Isaiah 25:6-9 & Mark 16:1-8

When we welcome someone into our homes, we prepare for them an empty room that they can make their own, even if just for a night or two.

Isaiah 25:6-9 & Mark 16:1-8
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Sermons as a rule don't translate well from the context in which they're delivered. But as a former pastor, I've written a lot of them, and they do show something of my style and versatility. This one was preached at Bethany United Church of Christ in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Isaiah 25:6-9 & Mark 16:1-8
April 5, 2015

The folks who came to the Maundy Thursday service—and if you didn't, you missed some awesome soup and bread—might remember that I referenced this morning's reading from Isaiah in my remarks. This is Isaiah's vision of the heavenly banquet, that is, the blissful meal to be served in heaven when the kingdom of God becomes a complete reality.

As we learned on Thursday, Isaiah's language of rich food and good wine probably reflects the terms of temple sacrifice: rich food and good wine is what you would put on the Temple altar as an offering to God. So in heaven, God will feed his people with the same kinds of food they have offered to him over the years. That means the very best, hopefully. It also means, as we talked about with the Last Supper, that we will no longer need the Temple. Because God will be everywhere with us, we will be able to share the rich food and good wine as though we were in the Temple, no matter where we are. The connection to Easter, of course, is that in his resurrection body, Jesus replaces the Temple. Wherever he is, we will be in the presence of God—and we will share in the heavenly banquet.

Those of you who know my feelings on food will know that I consider this a true Easter joy.

The invitation to the heavenly banquet is open not just to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. Isaiah tells us that  God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.

That's a reference to the curtain that hung in the Temple to separate "the Holy of Holies" from the rest of the sanctuary, the idea being that if you stood face-to-face with God, you would surely die. No more. Now God will be available to all of us—again, whether Jew or Gentile—and we will all live and be able to sit down with him at the banquet table.

It's surprising to find this mention of universal salvation in Isaiah. When he originally wrote, it was as a promise to the Jews in exile in Babylon of what awaited them when they returned to Jerusalem. You would expect that the promise would be to only the Jews, not the Gentiles in whose land they were forced to live. But apparently not. The salvation of Israel is somehow tied up in the salvation of the peoples around them. The same is true for Christians: we will not be saved alone, but alongside people who don't share our faith.

We will be saved with them, we will live with them. God will lift the funeral shroud that lays over all people, and "swallow up death," Isaiah tells us. That's a reversal of what people would have expected to hear in his time. In those days, the mythology was that death swallowed up everything in its path. But here, God takes care of death itself. He will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the God on whom we have waited will finally make good on his promise to save us from sin and death.

I wanted to include this scripture in this morning's service to close out our Lenten theme of hospitality. When we ask what Heaven will look like, Isaiah answers us: it will look like a fine dinner party thrown by God on Mt. Zion. There will be good food and good wine: God literally feeds his children. God himself will be the host, and all people—all people—will be invited. You can't beat that kind of invitation, especially if they have cookies for dessert.

You can't beat that kind of invitation, and yet Jesus does just that. Those of you who have heard me speak about hospitality know that one of my favorite images for the practice is the empty room. When we welcome someone into our homes, we prepare for them an empty room that they can make their own, even if just for a night or two. When we welcome them into our hearts, we prepare within ourselves space in which they can find themselves, become their truest selves without our crowding or interference.

This, in a sense, is exactly what Jesus does when he is raised from the dead. He offers us the emptiest of rooms: the tomb in which he lay for three days.

Now, I am a bit hesitant to spin out this image, to be honest. Jesus never says, "Here, have the tomb, I'm not using it!" And as far as I know, there's no tradition of preachers taking Easter morning as an example of God's hospitality toward us. If anything, Jesus has been the guest, with the young man dressed in white his designated caretaker while God hosts him among the dead.

But follow the image out with me. As Henri Nouwen tells us, hospitality is not simply a matter of showing kindness to people who are already our friends. We make room in our homes and in our hearts for a person who is a stranger or an enemy and allow them to become our friend, without force or compulsion or overeagerness. A friendly emptiness, Nouwen calls it. Isn't that exactly what Jesus provides at the tomb? We are at best alienated from God—strangers to him—because we are determined to walk our own way and so fall into sin. We imagine that we have no need of God or of other people, we come to believe that we can do it all for ourselves, and we pay the price. When God comes to offer us a better, more humble way, we don't even recognize him to accept the offer.

At worst, we are enemies with God. I don't mean the atheists in our society. As hostile as they can be, they're no more than strangers to God. No, God's enemies are God's children, the ones who hear the gospel calling to live a life of peace, of hope, of love, and who choose instead to live war and despair and taking advantage of others, using them for our own ends. Every game of violence, domination, or oppression that we play or allow to be played in our names, every covenant that we break with God, as individuals or as a society, sets us against him. God wants to create a world marked by life, reconciliation, and healing, and we just want to set it on fire. It only leads to ashes, and we're left to wonder why.

I think this is why the disciples leave the tomb in "terror and amazement." They realize that surely God is at work here, and if God is at work, all their sins and shortcomings will be revealed, and sooner rather than later.

There is no greater symbol of our hostility toward God than the grave, for it is in the grave (or so the Israelites thought) that we are finally, fully, separated from God. We are so stubborn, so fully set against God, the Jews of Jesus' day believed, that we would rather rot in the ground for all eternity than change our ways and find new and everlasting life. We are so busy chasing life on earth by getting one over on other people that we fail to notice where it leads us, which is straight into death.

Jesus offers us a different way. He takes the symbol of our sin, death, and alienation, and he makes it into a welcoming space. The tomb, the place where before we were cut off from God, is now the room that God makes for us in his heart, where we can go from strangers and enemies to guests to friends to children.

The price we pay for entry into that room is death. Not even Easter can roll that stone away. But if we die, and if in our deaths we trust humbly, we discover the truth of Easter. What we must trust is less that Jesus is God, or that God has overcome death by a show of power, than that Jesus as God has walked the valley of the shadow of death before us and made it safe for our passage. We discover that God loves us and will not let us go, even in the grave. We are not left alone in the end. We are invited to a party.

That, I think, ought to change how we think about what we do as a community of God's people, who we are. When it really gets down to it, the point of church is to live in this life and in the next. You and I and all the other people in churches around the world are here because we are tired of being strangers and enemies. We have been invited to the party, and we would like very much to go. So we gather here, where the party begins, rather awkwardly, and we look forward to the day when the banquet begins in earnest and we see our God and savior face to face. Amen.