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"The Punchline"

God surprises us with the news that Jesus is raised from the dead and present in the Christian community. Christ fills the emptiness inside us and leads us into the future that he desires for us.


            A chocolate bunny went to his therapist. The therapist asked, “How have you been doing lately?” The bunny said, “I don’t know, doc. I’ve just been feeling so hollow inside.”


            For 364 days each year, we tell children not to eat anything they find in the dirt. Then, on Easter, we say, “Go ahead, kids: Search on the ground for candy!”


            And, of course, you know the Easter Bunny’s favorite music, don’t you? Hip hop.


            These are Easter jokes, part of an ancient tradition. For hundreds of years in Germany, Lutheran pastors would begin their sermons on Easter Day with a joke. The custom even had a formal title: It was called “the paschal joke.” The empty tomb and resurrection were seen as God’s great joke on the world. And you know that since every good joke requires a surprising punchline, the end of the paschal joke included the biggest shock of all: Jesus ... has been ... raised!


            The problem with today’s resurrection story is that it doesn’t surprise us. It lacks the punchline of an appearance by Jesus. Mark tells us that on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and two other women encounter a cold and empty place when they show up at the tomb. They have suffered the crucifixion of their friend and teacher Jesus, and they are mourning his death deeply. Now they go to his tomb to pay their respects, and what do they find? Nothing. A deserted place. After seeing a young man and hearing about the resurrection, they go out and flee from the tomb, for terror and amazement have seized them; and they say nothing to anyone, for they are afraid.1


            The poet Robert Frost captures their emotions well when he points out that the most frightening of empty places are always close to home. He writes, They cannot scare me with their empty spaces, / Between stars — on stars where no human race is. / I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.2


            We know what he is talking about. Mary Magdalene and her friends certainly do.

Each of us, at some time in life, has to struggle with an empty space, a desert place. We feel it when we get the message that we are being laid off and must clean out our desk immediately, or when we open our statement from the mutual fund company and discover that our investments have tanked. When we realize that we owe more on our mortgage than our house is worth, or when we open the email from the college admissions office and learn that we have been rejected. When we receive the call from the doctor, saying that the biopsy has come back with a cancer diagnosis. When a spouse says she is leaving, a boyfriend says he wants to break up, a partner says there is no future in the relationship. These are desert places.


            When Mary and her companions enter their desert place, they retreat into silence. They feel like they have traveled to a space between stars, where no human race is. Yes, it’s true that the mysterious young man in the tomb has said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised.” This is good news — the Easter morning good news of resurrection life. But the women cannot grasp it, at least not yet. They hear what the man is saying, but it falls flat. He says, “Look, there is the place they laid him” — the empty space. It doesn’t work as a punchline.


            And that’s maybe where we are as well. We are ready for an Easter laugh, an upbeat report, a story that lifts our spirits and gives us hope. But day after day, we keep hearing news about empty spaces and desert places. Like the chocolate bunny, we feel hollow inside. In a very real sense, that’s the way life often is. More emptiness than fullness. More decline than increase. More fear than joy. More failure than success. More separation than reunion. Mary Magdalene felt it when she went with her friends to the tomb of Jesus. And so do we.


            But suddenly, when we least expect it, there comes an unexpected Easter punchline: Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The young man in the tomb says that Jesus is alive and is moving ahead of us, always ahead of us. He will appear when we least expect it, and surprise us with his resurrection life. There is nothing predictable about the way that the Risen Jesus will behave. He is going to sneak up on us, just like the funniest of jokes tend to do. You never see the big laugh coming.


            This is what Paul is trying to communicate in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he reminds them of the good news that has surprised him. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ ... was raised on the third day ... and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters .... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”3


            Jesus revealed himself first on Easter morning, but then he continued to appear, again and again and again. No one was expecting that, especially Paul, the persecutor of Christians who describes himself as “unfit to be called an apostle.”4 Paul’s message to the Corinthians, and to us, is that the resurrection is not a one shot deal. It continues to have an impact, as Jesus reveals himself over and over to people who believe in him.


            Fortunately for Paul — and for us — we don’t have to earn or deserve this surprising gift of resurrection life. All we have to do is believe and be willing to follow Jesus into the future that he is preparing for us. Although Paul was the least of the apostles, he believed in the resurrection, and was inspired to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Although Mary and her companions felt a disorienting mixture of amazement and fear on Easter morning, they responded when the young man gave the command, “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Believe in the resurrection. Follow Jesus into the future. These are responses we can make, responses that can fill our empty spaces and desert places.


            Now, you might be wondering what Jesus looks like when he appears in our lives today. Most often, Jesus shows himself most clearly in a community of faith that is trying to follow his example. He appears in congregations that are trying to be the hands of Jesus in the world, to extend hospitality and grace to all people, to serve a world in need and to work for reconciliation among people of diverse perspectives. When we succeed in these efforts, we are signs of Christ’s presence in the world. We are showing our neighbors that we believe that Jesus is alive and well, and that we want to follow him into the future.


            This is an important mission, because so many people today are living in empty spaces and desert places. Loneliness is on the rise, community organizations are breaking down and political polarization is increasing. People have a void inside them that needs to be filled by the presence of Christ in a church community that embraces all people with God’s love and grace.


            Think about that enormous empty place described by Robert Frost: empty spaces between stars — on stars where no human race is. Well, that space is not nearly as cavernous as a heart without God. The biggest empty place in our lives is the space inside us — the space that we keep sealed off from the attempts of Jesus to appear to us in surprising ways, show us his resurrection life and invite us to follow him.


            Over 300 years ago, a mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal observed that the human heart is like an “infinite abyss.” He discovered that we human beings try in vain to fill our hearts with everything around us — education, jobs, homes, money, friends, family. But none of these earthly things can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with “God himself.” In spite of his brilliance and his contributions to mathematics, Pascal realized that life apart from God is empty. He discovered that he needed the new life provided by Jesus Christ.5


            If you are feeling a desert place in your life, the very same will be true for you. Your emptiness will not be eliminated by a new career, a new spouse, a new house, a new car, a better salary. Instead, the hole in your life can be filled only by believing in the resurrection and following Jesus into the future.


            You can start today, by opening your heart to the truth of Easter, and by allowing Jesus to surprise you. Look for him to appear in church members who are trying to be a Christian community that embraces all people with God’s love and grace. Make a commitment to follow where Jesus is leading you, in your home, work, school and congregation. Take a step forward, and trust that the resurrection is not over, but that it will continue to be made real to you as you follow Jesus in faith.


            The good news of Easter is that Christ is alive! We can laugh because God is full of surprises, hitting us with the news that Jesus is raised from the dead and present in the Christian community. He is moving ahead of us, always ahead of us, filling our emptiness and leading us into the future. That’s God’s joke on the world, with the greatest of punchlines.


1 Mark 16:8.

2 Robert Frost, Selected Poems of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), 195.

3 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

4 1 Corinthians 15:9.

5 Roger S. Oldham, “Resurrection - ‘heart’ of Gospel,” Baptist Press, March 20, 2008, www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/resurrection-heart-of-gospel/.

 



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