It’s hard to believe that it is only a few weeks since the restrictions started. Hard to believe that three weeks ago I took for granted my ability to sit in a café and dream up exciting schemes with a ministry colleague, or catch up with a friend! Now a trip to the supermarket seems like a major undertaking, fraught with risk.
These may not be absolutely unprecedented times. There have, after all been plagues, wars, disasters of all shapes and sizes for all of human history.
But feels like pretty cold comfort, because all those terrible things happened in the past, far away from us. They seemed a million miles away from our sensible, well-organised, modern society, where plagues and mass-casualty wars were something that happened elsewhere, showing up on the evening news or on our social media newsfeeds. We might feel shocked, might even be moved to donate some money to the relief efforts, but then we could go back to our safe, albeit sometimes anxious, lives.
But no longer.
What this pandemic, this modern plague, has done is to rip away the mask of safety. It has exposed what our death-denying culture has been trying to hide for generations. We have told ourselves a story of our power and success, self-realisation and invulnerability, and mistaken it for reality. We thought we could “become as God.”
But now, we stand revealed for what we really are. Fragile creatures, radically dependent on one another, and, ultimately, on God.
This illusion of self-sufficiency has deep roots.
Very early in Scripture is a famous story. Right back at the beginning of all things, it says, God made man and woman, and put them in a garden. Their job was to look after the garden, and to walk with God in the cool of the evening. There was only one thing they couldn’t do: They could not eat from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, because if they ate that, God said, they would surely die. However, temptation came in the form of a serpent, who said: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And, famously, they ate.
“You will be like God.”
That is the promise: that is our fundamental temptation. To think that we can set ourselves up as little Gods, defining our own reality, making our own way in the world. Not needing God, which implies not really needing one another – because to be like God is, surely, to be self-sufficient. And if we are like God, then we do not need God.
But we need… something.
British author and apologist C.S. Lewis put it like this:
And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of [humanity] trying to find something other than God which will make [them] happy.
So we have this conflict. We are made to be dependent on God, because there is, in the long run, absolutely nothing else but God. But something within us revolts at that idea. We desire to be “like God”, and so we make for ourselves replacement gods of varying levels of quality. Systems of philosophy, systems of sacrifice, systems of justice, enormous towers and cities and nations. Our whole society, the estranged child of the faith, has been based on this one idea: that we could finally cast of our limitations of biology and history and geography and everything else, and become, finally free. Free, like God is free.
Free, in fact, of God.
But the pandemic has, perhaps only for a brief moment, torn the mask off the illusion.
We are, of course, not the first civilisation to think itself invulnerable. Two thousand years ago, a truly world-spanning empire dominated Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. At the summit, was the Emperor – the king of the world. If there was any way for the divine to be manifest in human form, then surely Caesar would be the chosen one? To exercise one’s untrammelled will. To bring peace to a troubled world. To build mighty cities, irrigate deserts, to pluck up and to plant – here, surely was humanity fully in God’s image. 
It was, arguably, the best, or at any rate, the least-worst, of the world empires. It was more about sensible town planning legislation and high quality engineering than about military glory – though, to be fair, it was quite a lot about military glory. It lasted for hundreds of years, which says something about its robustness. But it was still based on the systematic oppression of most of the human race – slaves, women, non-citizens.
Into this civilisation – this world spanning attempt to “be as God” comes something… unexpected. In an unfashionable area of the empire, in the midst of perennially feuding tribes, which even today remains a global headache, comes something new. A descendent of ancient kings, schooled in the traditions of a particular religious tradition. An inheritor of a particular set of promises given to Abraham and Isaac. A wandering rabbi.
But he was a funny sort of rabbi. Prone to announcing things on his own authority. Like a preacher who has lost interest in Scripture and is off on some crazy head trip of their own. His astounding claims about his own authority, and his role as fulfilment of prophecy, eventually landed him in very hot water indeed.
But there was something compelling about this man. His teaching was a combination of tender mercy and searing severity. He was so plugged into God that sometimes he literally seemed to shine, but he much preferred the company of prostitutes and tax collectors to the holy people.
Was he the Messiah? Gossip, rumour, innuendo swirled about him. If he was the Messiah, then we was completely unlike the sort of coming king we were expecting, the sort in the old stories, coming with fire and vengeance for their enemies. Kings usually come with a retinue of servants. This king came and washed the feet of his friends. Kings come with force, but he came with healing. Kings know that it is better to be feared than loved. This king came with words of forgiveness.
And, finally, this king gave himself up to the authorities, and paid the ultimate price.
But why did Jesus have to die? Is this what we do when the God we are trying to be independent of, the one who we want to be “like”, gets too close to us?
This, it seemed, was the final moment, the ultimate expression of our ancient desire to be finally free of this God character once and for all.
The death of Jesus of Nazareth rips the mask away from the world, just like the pandemic has ripped the mask away from ours. We try to flee God: we try to set ourselves up as little gods. We search, and search, and search for something else, something that will make us finally happy.
Anything, but awareness of our fundamental dependence on God.
So, that Passover Sabbath eve, almost two thousand years ago, the world thought it had finally rid itself of God.
Jesus was crucified like a slave, punished in the most humiliating way the creative minds of the Roman Empire could manage, rejected by the experts in the law of the living God – the very ones who should have been most alert to what was going on.
And this isn’t “them”, a long time ago. It’s us. We are still fleeing from God, doing what we can to block him out of our awareness, trying to build ourselves up into the self-actualizing, self-sufficient, rational beings who we think could replace God. Or, worse, use the cover of a pretended holiness to enslave and abuse others. To think ourselves so much like God that we can dispense with old fashioned ideas like “sin.”
And the shamed, the maimed, the hopeless and the blamed? Well, what of them? There’s nothing much here for those buzzkills with their problems and poverty and general lack of style. Brush them under the carpet, push them out of sight. They are terrifying evidence of our less than godlike nature. Nail them to the cross as well, shamed like their shamed so-called saviour.
Every day is Good Friday.
And on that next day, what? For the government, a sense of relief. They could get on with the business of governing the state unmolested. For the religious authorities, even more so: religion works a whole lot better without Jesus of Nazareth interrupting proceedings with his wild promises of joy, stories of treasure in fields, and him impossible demands.
For his disciples, something else. Grief, of course. A great not-knowing. No-one knew, on that first Saturday, that it was holy Saturday. It must have felt like the absolute end. And then: fear. Surely the authorities would come for them next?
A lot of us now are in a similar position. Fear is palpable. Will I catch coronavirus? Or someone I love? What about my job, my retirement savings, my reasonable hope for a moderately prosperous future? The fear of death, for myself and those who I love, on a respirator, all alone, with only well meaning, tired nurses, dehumanised by their PPE looms large.
And beyond ourselves the question: what will it mean for our whole suffering world? It’s bad enough in a rich country like Australia. What on earth is going to happen in countries whose health systems are already shattered? What chaos might lie in front of us?
And so, like the disciples on that first Holy Saturday, we wait. We wait in fear and uncertainty.
Very early in the morning, the women who had accompanied Jesus left home and quietly walked through the city. I imagine it being as silent as our own quarantined city is this morning. Why were they going? What were they thinking? What were their feelings?
When they got there, however, their intentions, whatever they had been, were made completely irrelevant by what they found.
The accounts differ. But what they all have in common is this: The tomb was empty, and the women fled, with, Matthew tells us, “with fear and great joy”
One way of understanding this is as an interesting historical event. Like the resurrection of Lazarus. Or as a conspiracy on the part of the disciples, craftier than they first seemed. Or… something. Anything. Anything which can rule out the possibility that the God who we thought we had gotten rid of so thoroughly might be at work. Interrupting our tidy plans. Interfering with our schemes.
Because, if it were true… If it were really true that God, the unfathomably other, the one who holds the universe in existence, the one who we are so desperately trying to avoid looking at, the one who we thought we could safely ignore, is not passive. Not content to sit in his heaven and wait to be discovered.
If it is true, then God is quite other to what we had thought.
Fear might be a good place to start. Not fear of some bad consequence, not like the disciples fear of the authorities, not like our fear of the virus. But awe. The vertigo some of us feel staring into the night sky. Something from outside has reached into our world and, without asking our permission, without so much as a by-your-leave, and rearranged things.
God, who had been so safely unknowable up in the sky, has suddenly, and quite rudely, intervened in the world.
Gradually the realisation of what this means spread amongst the disciples, and through them, all the way down to us, here.
St Matthew is keen on earthquakes in his gospel, and that’s exactly what it is like. The safe ground we thought we stood on, our smug little self-contained world, turns out to be tiny and fragile and held in God’s hands – not ours.
But, along with the fear, comes joy.
Joy that the one who they had loved was not dead after all, but alive, and, as it became increasingly apparent, alive in a new sort of way. Available to everyone, not just his friends walking around first century Palestine. And somehow, in ways that are impossible for us to exactly define, God has made the worst thing we have done into the best.
There’s a Portuguese saying that “God writes straight with crooked lines” and that’s exactly what God has done here. The action which should have cut us off from God has opened an entirely new way into sharing God’s life. The great sin we committed in executing Jesus, which takes in all the ways we have oppressed and tyrannized over one another, has all been borne and forgiven, and made right. The temple veil, separating us from God has been torn in two. The one who was shamed has been vindicated. God, it turns out, is both powerful and vulnerable, and has done what only God come to earth can do. And no words, no scheme, no theological system, will ever pin it down: because it those are only theories attempting to describe the unprecedented interference of God in our world.
Whatever happens, in life or in death, Jesus, the first fruit of them that died, is the completely reliable image of the utterly reliable God. The one who brings dead things to life. The one who brings hope out of despair. The one who knows from the inside what it is to suffer, and the one who is working to put things right.
Every day is Easter Day.
So it turns out that we don’t need to “become like God.” Instead, unimaginably, God has become one of us, taken up the burden of our whole suffering world, and opened the way for us to become the daughters and the sons of God.
So well may we say:
Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter Day 2020 sermon preached online for Preston High Street and Cafechurch
 Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (p. 23). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 See Tom Holland’s excellent essay When Christ Conquered Caesar, https://unherd.com/2020/04/when-christ-conquered-caesar/