by Daniel Harrell
If you’ve journeyed with us during Lent at Colonial Church, you know our theme has been silence in the Bible. If you’re visiting this morning, you may think this cause to count your blessings: What better Easter present than a silent sermon! Then again, our theme has been silence in the Bible, not silence from the preacher. Of course, you may be one who comes to Easter especially for the noise: the majestic brass and booming drums that herald the dawn of resurrection and the demise of evil, the classic “Alleluia!” and the glorious “He is Risen!”
Turn to the Easter story proper, however, and you do find remarkable quiet; the greatest silence in all Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible offer a description of the resurrection itself, no language tells us how exactly how it happened, no speculation as to what went on in the tomb that first Easter morning. Jesus rose, but he never made a sound. There’s the rolled back stone found by grieving women, an angel here and there, but as for the tomb, there is nothing but empty space, silent and void. Uncomfortable with the silence, perhaps, Matthew’s gospel adds an earthquake. Certainly there were aftershocks. The risen Jesus shockingly showed up to his disciples huddled in fear, and in time this merry band of uneducated fishermen, outcasts and losers upended the Roman Empire. Salvation arrived for all believing humanity, and a church emerged with conviction that shaped all of Western civilization, law, economics, art and science. Read to the end of the New Testament and this same gospel redeems the entire cosmos—good news for that earth-like planet discovered this week. And yet all of this emanates out of the emptiness we celebrate this morning. Ours is a gospel with a gaping hole at its center, a silence into which our focus is drawn, a silence that for us remains the abiding characteristic of God.
That God is so silent presents an enormous obstacle to many. In regard to evil, particularly, God’s silence leads to presumptions of either consent, impotence or absence. They clamor that a loving Lord who cared about his creatures would be more overt. For others, however, the silence is profound. The Holy Spirit of God operates as breath and wind, evident only in its effects, pulling us down to a depth too deep for words. They know most clamoring comes from the shallow end of the pool.
It is difficult to partake of silence in our wordy, text and gadget-driven culture. My family spent a week a few summers back on a quintessential north country Minnesota lake at the cabin, as all cabins in Minnesota are called. The early mornings were intensely quiet, the water as glass as I sat with my coffee to hear the loons and watch the sunrise. Famous north country naturalist, Sig Olson, described this stillness as “the ancient overpowering silence this planet knew before there were people… beyond even the ordinary sounds of nature, a silence that dealt with distance, timelessness, and perception, a sense of being engulfed by something greater… a hush still embedded in our consciousness.” Lured by this timeless silence, I finally managed one morning to set down my coffee, climb into my kayak and paddle onto the glass. The ancient silence allowed me to slip into the misty presence of a raft of loons, twenty or thirty birds and a few ducks, who never heard me approach. Floating among them I felt for a moment to be engulfed by that something greater—until one loon got spooked by my intrusion and let out a deafening squawk. The whole raft took off and the ducks crapped on my boat. Silence has its challenges.
For those who have visited the world’s quietest room, located here in Minneapolis, you know silence can be extremely disturbing. Surrounded by double walls of concrete and insulated steel covered by 3 foot wedges of fiberglass, this quiet crypt achieves a sound level of minus-9.4 decibels, a Guinness Book record. As humans can only detect sounds above zero decibels, the chamber is virtually soundless. The low decibel level provides a place for companies like Harley-Davidson, Cessna, Whirlpool and Black and Decker to test their products and refine the sounds made by motorcycles, planes, washer-dryers and drills. The quiet chamber also assists restaurants and nursing homes in lowering noise levels.
And yet to visit the room in person is to be completely undone. Inside you hear not silence but the thundering sound of your own organs—your stomach and heart and lungs, and even your ears as the ear makes its own noise when it does not detect sound. The silence not messes with all senses. It’s not unusual for visitors to suffer severe hallucinations during and even after time spent in the room due to the loss of auditory reference points. No one has lasted more than 45 minutes inside. Some have fled screaming with fear. Tours are available on Fridays at 4.
Screaming with fear is how Easter ends in Mark’s gospel. Women arrive Sunday morning and discover an empty, silent grave. How do they react? Mark writes, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of story. (By the way, the church hated that ending which is why if you turn to the end of Mark you’ll find twelve more verses tacked on, a total cut and paste job.)
My Easter text doesn’t come from the gospels this year, but from the epistle to the Hebrews. The passage concerns another quiet chamber with deeply disturbing silence called the Holy of Holies. The ancient Israelites believed it to be the dwelling place of God, veiled behind a curtain for safety since if you ever saw God you were dead. The inner sanctum was inside a mobile home of sorts called the Tabernacle which traveled with the Israelites through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The Tabernacle stayed with them once arrived until God’s permanent home could be built, a fancy Temple constructed in time by King Solomon in Jerusalem and long since destroyed.
Inside the Tabernacle, behind the the curtain that represented the boundary line between heaven and earth, between divine holiness and human unholiness, in the Holy of Holies was a gold-covered, coffin-like box with the Ten Commandments tucked inside, along with a jar of miracle manna and the staff of Aaron the priest and brother of Moses. The coffin was called the “Ark of the Covenant,” and if you’ve seen the Indiana Jones movie, then you know it to be almost as exciting as Easter.
What made the Ark so exciting was that it represented the actual, local and palpable presence of the Lord Almighty on earth. As long as the Ark was present you never had to ask “where was God?” because God was right there. Specifically, he sat on what was known as “the mercy seat,” a special golden spot on the lid atop the Ark, a replica of the Lord’s heavenly throne. The mercy seat was flanked by two statues of cherubim (angels) on either end, their wings outstretched toward the middle, framing a void, a silent emptiness that was the presence of God. To visit the room was to be completely undone. Tours were available just once a year, on a day Jews know as Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. But not just anyone could visit. Only the high priest selected for the dangerous duty was allowed inside.
Rightly enraged with people due to their sin and rebellion, God kept himself behind the tent curtain to contain his fury. And yet Jewish tradition teaches Yom Kippur to be among the happiest days of the year. There’s nothing like forgiveness to lift your sprits. Still, Yom Kippur requires an immense amount of prayer for purification as well as abstinence from work, food, drink, sex, bathing, and leather shoes (something to do with not appearing presumptuous before the Lord). You sit in your synagogue as a long laundry list of sins is confessed, to which you respond with contrition even for those sins on the list you hadn’t committed. Jewish tradition teaches every person in a community bears some measure of responsibility for sins committed by others. Everybody’s in this together.
In ancient Israel, the high priest sanitized himself with a purification shower before entering the chamber, like a doctor scrubbing for surgery or a chef washing before cooking a meal. The priest then dressed in his scrubs—a special linen tunic, turban, and sash, with linen underwear too. He then warily entered the inner sanctum, incense burning in hand, the smoke meant to screen him from suicidally peeking at glory. The priest brought in a young ram and young bull without blemish to sacrifice for his own personal list of sins, taking the blood and spreading it onto the mercy seat itself for purification—the implication being that human wrongdoing polluted even the Lord God himself. Blood was then spread over the rest of the chamber, modeled after creation, since sin spews its toxic waste on heaven and earth too.
Why all the blood? Because like the Red Cross tells us: blood gives life. The Bible teaches that blood is life and that all life comes from God. The Bible also teaches sin to be deadly and thus blood is needed to bring back the life. As we read elsewhere in the book in Hebrews,“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Forgiveness requires sacrifice.
As for the animals, do know that they weren’t heartlessly killed and then needlessly charred but ritually slaughtered and cooked. The sacrifice that atoned also nourished. There’s nothing like tasty, roast leg of lamb once your conscience is clean. Or baked ham on Easter if you’re Christian and not Jewish.
After personal purification, the high priest emerged from behind the curtain with two goats and two straws. The long-straw-goat became the sacrificial dinner, it was killed on the spot to purify the people and then grilled for lunch. The short-straw-goat became the scapegoat—the goat for a whole year’s worth of human wickedness and iniquity. With both hands, the high priest liturgically loaded the goat with the sins of the entire community, after which it was duly chased out of town, hauling all of their perniciousness to the wilderness to dump it. Later Judaism would go so far as to track the scapegoat into the wilderness and shove it off the edge of a gorge so as to assure its elimination. Nobody wanted all that toxicity finding its way back into town.
The problem, however, with all of this ritual was that none of it worked. We read in Hebrews that “the sacrifices offered could not cleanse the conscience of the worshiper.” In the next chapter we read “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Technically, what is meant is that the Old Testament sacrificial system only addressed ceremonial impurity and unintentional sin. We read here how the high priest offered blood “for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” There was nothing to cover the bad stuff you committed on purpose. No amount of animal blood could ever address deliberate meanness and selfishness. Good news for animals. Bad news for willful sinners.
We intuit the severity of this deficiency even now whenever we rationalize our misbehavior under the guise of ignorance or inadvertence. We’ll pretend over and over by insisting that “we didn’t mean to do it,” or “it was an accident.” We’ll pretend with so many words to make sense of our sin so as to explain away our badness as not so bad as if logic could justify our evil. We’ll default to “God loving me just as I am.” And maintain our innocence by claiming we’re only human. On Easter we sing that Jesus “Fought the fight the battle won!” baby! “Soar we now where Christ has led!” I’m flying high and good to go! Resurrection rocks with with no organ stops, majestic brass and booming drums. Fire up the grill and let’s eat! As Easter Christians it is tempting to pretend we no longer struggle and suffer; to pretend we can’t backslide into sin and sabotage, into anger and shame and despair.
Such too-soon triumphalism may be why the resurrection was so quiet. As much as we celebrate the demise of evil, there’s still fuel left in its tank—as any glance at the daily news instantly confirms, as well as any honest look at our hearts. Easter teaches that God’s love surely saves the day, and this is our fervent and confident hope, but in the meantime there’s still a lot of brokenness. Perhaps a more honest line than Charles Wesley’s “love’s redeeming work is done” would be Leonard Cohen’s “love is not a victory march, but a cold and broken hallelujah.”
The resurrection is silent because there really was nothing left to say. Only something left to do. Hebrews views Jesus’ death and resurrection through a Tabernacle lens, ultimately occurring behind the curtain of heaven itself with cosmic implications. Hebrews declares, “When Christ came as high priest of the good things already here, he entered through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, not of this creation, not with the blood of bulls and goats) but with his own blood thus obtaining eternal redemption” for all that is.
Had the high priest been able to peek at the mercy seat behind the curtain, chances are he would have seen an empty chair. There was nothing to see. Nothing to hear. Nothing to handle. As author and pastor Eugene Peterson reminds, “Our God is not a thing to be touched or named. We cannot turn God into an idea: God is not a concept to be discussed. We cannot use God for making or doing: God is not a power to be harnessed or manipulated. The Lord is known only in love. Love is not something you see; love is something that happens; it takes place between persons. Likewise with the Lord, we know God in the relationship, in the love that happens in the space in between. Ours is a gospel with a space at its center, an in-between space into which all focus is drawn, a profound, merciful silence in whose presence we can finally stop pretending.
The mercy seat, modeled after the heavenly throne of The Lord, sat atop the Ark between two cherubim, their wings outstretched toward the middle, framing a silent emptiness that was the fullness of God. At early dawn on Easter, according to Luke’s gospel, women came to the tomb and found it empty. Suddenly they were standing between two men in dazzling clothes. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. The men, these angels, asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” For the sake of love, Jesus went silently to the cross and rose quietly from the dead, leaving the angels to state the obvious: “He is not here.”
He is not here because, now, he is everywhere, the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.