An Easter Carol
I know it's Easter not Christmas, but this text calls for a play on Dickens' classic Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol. The last verse of it says, "But they [the Eleven and others] did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense." My Greek dictionary says the Greek word the insert renders "nonsense" can also be translated "humbug." So when the leaders of the New Testament Church first heard the news of the resurrection they responded with Ebenezer Scrooge's dismissive, "Humbug!"
How do we get from "humbug" to the joyous carol, "Hallelujah! Christ is risen indeed?" We start where Dickens does. The first line in his book is, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Then he goes on to emphasize that this fact was beyond a shadow of doubt. "There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner" (Aerie Books edition, 1988, 1).
Our Easter Carol starts where Dickens' Christmas Carol does, with a certain death. Jesus was dead, to begin with. The political authorities verified it. When a secret disciple of Jesus came to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, Pilate couldn't believe Jesus had died so quickly, so he summoned the centurion in charge of the execution who certified Jesus was dead. Jesus' enemies also certified His death. The Pharisees asked Pilate to guard the tomb of Jesus so His disciples couldn't steal His body. Finally Jesus' friends certified Jesus was dead. The women came to the tomb Easter Sunday, not to shout "He is risen!" like you did but to finish embalming His body. When it says, "They did not find the body of Jesus," that can be translated "dead body" or "corpse." To show you just how thoroughly dead the apostles knew Jesus was, when the women tell them He has risen they say, "Humbug!"
But wait; there's evidence outside the Bible that like Marley, Jesus was dead to begin with. The Roman historian Tacitus says, "Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus" (Annals, reprint ed.1966, 354). Thallus, a Samaritan historian says, "'it was the time of the Pascal full moon when Christ died'" (in Christian Apologetics, Geisler, 324). The Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion, written after AD 73 says, "'What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King'" (Ibid., 324)? And finally Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived 37-100 A.D. wrote, "At this time there was a wise man called Jesus,. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die" (Antiquities, 18: 63-64). Later on Josephus refers to the crucifixion as having taken place.
We start where Dickens started, with the fact that a real death has occurred, but we go where Dickens can't. Marley dies for no one sins but his own. All of his crooked, hardhearted business dealings followed him into the grave. Jesus had no sins. Pilate himself testified that Jesus was innocent. The thief on the cross testified that Jesus hadn't even done anything "improper." Even Jesus' enemies couldn't think of one single thing to testify against Him; they had to make things up and even then their testimony didn't agree.
By dying Marley didn't pay for even his own sins. He was doomed to carry them around his neck for eternity, to drag them behind him as massive chains. The much alive Scrooge doesn't see his own chains. Marley says he didn't either while alive, but there they were at death. All the wrongs he had done in life had been forging a real, yet invisible heavy chain that caused him torment and pain in eternity.
Marley wants Scrooge to see his chains now before it's too late. That's a good idea. All the apostles, all the disciples of Jesus, all the women at the tomb saw their chains. That's why they followed Jesus. He said He came to give His life as a ransom payment for sinners; He said that He came for the sake of sinners not holy people; for the sick not the healthy; for ones who saw, felt, heard their chains not for those who thought themselves free.
Do you see your chains? Do you feel their weight? Do you hear their rattling? Do you see that because you were born of sinful parents you were born wearing chains? Do you see that you've spent a lifetime adding links? And your heaviest links were not forged by your shameful, secret sins, but by fearing death, disease, or people more than you do God. Your loudest links were forged by loving spouse, child, or self more than God. Your thickest links were forged by countless worries that prove you don't trust God above all things.
Marley couldn't rescue himself from even his own sins; Jesus was suppose to rescue us from ours, but both Marley and Jesus were dead. Marley can do no more for Scrooge than to warn him; Marley gives way to three spirits. That's the best Dickens can do with a dead man, but Jesus isn't just another dead man. Jesus is God of God, light of light, very God of very God. Jesus doesn't give way to spirits; Jesus gives the Holy Spirit.
We can go where Dickens can't. Marley is dead and stays dead. Jesus rises from the dead. But go back to His death because that's important. St. Paul says it best, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins." His death was about your chains. The countless links you've forged by a lifetime of sinning were wrapped around Him. Their heavy weight sunk Jesus under the wrath of God into the depths of hell. Jesus gave His life as a ransom payment for you. The wages sins earn is death and that eternal because all sins are against the eternal God. Jesus paid the wages your sins have earned.
There is a necessity here that has to be seen; seeing this is what brought the women to faith that Jesus had risen. In our text, they don't see Jesus anymore than you do, but they go and proclaim He has risen. How come? They see the necessity. Marley is right; we forge chains in life that have to be answered for in death. The women had those chains; they followed Jesus as the One who would free them from them. Once He died, they thought that He had failed until angels said, "Remember how Jesus told you before He died, He must be delivered into the hands of sinful man; He must be crucified; and on the third day He must be raised again." It was necessary that Jesus die to save them from their sins; there was no other way to pay off the wages their sins had earned except by dying. Jesus could die for their sins because He had none of His own, and just as His dying was necessary so was His rising.
"Then [after the angels showed them the necessity of it all] they remembered His words." Jesus words are Spirit and life. Marley's words pointed to spirits who brought Scrooge face to face with his own death. Jesus words give the Spirit who shows the women that as sure as Jesus' death had to happen, so sure did His resurrection. And then without seeing or hearing from the risen Jesus, they run to tell the others that He has risen. They run free of their chains to those still in their chains. They are free because they see that Jesus took their chains into the grave and rose without them. The rest are still in chains because while the death of Jesus is real to them, His resurrection which proclaims their chains are broken is humbug to them.
Don't stay in your chains one moment longer. You can't bear their weight and their rattle will haunt you for eternity. Go in this Easter Carol where Dickens' Christmas Carol can't take you. Dickens answer is don't forge chains in this life. Christ's answer is to see your chains paid for by His death in your place and to see them broken by His rising from the dead without them. The only reason Jesus the Son of God died was to pay for your sins. Being God in flesh and blood, once He had died for sins death had no authority or power over Him. He rises to proclaim the world's sins have been paid for; no one has to go to their grave wrapped in chains.
Our Easter Carol has taken us where Dickens never could, but we end up in the same place a changed man. But there is a difference; Scrooge changes in order not to end up like the chain-ladened Marley; we change because we have been forgiven and freed of our chains by the risen Jesus.
There is a difference in motivation behind the changed life, and there's a difference of location. Christmas is the first day of the rest of Scrooge's life. Easter is the first day of eternity for us. It's our 8th day. Luke points this out by saying in the last verse of chapter 23 that the women rested on the 7th day; that makes Easter the 8th. Read your OT; people outside of the Church because of religious or ceremonial defilement were always brought back in on the 8th day. The 8th day is the beginning of the New Creation. Leaving here in the forgiveness of sins Jesus won means you go out into a new reality where neither sin, death, nor the devil rule but Jesus does.
Dickens shows that for the changed man Scrooge the whole world looks different. This is good; For you the unchained man or woman the whole world is different. For you sins are no longer unbreakable links in a chain but forgivable by the power of the resurrected Jesus' forgiving word. For you water can be more than just plain water; joined to the words of Jesus Water is a Baptism powerful enough to melt the hardest of chains. For you wine can be more than just something to gladden you heart and bread more than just something that feeds your body; joined to the Words of Jesus wine becomes His Blood and bread His Body to strengthen and preserve you in a life freed from chains.
Both this Easter Carol and A Christmas Carol end with people going from humbug to happy. Scrooge is happy that he hasn't missed Christmas. The women are happy that sin, Death, and the Devil have missed them. In fact sin, Death, and the Devil are now humbug to them, and they can be for you too. That's what they were for Jesus on Easter, right? He didn't rise fretting about sin, Death, or the Devil, and you don't have to live that way either. This truth brings Easter carols of hope, joy, and peace from unchained bodies and souls. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of our Lord (20100404); Luke 24: 1-11