The Magnificent Seven
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Each year on New Year’s Eve I gather round the dinner table with family and friends and we give each other time and space to remember and describe the best day of the year just gone. It’s not always the happiest or the most memorable, but often the day that just had everything – that summed up the previous twelve months.
I want today to ask you to imagine that you’ve joined the communion of saints and as a bit of after-banquet fun in heaven you’re going to look back on eternity and select the very best day of them all. In the manner of Britain’s Got Talent or Love Island or Bake Off I’m going to suggest six finalists and consider their merits. Let’s take them in chronological order.
How about the day of creation? It’s got fabulous fireworks. It’s got exponential imagination. It’s got planets, stars, sun, moon, skies and seas, and it’s got microbes, insects and electrons. There’s literally nothing in the whole universe it hasn’t got. It’s the day the inner imagination of God got externalised and turned into tangible form. D’you think the whole history of the universe was contained in embryo on this day, like a tiny egg that contains a person’s whole future?
Our second candidate is the day of the exodus. This is the day the Old Testament looks back on as the great day when God recreated Israel, when Israel found freedom from slavery and was awestruck by the power and purpose of God. In terms of a party, it would be hard to beat the joy when Israel landed on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, and Miriam led the dancing. Just imagine the collective joy and discovery that nothing was impossible with God. Great day.
Our third candidate was the central moment in the Old Testament, the moment that everything prior had built up to and everything after had looked back to. This is the day of the covenant, when God gave Moses the law and God’s commitment to Israel crystallised in promises and guarantees and tangible forms of loyalty and love. It was the day that defined what it meant to be God’s people and how to live forever in peace with God and one another. It was the original mountain-top experience.
Then to our fourth candidate. You could call it Christmas if you like – or if you’re a Catholic you’d maybe go back nine months and call it the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary. Either way it’s the day of incarnation. The day we discovered that God loved us so much as to become one like us. The day we discovered that God affirmed creation so deeply that, despite our sin, God thought it was worth entering our life, taking on our mantle, and inhabiting our existence. The day that every single day since creation had been building up to, because the incarnation was the reason for creation. God made the world in order to be with us in Christ.
But there’s another candidate lurking in the shadows. Good Friday. On the day of the exodus Israel saw God’s power. On Good Friday we see God’s love. Hands that threw stars into space to cruel nails surrendered. The little girl used to bring home friends from school. They would play in the living room. But her father began to notice that she stopped bringing friends home to play. So he sat down on the stair with her. He said, ‘I’ve noticed you don’t bring friends home to play anymore. Is it because of your mum?’ The girl nodded. ‘Is it because of her hands?’ She nodded again. ‘Let me tell you how your mum got those hands. One day when you were a very little girl she was next door and heard you screaming. You’d crawled into the fire. So she plunged her hands into the fire to get you out. But her hands were badly damaged. So when you see your mum’s hands, you see how much she loves you.’ A week or two later the father noticed his daughter started bringing friends home again. And one day he overheard her say to a friend, ‘You see my mum’s hands? They show how much she loves me.’ That’s Good Friday. What wondrous love. Could any day surpass this?
Well, here’s a candidate. What about the last day. The last day of all. The day when Christ comes back. The day when everything that’s been wrong in all the history of time gets set right, when all who’ve been downtrodden are sat on thrones, and all who’ve lost their lives in tragedy find untold joy. The day when evil is finally expunged and sin can plague us no more. The day when everything that creation was meant to be but never quite became is transformed and creation is restored, iridescent, changed from glory into glory and showered in wonder, love and praise. Beat that.
Well I think we can beat that. I’ve laid out for you six grand finalists, all of which, in their different ways, had an audience. Creation had the panoply of the firmament. Exodus had the applauding Israelites and terrified Egyptians. Covenant had Moses on the mountain and the children of Israel below. Christmas has oxen, asses, sheep, shepherds and kings, plus the whole heavenly host. Good Friday had mockers, passers-by, and a few crestfallen disciples. The Last Day has as its astonished spectators the whole of creation from Genesis to the maps. But the day I’m going to tell you about had almost no one to witness it.
Early in the morning, depending on which gospel you read, there was one woman, or three, or two men, who went to a tomb. It’s a day that began as one of the saddest-ever days. But before breakfast time it had turned into the Day of Days – not just the greatest day of them all, but the day that contained all the other six. Just see how this day, this holiest, most astonishing and wondrous day, is all the other six days wrapped into one.
It’s another creation day, because look, it’s Jesus and Mary, a man and a woman in a garden, just like creation, and it’s a day of limitless possibility. It’s almost literally the first day – the first day of Christianity, of the past released by forgiveness and the future unleashed by eternal life. It’s the beginning of everything. It’s the Great Day.
And look, it’s another exodus. The Israelites were led out of slavery of the Egyptians – we, this day are set free from evil, sin and death. It’s the exodus again but not just for a small number of people long ago but this time now, for everyone, forever. It’s the end of the night of suffering and misery and the dawn of the eternal day of glory, hope and joy.
And see how it’s another covenant. The first covenant came with smoke and earthquake and fire. This one too came with portents surrounding Christ’s death and an earthquake that moved the stone. The first covenant showed Israel how to stay close to God: this one shows everyone that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death itself. Whatever we throw at God, however deeply we reject God, however much we seek to bury or destroy God, God will find a way back to us. That’s the truest covenant of all.
And look how it’s like the incarnation all over again, but bigger. Christmas affirms the fleshly, tangible, earthiness of human existence. Easter does so again, but this time after humanity has demonstrated one almighty allergic reaction to the goodness of God. Everything the incarnation proclaims and embodies, the resurrection affirms twice over: God will be with us in Christ, not just out of primordial purpose, but even when we have done our absolute darnedest to expunge Christ from our presence. Resurrected life is bodily. The human body has an eternal destiny.
And most obviously, Easter is Good Friday again. Jesus shows his disciples his hands and his side. He is the good shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep. And now this blessed morning he begins to go around reassembling his flock, starting with Mary Magdalene. Good Friday shows us that God will be with us even if it splits God’s heart in two, even if it threatens to sever the inner-Trinitarian relationship of the Father and the Son. Easter shows us that nothing whatsoever can stop God being with us, not just at the most intense moment in history – but forever.
And then finally Easter is everything the Last Day will be, but in microcosm. Like the Last Day, Easter restores creation. Like the Last Day, Easter vindicates the oppressed, in this case Jesus, and exalts the humble and meek. Like the Last Day, Easter is the enactment of every single one of the Beatitudes. Jesus is the pure in heart. Jesus is the peacemaker. Jesus is the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus is the one who is reviled by all people. And on the day of resurrection he’s happy, he’s blessed, he’s called God’s child, he’s laughing.
This day, this wondrous, glorious, blessed, fabulous day – this day is the greatest day in the history of the universe and the story of heaven. This is the perfect seventh day, the day that comprises and epitomises and embodies and expresses all the other six great days of all time. This is the day in which all the suffering, all the imagination, all the love, all the freedom, all the grief, all the justice, all the hope, all the wonder are combined in a mixing bowl, left behind a huge stone, and like yeast acting on a mixture, burst out, push that stone away because there’s so much life there nothing can keep it in, no one can keep it down, no force in heaven or earth can stop it now.
This is the day. This is the great day. This is the glorious day. This is creation, liberation, incarnation, and consummation all wrapped into one. This is the day when we stand on the shoulders of God, and say, ‘I can see forever!’ This is Easter Day.