An Easter Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 30, 1997


Luke 24:1-13 The resurrection of Jesus
Malachi 3:16-4:2 The sun of righteousness will rise
Arcana Coelestia #9031 The Lord is always rising, and never setting

But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:2)

When was the last time you watched the sun rise? For me, it has been much too long. There was a time when I kept earlier hours than I do now, and I used to watch the sun rise quite often. My favorite was to watch it rise over a lake, or better yet, over the ocean. Nothing can quite compare to seeing the color growing on the eastern horizon, until finally that first bright point of light appears, quickly turning into a sliver of light spreading out on the horizon as the sun climbs higher. A sunrise has a different feel to it than a sunset; instead of coming before the gathering night, it heralds the coming of a new day. As the sun moves higher and higher, the light grows until it is the bright, full, and cheerful sunshine of the morning hours.

It is amazing to think that every day that is not cloudy starts with a sunrise, even if we do not see it. God paints the sky with those beautiful colors each morning, whether or not we are there to appreciate that beauty. The sunrise is one of the many beautiful things God has created in this world--beautiful things that are waiting for us all the time, if we will only open our eyes to see them. When we do open our eyes to see them, it seems to us as if they come into existence for the first time. But that is our perspective, and it comes about because we have never noticed those beautiful things before. From God's perspective, the beauty is always there.

Another matter of perspective is even more strange to think about. We say all the time that the sun rises and sets; but if we think about it, we know that this is not true at all. It looks to us as if the sun rises and sets, but we know that in relation to the earth, the sun stays still, and the earth moves, rotating around its axis each day to give us the illusion that the sun is rising and setting. From our perspective, the sun rises and sets because we are living on the surface of the earth, which carries us into and out of sight of the sun each day. But if we were to take off in a space ship and watch the earth from a million miles away, we would see that the earth is turning so that different parts of it face the sun at different times.

Having said all this, will each one of us from now on be careful to say, "My, that was a beautiful display of colors caused by the earth rotating on its axis so that the sun comes into our view over the earth's horizon?" Of course not! We will continue to say, "My, that was a beautiful sunrise!" The other way is too awkward. It is much easier to describe things from our perspective.

There is no problem with this as long as we realize, when we think about it, that really the earth is moving and the sun is staying in one place in relation to the earth. It is only when we insist that, by God, (I choose this phrase carefully!) the sun does move and the earth stands still, that we get into trouble. Then we start doing things like forcing Galileo to recant his heretical theories or face burning at the stake.

Galileo was not the only person ever condemned by the religious authorities for opposing false ideas that were held to as dogma by a mistaken church. Jesus, in his day, was condemned for the very same reason. Jesus taught that it is obedience to the law of love for God and for the neighbor, not obedience to human-made laws and traditions, that gives us spiritual life. For threatening the basis of worldly power enjoyed by the religious authorities of his day, he was executed by crucifixion.

That could have been the end of the story. But it was not. And the fact that it was not--the fact that Jesus did not stay dead, but rose on the third day--is the reason for our celebration today, on Easter Sunday.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he also turned upside-down all of our assumptions about life and death. One of those assumption goes something like this: "The only things that are sure in life are death and taxes." My apologies if I have brought up a painful subject . . . I realize that at this particular time of year, taxes are the last thing we want to think about. Relax! We are not going to talk about taxes. The church, thankfully, remains exempt from most taxes. So here in church all we have to be concerned with is death.

What about death? To use our earlier image, from the perspective of our physical senses, death looks like the sunset of our lives. Once the sun of our life here on earth has set in the event we call death, life as we know it is over. There is only the night of nonexistence and oblivion. We sleep the eternal sleep of death.

This is a human view of death. It creeps into many different aspects of our lives. It even makes its way into our traditional marriage ceremonies, in which we make vows to love and to cherish our partner "until death do us part." The implication is that at death, our marriage and the rest of our life ends. (I hasten to add that the marriage ceremonies in our Book of Worship do not include that phrase!)

When the religious authorities of Jesus' day succeeded in having him put to death, they apparently believed that was the end of things, too. They probably figured that with that troublemaker out of the way, they could go back to their business undisturbed by that particular heresy. But it didn't work that way. Very soon, they found themselves facing the people of the same movement that they thought they had smashed through the death of Jesus, its leader. Somehow, the death that had been meant to destroy the movement instead made it stronger.

How? Why? The answer lies in the events we read about in the Gospel of Luke. When the women followers of Jesus went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning, they were bringing spices to prepare Jesus' body for burial. Clearly, they believed that the Lord's death was final. But to their surprise, when they got to the tomb, instead of finding the Lord's dead body, they found an empty tomb! And as they were puzzling over this strange turn of events, two men in dazzling clothes--angels, of course--stood beside them and brought them the good news: Jesus is not here. He has risen!

The impact of those simple words could hardly be greater. From our perspective--from the perspective of our physical senses--death looks like a final ending. But from God's perspective, death is simply a new beginning. The angels who appeared to the women were almost casual about their announcement. They ask the women, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" He already told you, they said, that he would be crucified and would rise again on the third day.

Clearly, from the perspective of the angels, the fact of the Lord's rising again is just as plain as it is to us, from a million miles out in space, that it is the earth that is moving, not the sun. Of course Jesus rose again. That is how things work. Contrary to the way it seems to our earthly way of thinking, death is simply the beginning of another phase of life.

Once again, the image of the earth and the sun can help us to understand. We know that when we are watching the sun set here on this part of the earth, in another part of the earth people are watching the sun rise. Our sunset is simply an appearance brought about by our particular position on the face of the earth.

The sun does not stop shining just because it is blocked by the earth. Even on a completely overcast day, the sun is still shining just as brightly as ever. The tops of the clouds are always brightly illuminated. It is only those of us who happen to be down below the clouds who think the sun is not shining. In other words, from the sun's perspective, it is always daytime. It is only from our perspective that there is darkness and night.

It is exactly the same with death. From our perspective, there is death. When someone we know and love dies, their body is placed in the earth, and we no longer see them. As far as we are concerned, they are gone. But from God's perspective, and from the angels' perspective, physical death is not death at all. From a spiritual perspective, death is no different than birth; it is our birth from the womb of this physical world into the reality of eternal life in the spiritual world. To an angel, our death here on earth looks like a new entrance into the life of heaven. It is something to be celebrated!

This is the perspective Jesus was speaking from when he said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25, 26). From a physical perspective, this is nonsense. Of course we will die! But from a spiritual perspective, Jesus speaks the truth. Everyone who lives spiritually by believing in the Lord and living according to his teachings will never die.

Is there, then, some way in which we really can die? Die spiritually? Yes. Even though the Lord's resurrection on Easter Sunday shows us that physical death is meaningless from a spiritual perspective, there is a type of death that is real. It is the death that the prophet Malachi speaks of in our Old Testament reading: "See, the day is coming, burning like an oven," says Malachi, "when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch."

Like nighttime, spiritual death does not come when the Lord turns his back on us, any more than nighttime comes when the sun turns away from the earth. No, it is when the earth turns away from the sun that there is night. And for us, it is when we turn away from and reject the Lord through arrogance and evil (or destructive) ways of living that we have spiritual death. As Swedenborg says, the Lord never turns away from us; rather, we turn away from the Lord.

Instead, Swedenborg tells us, the Lord as the sun is always rising, never setting. In a literal sense, the sun of our world is always rising, too. Somewhere in the world, the sun is rising right now--and that will be just as true in another five or ten hours. The place where the sun is rising is the place where the earth is turning toward the sun.

The Lord is always rising also, even if it is sometimes spiritual sunset for us because we are turning away from the Lord. But whenever we turn to the Lord, then the Lord is rising in our hearts as the sun of heaven. That sun is not flaming from the heat of blind nuclear reactions; rather, it is flaming from the glowing warmth of love. It is a healing love of mutual caring and service toward each other.

As Malachi says, "For you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings." This is not simply a sunrise. No, it is much deeper and more beautiful than that. It is a Christrise. Amen.



Music: Christ the Lord is Risen Today