God’s laugh at Easter

In his 1962 literary classic, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, Ray Bradbury writes about a carnival that comes to a small town. The novel describes the evil, carnival magicians who inflict the townsfolk with demonstrations of supernatural events that confirm the main characters’ worst fears: Their very lives are in danger. The dark fantasy climaxes with a confrontation between the Wicked Witch and Charles Halloway, the town’s librarian.

She finds him in the library among the book stacks and begins her evil design to kill him by stopping his heart. He is terrified, locked in the hypnotic power of her dark presence. Charles can only watch, transfixed, as she weaves the air with her scorpion fingers, slowing his heart, beat by beat …

He feels his heart squeeze. Nearing the moment of no return when darkness engulfs his vision, Charles last notices her spindly fingers tickling the air. And he giggles —

A giggle which then turns into a deep, rolling, belly laugh. He can only laugh at her performance.

The witch stops short. She renews her efforts with vigor, waving her hands all over the place. But her power is suddenly thwarted. Laughter turns the tide of evil. And the carnival leaves the town. Laughter, in the face of evil, saves the day.

Easter is God’s last laugh at the devil. When all seems lost and Jesus lies in the tomb, apparently defeated by the evil of humanity …. The morning sunlight bursts on the scene, the stone is rolled away, and the grave is found empty! Ha! Jesus is not dead. He is alive! Hallelujah! Ha! Happy Easter!

It is tradition at Easter time to tell jokes. Because laughter reflects the character of this season of joyous celebration. Here’s a joke about golfing – a true story, actually:

Four retired vets, even with the limitations of ageing, regularly golfed together. All of them, though, especially Jerry, had the reputation of cheating a bit to gain an advantage against his very competitive group of friends.

One time when the foursome was out on a warm Spring day, Jerry hit his ball from the fairway and made an awful mis-hit. His ball flew into the bush off to the right of the fairway. The ball was so far into the bush that when he finally found it his comrades could not see him from the fairway. All they could hear was the “swish-swish-swish-swish” from swinging his club at what must have been a terrible spot.

Finally after about seven “swishes” the ball popped out on the fairway. When he emerged from the bush one of his comrades asked, “So, how many strokes, Jerry?” And Jerry, thinking quickly, replied, “One.”

“One!” they all said together, “We heard you take at least seven swings!” Jerry immediately replied, “Darn snake and I got him too!”

On Easter, the tables have been turned. God did not “cheat” death; like breaking the rules of a game. Instead, God overcame death; there’s now a new game in town. Now, bad news is dwarfed by new life. It’s called: Resurrection. Life triumphs over death. Death and life did hang in the balance in the torturous, grievous days leading to this morning. But now, there is no question of who is victorious. The life of God in Jesus triumphs over death.

What does the new life – the resurrection – of Jesus mean for you? That’s a very good question that I hope you will reflect on in this season. One thing it means for me is, now I can believe in what without the resurrection of Jesus would at first seem impossible.

Just like when Charles Halloway laughed at the witch in the Ray Bradbury novel: After Charles shared his discovery with others in the town, they were able to believe something that didn’t seem remotely possible before. They were able to believe that they could expel the evil carnival from their town. Which they did. With the gift of laughter.

For many years athletes believed it was impossible for humans to run a 4-minute mile. In track events around the world, top milers ran a mile in just over 4 minutes.

Then, a British runner named Roger Bannister decided to determine what changes he could make in his running style and strategy to break the 4-minute barrier. He believed it was possible to run faster and put many months of effort into changing his running pattern to reach his goal. In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. His belief that he could succeed contributed to a changed outcome in his life.

What’s even more remarkable, I think, is once Bannister broke the record, the best milers from around the world also began to run the mile in under 4 minutes. But, unlike Bannister, these runners did not substantially change their running patterns and strategies. What had changed were their thoughts; they now believed it was possible to run this fast – and their behavior followed their thinking.

Of course, just knowing it’s possible to run fast does not mean everyone can do it. Thinking is not the same as doing. So how does the Easter story encourage our faith? How does the Easter story encourage our belief in a risen Lord, in a God that is not dead, but alive? How does believing in the risen Lord translate into life lived fully?

What did Jesus first do after he was raised from the dead? Remember, Jesus spent 33 years limited by his human form. Even though he was fully divine, he chose for that amount of time to give up his place in the divine realm, take human form, become a servant, and die a human death (Philippians 2).

What do you think Jesus would want to do when back in his divine form? From a human perspective, you’d think the divine part of Jesus would be thrilled to be finally freed from the burdensome, messy, violent, cruel, painful trappings of his humanity, right?

You’d think the resurrected Jesus would want nothing more to do with the human world. You’d think he’d just want to get outa there and shoot away into the divine realm, where he would be reunited with his Father, right?

But the Gospels are all clear on this: We read that Jesus – in his divine form – appeared to Mary and some other disciples on that first Easter day, right after he is resurrected from the dead. The Gospel stories we read over the next several weeks are about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples — the famous walk to Emmaus, breakfast by the sea, meeting the doubting Thomas. When Jesus first emerged from the dark tomb, the Bible doesn’t say he spent time with the heavenly beings, united with his Father God. But his human friends, on earth!

Now, let’s for a moment consider why on earth Jesus would do this – that is, meet with his earthly friends right away? He obviously wanted to connect with them — to assure them, encourage them, empower them, love them. He was, after all, their friend — forever.

Incredible! Not only did Jesus express an incredible love to us in his death; he also, in his divinity, shows unbelievable love – to reach out to us, today – AFTER his resurrection.

What is the nature of the divine Jesus, the risen Lord, we worship today? He comes to us. He is with us – Emmanuel. As the Psalmist so wonderfully expresses – there is no place on earth we can go now that he is not there! (Psalm 139). Anywhere, everywhere we go, Jesus is there, too.

What the Easter story so profoundly teaches us is that Jesus Christ has not given up on us. He remains committed to us even after his resurrection. Just as he went first to his disciples after being raised from the dead and showed to them his faithfulness, so too Jesus continues to come to us, to show us his faithfulness. He is, as one scholar described, “the hound of heaven” – he will never give up on us.

The living Jesus will keep on waiting for us to answer his gentle, loving knock on the door of our hearts. He waits for us to respond in faith, in believing. He continues to come to us in love and mercy, waiting for us to respond in faith and believe in things we cannot yet see. And the more we believe something is possible, the more likely we are to attempt it, and maybe even realize it.

What if it is possible? Easter invites us to believe in something that is beyond the present circumstance. Easter invites us to believe in someone that is beyond rational explanation and sensate knowing. Easter awakens in each one of us the God-given gifts of faith, hope, and love. Just like laughter does; it opens our hearts.

So, laugh a little today. And imagine what could happen if we all believed in these impossible possibilities!

Driving into the sunrise: an ISS with a view

Following Canadian Astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s twitter feed (@Cmdr_Hadfield), I along with over a quarter million other people are fed with a steady diet of inspiring photography from space.

And these photos, nothing short of amazing, are shots of cities and notable geography on our planet. Maybe it’s the perspective, and the real time nature of the photography.

These weren’t photos taken by a satellite a year ago or more you can find on Google Earth. Chris Hadfield takes these photos, and then moments later posts them on the internet: So, I’ve seen the bush fires in Australia as well as the flooding there as it recently happened.

His perspective from 400 kilometres up flying at 8 km/ second challenges my opinion on the way things are on the ground. For example, I may feel completely inundated and overwhelmed by the depth of winter in which we find ourselves now, in the southern parts of Canada. From my perspective six feet off the ground, the snow banks are high; flurries stream in daily from the heavens; the white stuff piles up and covers so much of my world.

And yet, I get a different feel when I view Chris Hadfield’s photos from space. When he’s posted live photos of Ottawa, Montreal, even Edmonton in January of 2013 — you can tell it’s winter from up there, to be sure.

But the photo isn’t completely white, as I would imagine with all this snow. Depending on the Canadian city, white may not even be the half of it. There are dark patches all over the place — sections of lakes and rivers not frozen, glades of forests, exposed rocks — that have thrown off the blanket of snow.

I watched the interview between Commander Hadfield and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge on TV last week. And I discovered Chris Hadfield to be quite philosophical and eloquent about his incredible experience. A veritable Renaissance Man, he is.

I must confess I have caught the bug of inspiration that he is sharing openly with the whole world. He says that his experience has taught him to think more globally and wonder about his place on the planet in relation to other places. When people respond to his twitter feed about the photos he posts, Hadfield is inspired by comments that suggest these places mean something more for people, places that were up until now for many just words on a page, found in an atlas. Therefore, what motivates him in his work is that because of what he does people’s vision of the world is slightly expanded.

Mansbridge asked whether what Hadfield is experiencing, given his awe-inspiring perspective of earth, can be described religious or spiritual. In response, Hadfield spoke of the night in which they were flying eastward over Canada in the dark, north of the Great Lakes towards the Maritimes. He was just able to see the lights of Quebec City and then over the Gaspe, and finally screaming at high speeds towards Newfoundland and Labrador. And just as St Johns came into view, the sun burst over the horizon.

Not just the sudden brightness, explosion of colours or heat of the sun, but the profound beauty of it, he said, brings tears to his eyes. He went on to say that “driving into the sunrise” — which happens 16 times a day for him — is a powerful experience because it is “a magnificent way to understand our planet, and to see our country as one place.”

Valentine’s Day is just over a week from now. And the red hearts, balloons and chocolates in the stores remind us of that great theme in life — love. Saint Paul’s famous speech about the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13) echoes in our minds as we yearn for the warm fuzzies and relational peace amongst ourselves.

This kind of perspective seems almost out of reach on account of the enduring divisions, both within ourselves, and in the world. We may even have considered “love” as something reserved only for our dreams and fantasies, something expressed only in the fictional world of princesses and princes and childhood aspirations.

When Mansbridge asked Hadfield about the response he got from people after posting photos of Syria where there is much trouble and conflict, he responded: “Trouble and conflict is a basic component of the human experience, unfortunately.” He admitted that it’s not going to get solved by space travel.

But he went on to say that he thinks that if people in conflict could see the world from his visual perspective — “to be able to cross Africa in the time it takes to finish this sentence, to be able to see the whole world repeatedly over and over as one succinct, distinct place where we all live — that view would do a lot of people a lot of good.”

He also said that the ISS is visible from the earth. “If you get up early in the morning, or just before you go to bed, and we happen to be flying overhead, we are still in the light while it’s getting dark on the surface of the earth. There’s a visible example of something going on that is truly international, that is cooperative, that is leading edge that is right there overhead — the brightest star in the sky going around and around the world reminding people of what we can do when we do things right and when we do things together. And hopefully that combination will help to influence at least some people: the combination of understanding how we truly all exist together on a planet and the understanding of what we can do when we work together.”

You know what happens after Jesus announces to the people what his purpose in life is, after reading the holy scripture to the people in the Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4: 21-30). You know the response. It is violent. They want to throw their home boy off a cliff!

We may forget that when the church in Corinth first heard Paul’s words about love, those words didn’t spark the warm fuzzies in them. Paul was addressing a church in conflict, with people’s selfish, compulsive egos getting the better of them. Everything Paul says love is not, they are. Everything that Paul says love is, they are not. They reacted. They must have been angry at Paul for his challenge, his offense, his prophetic, cutting-edge preaching.

In short, both the Gospel story and this famous, idyllic passage about love from Paul tells us that Christianity even with its emphasis on love and grace doesn’t mean it’s all nice and easy and comforting.

Love is not just a feeling. It is action. It is risk-taking. It is going beyond our comfort zones in the same sense that Chris Hadfield risks all to propel his body to the edge of space in a tin can. Love ain’t easy. But the benefit, the outcome, is wonderful, inspiring.

Love exercised with determination, and motivated out of a sense of the greater, common good, for the sake of others; Love demonstrated in acts of courage and principled clarity — this is who we are. This is the Gospel character.

How does Jesus escape almost certain death by the mob who wants to kill him? Right at the end of the Gospel passage, we read that he merely “passes right through them”. Biblical scholars suggest this rather cryptic climax to the story points to the resurrection of Jesus.

As Hadfiled admitted, space travel will not solve the human experience of being in conflict and trouble. But the visual reminders will inspire Canadians, indeed all earthlings, to something better, something cutting edge, something more, something possible that we can do together. Just as small acts of true, meaningful, self-giving acts of love between individuals, families, communities, countries, will not solve all human conflict for all time. But they will stand as constant reminders of what God has called us, ultimately into: new life, resurrection, new beginnings.

We are, after all, all driving into the sunrise.