Preparing for Easter, Preparing to Celebrate!

It has occurred to me that our congregations need to be prepared for Easter.  That is what Lent is about, right, but while we’re getting that there is value in observing Lent, recognizing our sinfulness and journeying with Jesus to the cross, we’re missing something if we’re not inviting people to prepare to celebrate.  I think as a Church we have lost the art of true celebration when it comes to Easter.  We need new Easter traditions, new ways to keep on celebrating after Easter Sunday. Easter is not a one day event!  Easter changes everything! 

I would love to hear your ideas on how to keep up the celebration of Easter as a community and even in your families all the way from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.

Here is my sermon from this last weekend if anyone is interested.  I know most of you have been in the Psalms, but we’re doing the gospel passages.  So it’s the story of the blind man healed, but also about the “signs” in the book of John that point to new creation in the resurrection of Jesus (really fun stuff for those theology nerds and Bible lovers out there), with lots of thoughts on Easter.

“I Saw the Sign”
John 9:1-41
The imagery in this passage of blindness and sight, day and night, light and darkness brings us back again to John 1…
 “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he is about the business of making the Father known, revealing the Kingdom of God and showing himself to be the Messiah, or as he says it at the end of the story, “the Son of Man,” this is the one all of Israel had been waiting for to come and save them.

In the book of John, the miraculous things Jesus does aren’t referred to as miracles, but as “signs”. Signs function to alert us to something, to show us what is coming.

So in the first chapter of John, he lays it out for us, this is who Jesus is, the light of the world, the Word, the Son of God, the Savior, and then throughout the book he shows us “signs” that point to these truths. N.T. Wright says, “The whole point of signs” (and he means in the gospel of John, not signs in general) “is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other.”  And he adds, “The point is not that they are stories which couldn’t have happened in real life, but which point away from earth to a heavenly reality.”  (John for Everyone, 21.)

So the signs in the gospel according to John are stories in which the reality of heaven is enacted, through Jesus, here on earth, they are signs that reveal who Jesus is and what the world will be like when God’s Kingdom comes in fullness, when creation is made new.

And this whole idea of new creation is a big part of John’s message.  Look at how he begins his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Here, he puts Jesus, the Son, the Word, right there in the garden, the one through whom all things were created. And how was man created?  Out of the dust, right?  Out of the dirt, God formed humanity and breathed his breath into us, giving us life. So how fitting is it that to heal this blind man, Jesus gets down and digs in the dirt, spits, makes mud and slathers it over his eyes…and through this the man gains both his sight and a completely new life.

And this is one of the signs. There are seven of these signs recorded in the gospel according John. The first sign was turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana, and others include healing a paralyzed man, feeding 5,000 people from a boy’s little lunch of bread and fish, and the story we’ll talk about next week of Lazarus being raised from the dead. 

Now with the seventh sign the writer, John, gets really creative.  This is fun.  The seventh sign is connected to Jesus’ crucifixion.  That part isn’t so fun, but the way John shows us the sign is amazing…we’re actually going to talk about this a lot more on the 16th, two weeks from now when we have our Palm and Passion service that leads us into Holy Week, but for now just listen to this one cool part…
When Jesus was crucified, Pilate, the Roman governor, had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS, written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.
Here we have a literal sign!  A literal sign written so that everyone could read it!

John then goes on to say, “Many of the Jews read this sign…”and “The chief priests of the Jews protested” saying to Pilate, Come on, don’t write that he’s the King of the Jews, but that he claims to be! And Pilate says, “What I have written, I have written.”

So there it is, like or not, the seventh sign, everyone sees it, but who will believe? Jesus is the King.

And this is where it gets really exciting, are you ready? How many days are there in the story of creation? There are 7, 7 days, and all of life is ordered around the fact that there are 7 days (We still have 7 days in a week.) So in the book of John, there are 7 signs, 7 signs of new creation, seven stories that mark events when Jesus reveals and enacts the Kingdom of God, creation as it is was meant to be and as it will be.  And this heavenly reality is coming, through Jesus, to the world. 

But wait, you say, the 7th sign is given at his crucifixion, that can’t be the end!  But it seems to be the end.  Jesus is crucified on a Friday and on Saturday, the final day of the week in the Jewish world, on the 7th day, Jesus rests in a tomb.

But on Sunday we find out that the story isn’t over.  There is an eighth sign…Jesus resurrected, not just raised like Lazarus who would die again, but Jesus was raised to life after life after death!! There are only seven days in the original creation story, but the eighth sign in the gospel according to John points to something like an eighth day, a day when all things are made new!!

Did you know that back in New Testament times, Sunday was the functional equivalent of our Monday?  Saturday was Sabbath, the 7th day of rest, and Sunday was the first day of the work week. But when Jesus was raised from the dead, when the tomb was found empty, his followers knew that this changed everything!  Nothing could ever be the same, new Creation had begun!  So Christians began to gather each week on Sunday, on the first day of the work week to celebrate. Some even went so far as to not work on this day. Saturday was Sabbath, the seventh day of rest, but Sunday was the Lord’s day, the eighth day, a day of recreation and celebration of the new creation that came through Christ. 

No wonder they recruited so many Christians in Acts, right!? They were celebrating, having a party every week while the rest of the world was working! Could you imagine trying to get by with taking off on Mondays every week?  Some of you may not even be able to keep your current job if you did that. But early Christians believed that this was an important way to recognize that they were people of the new creation, people who lived differently than the rest of the world because they had been transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. They were people of the eighth day.

Now, of course, the world has been “Christianized” at least in that our week now reflects the “Christian” week, with both Sabbath rest and Sunday celebration squeezed into one day.  This is convenient for us, but we have to find other ways to be set apart, to live differently than the rest of the world.

One of those ways is to observe the Christian calendar, to align our schedules and our lives around Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, all of which lead us to the climax of Holy Week and then the grand finale, the Great Celebration of Easter, the greatest celebration of the entire year, 50 days of celebration from Easter Sunday to Pentecost.

And because our nation, which is claimed to be Christian by many, but unlike other nations around the world who recognize Good Friday and Easter Monday as national holidays, we in the USA tend to roll right on through these days as if all that happened was a bunny brought some eggs and candy to your kids, oh ya, and Jesus died and some people think he was raised from the dead, but there’s no real reason to stop, to take a break, to miss a work day.  You celebrated on Sunday, now get back to work. Life must go on as usual, nothing really changed.

Which gives us a great opportunity, like the early Christians, at least for one day of the year, to practice being people of the eighth day.  In our society Monday is the old Sunday, it’s back to the grind, the day we start another week of work just like the last, but to observe Easter Monday is to say that something new has happened in Easter, we can’t just go back to life as usual, we need to stop, to let the joy of Easter linger, we need to celebrate.

Yes, your pastor is telling you it might be a good idea to take off work on Easter Monday.

Now some of you can’t do that, either you don’t get paid days off and you can’t afford it, or your days are already all used up for this year, and that’s ok, I’m not proposing some kind of new legalism here, if you have to work, find a way to make that day a celebration, eat a special breakfast, go to your favorite place for lunch, bring Easter goodies to your co-workers.  But if you don’t have to work, if you can take a day off here and there, choose to take that day, and celebrate the new life that comes on the eighth day, the new creation, celebrate with your family, with your friends, rest, relax, go do something fun, and keep celebrating Easter.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

Some of you may be wondering if I’m ever going to get back to the blind man…we’re going back now….

At the beginning of the story John tells us what to make of this man’s blindness, and essentially why the story is told.  His blindness was not a punishment but an opportunity for God’s glory, God’s good to be revealed. It was an occasion for heaven and earth to intersect, for Jesus to show the world, in yet another way, what the world would be like if he reigned as Lord and King, what the world was intended to be when God created it and what it would look like when he created it anew. The story functions as a sign.

As much as this story is about one real man who was born blind and was healed by Jesus, who once was blind, but then could see, it is also about all of humanity, all who are spiritually blind, who live in the darkness of sin, who can’t see Jesus for who he is or the Kingdom of God he proclaims. But this is why John tells the story…Jesus says that he came so that those who do not see may see! John tells the stories of the signs so that people may see and believe and have life.

And still, today, the signs of God are all around us, the many ways that God’s Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven because people who follow Jesus and who have been filled with his Spirit, allow the Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done through them as it was through Jesus Christ.

There are also those, like the Pharisees, who think they can see, in fact they are sure of it, but the very fact that they think they can see reveals their sinfulness. And so Jesus says he also came so that those who see would become blind.  Like the Apostle Paul, a Pharisee who literally was blinded by God and then transformed to new life in Christ, all who thought they could see before Jesus needed to become blind, so that they really could see truly.

And this takes us all the way back to the text that we used for our call to worship today,
 “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”