Many years ago when you still bought music on circular pieces of vinyl called ‘LP records’, the story went around that some rock bands had started putting secret messages about death and suicide and drugs and that sort of thing on their recordings. The trick was that you had to play the songs backwards to be able to hear the messages. Then someone with a low opinion of country music came up with a joke about this. “What happens if you play a country song backwards?” Answer: “Your wife comes back to you, your farm is rescued from bankruptcy, the kids get free of drug addiction,” and so on, and so on…!
It’s a joke, but I suspect many of us wish we could find a way to do that. We’ve all made foolish choices from time to time, and now we find ourselves living with the consequences of those choices. If only there was some way of playing the record backwards—going back to the place where things started to go wrong and starting all over again!
I’ve called today’s sermon ‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’. This title comes from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure of the magical country of Narnia, is explaining to the children what they have just seen. He says:
‘If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”
What on earth is Aslan talking about? Well, let me tell you the story.
All through Lent, here at St. Margaret’s, we’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories as our spiritual guide. We’ve been looking at some of the characters in the stories each week, asking ourselves the question, “What do these characters teach us about following Jesus?” We’ve met Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure of Narnia, who has come to rescue his country from evil. Narnia is under the reign of the tyrannical White Witch, who has put a powerful enchantment on the whole land, so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. One of the ways she enforces her power is by her ability to turn people into stone. Over time, the courtyard of her castle has become filled with statues: people who used to be her enemies.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and Lucy, the youngest, finds her way into Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room. Eventually her brother Edmund gets into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She knows about the old prophecy, which says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears that Edmund is one of four, she immediately sets out to entice him to her side. She gives him enchanted Turkish Delight to eat, and she goes on to appeal to his pride: she wants a nice boy, she says, who can be king after she is gone. But the king will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house, where he will rule over them.
So Edmund is deceived and he becomes a traitor. When all four children get into Narnia, Edmund slips away to the White Witch’s castle and tells her where the others are. But to his surprise, he isn’t treated as he expected. Gradually he comes to realise that the Witch is evil; she’s been using him to trap his sisters and brother, and she intends to kill them all.
Aslan’s forces rescue Edmund and restore him to his brother and sisters. However, his troubles are not yet over. The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he’s settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. The Witch then leaves Aslan’s camp.
But Susan and Lucy notice that Aslan seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him and follow him. He goes to a place where there is a great stone table. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife. She and her followers then leave to attack Aslan’s army.
Susan and Lucy come out of hiding and throw themselves on the body of Aslan, crying bitterly until they have no tears left. They spend the night keeping vigil at the Stone Table. When dawn comes they both feel very cold, so they get up and walk around. Suddenly, when the first ray of sunrise comes over the horizon, they hear a great cracking sound. They turn and see that the Stone Table is cracked and the body of Aslan is gone.
“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”
“Yes,” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.
It doesn’t take long for Aslan to convince the girls that he’s alive, and they have a wonderful romp around the Stone Table together. But eventually, after giving an earth-shaking roar, Aslan tells the girls to climb onto his back. He then races across Narnia to the castle of the White Witch. She and all her armies are gone, and Aslan jumps the wall and lands in the courtyard, which is full of the statues of people she has turned into stone. As the girls watch, Aslan runs around the courtyard and begins breathing on the statues. Gradually, by the breath of Aslan, the whole courtyard comes alive again. Aslan’s breath creates colour, where before there was only the deadly grey of the stone. Where there was only silence, now Aslan’s breath sets voices free: “happy roarings, brayings, yelpings… shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” Aslan’s words are coming true: death itself is working backwards.
I won’t tell you the rest of the story; if you’ve already read it, you don’t need me to remind you of it, and if you haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? But you may be asking “What’s this got to do with us today, on Easter Sunday at St. Margaret’s?”
Today we’ve heard once again the story of the resurrection of Jesus, which was as much of a surprise to his followers as the resurrection of Aslan was to Susan and Lucy. The first disciples of Jesus were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Sunday, for fear they would be arrested and crucified in their turn. They were terrified that Jesus’ death would lead to their own deaths. They didn’t dare hope that in fact Jesus’ resurrection would one day lead to their own resurrections.
But this is in fact what the New Testament tells us. Let me quote again to you the words of Aslan with which I began this sermon:
“If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”
This is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us today. You and I are Edmund—we have believed the lies of evil and so we’ve turned away from our true King and become traitors to him. But our acts of treachery have been laid on Jesus. Out of love for us, God sent his Son into the world to take our place and die our death, so we could go free.
But death was not the end for Jesus. I once heard a story of a spider spinning a magnificent web across the mouth of a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail a train. That spider was suffering from a case of hubris, wouldn’t you think? And in the same way, for Herod and Pilate to think they could derail the love of God in Jesus turned out to be a similar case of hubris. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:39-40)
This is wonderful enough, because it means the Saviour of the world is not dead but alive, and he can still act in the lives of men and women today. But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament doesn’t see the resurrection of Jesus as an isolated event. Rather, Jesus has started a resurrection movement. Here’s how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20-24)
Imagine being a participant on the most incredible Caribbean cruise, on the most wonderful luxury liner afloat. Imagine on the first night out, as you sit in the dining room, hearing the captain describe all the pleasures that are in store for you—beautiful islands, warm weather, swimming, luxury dining and entertainment and so on. But then imagine the chill that would fall on the room if the captain then said, “But of course, it’s not going to end well. We know that before the cruise ends the ship is going to be involved in a collision and all of us are going to drown. So, let’s do our best to have a good time while we can.” I think that would cast a pall over the proceedings, don’t you?
That’s a bit like our human situation. We may try hard to keep our bodies fit, but they’re still going to die one day. We work hard to earn money, but we’re going to leave it all behind one day. We can try to make good marriages and raise good families, but death will still separate us from them. We humans might prefer to forget this, but it’s the indisputable fact that lies behind our entire existence.
And then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) He’s talking about our being raised from the dead, with new physical bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to illness or decay or death, but living forever with him. Just like Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle, Jesus is going to breathe new life into us one day, and we will share in his resurrection.
This hope affects every moment of our present lives. If you know you’re going to live forever with God, if you know that when you read about Jesus’ resurrection body you are reading about what you are going to be like some day—well, that changes everything. You’re going to live forever, so it makes sense to ask God to help you be the best possible person you can be—forever! You can do things and say things now that will have an eternal effect. Nothing will be lost, nothing will be wasted, every good deed will be remembered as significant.
So you see, it’s not just our future that’s transformed by Jesus’ resurrection—it’s our present too. You know how we sometimes say to people, “Get a life!” Most of the people we say this to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we know instinctively that there’s more to life than biology. It’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still be missing out on life in all its fulness.
The way to discover life in its fulness is to live by faith in Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel explains to us why he wrote his book: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) According to John, the way to ‘get a life’ is to bet your life on Jesus, to trust him enough to be willing to gather up your life in your hands, give it to him, and live as his follower for the rest of your days.
That’s the invitation Easter is giving us. Jesus has been raised, so death itself has started to work backwards, and this changes everything. Don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to last forever. Put your trust in Jesus, put your life in his hands, and ask him to breathe new life into you. And don’t put it off—take the next step today.