The Element of Surprise


 The Element of SurpriseJohn 20:1-18, Isaiah

Preached FCCW 3-27-2016

Three men who died appeared at the pearly gates of heaven and asked St. Peter for permission to enter. St. Peter said to the first man “All right, tell me what is Easter?” The man replied, “Oh, that’s the day that some fellow discovered America.”

Peter shook his head. “Sorry. Permission denied.” The second man stepped up, asking to enter, too. St. Peter asked the same question, “What’s Easter?” This man replied, “Oh, that’s the day the fat jolly man with the bag of toys comes around.” Peter sent him away, too. The third man who came almost made it. When St. Peter asked, “What’s Easter?” he said: “Easter? Isn’t that the story about a man who died and was buried, and on the third day came alive, rolled the stone back from his grave, looked out and saw his shadow then went back inside for six more weeks of winter?” This Easter, more than most others, this joke hits close to home. If it feels like Groundhog Day was just yesterday, and Easter feels way too early on the calendar this year, you’re right.
The truth is, Easter very rarely is as close to Groundhog Day as it is this year. And, it’s not because Groundhog Day has moved. Easter has. Easter always does. Unlike most holidays, Easter does not have the same spot reserved for itself on the calendar each year. Instead, Easter can fall anywhere from as early as March 22nd to as late as April 25th. Which can make it seem like there is no logic to the dating of Easter. Which is not exactly true, either. Easter’s date is always on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, which is March 20.

The dating of Easter is based on the Hebrew lunar calendar used to fix the date for the Jewish Passover,
because it was during Passover that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected. That’s a great dating system if your main concern is the preservation of historical accuracy. But , it wreaks havoc with people who are obsessed with things like order and predictability. Like this friend of mine, who is also a minister, and so whose life is definitely impacted by Easter. A few years back, when Easter was even earlier than it is this year, he was so frustrated that he said he wished someone would just choose one date — any date — for Easter and keep it there! I get where he is coming from. Having a fixed date for Easter would mean no more consulting astronomical charts to know what time to schedule Sunrise Services. No more having Easter sneak up on you in March instead of arriving in April.
But I believe that pinning down Easter to one day on the calendar would be the worst thing we could possibly do to it. I don’t think Easter was ever meant to be so predictable as that. If anything, the outstanding feature of Easter seems to be the extreme opposite of predictability. If anything, Easter is all about the element of surprise. Life with Jesus was never predictable. Life with Jesus always changed people’s agendas. Life with Jesus kept them guessing. Why should Death with Jesus be any different than Life with him had always been? The story of the empty tomb can be found in all four of the Gospels. And though the basic story is the same, some of the details vary from one telling to another. One thing is constant, though. And that is that nothing happens in the way that anybody would have predicted. Beginning with Jesus’ death. Nobody could believe that the Messiah’s life could end the way his did, even though Jesus flat out warned them that once they got to Jerusalem he would be betrayed and put to death, but then be raised on the third day. When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women went early in the morning to the tomb where his body was laid when it was taken down from the cross, that’s where they expected to find it. But much to their surprise, what they found instead was the stone that sealed the tomb — rolled away. And what they didn’t find — was Jesus’ body inside the tomb. Oh, and there was a conversation with angels. I bet no one saw that coming!
No wonder it says that after all this, the woman were perplexed. Perplexed is not how you feel when everything goes precisely according to your expectations. When the women go back to tell the disciples what they found, and what they didn’t find, it so boggles the men’s minds that Peter races to the tomb to see for himself. All the way, his mind was probably racing, too. Making a checklist of logical explanations for what the women had told them. Maybe it was too dark in the tomb, or they were too hysterical with grief, and they didn’t see him lying there. Maybe grave robbers had taken his body. Instead he found Jesus missing, just as they said. And, surprise! The carefully folded grave linens that no grave robber would have been so neat or so careless to leave behind that way. It says that after examining the scene at the tomb for himself, he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Which is just another way of saying he was just as clueless about what happened to Jesus’ body after seeing the evidence with his own eyes as he was before he got there. There was something wild and unpredictable about that morning. And the days that followed. Once he got out of that tomb, there was no telling where the Resurrected Jesus was going to turn up. He was like a puppy that slips out of the house when someone forgets to shut the door tight. Cavorting around the neighborhood, enjoying its newfound freedom, you might see it romping about, greeting strangers and getting into places that he had no business being in. Jesus had slipped out of death’s hold over him, and he started showing up all over the place. Later that same day he suddenly appears in a room where the disciples are hiding.

Even though the door to the room was securely locked! Then, a couple of travelers on the road to Emmaus are joined by a stranger who they don’t know is Jesus until they recognize him when he breaks bread with them. Just a few weeks afterward, the disciples are out in the boat fishing when they see someone on the beach cooking breakfast over a charcoal fire. Sure enough, it is Jesus again. So, it is only fitting, isn’t it, that Easter goes on springing up wherever it will, with or without our being prepared for its arrival. Never mind the eggs and baskets and lilies, or any of the other traditions that we use to get us in the spirit of Easter. The one original, indispensable Easter tradition is the element of surprise.

And this surprise is bigger even than what happened to Jesus! It’s about what God has planned for you and me! And not just what God has planned for us, but what God has planned for all of Creation! In the Isaiah passage we hear God’s voice say, “I am about to create new heavens and new earth.” The Resurrection of Jesus — as incredible as that is to consider — is only the first step in God’s plan to resurrect this whole hot mess of a universe. Anglican author N. T. Wright puts it this way, “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. “The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” The defining quality of this New Creation will be that all the things we think of as permanent facts of life will be rendered relics of the past. There will be no weeping and distress, no lives lived in desperate futility or children born for calamity.

The destiny God has in store for us is so far from anything we could predict or even imagine, that Isaiah can only attempt to describe it as a world where wolves and lambs would graze peaceably, side by side. If we really want to capture the spirit of Easter, you know what I think we should do? Forget all this foolishness about setting a fixed date for the holiday. If anything, we ought to do something that affirms the utter unpredictability of Easter, like — pin a calendar to the wall and throw a dart at it. Wherever the dart hits, that’s Easter for this year. I can just imagine a scene like this: church members getting a call at the crack of dawn from their minister. “Get out of bed! Meet me in the park; we’re going to have our Easter sunrise service in one hour! Christ is risen! Hallelujah!” I mean, isn’t that something like how it must have been for Peter and the disciples when the women who discovered the empty tomb banged on their door first thing in the morning with their incredible news? Sound like a crazy idea? Maybe it is. I doubt that it will ever catch on.
But can you think of a better way for Easter to keep us off balance the way it was meant to do? But, since I don’t see that happening, I guess we’ll continue doing Easter as we always have. Figuring its date according to the sun and the moon. At least that way we can still be reminded that miracles like the Resurrection are governed in the heavens, not in our calendars. If my friend’s idea for setting a rigid date for Easter ever comes up for a vote, I know where I will stand. I’ll vote against doing anything that might diminish the element of surprise in Easter. After all, Easter confronts us with the biggest surprise in the universe. That the very thing we thought was certain – which is death – turns out to be no more of a sure thing
than Punxatawney Phil’s predictions about winter. Christ has risen! So, be prepared to be surprised by him showing up when and where you least expect him. Expect to be perplexed. Embrace the element of surprise. Because as long as Easter is about being surprised by God being up to something bigger and better than anything we can imagine, Easter will always be about hope.