Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of life – the glorious victory over death and Hell – the rising from the tomb and ushering in of unimaginable joy. I love speaking in church on Easter – having the opportunity to highlight the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and Redeemer, since the spirit is so strong and powerful and affirming on such a transcendent day. I spoke today in our little branch – and it was the hardest, most emotionally difficult talk I have ever prepared. You see, our branch died yesterday.
How do you convey to a small group of friends – people who have bonded in a way that is almost impossible in a typical large ward – that their small house of spiritual refuge (the place that they have come to bless each Fast and Testimony meeting as their anchor in the storms of life) will be locked and unavailable next week? How do you tell them that their dedication and sincere effort and sacrifice appear to have been offered for naught? Most wrenchingly, how do you do so on Easter Sunday – a day when they should leave church rejoicing in the grace and condescension of God?
Even more to the point, how do you do this when you can’t do so openly? How do you address an Easter talk in Sacrament Meeting knowing that they will be weeping for a different reason in just over an hour – knowing that the joy and hope and love you pray they feel as they listen to your message will be replaced by pain and sorrow and disbelief and real, deep grief as they learn that their congregation (established only three years ago amid great joy and hope) is being dissolved? How do you preach of life and eternal happiness when you will help officiate that same day at the funeral they can’t possibly anticipate? How do you kill an entire congregation on the day set aside to celebrate new life?
The following is a summary version of the talk I gave yesterday, after reading the story of the three trees:
By all objective measurements, Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure. His mortal ministry lasted three short years. The hopes of a nation (nay, of God’s own Chosen People) had been recorded for centuries, trumpeting a future arrival in the following words:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
Only thirty-three years earlier, the angel had appeared and proclaimed:
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Immediately following this announcement, the heavenly multitude exclaimed:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)
Prophets extolled the importance of His birth and life; they stressed the deliverance He would bring. He would justify the brutality of their former oppression by establishing peace and mercy and power. He would reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom of their God, humbling once and for all those who had reviled and scourged and persecuted them as they awaited their great day of glory. They still wait, nearly two thousand years later, since Jesus of Nazareth failed to fulfill their expectations so utterly and completely. Easter Sunday did not bring them joy and peace and deliverance; it brought them only more oppression and misery and separation and death.
What then of Easter Sunday – of a sealed tomb and a sobbing, despondent discipleship? Amid their continuing pain and terrible turmoil, amid the persecution and upheaval that would not end, how could they possibly find peace and joy and hope? They found it in the following pronouncement – one of the simplest, most concise statements in all of recorded history:
“He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. ” (Matthew 28:6)
All of us are born to die. All of us live this life knowing it will end. Every person who has ever lived – every organization that has ever been established – every group that has ever met – every family that has ever existed – everything that has ever been created has begun with an inevitable end in store. However, through the birth and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, all of us can look forward with hope and joy and love and longing to that day when it shall be said of us, as it was of Him, “[They] are not here; for [they are] risen.”
Just as Jesus’ ministry was too short for many to understand it as a glorious success, and just as the results of that ministry were too seemingly inconsequential for many to recognize their eternal significance, our own growth and success and efforts often are too short and seemingly inconsequential to recognize as the glorious successes they truly are. We celebrate Easter today not just to honor the resurrection of our King, but also to pay our humble respect to the grace that transfers his victory to us – that allows us to see and understand and feel gratitude for the successes embedded in our own apparent failures. We celebrate Easter today to celebrate not just the risen Lord, but also to honor the death and suffering that had to be offered in order for the resurrection to occur. As Eugene England wrote, “Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die (and apparently fail) before he could be resurrected (and ultimately succeed).” Today, on Easter, we celebrate life and a newness of glory, but we also celebrate death and the ending of one ministry for the beginning of another.
What can we take on this Easter Sunday from the first Easter Sunday so long ago? As we honor and praise and worship our Lord’s victory over death, how can we “liken [even this thing] unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning?” (1 Nephi 19:23)
In all we do – in all our efforts and associations and organizations – may we recognize and accept that our meager efforts to become like Him are undertaken with failure as the inevitable end – but that the growth we experience in our mortal efforts and associations is all He requires. May we focus on the joy of the journey and accept the unexpected detours and heartache along the way, willing to say as He said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) May we live so that we too may be able to say, as we draw our final breath, “It is finished. (John 19:30) Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
May we realize that our efforts, no matter the objective outcome, are not offered and accomplished in vain – they are not viewed by our Lord as failures. Rather, let us look forward to that great and glorious day when we shall hear those gentle, soothing words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matthew 25:21)