I've often wondered what people in America think when they actually read the story of Jesus rising from the dead for the first time. There's simply no way the story could adhere to their expectations. I imagine them reading and re-reading it, shocked that they can't find a single mention of bunnies or rabbits or painted eggs or white sales at Macy's. Because let's be honest, that is what our culture thinks Easter is about. Easter in America is really just an excuse to eat chocolate and buy new bedding, and each year we pretend that we can't really just eat chocolate and buy new bedding whenever we want, which I think is so adorable of us. But honestly the church's presentation of Easter isn't less odd. For many churches Easter is another word for "church show off day" -- when we spiffy up the building and pull out the lilies and hire a brass quintet and put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have do to impress visitors. It's kind of like the church's version of putting out the guest towels.
And don't get me wrong, I love chocolate and I love fancy music ... if I could possibly listen to the Hallelujah Chorus while eating a Cadbury Egg, I'd be in heaven.
But this all has very little to do with the actual gospel story because the gospel story is not fancy; it's downright messy. See, Easter in the Bible may be the greatest story ever told. It's just not the story we usually choose to tell, because its not a story about new dresses and baskets and flowers and candy and spiffyness. Really, it's a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and its about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations.
Because, think about it: Mary Magdalene stood there at the empty tomb that morning while her expectations of what was possible collided full force with the God of Abraham and Sarah. Her certainty that she knew how this whole Jesus thing was ending slammed right up against the full force of God's suffering and redemptive love and though it was nothing short of divine revelation in the flesh, Jesus still didn't look very impressive -- not in the churchy, Easter sense.
See, when Mary Magdalene stood at the tomb she didn't encounter some perfected radiant glowing spiritual Jesus that first Easter morning. Seriously, no offense to gardeners, but Jesus couldn't have been looking all that spiffy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener. And I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.
Now, I've been in a whole lot of churches and I have to say, in most of them, there is no dirt under the nails of the resurrected Christ because we've had to clean him up to look more impressive at Easter. And my theory is this: I think it's because we go straight from Christmas to Easter, we go from the sentimentality of the baby Jesus to the glory of the resurrected Christ, Santa Claus to Peter Cotton Tail, so quickly that we don't bother with the messy important parts in-between -- namely, what Jesus taught, how Jesus lived, and how Jesus died.
Once upon a time, the God of the universe was basically fed up with being on the receiving end of all our human projections, tired of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, show-offy, defensive, insecure -- in short, the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. So, at that time, over 2,000 years ago, God's loving desire to really be known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest in the rapidly dividing cells within the womb of an insignificant peasant girl named Mary. And when the time came for her to give birth to God, there was no room in our expectations -- no room in any impressive or spiffy or safe place. So this God was born in straw and dirt. He grew up, this Jesus of Nazareth, left his home, and found some, let's be honest, rather unimpressive characters to follow him. Fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, homeless women with no teeth, people from Commerce City, Ann Coulter, and Charlie Sheen. If you think I'm kidding, read it for yourselves. These people were questionable. So, with his little band of misfits, Jesus went about the countryside turning water to wine, eating with all the wrong people, angering the religious establishment, and insisting that in him the kingdom of God had come near -- that through him the world according to God was coming right to us. He touched the unclean, and used spit and dirt to heal the blind, and said crazy, destabilizing things, such as "the first shall be last and the last shall be first," and "sell all you have and give it to the poor."
And the thing that really cooked people's noodles wasn't the question "Is Jesus like God?" It was, "What if God is like Jesus?" What if God is not who we thought? What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, not through a sin and punishment program, but through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God's self in Jesus?
Because that changes everything. If what we see in Jesus is God's own self, revealed, then what we are dealing with here is a God who is ridiculously indiscriminate about choosing friends. A God who would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore. A God who would not lift a finger to condemn those who crucified him, but went to the depths of Hell rather than be apart even from his betrayers. A God unafraid to get God's hands dirty for the ones God loves. This is the God who rises to new life with dirt still under God's nails.
So while the churches may try and clean up Jesus so the visitors will be impressed, the God of Easter, the God who brings life out of death doesn't want to make you impressive. This God isn't satisfied with making you good or nice. If you think that's what resurrection looks like, you might be wrong. Because God isn't about making you spiffy. God isn't about making you nicer. God is about making you new. And new doesn't always look perfect, with a fabulous new dress, because like the Easter story itself, new can be messy.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
[This post is adapted from a sermon posted at Sarcastic Lutheran.]
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.