A Troubling Day? Reflections on Easter Sunday and Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
April 5, 2015
Easter Sunday

I admit something today that I have thought about for more than a few years: I find Easter Sunday rather troubling. I realize how odd, how peculiar, how nearly blasphemous such an admission may sound, but it is true for me nonetheless. I want to think more about this by trying to write a few thoughts down. So here goes. You have every right, as always, to stop reading now. That will perhaps be no problem, since most of you have reasonably headed off to the New Testament in any case on this day of all days. But those of you rebels, you counterintuitive types, I hope you will stay with me as I reflect publically on my difficulties with this Easter thing.

It began some Easters ago (does this sound like some soupy memoire already?). I was singing in a choir, as I have done now for over fifty years, including those years I was a pastor. The trumpets were blazing, the organ swell full on, the congregation roaring their joy at the revelation of God in Jesus' resurrection, and victory over death was proclaimed again from the pulpit, by me from several pulpits, and by other preachers from other pulpits, decked in white robes, anxious for the rest that Easter Sunday afternoon brings after that hectic Holy Week chaos. I suddenly felt that I did not wish to be there in that scene, that I did not want to sing Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus again with willing members of the congregation running toward the chancel to join in, that I wanted to go somewhere and be by myself in the quiet, in the quiet.

That feeling has persisted now for many Easters. Like an older male version of Marlene Dietrich, "I just vant to be alone." Why? In the more distant past, I reveled in the rousing anthems and loud hosannas and hullabaloo of the day. While I was a soloist in a huge choir long ago, I sang from that ubiquitous "Messiah" "The Trumpet Shall Sound" six times one Easter morning, beginning at 6:00am! Easter is the choir day, the day of glad sounds. As Psalm 118 has it, "Give thanks to YHWH, who is good, whose chesed ("unbreakable love") endures forever!" What else can one do on Easter Sunday but praise the goodness and greatness of our God?

What else indeed? Jesus has risen, or more accurately from the Gospel accounts, has been raised by the power of God. Surely such glorious good news needs to be trumpeted, choired, shouted from the steeple tops. Now, however, I wish to step outside the sanctuary and sit by myself, hearing the song of birds, watching the squirrels cavort and couple, gazing longingly at an azure sky, and just be. Well, I am sixty-eight years old, and my days of singing the dear old "Trumpet Shall Sound" are passed, I sadly admit. I have never been enamored with the "new suit for Easter" tradition, though I must say my aging carcass looks rather the worse for its longevity, and my old clothes will still do, however tighter they may now be. But I think my trouble with this day goes deeper than song and garment. Isaiah 25 may get closer.

The lectionary writers give us Isaiah 25:6-9, if we prefer the Hebrew Bible to Acts 10 and Peter's wonderfully inclusive comments about the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of the Christ. That Acts 10 bit is really good news for our world, still torn to pieces over who is in and who is out. That would serve a preacher well on Easter, but that still does not get at my trouble, not quite. In Isaiah, the grand and powerful words of 25:6-9 are in themselves quite unobjectionable. Who does not want to hear that "God will swallow up death forever," that "YHWH will wipe away the tears from all faces," that "this is the YHWH for whom we have waited"? Those are words that resound on Easter with special resonance, with unique power.

Yet, here in the whole of Isaiah 25 I pinpoint my problem. Surrounding verses 6-9, the lectionary's cherry-picked lines, we find these words: "You (YHWH) have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the place of aliens (i.e. those not like us) is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt" (Is. 25:2). Or how about this: "The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place, as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit. Though they spread out their hands in its midst, like swimmers spread out their hands to swim, their pride will be laid low" (Is. 25:10-11).

As regularly in the Bible, context is telling. Verses 6-9 shout the great victories of YHWH, but preceding and succeeding verses announce at whose expense those victories have been achieved. And there is my problem with Easter Sunday. Lurking behind all those new clothes and loud hymns and well-rehearsed anthems and well-tuned trumpets is a terrible truth about Christianity: without this Jesus you will simply not find your way to God. And with that claim we doom some 5/6th of the human family to lives without "our" God.

3/27/2015 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.