Do you feel like rejoicing and being glad today? It’s Easter Sunday, but it really does not feel like it, does it? At this moment, you are confined inside, either reading these words off a couple pieces of paper or watching service on a screen. (Probably not your normal Easter habit.) You do not sit in sanctuary beautifully adorned with fragrant lilies and blazing white linens. You cannot feel the piano pound its sweet songs. You probably are not dressed in your snazziest, prettiest, newest outfits. You will not enjoy the classic Easter brunch at church with all those familiar faces and glowing conversations. You will not rejoice with your friends in the presence of your God. The celebration just seems to lack fullness, doesn’t it?
Then, you have those timeless traditions that always happened after worship. Easter dinner with family. Easter egg hunts. Easter basket presents. Those festivities will not take place. This year is different. Instead of creating light-hearted memories of happiness, you may just feel without cheer.
So much has been taken away so quickly. Over the course of just one month, we have gone from no Irish Parade to cancelled sports to cancelled school days to cancelled schoolyear to limited gatherings to no gatherings to no going out (unless necessary) to wiping down your groceries and wearing a facemask. That’s a lot to process in a very short amount of time. All this massive adjustment— on top of everything else you already had going on. The strained relationship. The financial stress and retirement planning. The upcoming wedding. The graduation festivities. Moving out on your own and the empty nesting. The first Easter without a loved one. Yes, there will be brighter days in the future, happier days, days that present a reason to rejoice and be glad, but maybe just not today. To rejoice and be glad feels too difficult when there are so many challenges in the world at this moment.
Much like that first Easter, right? You do not see Mary Magdalene and the other women skipping on over to the tomb. No one relishes the fresh morning dew and fragrant lilies. No singing. No brunch. No cheer. That first Easter is dominated by loss. So much has been taken away so quickly.
One sight changes everything: Jesus lives! Just like that, joy! Excitement! Worship! Still, the world in which those women and disciples find themselves has not changed one bit. Jesus lives!— and Jewish leaders still want Christianity snuffed out. Jesus lives!— and the Romans will do anything just to stop hearing the name ‘Jesus’ (Matthew 27:62-66). Jesus lives!— and life is still threatened (John 20:19). That first Easter audience does not rejoice and live glad because their every single struggle suddenly vanishes. They rejoice and are glad because Easter changes the very foundation of life. Despair No More! The Lord lifts you up from depths of death. The Lord anchors you to his salvation.
One man experiences those words firsthand. Today, Easter Sunday, the day when Jesus Christ breaks out of the prison-hold of death, we focus on Jonah. You probably best know him as the guy swallowed by a great fish. Remember how he gets into that situation?
God hand-selected Jonah for a special mission: ‘Preach against the great city of Nineveh so that they might turn to me’ (Jonah 1:1-2).That’s a problem. Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria, and Assyria is the capital enemy of Israel! In no way whatsoever would Jonah ever want to help enemy number one. The mission is so repulsive that Jonah literally runs away from God. Instead of heading east to Assyria, he boards a ship sailing due west, travelling in the complete opposite direction. Jonah has absolutely no desire to set his mind on the things of God. He acts only to satisfy self-interest.
For a moment, Jonah gets what he wants! Until a storm rips away his control. Billowing waves heave, rain pelts, whipping winds gust. The sailors strain for shore, but make absolutely no headway. They dump heavy cargo, but the swells swamp the ship. Certain death confronts the crew. Jonah finally admits: ‘I am running away from the God of heaven, who made the [now-storming] sea and the land… Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm.’ … Then the sailors took Jonah and threw him overboard (1:9-15).
How does Jonah find himself inside a fish? He disobeyed God. God spoke and Jonah literally ran away. That behavior comes from a rebellious heart. Spiritually speaking, Jonah did not want to hear God. He did not want to obey God. He wants God gone. So God grants his wish. Jonah is banished from God’s sight! He plunges into the heart of the sea, sinking lower and lower, the sheer weight of water presses down on him, squeezing him tight, crushing him. His fate is sealed: He would sink into the open jaws of his grave.
That’s nothing to rejoice about, is it? Death is no friend. Perhaps that truth has taken on fuller meaning. This coronavirus puts people at risk of death. There remains a possibility that you can infect loved ones with a life-threatening illness. There remains a possibility that you yourself could become sick and even die. Today’s medical technology has made incredible, but doctors still cannot guarantee to automatically save life. That’s unsettling. At this moment in time you (and I) are getting a close-up view of the grave.
What makes it even more unsettling is that all the comforts which we considered so important are not delivering us. (1) How often sports took priority over Sunday worship. Cheering on a child from the sideline or letting your mind drift onto the big game while at church. Our hearts considered a simple score so important that it attaches value to that activity. (2) How often jam-packed schedules shove time with God (either in prayer or devotion) off to the side! Your prayer-life shriveled up because the television show came first. Your children do not know what happens when a person dies because you did not think it important to teach them. (3) How often self-worth is invested in money and fading milestones. I mean, just one month ago you could list what you considered important, but the whole list is almost wiped out. All those things our hearts consider so important that it sacrificed God— they’re all gone and you (and I) are still here. What good do those priorities serve you now?
Is it any wonder you witness fear and hysteria and panic? Run from God and face eternal death alone.
If you find it difficult to rejoice and be glad this morning, then reset your focus. Listen to Jonah speak: To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. Jonah’s actions tossed him into death, but God, in his infinite mercy did not let Jonah get what he deserved. Instead, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights (1:17).
Do you realize from where Jonah prays? Inside the fish! He does not mourn, he gives thanks. The Lord lifts him up from depths of death. He has done the same for you!
Jesus has stepped into Jonah’s life, into your life (and mine). He is sent to preach to the world— including to those who hate him and would kill. He is tempted to cherish the treasures of this world, to elevate wealth and status and power. He sees disease and deformity and death. Never does he run away from God. Instead, he comes to do his will (Hebrews 10:5-7).
God’s will set Jesus on the Good Friday cross. There, Jesus marches after your heart that had wandered into death, after my heart that had wandered. He sinks into the pit of death. His life stops. God makes Jesus pay for our despair. Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man [was] three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).
Early Sunday morning, the stone rolls away from the tomb and out steps Jesus— fully alive! He holds your life brought back from death. ‘Because I live,’ he says, ‘you also will live’ (John 14:19).
Despair No More! The empty tomb means the Lord lifts you up from depths of death. Christ has risen! Risen to bring us from death to life! With that good news the Lord anchors you to his salvation.
That word ‘salvation’ means ‘deliverance.’ When applied to God it describes the only deliverance that truly matters (or the best deliverance there is): ‘deliverance from death in hell.’ When you (and I) hear: ‘The Lord anchors you to his salvation,’ it means, God ‘delivers you from death in hell.’
This where you stand today, you stand delivered from death in hell. That’s why Jonah sings: But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation [eternal deliverance] comes from the Lord.
Does it feel like it? Christ rose, but the world is far from perfect. You hear about disease and sickness, death and despair. Even in the past, you heard war and unrest, financial collapse and frayed relationships. Christ rose, but struggles did not suddenly vanish. Not to mention all the personal challenges you face. The upcoming wedding. Moving out on your own and the empty nesting. The first Easter without a loved one. Christ rose, but these significant milestones still exist.
So does Easter. The fact that Jesus leaves his tomb means your guilt before God has been wiped away (Romans 4:25). A room is prepared for you in heaven (John 14:2-3). At the right time, God’s angels will carry you to your heavenly home (Luke 16:22). Your future changed. Christ rose and that means you will live forever on high.
That reality is fixed. Firm. Steady. Constant. It never changes. The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, even in tears you have a firm footing. Your husband who died trusting in Jesus as Savior spends this Easter with his triumphant Lord. One day you will too will gather around the triumphant Savior! Not just that, nothing will stop Jesus from raising you (and me) from the dead. Jesus himself makes clear: A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out… those who have done evil will rise to be condemned… and those who have done good [those who believe] will rise to live (John 5:28-29).
The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, even when all these activities are stripped away, you really have lost nothing. Parents, God has handed you the opportunity to teach your children about the God who holds the keys of life! No child fears knowing that Jesus will bring them to heaven. Even with older children you can connect the victory of life more closely to today’s settings. Much is taken away, but that allows you (and me) to focus on what is truly important in this world. Prioritizing life with God!
The Lord anchors you to his salvation (his saving work). That means, you hold open access to approach the Almighty for anything, anytime. The God who gave his very own Son into death for our eternal benefit, why would stop caring about you now? I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Despair No More! ‘The Lord anchors you to his salvation.’
Just like that, joy! Excitement! Worship! Still, the world in which generations of those celebrating Easter has not changed one bit. Jesus lives!— and you still encounter challenges. Jesus lives!— and you still confront death. Jesus.’ Jesus lives!— and life is still threatened. We do not rejoice and live glad because every single struggle suddenly vanishes. We rejoice and are glad because Christ defeated every single fear, every single enemy once and for all time. He hands you that victory! Despair No More! The Lord lifts you up from depths of death. The Lord anchors you to his salvation.