I recently had the opportunity to enjoy spending Easter down in Colorado Springs with my sister, brother-in-law, and my parents, who were visiting in from Alabama. We went to church together and had some wonderful family time as we celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. The day also brought back some warm, wonderful memories of Easters in years past. Unlike the chilly, snow-covered scene in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, the Easters of my Alabama childhood were almost invariably sunny and mild. But I’ve entitled this post “Resurrection Reveille”, because, in my mind, Easter always brings up associations of early morning. Now admittedly my family didn’t usually go to sunrise services growing up, although I’ve always thought that would be a beautiful experience. Nonetheless, in order to get a seat in the full sanctuary at the 8:30am Easter Sunday service, we’d have to rise pretty early. My sister and I would hurriedly check out our Easter baskets, and then have a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Krispy Kreme doughnuts before getting dressed for the big worship service. Music also constitutes a big part of my Easter memories. I can remember singing the venerable old Charles Wesley hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” almost every year, including this one. But for years, a tune had been stuck in my head, associated with a long-ago Easter from my childhood, but which I couldn’t exactly place. It would bug me around that time of the year as I tried to figure out what it could be, and then I would forget about for a while—until the next Easter possibly. But this year it kept going round in my head all Easter afternoon, and one of the blessings of the Internet age is that between Google and Ebay, no half-remembered memory from our childhoods need be permanently lost. So, following some searching for the fragment of lyrics that I remembered, I found the source of my long-lost tune. It was Keith Green’s 1977 “Easter Song.” Some time back in the late 80’s or early 90’s I would imagine, I’d heard it performed by an ensemble at First Baptist Montgomery, under the direction of our much-beloved former minister of music, Bill Roper, and it had lodged in my memory ever since.
Now, I confess I didn’t know much previously about the life and work of Keith Green, a pioneering figure in the Contemporary Christian music scene. He’s also one of the favorite artists of our Christian Challenge director, Bobby Pruett, and as I listened to “Easter Song” repeatedly, I was captivated by the lyrics. So often, Easter, like Christmas, is mostly about observance, remembering the work of God in the past. And certainly that is a worthwhile thing. Scripture exists in part to remind us of God’s faithfulness down through the generations, and Christianity, like its parent religion Judaism, celebrates a God of history, who has worked in prior generations in unique ways. And yet our God we know is still at work, and so our holy days of faith should not only be times of reflection, but opportunities for us to called into action as bearers of a living and vibrant message—never more so than on Easter! For any Christian, the Resurrection is the single defining event, the foundational truth, and linchpin which holds our faith together. This is certainly what Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 15:14—“And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain.” The words of Keith Green’s “Easter Song” thus focus not only on celebrating Jesus’ conquering of the grave, but the implications for our lives going forward. “Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/that you can be born again”. Then the song continues—“Hear the bells ringing they’re singing /that you can be healed right now. Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/Christ, he will reveal it now/ The angels, they all surround us and they are ministering Jesus’ power, quickly now/reach out and receive it, for this could be your glorious hour.” We find an emphasis on immediacy—Green is singing urgently to the listener, letting them know that Christ’s Resurrection is not just a long-ago event to commemorate, but that in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 6:2 , now is the time of salvation and deliverance from sin through Christ!! The same power that raised Christ from the dead is available to anyone who will believe, as Romans 8:11 testifies. Green’s lyrics also charge those who already believe to take action, and spread the message of Easter: “The angel up on the tombstone said He has risen, just as He said/Quickly now, go tell his disciples that Jesus Christ is no longer dead.”
Reading a little more recently about the life of Keith Green, I found him to be a fascinating study. Although he died in a plane crash at the tragically young age of 28 back in 1982, and only released only five albums in his lifetime, Green’s legacy, both musical and personal continues to inspire many in the Christian music community to this day. I mentioned both his musical and personal legacy, for from what I can tell, Green really tried to make sure that his life, and business practices, as well as the message of his music, all aligned with the Gospel truth that had changed his life. He once stated—“I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into Godly jealousy or to sell out more completely to Jesus!” Pretty strong words—but from Green they weren’t just talk. The suburban Los Angeles home where he lived with his wife Melody and his growing family, also became a place of refuge for many in need—drug addicts, prostitutes, single pregnant women, and the homeless. Then, in 1979 he took what would be an almost-unheard of policy for a professional recording artist—he refused to any longer charge money for concerts or albums, instead simply telling people to pay whatever they could afford in accordance with God’s direction. Green was willing to not just sing about trusting God, but live this out in a very visible fashion. And as much as he could charm with sweet songs of praise, he also wasn’t afraid to convict and challenge a church which may have grown too comfortable and complacent. Once again, the message of Easter was at the center of what for Green, needed to be a springboard to Christian action. Lyrics from his song “Asleep in the light” include” “Can’t you see it’s such a sin? The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight/’Cause it’s asleep in the light/How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed/Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed/Jesus rose from the dead, come on, get out of your bed”
Keith Green’s music is infused with a sense of urgency that in part stems from his own story. He had an unusual mix of a Jewish and Christian Science heritage, and grew up as a musical prodigy. Coming of age in the height of the countercultural 60’s he investigated Eastern philosophies and experimented with drugs. But following a bad acid trip, he gave up drugs and became increasingly drawn towards Christianity, along with his new wife, Melody. Perhaps his best-known song, “Your love broke through” chronicles Green’s final discovery of God’s truth, which shattered through the illusions and confusion of his pre-Christian life: “Well I’ve been blind all these wasted years/And I thought I was so wise, but then you took me by surprise/Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed/Until your love broke through/I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me/Until your love broke through” Perhaps it was a recognition of the time he had wasted as a youth that drove and motivated Keith Green as an adult to pursue Christ with a palpable passion and sense of urgency.
But what about us?? As we reflect on the message of Easter, should it be a time of calm reflection and joy?? Yes certainly. But it should also be a call to action! Earlier, I mentioned the time-honored 1739 Easter hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” composed by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It includes the lines: “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!” Then in another favorite praise song of Easter, Bill Gaither’s 1974, “Because He lives”, we hear in the chorus– “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow, Because He lives all fear is gone.” Thus we find that in the songs of Easter we are indeed exhorted to not simply honor Christ’s rising from the dead, but to also go forth and live out that truth! Scripture reinforces this point in several instances too. Again and again, we see that following the message of Jesus’ Resurrection comes a clear call to spread the news. Matthew 28 opens with the story of the Empty Tomb, but then finishes in verses 18-20 with that seminal missions exhortation, The Great Commission. Luke concludes his Gospel in chapter 24, also with the story of Jesus’ Resurrection, before eventually adding his version of the Great Commission in Luke 24:46-48. Then in John 20:21-23, following the account of His Resurrection, Jesus sends out His disciples. Finally, note Acts 1:9-11. Here, immediately following what must have been an astonishing sight—watching the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the disciples are visited by two angels. “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward Heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” We can sometimes find ourselves in the same position as those disciples—gaping in open-mouthed wonder at the glorious truth that a new life in Christ represents. But we must not stop there! The nature of the Resurrection is that it changes everything, and so we are called to go forth and spread this truth to the nations. Thus in all of the Gospels, the message of Christ’s Rebirth is followed by an urgent appeal to make this news known unto all humanity.
We’ve looked at examples of such passages in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts already, but what about Mark?? I remember in seminary classes we would sometimes talk about “textual variants” found in Scripture. And often these were fairly minor it must be admitted, of interest perhaps to seminarians and theology professors, but having very little bearing on the actual interpretation of a book or passage. But one of the most famous is found at the end of the Book of Mark, and it can help to further underscore the central message of this post—that the Easter message is not only a commemoration of Christ’s glorious victory over death and sin, but also a clear call to action, for Christians to share this life-changing truth with others. Many Biblical scholars believe that Mark originally ended with verse 16:8—“And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Now the “they” in question are Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and another woman named Salome. They had come early on Sunday morning to bring spices that may finish anointing the body of Jesus. They find the tomb empty, and hearing from an angel that Jesus has risen, we come to verse 8. Out of fear and no doubt overwhelmed at the magnitude of this astounding news, the women at first do not share their story with anyone else, though the angel specifically instructs them in Mark 16:7 to go and spread the Resurrection news to the Disciples.
Mark 16:9-20 reveals that after a subsequent personal appearance from the Resurrected Savior, Mary Magdalene does indeed go and tell the disciples, and then Mark concludes his Gospel with his own version of the Great Commission and then the Ascension of Christ. But why did at least some versions of Mark originally end with verse 8?? It’s very likely this could be a literary device. When we read a chapter in a book, or watch an episode of a television series that ends abruptly with some aspect of the plot or story still unresolved, we call it a “cliffhanger.” And on being confronted with a cliffhanger, the natural thought in our minds is “what happens next?” or “how will the story end?” Well perhaps Mark is wanting to insert us, as the reader, into the story of Jesus by wondering what will happen now that Christ is risen?? Will we take up the responsibility to go and share with others, or will we remain fearful and silent?
This Easter, as I reflected on the many blessings that have accompanied my tenure of ministry here in Colorado, I was reminded afresh, through the music of Keith Green, the reading of Scripture, and that still, small voice in my own heart, that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection was never meant to only be a triumphant exclamation point, but also a blinking cursor on our life’s screen. During the season of Easter, we hear the glorious news shared with us afresh, that testimony of Jesus as written in Revelation 1:18—“I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” But how will the empty tomb change us? In the aforementioned Keith Green song “Your love broke through” there’s another wonderful line, full of the truth of the Easter message—“All my life I’ve been searching for that crazy missing part/and with one touch, you just rolled away/The stone that held my heart” Can it be said of us too, that are hearts are overflowing and ready to share the message of the good news of Easter with others? I know personally that I am always in need of a little extra “push” and some holy motivation to do my best with the calling I am privileged to have from God. So in my own life, I pray that Easter is not only a commemoration, but a wakeup call to share and live the message that has given my life meaning. And may the Resurrection be a moment of God’s Glorious Reveille for us all. Amen!