In 1974, just before she died, American poet Anne Sexton wrote a poem about playing poker with God:
We squat on the rocks by the sea
And play – can it be true – a
Game of poker.
He calls me
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because he holds five aces.
A wild card had been announced
But I had not heard it
Being in such a state of awe when he took out the cards and dealt
As he plunks down His five aces
And I sit grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
The laughter rolling like a hoop out of his mouth
And into mind,
And such laughter that He doubles right over me.
A strange poem, but entirely apposite for the season of Easter. On Good Friday the Devil thought he had won the game. He had put down his ‘royal flush’. Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. Death, sin, darkness ruled the day. Then, when everything seemed lost, God played five aces. God trumped his opponent. And with the playing of that fifth ace, heaven and earth exploded in joy unbelievable. God had the last laugh. For “God brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus” (Heb 13.20). No wonder the writer triumphantly proclaimed: “To [Christ] be the glory forever and ever” (Heb 13.21). Yes, glory to the Risen Lord, who is alive for evermore!
But there is more to Easter than the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is also about the Cross of Jesus. Easter is the moment when God says ‘Yes’ to the Cross and seals his stamp of approval on his Son: “God “by the blood of the covenant” (Heb 13.20) brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus. In raising Jesus from the dead, God declared for all to see that he was at work in the death of Jesus – for there on the Cross he set us free from our past by the blood of Jesus. Or to use the metaphor present here, Jesus, “the great shepherd of the sheep”, became the sacrificial lamb. For, as Hebrews points out, within the rules of the Jewish sacrificial system, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9.22). Jesus in dying dealt with our sin – he ratified the new eternal covenant through his blood.
At the time none of this was clear. Jesus seemed to have achieved nothing. It was only when God raised him from the dead, that it become apparent that what seemed defeat was actually victory. We may draw a parallel with what happened in Winchester after the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, when the British under the leadership of Wellington were lined up together with their Belgian, Dutch and German allies against the French commanded by Napoleon. After the battle had ended, the news was flashed by semaphore to London, and then from London to the provinces. As the news was conveyed to the people of Winchester, the semaphore on top of the cathedral began to repeat the message. Letter by letter it spelled out: W-e-l-l-i-n-g-t-o-n de-f-e-a-t-ed. But before the message could be completed dense fog suddenly obliterated the semaphore. News of a lost battle quickly spread throughout the city. But later in the day the fog cleared and the people’s deep sadness turned to vibrant joy as the semaphore arm moved again to spell out the completed message: “W-e-l-l-i-n-g-t-o-n d-e-f-e-a-t-e-d t-h-e e-n-e-m-y”. Similarly, there on the Cross Jesus defeated the enemy. Or to use the language of Hebrews, as a result of his sacrificial death on the Cross Jesus has freed us from our past – forgiveness and life are ours. So “to Christ be the glory forever and ever”. Glory to Jesus, the crucified Lord, who has dealt with our sin!
Finally, the resurrection of Jesus is also a powerful sign of what God can do in our lives today. Notice how in this benediction the writer prays: “Now may God, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus… make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will” (Heb 13.20,21). To do God’s will we need to “hold fast” our “firm confidence to the end“ (Heb 3.14) and “show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end” (Heb 6.11,12). Yet there are times when our determination to do God’s will is not enough. Our energy and strength only take us so far. However, as the benediction makes clear, the good news is that the same divine energy which raised Jesus from the dead can be available to us today. The power which shattered the bonds of death for Jesus, can shatter the bonds of sin and failure which all too often hold us in their grip.
How do we experience this resurrection power in our lives? As Jesus showed, the road to Easter Day lay through Good Friday. He only experienced God’s power in his life as he surrendered his life on the Cross. What was true of Jesus is true of us: the way to power is the way of self-surrender. We discover God’s power when we begin to go his way. So “to Christ be the glory forever and ever”. Glory to the present risen Lord, whose resurrection can directly affect our lives today.