Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25/Luke 24:1-12
Title: “It’s About Knowing Where to Look”
A mystical aura surrounded Jesus, prompting John the Baptist to send two of his disciples to Jesus with an important question; “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Some background might be helpful here. Jesus had been building quite a remarkable resume in his travels throughout Galilee, the kind of resume that spread even to the courts of Herod the emperor. When John’s disciples arrived to meet with the Lord they found him in the midst of his work “[curing] many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and [giving] sight to many who were blind.”
It was a resume of deeds without peer, and as you might expect, deeds that attracted wide notice. “What kind of man is this anyway,” people inquired. “What is the source of his authority?” “Is this not Joseph’s son, the boy from Nazareth?” Even as they remarked on his extraordinary power, they couldn’t quite get over the fact that he was a “homegrown prophet,” if, that is, he was a prophet at all.
Jesus, in command of extraordinary powers, landed in their laps, and the people of his hometown and the surrounding region didn’t really know what to do with him. In the mean time, the buzz was spreading that Jesus might well be God’s Messiah, the heroic figure in the mold of king David come to re-establish Israel’s past influence and glories. Deeply resenting the Roman occupation under which they lived, many hoped that Jesus, if he truly was the Messiah, would rid the land of that Gentile menace.
Jesus was a marked man alright. The sick and needy sought him out. The curious sought him out. The politically active sought him out. As his reputation as a teacher and preacher grew, sinners sought him out. Feeling their authority threatened, the scribes, priests and rabbis also sought him out.
The burden that came with being a marked man was one Jesus bore without complaint, his soul refreshed by prayer, the weight of his calling lessened by the companionship he enjoyed with his disciples and an ever growing number of followers.
Anyone who found his or her way into Jesus’ company for very long couldn’t fail to see that he was a man of a very different sort than any he or she had previously met. Likewise those same people came to understand that the road he was traveling, and they with him, was narrowing as opposition mounted.
It was his popularity that kept his opponents at bay, but even those who moved on the fringe of Jesus’ circle could feel the temperature rising as one after another of his opponents maneuvered to entrap him. “Jesus we know you are a gifted teacher, what is your view on divorce?” “Is there any circumstance where it might be permissible to work on the Sabbath?” “Is it true that you keep company with sinners?” “What commandments in the law should be given first priority?”
As bloodhounds closing in on the object of their chase, Jesus’ enemies grew more persistent as their inability to discredit him grew. It was against this backdrop that Jesus conducted his ministry, not once but three times foretelling that he would “be mocked…insulted and spat upon…flogged…killed.”
That announcement of Jesus, for quite obvious reasons, caused his disciples great distress. The spector of death was so deflating that the disciples failed to acknowledge the decisive element in the Lord’s prediction. Jesus foretold that he would be “mocked, insulted, spat upon, flogged, killed, AND on the third day rise again.” “THE THIRD DAY RISE AGAIN!”
Overwhelmed by despair at the thought of their loss, the disciples of Jesus could see no basis for hope, ignoring entirely Jesus’ testimony that he would rise from the dead, and not in the “sweet by and by,” but three days after his death.”
You can’t say that Jesus didn’t give his followers a heads up on what the future held. The scene shifts. It was now the third day after his death. Dawn is breaking, perhaps a mist floating up as the sun’s first rays begin to coax the cold out of the earth. Could those same sun’s rays coax the gloom out of the hearts of those come to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial? It is doubtful that the dawn of a new day did anything to disperse the gloom that enshrouded the women as they gathered at the tomb.
But, now, as they approached the tomb, the women discovered that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. The significance of that reality barely having taken hold, the women were shocked to find that the tomb was empty. But there was more to come. Eyes rapidly adjusting to the half-light the tomb offered, the women were stunned to discover they were not alone. Terrified, they bowed to the ground before the two men in dazzling clothes who stood before them.
Gripped by shock and fear, words would not form to express the emotions that seized the women. In any event, their words proved unnecessary, for the two men told control of the proceedings. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Fact of the matter is, the women weren’t looking for the living among the dead, they were looking for the dead among the dead. Had they not witnessed the Lord perish on the cross, several hours earlier? Had they not seen his body carried off to the very tomb in which they were now standing?
By no means were they looking for the living among the dead. They had come to the tomb to pay their respect to the dead, only to be told that Jesus whom they had come to mourn and honor with an appropriate burial dress, was not dead, but risen. Even as the women struggled to comprehend that stunning development, the men retrieved for them some important information they had obviously forgotten, “Remember how he told you [the men declared] while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
The amnesia relating to the predicted resurrection that had seized the women who visited the tomb was widespread among the followers of Jesus. Not only had Jesus’ disciples discounted the personal testimony of Jesus that he would suffer, die, and rise again from the dead, they also rejected the news the women carried from the empty tomb. The news that he was risen was rejected out of hand by Jesus’ disciples. They discounted what the women had to say as an “idle tale.”
The question put to the women who came to the tomb of Jesus lives on, “Why do [we] gather to seek the living among the dead?” The resurrection is an affront to common sense. Death is final, end of story, the facts are the facts, no denying it, FINAL. Yet we the faith communities around the world gather as they have gathered since the first century to affirm that it makes all the sense in the world to seek the living among dead.
Note what I just said, we gather as faith communities, assemblies of people who are bonded together in baptism and share a common faith. As such we gather together to support, encourage, and correct one another in our commitment to Jesus. We come here week after week seeking Jesus, because despite all evidence the world can present to the contrary, God is still God, and Jesus, is risen, our savior, our advocate.
Writing about the inextinguishable hope that draws us back to this place week to week, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, offers this thought, “God was God [writes Williams] even while God in human flesh was dying in anguish on the cross; God is God now in the new life of Jesus raised from the dead.” “God is God now in the new life of Jesus raised from the dead.”
Though well acquainted with Jesus and the message of hope he came to earth proclaiming, and having heard him personally declare that he would rise from the grave, the disciples and other followers of our Lord could not bring themselves to believe that his death was anything but final. When the women came along to suggest otherwise, to recount their experience at the tomb, the disciples and the others scoffed at such “idle tales”.
Upon such “idle tales” as our Lord’s resurrection, and a record of deeds the likes of which the world has never known, your faith and mine is established. We believe Jesus rose from the dead while never having seen Jesus in the flesh. We trust the testimony that comes to us in Holy Scripture as an accurate and reliable witness regarding what Jesus said and did. We trust the testimony of the community, the people among whom our faith has been nurtured, as they have shared their faith with us, and through their deeds affirmed the truth revealed to us in the Scriptures.
Fact of the matter is your faith and mine is largely an untapped resource, because many of us unpracticed in the language of faith. We live in times when the world has never been less accommodating to the story we have to tell. Even as the church population ages, there are fewer and fewer in the rising generations to translate the faith into the every changing context in which life is lived.
You and I, friends, must not forsake our calling as ambassadors of the faith. Jesus did not bring the message of life, truth and hope to the world merely to populate and calm our minds and spirits with images of a better world.
Despite what many in the church today believe, Jesus’ first and foremost aim was not to warm the heart and bring peace to the soul. Peace for the soul as Jesus talked about it, and modeled it was a byproduct of action. Follow me. Do what I do.
Now we know what a difficult time the disciples of Jesus had in listening to what Jesus had to say. But could you blame them? What he had to say ran so contrary to the received wisdom of the day. “Last shall be first?” Really?. “Sell your possessions and give alms?” Really. “I will die, but I will rise from the tomb.” Really?
To understand more fully what Jesus has to say in order to apply more fully what Jesus had to say calls for a more profound level of comprehension and courage. And, friends, you know as well as I do that we live in a distracted, self-centered age. A beautifully expressive book of letters and reflections by German theologian and teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks to this issue of comprehension
In a letter to a friend written while incarcerated in a Nazi prison cell in March of 1944, Bonhoeffer writes the following, “It’s a year now since I actually heard a hymn.” [Music had been a big part of his life.] He continues, “[It’s been a year] But the music of the inward ear can often surpass that which we hear physically, so long as we really concentrate. Isn’t that remarkable? Indeed, [He concludes] there is something purer about it, and in a way music acquires a ‘new body!'” Though Bonhoeffer is speaking about music, our comprehension of, and appreciation for the spiritual dimension of life is cultivated over time as we create space in our lives for the disciplines of faith.
There is music and there are the words we hear physically, but the music and words that fill our souls is the music and words that ultimately really matters. Captured by the inner ear, that music and those words live on and fill our souls, reaching deep within us. They free our imaginations to take us to places we might not otherwise have visited. Likewise, the transcending impact of the resurrection is experienced with greater and greater force as you and I undertake the deliberate, patient process of cultivating the inner ear.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer found greater purity in the music of the inner ear, asserting that it took on a new shape, a “new body,” for the listener. At this moment in worship we are training our inner ears to pick up the new things Jesus may be attempting to communicate. Yes, it does take training and persistence to keep memory and hope alive.
The resurrection happened in the past, but we must not be content to consign it to the past. The resurrection lives on as a symbol of new life and enduring hope that feeds and prepares the soul for whatever the providence of God places in our lives.
I close with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Payne Best, an English military officer who was imprisoned with Bonhoeffer, has written about Bonhoeffer’s final days. He writes that Bonhoeffer “was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and close to him.” Describing the last service of worship Bonhoeffer conducted, he writes, Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions it had brought. [Best continues] He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ Those words, ‘come with us’–for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold. [continuing] We bade him good-bye–he drew me aside–‘This is not the end,’ he said. ‘For me this is the beginning of life.’
Bonnhoeffer had cultivated the ability to hear not only hymns, but the voice of God, with the inner ear. His soul was prepared to enter the next chapter in his journey with God.
Resurrection represents a new beginning for humankind, sealing God’s irrevocable commitment never to let us out of his sight. In this life and for the life to come we belong to God. Death was swallowed up in Jesus’ victory over the grave. Now that might not register for you with much impact right now. So be it. Let your faith remain as it is, a work in progress, your inner ear a work in progress. Of this we can be assured, much remains to disclosed to us in those three immortal words, He is Risen! AMEN.
Living God, father of Jesus Christ our Risen Savior, the past, present, and future, represent the breadth of the kingdom over which you eternally reign, yet however vast your reign you make time to abide with us in this very small sliver of time in which we now gather. You are a very present, eternally present God, shaping the present into the future, drawing and redrawing the contours of time and space according to your divine purposes. Blessed to be alive to share the experience of this moment set aside for worship on this grandest of all days in the Christian year, we join our voices with Christians around the world to shout, Hallelujah, Christ Is Risen!
O Christ, we marvel at a love so profound that you were willing to give your life as a ransom for the sins of the world. Awed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of that occurrence, you demonstrated your power in even a grander way by cheating death and rising victorious from the grave. Though few beheld your risen glory, the magnitude of the deed and its significance lives on for all us who have been baptized in your name.
In your name, O Christ, we proclaim victory today, knowing that the destructive power of evil is still being unleashed in heinous acts. The people of New Zealand continue to grieve, and we grieve with them. Evil continues to insist on its way, even though its ultimate defeat is assured. Grant us courage to withstand its threats, a resolve to oppose and defeat it
O God we await the day when history is no longer soiled by the stains of man’s warring madness, a day when the sons and daughter of the earth may live in peace. Until that day arrives, O God, grant us wisdom in the decisions we make that bear on the world’s future, the many political decisions we shall make, the economic decisions, the decisions we will face in managing the earth’s shrinking resource base, and the numerous other decisions that will impact the future our generation, and future generations, will face.
O Christ, you rose from the grave, not for an elect few, but you came to earth that all men and women might enjoy life abundantly. May the resurrection hope we have come to celebrate today carry forth from churches and chapels like ours and be embodied in deeds that will transform the world according to your holy purposes.
For the victory your resurrection sealed, and for the pure joy to be alive to savor your victory in the company of our friends here today, O Christ, we given you thanks even as we pray the prayer you taught the church….