.” Luke and John seem to want to put more emphasis on the place than the crucifixion itself. Both write, “there the crucified Him.”
Hanging from the cross, He is reviled and mocked by the religious leadership and the thieves crucified with Him. But there is no evidence that He responds – until one the criminals turns to Him saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To this small spark of faith, He replies, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:42-43).
When the time had fully come and not one second sooner or later that had been set in the eternal counsel of the Trinity, with no evidence of anything but utter confidence and peace that He had done all that His Father had sent Him into the world to do, “He cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last.” (Mark 15:37)
None of this is meant, in any way, to minimize His suffering and pain and the anguish of His heart. He truly suffered and felt the full force of the pain of the cruelest instrument of death. We saw Him sweat drops of blood in the Garden and heard His cry from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:46). He tasted death and the full fear of death in the same, full measure that all men and women do.
But even in death, He is in complete and perfect control as no man or woman ever has been. How often had He told them that on the third day He would rise again – “so that when it happens they will believe.”
The scene at the tomb where He was buried is one of panic and chaos and despair on the part of soldiers and the women. The guards who were stationed there to keep the tomb feel the great earthquake, and see an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, “whose appearance was like lightning, and who’s clothing white as snow,” who, with the flick of a finger, rolls away the stone that they were there to guard. And they become “like dead men.”
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are terrified. But they hear the angel say what angels are always saying to the children of men, “do not be afraid.” He knows why they are there. He announces the good news, “He is not here for He has risen.” And then he adds those three little words that tell them and us that He is in control. “AS HE SAID.” Indeed, ‘just as He said.’ He is even IN CHARGE of His death.
And after showing them the place where He HAD BEEN laid, which they themselves had seen when they watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lay Him in this tomb on Friday just before the Sabbath day began, he tells them to “go quickly and tell His disciples that he is risen from the dead…”
So they depart “quickly, with fear and great joy.” As they’re running to tell the disciples what they have seen and heard. “behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!” And then, just as the angel had said, He says, “do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” He is in charge and working all things for the good of those who love Him.
The picture that we get from the gospels that first Easter Sunday is one of anxiety and fear and chaos on the part of the disciples. Unsure anything they are huddled together behind locked doors in fear of what will happen to them. On hearing the news from the women, Peter and John run to the tomb but see nothing except some folded grave clothes.
Some others, as they make their way home from the Passover Festival, are confused and perplexed and sad – not able to make sense of all that has happened there in these days.
But the risen Lord enters into their self-isolation and declares His word of divine grace and favor to them. “Peace to you.” He comes along side and walks with them, literally He synods with them, saying, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory.” And then, as they walk, He “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24)
He had said, “I have told you these things before they take place, so that when they take place, you may believe.”
Now, on this Easter Sunday 2020, through the eye-witness testimony of the apostles of Jesus, and from behind our closed doors, we too declare, “we believe.” Whether or not we can discern His specific purpose or come to grips with His particular ways – Easter assures us that OUR LORD IS IN CHARGE, and He is working all things according to His good and gracious will. And one day, He’ll show us HOW everything worked to accomplish His purpose which has always been OUR SALVATION. But until then, “we believe.” We believe that our Lord is in charge of all things at all times.
So, in the light of Easter, let’s listen once more to our Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4)