Menelik II was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 until 1913. News of a successful new means of dispatching criminals reached him. The news was about a device known as an electric chair. The Emperor eagerly ordered one for his country. Unfortunately, no one bothered to warn him that it would never work because Ethiopia at that time had no electricity. Menelik was determined that his new purchase should not go to waste. He converted the electric chair into a throne.
There was another occasion when an instrument of death became a throne. On a Palestinian hillside about twenty centuries ago a cross became a throne for one named Jesus of Nazareth. To this day that ancient instrument of torture and death is converted into a powerful symbol of life, hope, and resurrection. Millions of people around the world see the cross as God’s way of indicating His refusal to let death and destruction have the final word.
On the last Friday of His life, Jesus was faced with a heavy choice: the decision to continue and fulfill His mission or to abort it and save His life. Late on Thursday night Jesus had been with His disciples in Jerusalem for a meal in celebration of the Passover. He changed portions of that meal and reminded the twelve that they would never participate in it again without remembering Him. After the meal was completed Jesus took the eleven — Judas left alone to complete his grisly task — and went to the Mount of Olives to pray. The hours to come would be the climax of all He had been about during His entire life.
The action in the gospels at this point is compressed like a steel spring in a box. There is abundant potential energy stored there. Actions were swift if not too certain. Decisions were made in a hurry. People gave their support to dark and dubious work. Political intrigue was at its height. Some reached Faustian bargains for the sake of power. Many were confused. A few were crushed. In the end, only one man stood out with his integrity intact.
The arrest of Jesus was accomplished easily enough. He was exactly where Judas had told the authorities to find Him. The traitor’s kiss sealed the transaction and made the silver jingle in his pocket. Above all, the events of the arrest and the “trials” are full of ironies, illegalities, contradictions, and tragedies.
God decided to give Himself to humanity in a new way in the incarnation. He fully accepted the risk that people would react to His son in exactly the same way people react to everything — some accept, some reject, some ignore. Even so, in love God gave Himself to bring us back to Himself. The results at first seemed like failure because the crucifixion appeared so permanent. Jesus died and was genuinely dead. That He would offer Himself that way is amazing and incomprehensible.
Jesus accepted suffering as the way to bring people to God. Henry Nelson Wieman pointed out many years ago that pain and suffering are not the same thing. Suffering is a meaningful, communicable event. According to Wieman, emotional maturity is the willingness to incur suffering in order that creative good might emerge. Emotionally mature people do not necessarily seek suffering but recognize that it goes hand-in-hand with all genuine transformation.
On Easter Sunday, Christ broke out of the seeming permanence of death. That breakthrough was a sign of what lies in store for any who will come to Christ as a follower. It was also a sign of the ability of God to break through every form of barrier, hindrance, and grave that stands in his way. This happens in our lives when we accept Him. It happens when God gets “under the skin” of even the most outward pagan.
When George Bush was Vice President of the United States, one of his official duties was to represent our country at the funeral of Soviet leader Brezhnev. The entire funeral procession was marked by its military precision. There was a coldness and hollowness which enveloped it. Since the Soviet Union is officially atheistic, no comforting prayers or spiritual hymns were sung. Only the marching soldiers, steel helmets, and Marxist rhetoric were offered. There was no mention of God.
Mr. Bush was close to the casket when Mrs. Brezhnev came for her last goodbye. Bush says, “She walked up, took one last look at her husband and there — in the cold, gray center of that totalitarian state, she traced the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. I was stunned. In that simple act, God had broken through the core of the communist system.”
That act stuns me, too, but I realize that no system can wall God out just as no tomb can wall God in. Evil had its day on Friday, but Sunday was coming.
A story tells about the great cosmic struggle between the forces of evil and the power of good. The story says that God, as everybody knows, created the heavens and earth and everything in them. He created them by His words because words are power. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. This happened with everything. God was rightly proud of His work, but especially proud of man and woman which He made. He even breathed life into them.
Now the devil was jealous and angry. One day when God was enjoying the man and woman the devil walked by casually. He slithered up to God and asked Him why he liked those strange human creatures so much. God opened His mouth to speak, and the devil craftily put a bond upon his tongue. God could not speak, not even one word! Since God’s creative power was in His words, the sly old devil had bound His power.
The devil laughed at God and then proceeded to have his way with the man and the woman. Eons went by and the devil came back to taunt God. He scoffed at the silent God and mocked Him. God responded to this by holding up one finger.
“One?” asked the devil. “Are you telling me that You want to say just one word?” God nodded. The devil, being both crafty and confident, thought, “I suppose that even God could not do much with just one word. OK.” So the devil removed the bond from God’s tongue. Then God spoke His one word in a quiet whisper. He spoke it for the man and the woman, and it brought them great joy. It was a word that gathered up all the forgiveness, love, and creativity God had stored up in His heart during His long silence. His one word was “Jesus.”
That is what Easter is all about! It reminds me of a very old way of thinking about that day. It goes this way:
God played chess with the devil
And the pieces were human beings.
The devil was ahead
Until God became one of the pieces.
“Check,” said the devil at Golgotha.
Three days later
God replied, “Checkmate!”
The empty tomb is a symbol of hope — the hope that is ours when God says “Checkmate!” It is a hope that comes our way when we live as part of the family of God.