(Read John 20:19-29)
On election night in 1976, I sat in a little dark storage closet at the back of a campaign headquarters in Yonkers, New York and cried until I had no more tears. I'd just watched my father concede a long, hard, and expensive race for Congress to an opponent I was sure was a pretty bad guy. I was biased, of course, but not entirely ill-informed. The new congressman would soon leave politics in disgrace for lying about a non-existent military service record. Our veteran campaign manager would also leave politics after that race, disillusioned by the outcome, and, tragically, would take his own life one day.
Strangely, that painful loss would set my father onto a path that led to the rediscovery of his Christian faith and the establishment of mine. My dad would go on to have a very fruitful career in public life, but on that night in 1976, I could not imagine that. My vision had shrunk to the size of the storage closet and was blinded by tears. I wonder if you have ever been in a place like that where the world seems to shrink to a little dark room where it seems so obvious that Good has lost and Evil has won?
The end of the campaign
At the close of a campaign vastly more significant than the one I just described, the disciples of Jesus found themselves in a place of anguish like that. They had labored for three long years to advance the cause of good. They'd traveled on blistered feet through more towns than they could remember, listening to the hopes and hurts of people and ministering as best they could. They'd seen Jesus draw amazing crowds and heard him give remarkable speeches that laid out the vision of a new kind of kingdom where life worked for everybody as it was meant to from the beginning.
Jesus had told them that the route to this kingdom would be different than any political process they'd ever seen. "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. [But] on the third day he will be raised to life!" (Matt. 20:18-19).
The disciples must have figured that their candidate was suffering from campaign fatigue. Things were going so well. How could he be talking about rejection and suffering? In fact, when they entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday it was to the hugest rally any of them had ever seen. The streets were jammed with people hailing Jesus like he was already their victorious commander-in-chief. This palm frond poll made Jesus seem like the obvious winner, but then, over the next several days, the tide turned.
Christ's opponents had always been critical of him. Now they turned incredibly nasty, mounting the equivalent of a massive attack-ad effort. They circulated outrageous lies about Jesus and paid operatives to whip up public opinion against him, and it began to work. Even Judas, a senior member of Jesus' staff, lost confidence in Christ's authority. Judas had signed on with Jesus, convinced that he was the Zealot Party's key to overthrowing Rome and making Israel great again. As Jesus increasingly underlined that his kingdom was not of this world and as Jesus refused to punch back at his opponents, Judas decided he'd bet on the wrong candidate. Trying to salvage something for himself, Judas gave inside information to the opposition in exchange for a bribe.
On the eve of the Passover, Judas led the opposition to where Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. They arrested Jesus on trumped up charges and hauled him in front of the Roman governor Pilate and the Judaean King Herod, each of whom found Jesus lacking in authority, too. "Why can't you do a miracle for me?" demanded Herod. You claim to be a voice of truth, said Pilate to Jesus, but "What is truth?"
The crowd that had rallied for Jesus on Palm Sunday railed against him on Friday. He had done no miracles for them that week. The healthcare and feeding programs he'd been touted for earlier in his campaign now seemed stalled. He couldn't seem to explain how he'd bring change. So, when given a choice between freeing Jesus or a murderer named Barabbas, they voted for Barabbas. Jesus had done nothing for them lately. He was such a disappointment. "Crucify him!" they shouted (Mark 15:13).
So they did. The pundits, politicians, priests, and people joined together and crucified him. From noon until three, Jesus hung on a cross on Skull Hill outside of Jerusalem. The Bible says that a great darkness came over the land (Luke 23:44) until Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit … [and] breathed his last" (Luke 23:46). They took his body down from the cross, laid it in a little dark room we call the tomb, and locked the door with a stone.
The little dark room
The main characters in Christ's campaign found themselves inside a little room substantially more dark and dismal than that storage closet I cried in on that election night forty years ago. Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, was convinced now that there was no reliable authority in life, no new kingdom worth living for, and no number of silver coins sufficient to make up for those facts. Unable to see his way out of that little dark room of despair, Judas took his own life. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times after claiming he would never abandon him, now knew that his failures were final and his hope for forgiveness futile. The votes had been cast. Jesus was gone and Peter was a loser. Unable to imagine an escape from that little dark room of guilt, he wept. And Mary, who had dedicated her life to caring for Jesus, had lost him forever. Her last vision of her precious child had been of seeing him tortured to death in utter defeat. Unable to do more than visit a grave, Mary languished in the little dark room of grief.
That room is a tomb as closed off from laughter, light, and love as the grave where Jesus was laid. Some of you know this because you've been there or are there now. Maybe you're feeling despair like Judas felt. Life seems to be losing or to have lost real meaning for you. The things you've bet on haven't delivered. You don't know how to trust or believe in anyone or anything anymore. Perhaps you're living with guilt like Peter was. You've done some really bad things or failed to do the right thing when you could have. You wish you could undo your failures. You don't believe you can be forgiven. It could be that, like Mary, you're in the room of grief. You've lost someone dear, you're watching them slip away, or you feel death coming for you.
Evil smiles when we're in that little dark room. In fact, the Bible teaches that there are three mindsets that especially serve Evil's desire to rob us of the joy of life. First, Evil wants us to believe that there is no trustworthy authority in this world. You can't believe God. You can't trust others. Everybody lies and disappoints. There's no one wise or good on life's throne. That belief leads us to despair.
Secondly, Evil wants us to believe that there is no hope for fallen humanity. Watch the news. Look in the mirror or at the politics and people around you. It's arrogance, anger, betrayal, denial, corruption, violence, deceit, lust, envy, division, and stupidity everywhere. There's no way out. Humanity can't be forgiven or fixed. Just accept that it's going to stay this way or probably get worse. This belief leads to hopeless guilt or the cynicism that masquerades as humor these days.
Finally, Evil wants us to believe that there is nothing greater than death. Let every wrinkle remind you that your destiny is decay and a hole in the ground. Let every graveyard remind you not to get too attached to anybody around you. Let every cross remind you that even if you live a perfect life of love like Jesus, death's going to defeat you in the end anyway. That belief leads us into a life of subconscious grief.
The light of Easter comes
This is what Evil keeps trying to impress on all of us. Evil wants us to get so used to living in a world defined by quiet despair, guilt, cynicism, and grief that we can't imagine a life beyond that tomb. And, in this sense, we become a little like the character, Jack, in the award-winning film, Room. Have you seen it?
Room tells the story of an evil man who abducts a teenager named Joy and imprisons her for his perverted use in a storage shed behind his home. Two years into the horror, Joy gives birth to Jack. Desperate to keep her child from being destroyed by the evil around him, Joy makes life as bright and normal as she can for Jack, so Jack grows up believing that this closet is the world. It's not until the door is one day unlocked and opened for good that Jack comes to see that the universe he calls "Room," isn't even close to ultimate reality. Five-year-old Jack embarks on the wondrous adventure of re-discovering life as it was truly meant to be.
Friends, this is the Easter story, too. When we meet the disciples in John 20, they are victims of all the lies that Evil has told humanity and all the horror that Evil has spawned since he stole joy from the Garden of Eden years ago. The disciples are literally locked in a little dark room. The Bible says, "Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" (John 20:26) Jesus came to call them out of that place and into the wondrous adventure of life beyond the tomb.
Doubting Thomas can't believe this at first. It can't really be Jesus. Christ invites him to touch his wounds. Thomas does and he knows it really is Jesus, risen from the grave he had told them he would. Thomas falls to his knees, confessing in wonder, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:27-28). Over the next 40 days, more than 500 different people will have an experience like that (1 Cor. 15:3-8). They will walk with the resurrected Christ, sit with him, talk with him, and eat with him. They will become absolutely convinced that he is not what some people think he is today: a projection of their wishful thinking, a symbol of spiritual rebirth, and a remembered teacher or prophet. Those first disciples will become certain that Jesus is exactly who he had said he was: the living Lord God, the one truly trustworthy authority on which they can safely base their life. Oh that Judas had hung on to discover that.
Jesus will comfort Mary so that she and the other disciples never fear death again. Even in the face of brutal persecution, the early Christians will die confident that death is but a doorway to an even greater life for them. Jesus will forgive Peter and restore his mission in life. He will make him and the other fickle disciples into people of stunning courage and character, witnesses to the message that God can change any human character for the good. Jesus will send the early church out into the world to live by the values of a kingdom that will transform paganism and barbarism into the Western Civilization that has been the fount of so much reason, progress, and hope for humanity, the foundation for the world we enjoy.
The question now is whether we, and the nation we influence, will live in the light of Easter or content ourselves with our dark little room. Evil campaigns for the latter. It wants us living in despair, fear, and grief. Easter shows us that there is an Authority worthy of your absolute trust. "My peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, but trust in me," the Bible says (John 14:27). There is redeeming hope for humanity. Put your broken character, your need of forgiveness, and the people you love in my hands, says Jesus, because "I am making everything new" (Rev 21:5). There is hard evidence that life, light and love are greater than death, for "I am the resurrection and the life … even though you die, yet shall you live" (John 11:25).
God has won the ultimate campaign. He's opened the door. Easter is his invitation to come out of the tomb, out of the little dark room in which we may be living, and into the great adventure of life as it was truly meant to be. Come be part of a community where God wins and people are finding a larger life everyday.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.