One Sunday before Easter, a Church School teacher asked her class about the meaning of Easter. One pupil said: “Easter is when all the family gets together and they have a big turkey and sing about the pilgrims and all that.”
The teacher said, “No, that’s not it.”
Then a second pupil responded: “I know what Easter is. Easter is when you get this pine tree and cover it with decorations and exchange gifts and sing lots of songs.”
Again, the teacher had to say, “That’s not it.”
Then came the third pupil. He began: “Easter is when Jesus was killed, and put in a tomb, and left for three days.”
“He knows! He knows!” the teacher said to herself, ecstatically. But then the boy went on, “Then everybody gathers at the tomb and waits to see if Jesus comes out, and if He sees His shadow ….”
I would hesitate to begin my Easter sermon with that story, except for the fact that one of the earliest descriptions of Easter depicts it as a gigantic joke, a joke played by God on the devil.
Conrad Hyers, in his book And God Created Laughter: the Bible as Divine Comedy, says: “In the early Greek Orthodox tradition, an unusual custom developed … On the day after Easter, clergy and laity would gather in the sanctuary to tell stories, jokes, and anecdotes. The reason given was that this was the most fitting way of celebrating the big joke that God had pulled on Satan in the resurrection. A similar custom has been preserved in some rural Slavic areas where, on the day after Easter, folk dancing and feasting take place in the churchyard. In the early church, the ‘big joke’ was also expressed humorously by representing Jesus as the bait in the mousetrap with which Satan was caught” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987, p. 25).
I would suggest that, while there are a lot of things in our world to be sad about (and we ought not to go around with a silly smirk on our faces all of the time), Easter proclaims that life is not ultimately a tragedy, but a comedy (in the technical sense of the term: a story whose ending comes out right).
The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia defines “comedy” as a story which contains “… the resolution of a contretemps thrown up by the plot.” Boy, that is surely something we need, isn’t it! Somebody to bring about a “resolution of the contretemps thrown up by the plot (life).” Maybe I’d better define our terms a bit further. My huge Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines “contretemps” as: “an inopportune happening which causes confusion” (French, from Latin contra, against, and tempus, time). Shakespeare’s Hamlet lamented: “The times are out of joint, O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set them right” (Act I, Scene V)! Well, the times are, indeed, out of joint, but the New Testament message is that Jesus Christ was born to set them right!
Andrew Greeley, in his book The Jesus Myth, says: “His (Jesus’) message is very simple and, through repetition down through the centuries, has become trite. But its simplicity and its triteness should not obscure for us the fact that the message responds to the most basic and agonizing question that faces all who are part of the human condition: Is everything going to be all right in the end? Jesus’ response was quite literally to say, ‘You bet your life it is.’ Or, to put the matter only slightly differently, to the question of whether life was ultimately a tragedy or a comedy, Jesus replied with the absolute assurance that it was comedy” (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1971, p. 40).
So, back to my original premise that “Easter is a Joke.” Theologians of the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Augustine, set forth the idea of the deception of the devil. Easter was a joke played on the devil. God clothed Himself in human form. And the devil thinks that he sees a uniquely desirable prey. The fish swallows the bait on the baited fish-hook, the devil grasps at his prey, and finds that he cannot swallow it, for Jesus is God clothed in human form, and God triumphs over the devil by playing a divine joke on him!
Saint Augustine used an even cruder analogy — that of a mousetrap. As the mice are enticed into the trap by the bait, so Christ is the bait by which the devil is caught. In this view, God plays a “trick” or a joke on the devil by giving him Christ, and then snatching Him back again. This, then, is the “mousetrap” theory, or the “fish-hook” theory, in which Christ is the bait by which God tricks Satan and finally defeats him.
All of this sounds fanciful to us …. even grotesque! Can it have any meaning for us? Some thirty-five years ago, Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen wrote a little book which has had an enormous impact on the church, a book titled Christus Victor. He says: “However crude the form, the endeavor,(of these strange stories) is to show that God does not stand, as it were, outside the drama that is being played out, but Himself takes part in it, and attains His purpose by internal, not external means; He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through divine self-oblation.” Aulen’s book has always been one of my favorites, because he reminds us that for the first thousand years of the Christian era, people had a different view of what happened on Calvary than most people hold today.
Most Christians today seem to be divided up into two camps, when it comes to talking about what happened on that first Good Friday. The “conservative” camp follows the teachings of an eleventh century man named Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm put forth the notion that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sin. When we sinned, we affronted God’s dignity and disobeyed God’s moral laws. Therefore, somebody has to pay. There must be suffering to atone for our sin. God made us for fellowship with Him, but we rebelled, and sinned. In so doing, we dishonored God. We must either repent and repay, or be punished. But if all people were punished by being sent to hell, and eventually lost to God, then God’s purposes for the world would be defeated.
God faced a dilemma: God could not treat sin lightly, nor could God risk losing everybody. What could God do? Anselm said that God could not just let bygones be bygones …. somebody had to pay the debt. But the debt is so huge that no one human being could repay it. So God paid the debt Himself …. in the giving of His Son. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …”
Other Christians fall into what some might call the “liberal” camp — who think they have a new idea. It is new — relatively speaking. It began with Peter Abelard, born about forty years after Anselm. Abelard said that Jesus’ death on the cross was simply the supreme example of God’s love for us. What happened on Calvary in no way changed God’s attitude toward us. It revealed it. In the Cross, we see just how much suffering our sin cost God. When we survey the wondrous cross, our hearts are melted within us, and we feel drawn back to God, and away from our sin.
As Paul said in the Letter to the Romans: “God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This view has much to commend it, but it raises other problems.
Just how does the Cross show God’s love for us? If we are drowning, and somebody good and holy comes along next to the pool, and says, “Let me show you how much I love you!” and jumps in the pool and drowns with us, of what benefit is that to us? No, there must be something more that was accomplished by God’s death on Calvary, than merely the example of a good man (even God Himself) suffering and dying for us. Neither of these views is totally wrong, but both leave something to be desired.
That is why Aulen’s book is so important. He shows that for the first millennium of the Christian Church, an entirely different view held center stage. The view that dominated the church for the first thousand years or so was the notion that in the cross Christ did battle with the forces of evil which held humanity captive …. and won the battle, victorious.
We began our service by singing the familiar words of Charles Wesley’s triumphant Easter hymn: “Love’s redeeming work is done, Fought the fight, the battle’s won! Alleluia!” This is the view that dominated the church for the first millennium of its existence. It was neglected for a time, but was rediscovered by Martin Luther at the time of the Protestant Reformation. In recent years it has gained new attention through the writings of Lutheran theologian Gustav Aulen, who writes of Christ as the One who has rescued His people from bondage.
You see, the New Testament writers believed that the world was in the control of evil powers. This world, for them, was “occupied territory,” in the control of Satan, the “Evil One.” In fact, the original Greek of the Lord’s Prayer does not say “Deliver us from evil, but rather, “Deliver us from the “Evil One.”
The New Testament message is that this world is in the grip of demonic forces, the “principalities and powers” of whom Paul speaks (see Romans 8:38, Ephesians 3:10, Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15). But Christ came to free God’s children from them.
In the Cross and in the Resurrection, Jesus Christ fought a battle on our behalf, and defeated the powers of evil which hold us in bondage. Therefore, Satan is not “alive and well on planet earth” as a best-selling book tries to tell us; since that first Easter, Satan is definitely unwell. God, in Christ, has dealt Evil a mortal blow.
This view of the Atonement was very popular in the early church, for everyone knew what slavery meant. And I believe that, in spite of its strangeness, it can have great meaning for our day. We have seen whole nations and peoples caught up in demonic forces. We need a deliverer to come and rescue us. We need to recapture some of the joy of the early Christians who believed that in Jesus Christ God had dealt a death-blow to all the powers of evil.
We need to remember that we are enlisted in a battle against evil whose outcome is assured. Easter is the promise of God’s ultimate victory over any and all evil.
Easter is God’s supreme joke over death. I’ve always found Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, reported in Acts 2, to be a tad humorous, at least at the beginning. You remember the occasion: The people of Jerusalem, seeing the joy and exuberance of the new Christians, came to the erroneous conclusion that there could only be one explanation for people being this happy: they must be drunk! So Peter began his sermon in a strange way. He said “These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day” (Acts 2:15).
Now, I find that funny. What did he say? That it was only 9:00 in the morning and the pubs were not even open yet! No, the disciples were not drunk, at least not drunk on spirits. They were drunk on the Spirit, the Spirit of God.
The Jesus whom they had all mourned as dead was not only alive again, but His Spirit had so infused them that they could now face anything that life could throw their way. Then Peter went on to chastise the religious leaders and the common people as well of abandoning Jesus to the Romans to be crucified “by the hands of lawless men.” But then what does he say?
“But God raised Him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it!”
In other words, God had the last laugh, and, as the old proverb says, “he who laughs last, laughs best!”
In a sermon titled “Easter Makes Me Laugh,” Presbyterian preacher Tom Hilton of Pompano Beach, Florida, tells of a little boy who announced proudly at the dinner table, “There was a little Indian girl at school today.” “Does she speak English?” the father asked. “No,” came the reply, “but it doesn’t matter because she laughs in English.”
Hilton goes on to say: “Laughter is the language of everyone. We need no United Nations interpreter to translate this language. You can laugh in any language and be understood.”
‘There is a time to laugh,’ says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, and I’m going to suggest that now is the time to laugh at death.
We need not fear it for this enemy is now defeated. We need not deny that we are dying, for now it has lost its threat to us. We need not deny that we are getting older, for every day leads us closer to joining Christ in His victory. We need not cower before illness or pain anymore for the worst thing that could happen to us is that we could die …. so what!
“Do you hear that, death? So what? So what if I die? If I die, I join Christ in eternity … an eternity that is happier than this life, more fun than this life, less pain than this life, more security, no tears, no sorrow, no crying and no night” (Clergy Journal, March, 1980, p. 2).
What is it that the last book of the Bible says: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). I am struck by the fact that, when someone dies, we say, “He has passed away.” But the Bible says that “Death has passed away!”
Eugene O’Neill once wrote a play Lazarus Laughed. It is the story of Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead. His life is very controversial now, for he laughs at everything, even at death. His home in Bethany is now called the “House of Laughter” (not a bad name for a Christian church, by the way).
How many of us were brought up to believe that the Church was to be a place of laughter? Tears, perhaps, but not laughter. We Protestants usually appear to have been not only “washed in the blood of the Lamb” but starched as well! The Preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). A lot of us have never quite made it to the second half!
We are so deadly serious so much of the time. I think it was the French skeptic Voltaire who once said that “You Christians are going to have to look a lot more redeemed, if you expect me to believe in your Redeemer!” He had a point.
Back to Eugene O’Neill’s play, Lazarus Laughed. At one point Lazarus says, “Laugh! Laugh with me at death! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!”
That’s it! Easter is a grand joke played on that old impostor, death. In the Book of Acts, Peter told of how the people had rejected God’s gift of His Son and crucified Him. Jesus “was killed by lawless men.” That ought to have been the end of the story. Finis. What can you say after that? Death has the last word. But no, Peter goes on:
“But God raised Him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.” Nor us, for that matter, for we belong to Him.
And so we can laugh — even on Easter Sunday. Especially on Easter Sunday. For God had the last laugh. And always will.

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