“But we had hoped.”
It’s weird how appropriate those words the disciples said on that road to Emmaus are for us today. “But we had hoped.” We had hoped we could be back to church by Easter. We had hoped businesses could start opening back up again. We had hoped the summer heat would solve the problem. We had hoped schools would resume in-person teaching before summer. We had hoped life could get back to how it was.
In a season as joyful as Easter, it can be tempting to paper over any lingering sadness or disappointment. Jesus is risen, after all! Hallelujah! He’s burst the bonds of death and opened the floodgates of mercy and love onto an aching and tired world! God has reconciled us to one another and to God! What better news could we have than that? But even so, I felt drawn to these four words of the disciples this week—“but we had hoped.”
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
I have been waiting so long to say that! I’ve always loved Easter. I know that’s a very pastor-y thing to say, but it’s true. Easter has always been one of those perfect kind of days, where all the gloom and sadness of Lent gets thrown off all at once, and we have the big pipe organ hymns with the brass, there are Easter lilies and white paraments, everyone gathers with their families for traditions like Easter egg hunts or a ham dinner. And it feels a lot different this year.
We can’t meet in person, and so much of what makes Easter such a holy day feels like it doesn’t get to happen. We’re social distancing so all those wonderful traditions we have as a family are going to be put on hold. Even the way we get dressed up in our Easter best is being disrupted—I’m pretty sure most of y’all are watching this in your pajamas. And I think it can be tempting to think Easter is somehow less than because we don’t get all those things.
A lot can happen in the course of a week. We’ve probably all had weeks like that, where the place we started looked nothing like the way the week ended. Sometimes it’s for the better, when everything goes our way and the weekend feels bright and optimistic. And sometimes a week that starts off well enough makes a hard left turn for the worst. We can all probably think of a certain week where exactly that happened not too long ago.
It feels particularly important, then, that it’s just that kind of week—one where things go suddenly off course—that tells us the most important things about God. We heard how Jesus was celebrated in a huge parade, complete with a donkey to ride on and palm branches littering his path. Matthew describes the crowd as “the greatest crowd,” the biggest Jerusalem had ever seen. The whole city was in an uproar about Jesus showing up as pilgrims across the Jewish world, there for the Passover, were curious about who was being hailed as the Messiah.
This is one of the few passages from Ezekiel that most of us have ever heard. It’s the story of the prophet being taken in a vision to a valley filled with dry, long-dead bones. It’s a story of God’s promised hope of resurrection, of Israel being restored, and the inspiration for the hit classic “Dem Bones.” But like any time we hear only one part of a book as big as Ezekiel, it’s always helpful to know what’s going on around it.
Ezekiel got this vision after a huge disaster—actually the biggest disaster imaginable—had happened in Judah. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, the Temple was burned to the ground, and the whole population was deported to Babylon, where Ezekiel was living. Four hundred fifty years of the Davidic monarchy came crashing to an end. The people’s whole world had been turned upside down. The way they were used to living was upended, undone, caput in an instant. Suddenly they had to adapt to a completely new way of living in a completely unfamiliar place.
What was the best day in your whole life? Think back to a time when you had just the best day, where the feeling you got was so incredibly good that you would go back to that day in a heartbeat just to experience it again. We occasionally get those really awesome moments, when we feel like the whole world is lined up exactly as it should be, and we’re truly, completely happy.
I got that feeling the first time Hazel ever fell asleep on me. It was at the hospital; she was barely a day old yet. We’d read that early skin-to-skin contact with both parents promotes some kind of good development in babies, so I was giving it a try while Annie took a much-deserved rest. And Hazel’s warm little body was so sweetly pressed up against me, and she had a stuffy nose from all the birth fluids, so she snored like a tiny old man. The nurse came in to give us some kind of instructions, but I definitely have no recollection of what she said because I was completely lost in that moment.
Last week, people across the country were shocked to hear the news about the death of Kobe Bryant. It was one of those moments where people from all different stripes were united in shock and grief. He was extremely widely known—even I knew who Kobe was, and I don’t keep up with sports. There was an outpouring of mourning, people naming how he’d captured imaginations, people lifting up prayers for his family.
And then there was another reaction that came about. I started seeing it on Facebook that many people were taking the opportunity to name people who weren’t recognized by the news who had experienced tragedy. Names of people who weren’t famous but were no less tragic of losses. Now, we should never shame people for who they grieve. But the very widespread and unified grief around Kobe has shown up in other famous people as well—David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Prince, and others. Society has a way of showing who is considered important.
You’ve got to love some of Paul’s words. In the midst of arguing that the Corinthians should remember that they are Christ’s and not part of some faction, he points them to the fact that the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation!—is foolishness to the world. When he first brought the gospel to this community, Paul was insistent that he didn’t use the flowery, incisive, over-the-top rhetoric of the day to convince them, but instead let the gospel speak for itself. And to most people, this message that Paul was giving sounded like foolishness. The community around the Corinthian church saw what they were doing and saw it through the eyes of people who don’t understand. What he said then is just as true now.
Audio is not available.
It’s said that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, and I think we all know why. After all, how did you find your mechanic? And how often do you try a new restaurant that none of your friends recommend? When someone we trust points us in a direction, we trust they’re looking out for us. I tend to trust that people around me are more experienced in basically everything, so I really value the recommendations of others. And you can’t get a much more forceful recommendation than John the Baptist made for his disciples to look to Jesus.
There’s something about this time of year that makes us want to hold on to Christmas just a little bit longer. At exactly the stroke of midnight on December 26th, all the radio stations that had been playing Christmas carols non-stop since November suddenly go back to their regular programming. The decorations come down. The glittering lights disappear, and it feels like the magic just up and disappears.
But in the church, we keep it up just a little while longer. We celebrate Christmas as a whole twelve-day thing, continuing our carols and the joy and the hope of the season. We linger just a little bit longer at the manger. We hope for just a little more time with the innocence and wonder of the Christ child. So this reading from Matthew is quite an unwelcome contrast, I suspect.
Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Back when I was little and we lived in Virginia, our neighbors had a fig tree. It grew right next to the fence, and every summer we would be allowed to pick the fruit whenever we felt like it, because there were way too many figs growing on that tree for the three people next door to eat. I remember, as a kid who grew up in a neighborhood far from farms of any kind, how special that tree was because of how it magically made food.
And then there were these other trees in our backyard. Big, tall pine trees that dropped their own kind of fruit. The fruit they had were these hard, round, spiky balls we called “gumballs”—a name I still am not sure if it was real or just what we called them. They dropped every time a stiff breeze came by, and most of the backyard would be covered in them to the point that running barefoot was like running through a minefield.
Even as a child, I could tell what good fruit looked like.