It was just a fragment of a poem — not a very good poem at that — written by a poet whom I had never read. They were lines tucked in between quotations by Milton and James Russell Lowell in one of those anthologies of poetry to which preachers have to resort now and then. The poem described a woman dancing on her wedding day:
"But, oh she dances such a way!
No sun upon an Easter day is
half so fine a sight."
What particularly caught my attention was the footnote. The editor of the anthology, explaining the imagery in the poem, wrote:
"There is a very old belief that on Easter
Sunday the sun dances in the sky."
Oh, I know it isn't true. My fragmentary knowledge of the solar system, absorbed in spite of boring hours in Dr. Westerfield's astronomy classroom, tells me that if the sun really gyrated on its axis the whole universe would break apart, but I think I believe it. If the Old Testament poet who told the story of Job could say that on the first morning of creation the stars sang together, then I have no problem believing that the sun dances for joy on Easter.
On Good Friday the sun hid itself behind a cloud, during the death of Jesus. And all day Saturday, those cold beams revealed all too clearly the seal on the entrance to the tomb where Jesus' body lay. But on Sunday morning, those new rays of light shattered the mist of the early morning and revealed an empty tomb and a Risen Christ. And I want to ask you this Easter morning, isn't there something in you that would like to roll back the carpet of your soul, kick up your heels and go dancing with the sun?
I'll confess that I would not always have been comfortable with that image. I grew up among folks who were deeply convinced that dancing was a sin. Fortunately, my parents were not among those folks, but the others were all around me. I even dated a girl in high school who believed that, and either out of adolescent passion or spiritual inspiration, I felt led for a time to hold the same conviction.
I knew folks who thought that every youth group should study the 1930's classic entitled, From The Ballroom To Hell. The British preacher, Leslie Weatherhead was once asked, "Can Christians dance?" Weatherford scratched his chin and said, "By my observation, some can and some can't."
I wonder if those folks ever read the Bible. I wonder if they ever read the Old Testament. The whole way through, particularly the Old Testament prophecies, the promise, the hope of God's saving presence in human life is described the way we heard Jeremiah describe it this morning: "once again you will take up your tambourines and dance joyfully. Girls will dance and be happy and men will rejoice … I will comfort them and turn their mourning into joy, their sorrow into gladness."
In his wildest fantasies of faith, Jeremiah never could have imagined Easter morning, but long before the coming of Christ, long before the suffering on the cross, long before the barren sorrow beside the tomb, Jeremiah caught the spirit, the feeling of what it means for us to claim the gift of the resurrection.
The promise of Easter morning is that in spite of the reality of pain, suffering, death, disappointment and defeat; in spite of all the hurt of the world in which we live, one day all God's children will pick up their tambourines and dance. The hope of Easter is that, confronted with the very real pain of the world we experience, by God's power and grace one day our mourning will be turned into joy, our sorrow will be turned into gladness, even our death will be turned into life.
And the good news of Easter is that the gift of new life is available for you and for me as a present reality. The resurrection is not just something that happened in the past; it is something we can experience in the present. The story of the empty tomb is not just something that we repeat from ancient tradition; it is a call for each of us to experience anew God's saving presence in the Risen Christ. The good news of Easter is that every one of us is invited to go dancing with the sun, to experience anew the vitality of life in the Risen Christ. Every day can be a day of new life in Jesus Christ.
One of the first-rate encouragers of my faith is Maxie Dunnam, the pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. In one of his first books he told the story of his own faith. He described how God's grace had released him from the bondage of past guilt, insecurity, and feelings of inferiority carried out of his childhood. The title of that book was Dancing At My Funeral. (I've always liked that title; some day you will see it for an Easter sermon and you will know where I got it!)
In a later book, Dunnam reflects on that same theme and talks about what it means to live "this now day of resurrection."
"To live in joy this now day of resurrection is to have a resurrection quality about our lives, to break out of the deadness of our stale, decadent, sinful, unsatisfied, unrealized life and to experience the joy and vitality that life in Christ brings now. Such living is open ended with the wind of eternity blowing through.
"Any time we experience life over death, love over indifference, acceptance over resentment, forgiveness over guilt, joy over remorse, or self-worth over self-hate, we are experiencing the resurrection. In fact, we are experiencing eternal life."
That is what it means for us to experience God's saving presence in Jesus Christ. Through the forty days of Lent that have prepared us for Easter morning, we've been trying to think together about what it means to be saved. What would it look like for common, ordinary folks like us to experience God's salvation. We have seen God's saving presence at work in the lives of folks like us in the New Testament.
With Nicodemus we discovered that we no longer need to be imprisoned in our past because we have heard Jesus say, "You can be born anew, born from above, born again. You can have a whole new way of living."
With the woman at the well, we discovered that we no longer need to be bound up in old guilt and shame because we have met a Jesus who offers us living water and says, "You never need to be thirsty again."
With a blind beggar, we have met a Jesus who opens our eyes and enables us to see all of human experience from a whole new perspective.
With Lazarus, we heard Jesus shout into the darkness of the grave saying, "Lazarus, come forth! Unbind him and set him free!" With him we discovered that we no longer need to be prisoners of the fear of death, still bound up in the shrouds of darkness.
Now, on Easter morning, the invitation comes to you and to me to experience new life in Jesus Christ, life that can never be put to death. St. Paul said it clearly in the letter to the Colossians: "You have been raised with Christ. You died with Him and now He has given you new life."
Perhaps you have to be a poet to describe that. John Masefield, the British poet, in his epic poem, "The Everlasting Mercy," tells the story of a man named Saul Kane. He describes Kane's transformation by the work of God's grace in his life. The poem builds to its climax with Kane shouting over the British hills:
"Oh glory of the lighted mind!
how dead I've been, how dumb, how blind.
The station brook to my new eyes,
Was babbling out of Paradise,
The waters rushing from the rain,
Were singing Christ has Risen again.
I thought all earthly creatures knelt
From rapture of the joy I felt.
It's dawn, I said, And chimneys smoking,
And all the blessed fields are soaking.
It's dawn, and I must wander north
along the road Christ led me forth."
It still happens, you know; even today. Last Sunday evening after the Palm Sunday service, a person came out with tear-filled eyes and said, "Jim, He was really God, wasn't He? And I never knew it. He was really God!"
Toward the end of the week I received a phone call from a couple who wanted to share with me what God was doing in their lives. They told of their participation in a Sunday School class in this church which convinced him that Christians were real people. Then they went to see a dramatic production of the passion and on the way out the husband said to God, to his wife, and then to me, "That is a man I would like to know better." They come to Easter morning with a new gift of God's life and grace in Jesus Christ.
I want to ask you this morning: Do you know that you've been raised with Christ? Do you know the living Christ, not second-hand, not like hearing someone describe Baryshnikov, but first-hand, like putting on your ballet slippers and leaping across the stage with him?
Do you know the light of the resurrection, not second-hand like hearing somebody describe the rising of the sun over the ocean, but first-hand, like standing there with your pant legs rolled up to your knees, the waves lapping over your ankles, your toes sinking into the sand as you experience the glory of the sun rising on the East coast?
Do you know that you have been risen with Christ? And on this Easter morning, would you like to go dancing with the sun?
When God throws a party
the whole house is lit up,
signaling the joy inside.
There's music and dancing,
and laughter resounds.
The invitation list is infinite
–including you and me.
And no one's left out
–not even those
with the sag of dissipation
in the face,
and the smell of pigpen
clinging to the shoes.
No one–except for those
whose squeamish unforgiveness
throws a dead-bolt on the door.
So what do you say?
Come to the party!