Carl Wilton
Jenkinson’s Pavilion, Community Easter Sunrise Service
April 5, 2015; Easter Day
Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

“…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Colossians 3:3

I’ve been doing these Easter Sunrise Services, here at Jenkinson’s, for nearly 25 years. I’ve been here every Easter for all that time — except for a couple of those years when I was on medical leave. With the departure of John Helm from our local ministerium, I suppose that makes me the memory of this event.

A few of you have memories that go back longer. Nobody knows, exactly, how long these Sunrise Services have been taking place here at Jenkinson’s. When I came to Point Pleasant Presbyterian in 1990, this building had just been reconstructed, after burning down the year before. That year when there was no Jenkinson’s Pavilion, I understand they held the service here anyway, outdoors, at the construction site. Old-timers told me, though, that the Sunrise Service had been going on for at least 50 years before that, and very likely longer.

At 75+ years, that means we’ve got a tradition that’s older than anybody here. It just may be the oldest annual community event in town. I think that’s remarkable.

For all that time, Christians have gathered here to greet the dawn. The Moravian Church has a tradition of holding sunrise services in graveyards — that makes a certain amount of historical sense, considering where the resurrection of Jesus Christ took place. But I think there’s a kind of poetic beauty to gather here, at the edge of the continent, where we can be among the first of all the people of our land to see the sunrise.

Yes, there are people who used to come here, year after year, who are no longer with us. They’ve departed this earth, trusting that they would, by the grace of Jesus Christ, be welcomed into the arms of God. But, did you notice what it says in that Colossians passage Pastor John read for us? It says they’re not the only ones who have died. You and I have, too: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

What could the Apostle possibly mean by that? He says in a more famous passage, Romans 6:11, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” That’s probably close to what he means here in Colossians. We are dead to sin. Followers of Jesus continue to struggle against sin — we all do — but because of the resurrection, we know that sin no longer has power to destroy us.

But notice, also, what it says in that verse: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The Greek word used, here, for “hidden,” is krypto. Sound familiar? Thing about that word, and where you’ve heard it before. Krypto: “cryptography,” the study of secret codes; “cryptogram,” that annoying word puzzle in the newspaper that involves breaking a code; “cryptic,” a puzzling remark you just can’t understand. If you’re a fan of comic books — old-school, back before tehy started calling them “graphic novels” — then you know that Krypton was the name of the planet Superman came from. That place was hidden, a mystery to those who dwell on the earth.

Here’s another one, a bit different from the rest: “crypt.” A crypt, as I’m sure you know, is another word for “tomb.” (Remember that tacky old TV show, Tales from the Crypt – you know, the one with that gruesome talking-skeleton puppet, the Cryptmaster?) Into a crypt goes a casket containing a dead body. They call it that because that’s where the corpse is meant to remain hidden: hidden until the day when all who believe are raised to new life, with Christ.

To hide something away is, literally, to encrypt it. Think of how it might change the way we look at Colossians 3:3, if we translate that verse very literally indeed — if we bring back the Greek word itself: “For you have died, and your life is encrypted with Christ in God.”

It’s a mystery, what happens after death. Open the newspaper, scan through the obituaries. Look into the eyes of those photos of recently dead people, people who just a few days before were living and breathing. Where are they now? Where have they gone?

Trying to answer that question is like trying to read a line of random letters from one of those cryptogram puzzles. When you start out trying to solve a cryptogram, all you’ve got is a string of random letters. Unless you have the key — unless you know what letter the “a” is standing in for, and “b” and “c,” and so on – you can’t make any sense of it. Once you figure out the key, it comes easily.

The most famous code-breaking device of all time is a slab of black, granite-like stone on display in the British Museum. Soldiers of Napoleon’s army dug it up in the town of Rosetta, Egypt in the year 1799. The Rosetta Stone contains an inscription carved in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics, another ancient Egyptian tongue called Demotic and classical Greek. When Napoleon was defeated, the Rosetta Stone fell into the hands of the British. They hauled it off to London as war booty. For the next 23 years, scholars puzzled in vain over the stone’s meaning.

The Museum experts knew what a treasure it was that they held in their hands: because, up until that time, no person alive could translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a completely lost language. Generations of travelers had gone to Egypt and stood at the feet of those larger-than-life statues of the pharaohs — statues fairly covered with hieroglyphics. What most of those symbols signified was anybody’s guess.

For 23 years, the experts at the British Museum struggled to make sense of the Rosetta Stone. They understood classical Greek, but the other two languages they did not know. The meaning of those symbols was hidden — a mystery.

During a two-year period from 1822 to 1824, a Frenchman by the name of Jean-François Champollion puzzled over the three parallel inscriptions, mostly using a paper facsimile. Champollion was fluent in Coptic, a modern Egyptian language with ancient roots. He knew the Coptic language shared some characters in common with the ancient Demotic tongue.

Slowly, laboriously, through a combination of linguistic scholarship and sheer guesswork, Champollion reconciled the hieroglyphics with the classical Greek. He used the Demotic language as the bridge between them. The more characters he identified, the more words became clear — and, by cross-checking each new word with its counterpart in the other two languages, he could identify even more new characters: first tentatively, and then for certain.

At the beginning, it was slow going. It took him weeks, even months, to puzzle out even one hieroglyphic character. But then, as always happens with code-breaking, the process of discovery picked up speed. New characters came fast and furious. Eventually, Champollion had it all: the meaning of every hieroglyphic carved into that slab of black stone. Without the Rosetta Stone – the cryptic key – this breakthrough would not have been possible. Egyptian hieroglyphics would very likely still be a mystery today. In the science of cryptography, possessing the key is everything.

So, what’s our cryptographic key? What is it that enables us to decode this cryptic message from the letter to the Colossians? How do we answer the question of where those people staring back at us from the obituaries have gone? How do we answer the question of where you and I will go, when our time on this earth is up?

I’m glad to tell you, this bright morning, that such a cryptic key does exist. The key is the very historical event we celebrate, the event that’s brought us here, to the edge of a continent — where so many of us come, year after year. The key to unlocking the mystery of death is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The resurrection is nothing less than our Rosetta Stone. It’s the key that decodes the meaning of life. On the one hand is this human life of ours, with its mysteries and absurdities, its pointless sufferings and unspeakable cruelties. Does it make sense that certain children are born into this world, only to die at an early age from birth defects? Does it make sense that certain people will persecute their neighbors, only because of the color of their skin, or because they practice a different religion? Does it make sense that a husband and wife can go from the church sanctuary, where they joyfully promise to love and cherish each other till death do them part, to – just a few years later – living in separate ends of the same house and communicating only through their attorneys?

I can’t explain why such things happen, and neither can you. There’s no one who can explain precisely how catastrophes like these fit into God’s plan. Faced with such random, suffering, you and I might almost be tempted to declare that the narrative of our human lives is nothing more than a nonsensical jumble of letters.

That is, until we discover the key to the puzzle — until we hear of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene hears it early on that morning, while it’s still dark, as that man she takes to be the gardener calls out her name. At first, she knows only her joy, but in time, she and the other disciples will know that, in the resurrection, they have the key. It’s the message that breaks the code, that bridges earth and heaven, for us.

I’m not saying you have to understand it. I don’t understand the resurrection. I can’t explain how it was the risen Jesus is able to show up inside a locked room, as John describes; or how, in Luke’s account, he breaks the bread for Cleopas and his companion in the village called Emmaus, and moments later, vanishes from their sight. I can’t explain those things for you. I just know they’re part of this saving story, and that when I hold that story up against my own life, things make more sense, rather than less.

A wise person once said, when asked whether you have to first understand the resurrection in order to believe it, that the resurrection functions, for us, like a bridge. You don’t have to be a mechanical engineer, and understand everything there is to know about the physical properties of metal and the precise way the pieces are riveted together, in order to walk across. In the same way, with the Rosetta Stone, the scholars who came along afterwards didn’t have to duplicate the translator’s feat. They didn’t have to puzzle out the hieroglyphics again. No, all they had to do was build on the work he’d already done: using the stone as their cryptographic key.

You and I don’t need to explain the resurrection. We don’t need to comprehend its every detail. We who are followers of Jesus Christ have already died, says the letter to the Colossians. Our true lives, our eternal lives, are now hidden — encrypted — in the risen life of our savior, Jesus Christ. The resurrection functions as our Rosetta Stone: it translates God’s triumphant love into a new life we can actually live, in the here and now.

Such is the good news that dawned on the garden where Mary met her Lord and master. Such is the good news that dawns in our lives today!
Let us pray:
God of glory,
fill this assembly of your believers with the power
that flows from the resurrection of your son, Jesus:
so that, amidst the sound and fury of the sinful world,
we may signal the beginning of a renewed humanity,
risen to new life with Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.