The Remaking of Jerusalem
Isaiah 65: 17-25 John 20: 1-18
When something really strange happens to you… you struggle to make sense of it.
Whatever it was, it was something really strange that happened to the disciples and Mary at the tomb that morning. Whatever it was, it changed the world forever and they never let go of it, even on fear of death or persecution or being thrown to the lions.
The reason I say “whatever it was” … is for at least two reasons, firstly, there will always be a sense in which we don’t understand what the resurrection was: no one actually saw it, according to the Bible stories, there is no science of resurrection. Whatever it was, it happened in the tomb, before anyone arrived. And secondly, there will always be historical uncertainties at least about the details of the stories.
But… there are some deductions we can make from what we do know that are important.
There’s some things we can say about what it would have had to have been like in order to make sense of the effect it had on those first Jews who believed.
One fact is clear… first century Jews had a certain kind of hope. They hoped for a time when God would bring the dead to life, bring Israel to life again. And with that they hoped for the casting off of oppression and the establishment of peace and justice under God’s rule led by a Messianic (anointed) figure – who would draw all peoples into the reign of God. (There is variation in the detail). They hoped for a new event in history, bringing history to its final purpose and completion.
The question then is, why would a group of Jews becoming absolutely convinced that the resurrection had happened in a world where the Romans were still in control and in a world still full of injustice?
New Testament scholar Tom Wright says that, whatever happened it must have been something “close enough to the ordinary sense of Jesus being alive again for them to be shocked into making this extraordinary claim”.
That’s the deduction we can make… vs 8 in our gospel story
“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead… then the disciples returned to their homes.”
Resurrection was part of their hopes, part of their culture, part of their vocabulary… but they had no idea that it would happen to Jesus individually… Their first conclusion is simply that the tomb was empty. They believed that the tomb was empty… But then something happened (Mary met the one she thought was the gardener, the disciples had a strange experience in an upper room, some others walking along the road… and so on) something happened that meant that even though resurrection as they expected it hadn’t happened. Something led them to believe that it had happened to Jesus – “something close enough to the ordinary sense of Jesus being alive again”. It’s no proof, but it’s something these people were prepared to die for.
Their hopes had begun to be fulfilled… that’s what I want to explore today. It was the beginning of the end to which God would draw all things. Whatever God’s justice was finally going to look like, this was, for them, the beginning of it. It all started with God putting “the big tick” beside the man Jesus, who was prepared to die rather than compromise his faithful non-violent life of love, love which undermined all social distinctions and status markers. God gave the biggest tick of all to this man killed by the world. This man… the Christians concluded… had been the presence of God in history.
And for some reason, this apparent failure, this enormous grief and disillusionment, became, literally overnight or at least over a period of a few days, the beginning of God’s new future. This is the resurrection that we celebrate today.
Today lets go back to some of those hopes that began to blossom in a whole new light on resurrection morning.
Isaiah 65: 17-18
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to
But be glad and rejoice in what I am creating;
For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
And its people as a delight
Remember when Jesus was on his way into Jerusalem he famously wept over Jerusalem and the people’s failure to recognize, that day ‘the things that make for peace’. Remember his lament, “
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, and stones those that are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.”
Jerusalem was the center of the world for Jews. It represented God’s future, and for Jesus it represented the failure of God’s people to see God’s future. It represented his own unrealized hopes, it represents that location of his final act of giving himself into the hands of God and into the hands of fearful human beings. At Jerusalem the fearful humanity killed him. At Jerusalem God received his self-gift and gave him back to humanity for their forgiveness and for a new future – he gave him back to you and me.
Isaiah talks about the desire of God to make good the covenant, to make good creation with these words “For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy.” It’s a beautiful phrase. He doesn’t talk about bricks and mortar. He doesn’t talk about the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of a nation-state formed by an alliance with the military might of an American empire. He says “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, it’s people as a delight”. Isaiah’s hope is that of a new social order… the justice of God incarnate in a life together which is ‘a delight’. He goes on to articulate a vision of peace which culminates in these words: “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (vs 25).
That’s the background to what those Jews are saying when they go around telling everyone that the resurrection has started with Jesus… a new Jerusalem is being born. Jerusalem as a joy.
It’s the background to people gathering to share their wealth and resources.
That’s the background to what set a young Jew called Paul running round telling people that God had given a gift even to enemies, to crucifiers and persecutors, to the weak and the poor and the ignorant, a gift that undermined all matters of status and achievement.
That’s the background to new experiments in community in which men and women met together in homes, slave and free met together as brothers and sisters.
That’s the background to people starting to give gifts to the poor who didn’t rate on the social ladder – a radical move which went against the whole grain of the ancient world (according to visiting scholar, John Barclay)
For resurrection Christians, Jerusalem as a joy… is not just a future hope. It has started! Jerusalem is emerging now. That is what it means for us today in our Jerusalem on the other side of the planet 2000 years on, struggling, often enough, to believe it… Jerusalem has spread.
The resurrection is a gift… the gift of forgiveness. The gift is also the establishment of a new life together.
Thanks be to God
Bruce Hamill (Caversham, Easter 2010)