“Your thoughts are not my thoughts,” says the Lord
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, April 3, 2021
The Great Vigil of Easter
The Great Vigil includes the following readings from Holy Scripture:
The Story of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:2
The Flood: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: Genesis 22:1-18
Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea: Exodus 14:10-15:1
God’s presence in a renewed Israel: Isaiah 4:2-6
Salvation offered freely to all: Isaiah 55:1-11
A new heart and a new spirit: Ezekiel 36:24-28
The valley of Dry Bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14
The gathering of God’s people: Zephaniah 3:12-20
The New Testament Lesson: Romans 6:3-11
The Resurrection of Jesus: Mark 16:1-8
The sermon is based on all these lessons and the context of the liturgy for the Great Vigil of Easter. In particular, the sermon refers to the reading from Isaiah, chapter 55, amply quoted below.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Tonight we heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”
These words from the prophet Isaiah that we heard tonight are a fitting commentary on the whole story of the Easter Vigil. In the Great Vigil of Easter, we hear the great sweep of salvation history—of all the mighty acts of God in history to save his people. We heard how we constantly turn away from God to lose ourselves in our own choices. Yet again and again God calls us to return. Again and again, God acts in history to save his people. He delivers us from the flood and makes his covenant with us. He delivers us from bondage in Egypt and through the waters of the sea. He offers his salvation to all nations, he restores the dry bones of the house of Israel. He puts a new song in our hearts and gathers his people.
Then, in the fullness of time, surpassing all these deeds in history and bringing to fulfillment his promise of new life to us, God sent his son Jesus to put to death death, to conquer sin and to open for us the way of everlasting life. The saga of the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is beyond all comprehension. We cannot imagine that to save us from our own constant rejection of God, God would be born and live among us—and die for us, and rise again.
We have walked the streets of Jerusalem this Holy Week, from Palm Sunday triumph to Maundy Thursday betrayal to Good Friday suffering and death. We feel in our bones the hard truth of suffering and pain, and the finality and loss of death. These are thoughts that we understand. These are the ways of the world we live in. But now we join the astonishment of the disciples. Jesus is risen from the dead! Hearing the women’s news, Peter and John and Mary Magdalene ran back to the tomb. Mary was the first to encounter the risen Lord, and she shared her experience with the other disciples. Others saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and then Jesus met with all the disciples together.
Having walked the darkness of Holy Week, we are amazed beyond our imagination, our thoughts cannot understand the news we hear of Jesus rising from the dead. But the words of the prophet Isaiah echo out tonight: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The birth and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus happened nearly 2000 years ago, yet this Good News is Good News for us today. The resurrection is not only a distant reality of an ancient history. The resurrection is a reality for us today! Jesus is risen! The opening hymn of the Great Vigil of Easter, called the exsultet, sings “This is the night!” Jews celebrate the Passover by linking themselves to the experience of God’s saving grace in ages past, saying “you saved us from bondage in Egypt and led us to the promised land.” So, we too, sing “This is the night….when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away.” “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.” At Easter, Christians unite themselves to the death and resurrection of Jesus and proclaim that Easter is real for us today.
I wonder, however—do we live out this Easter joy? When we eat our Easter dinners and return to work or school, when we return to the noise of politics and COVID, when we return to anxiety and conflict, will we still live in the joy and power of the resurrection? We are a resurrection people, yet our lives are acquainted with sorrows and suffering. So often the darkness of Holy Week, or the darkness of our own failures clouds the light of Easter joy. So often the truth and life of Jesus fades into the background and our thoughts become preoccupied with the tragedy or hum-drum of today. We think this sorrow and pain and loss is the true reality; we think that death and loss has the last word in our lives; we think that the resurrection is a distant theoretical concept. But at the Great Vigil of Easter, we are reminded “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”
The power of the resurrection is real this night! The victory of Jesus over sin and death lives with you! Eternal life is not simply a ticket for a distant afterlife; eternal life is a gift given to you today! This is the gift of new life that is greater than death, but this new life is greater than the struggles that this present life can dish out today as well. You might think that there is no hope for your broken marriage or your fractured family. You may think that you are incapable of following a new path, or finding a new future. You may think that God is un-knowable and distant, or that nothing can quench the grief of your loss. These may be your thoughts, but God says:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower
and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
As challenging as our lives can be, we find the victory and the strength to move forward in this new life in Christ. In Jesus, we can find reconciliation. In Jesus, we can find healing and renewal. With Jesus in our lives, we can trust that there is more to our future than what we can see.
Jesus is the Word of God that goes forth into the world to bear our burdens on the cross. Jesus Christ is the Word of God that rises from the grave and plays the ultimate joke on death. Jesus Christ is the Word of God that comes to you today offering peace and joy beyond all measure, offering balm for your wounds and promise for your future and peace to your pain. And God’s word will not return to him empty, but he will accomplish that which the father purposed.
When we think we cannot imagine God’s grace in our lives, the resurrection foretold by Isaiah echoes in our ears: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.”
Despite all the hardships that threaten our hope, we are alive with the gift of God’s eternal life tonight. We are a resurrection people!
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!