Like many I have been haunted by the atrocities, the evil and the darkness that has come from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both that which began on 24th February 2022 and that which began in 2014. When we are experiencing moments of pain and darkness it can be difficult to see the blessings, the hope and the joy of Jesus. This Easter I preached the sermon below looking at how Jesus took His light into the darkness but brought it out too. I hope you find it helpful.
Rev’d Andrew Avramenko, 17th April 2022
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”Luke 24:5 (NIVUK)
The tomb was empty. Jesus’ body was not there. Despair was piled upon despair. And then this: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It is not just something to celebrate and give thanks for, it is something to hold onto in our difficult moments. It is the reminder that love triumphs, that death does not have the final word. It is a reminder that nothing, neither death, evil or misdemeanours can deprive us from or separate us from the love of God now and eternally.
Celebrating that Jesus had defeated death and given new life to us all, is attracting people to worship around the world today. We can celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, and the life that Jesus gives us in now and eternally, because we are looking back on the pain of Jesus and those who watched Him die upon the Cross. We can do that because we are not in the midst of grieving like they were. We can do that because we can know that Jesus is alive.
In our Gospel reading we saw that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the disciples could not celebrate Jesus’s resurrection because they did not know about it. When they arrived at the tomb that first Easter morning they were still gripped by the darkness and the numbing grief of Jesus’s death. And though Jesus had tried to teach them, though He had indicated what would happen on and after the Cross, their grief was only compounded by the empty tomb. The absence of His body, and the words spoken to them, didn’t remove their grief; it only confused it.
The realisation, the celebration and the hope came later.
In the midst of grief
Today the same combination of grief and confusion is being felt by people across the world. This week, indeed for the past 7 weeks, for some even longer, we have seen the grief and confusion of Ukrainians as they grapple with the reality of what evil humans can do to each other. They are in the midst of grief compounded by fear. They cannot yet celebrate the lives of the loved ones they have lost. They cannot yet see the hope of victory, whether it be Jesus’s or Ukraine’s. They cannot yet see the blessings that have emerged from the darkness of their night or between the Cross and the resurrection.
This Easter we could be excused for finding ourselves rooted to the heavy anticipation of Maundy Thursday and the fear of not being able to meet our rising bills. We could be forgiven for being gripped by the grief of Good Friday and the death of those known and unknown to us, whether here in the UK, in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Rwanda or elsewhere. And we could be excused for remaining rooted in the numbness, comfortable or not, of Easter Eve — remaining in our grief for who or what we have lost.
Sadly these places and people are not alone, many people, too many people here and elsewhere in the world have witnessed evil and experienced the pain of life and death. This week in the UK, many people have been reminded of the grief they have experienced during the last 2 years of the pandemic. Many of us here have experienced that grief too. When we are in the midst of pain, like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the thought of hope, blessings and celebration can not only seem impossible but make the pain even worse. If you are one of them, please know you are in the prayers of many, including mine.
Being called into blessings
Just as the Angels called the women at the empty tomb out of their shock and grief and into the blessings Jesus had for them, they are calling us into those blessings too.
Jesus calls us into the hope of His resurrected life. The hope that is contained in His defeat of death turns a full-stop into a semi-colon. It is a hope that is contained in our promised future, in our sharing of eternal life with Jesus. But it is also a hope that is contained and available in the now.
You may well know that Jesus’s last supper, one which provides the bedrock of the words we use when we celebrate and receive Holy Communion, took place during the week of celebrations of the first passover (Exodus 11 to 13:16). The first passover came immediately after the final of the ten plagues which secured their freedom from enslavement in Egypt. It is a history which is not easy to handle because of the fear, suffering and death of so many. It was a dark and difficult time for both the Israelites and the Egyptians.
The first Passover, and each annual celebration of it afterwards, was not intended to bring up the pain of the past but to acknowledge it. Acknowledging it helped them to remember or notice the blessings, both past and present — but it also encouraged them to trust that as God blessed them then, God would bless them again in the future. Our reading from Isaiah pointed the Israelites towards the blessings of the future, the future that Jesus came to fulfil, the future that He pointed to during His final celebration of the Passover in our Earthly-realm. Jesus took the hope given in Isaiah, and the hope His disciples and many more had placed on Him, with Him onto the Cross.
The Cross seemingly removed hope from those who approached the tomb on that first Easter morning. Their grief of Jesus’s death hid the seeds of hope that He had sown before His crucifixion. They could not see the hope but that hope was still there. They could not see the light but the light was still there, it had not gone out, it had gone to defeat the darkness, and it had returned to remain forevermore. They could not see the joy to be celebrated, but they would, we would, we will. The hope, blessings and joy that Jesus is in His resurrection is a gift forever available to us, forever waiting for us, and forever with us.
When the angels spoke to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James they were helping them to see what was hidden from their sight. They did it with gentleness and compassion, just as Jesus did when Mary Magdalene met Him later in the garden, and when Thomas examined His wounds.
Light in the darkness
We can do that for each other and ourselves too. We can walk alongside those in grief, those in pain, those who are not yet able to see the hope, blessings and joy. We can say as little as the angels, and be as compassionate as Jesus. We can wait with them until their spirits rise as Jesus did before ascending, before the disciples received the Holy Spirit to fuel and guide them through to the joy. We can be children of hope for them because we are all children of the resurrection.
We are not yet free from suffering in the present, but we are freed from death to be able to live life now and beyond. And with that freedom comes release, release from the blinkers and shackles that prevent us from noticing and loving all that Jesus loves and notices. We can do that, we can see the blessings, hopes and joy when we take time to pause, ponder and pray. We can do that if we take a leaf out of the Jesuits’ book and practice the Examen.
The Examen is simply taking a short period of your day to reflect on it, to notice both the good and the bad, the challenges and the blessings. It doesn’t try to hide the difficulties, it acknowledges them, and it does so in order that they do not keep eating away at us, so that so that they don’t hide the blessings. But it doesn’t dwell on the difficulties. Once the difficulties have been acknowledged it hands them over to God and moves on to seek the blessings of the day, and it is there it dwells so that the blessings of the immediate past become blessings, hope and joy in the present to carry into the future.
The first Easter, Jesus’s resurrection, teaches us that even if we cannot see it, there is light in the darkness. Jesus is in the darkness, He took His light into it, and His light could not be put out by it. He also brought the light out of the darkness, and does so for us too.
In the Book of Isaiah, chapter 9, verse 2, it says “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”. Today we can celebrate that dawning light, our resurrected saviour. Today we hold that light for those struggling to see that light. Today we shine the light of Christ onto the blessings amongst us, to illuminate our path with hope, and to guide us to its joy.