Tag: easter sermon

Easter Podcast: The God We’ve Been Waiting For

On this Easter Sunday we hear the words of Isaiah 25:6-9, written over 600 years before the birth of Jesus. In Isaiah’s day, the nation of Judah believed that God has left them. Isaiah reminds them what will happen when the God they are waiting for returns. That promise is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, and in his death and resurrection.

Isaiah says that when God returns God will remove the shroud of death from over the nation, swallow up death itself, wipe every tear from their eyes, and throw a big banquet in celebration. All of these images foreshadow the coming of Christ, the kingdom of God, and the great banquet God is preparing. Here’s the link to the podcast —

http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_The_God_Weve_Been_Waiting_For.mp3

Easter Sermon: The God We’ve Been Waiting For

The God We’ve Been Waiting For

Isaiah 25:6-9 NRSV

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Waiting For Someone

Americans spend a lot of time waiting. So much so, that according to a Zogby poll

“Time spent waiting for in-home services and appointments cost American workers $37.7 billion in 2011.” And guess whom we wait the most for? You guessed it: the cable guy.

So, we’re not strangers to waiting. According to the same poll, the average American will spend 4.5 hours, at least 3 times a year, waiting for someone to come do something in their home. Which, again according to the poll, adds up to $37.7 billion dollars.

But, waiting half a day for the cable guy is nothing compared to what the nation of Israel had to do. They had to wait 600 years for someone – and then most of them didn’t recognize him when he showed up.

Of course, we have the advantage over our Hebrew friends who lived 2,400 years ago – we know who Jesus is, which is why we’ve gathered here today, on this Easter Sunday. But in Isaiah’s day, not only did they not know who Jesus was (because he hadn’t shown up yet), but they didn’t even think that God was present with them.

Waiting For God To Return

Isaiah the Old Testament prophet, carried out his ministry about 600 BC. Parts of Isaiah’s ministry overlap with the Babylonian captivity.

You remember that story – in 587 and 586 BC, the Babylonians overran the tiny nation of Judah. Judah was all that was left of King David’s unified kingdom that at one time had included the northern tribes of Israel, and the southern tribes living in Judah. David lived and reigned about 1000 BC, and his son Solomon followed him on the throne. After Solomon the united kingdom was divided by internal fighting and strife.

The separate kingdoms of Israel to the north, and Judah to the south were split apart, and governed by separate kings and governments. Jerusalem was located in Judah. That’s important, so hang on to that for just a minute.

In 722 BC, the northern kingdom was invaded by the Assyrians, and the northern tribes were dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. That’s why they’re called the “lost tribes” of Israel. They literally were lost forever as a nation.

Less than 150 years later, the southern kingdom, Judah, was invaded as the Babylonians became the dominant military power in that part of the world. The Babylonians did what the Assyrians had done – they took most of the population captive, including the king and his court. They were all carted off to Babylon.

Oh, the most important thing that happened was that the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and along with the city, they destroyed the temple that Solomon had built.

So, the people of Judah, in exile in Babylon, were heart-broken. They interpreted their captivity, and the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment from God. And they were right.

The prophets, at least those faithful to God like Isaiah, had warned the nations of both Israel and Judah, that God was going to judge them, and punish them for their unfaithfulness to God.

What had they done to deserve God’s punishment? Well, for starters they worshipped other gods, which if you remember the 10 Commandments, was strictly forbidden. They also worshipped idols, and if you remember this story from a few Sundays ago, they even worshipped the bronze serpent that Moses had made in the desert to save them. The short version of it is – they were continually unfaithful to God.

But they looked like they were doing all the right stuff. “After all,” they said, “we have the Temple of God in the midst of the city of Jerusalem. God will never let anything happen to that Temple.”

Right here we have to stop for a minute and think about the Temple in Jerusalem. Now we know that God doesn’t live here at church, even though we might call the church “God’s house” sometimes when we want to convey why this building is different. But we don’t believe that God lives here and only here.

But in the Old Testament, that’s exactly what they believed. And, they had good reason to believe that. When the Temple was dedicated, the presence of God filled the Temple, and everyone there knew that God was pleased that Solomon had built it, and had built it according to God’s instruction.

The Temple, you see, was a permanent version of the Tabernacle. God had commissioned Moses to built a moveable tent – a very fancy tent, but moveable nonetheless – and to set it up in the middle of the camp as they nation of Israel moved toward the Promised Land.

We don’t have time to go into all the details of the Tabernacle, but all of the design, materials, furnishings, and function of the Tabernacle had theological significance. In other words, the Tabernacle was a giant theological object lesson for the nation.

And, most importantly, the people of God believed that heaven met earth there in the Tabernacle.

They would think the same thing about the Temple. And so when God allows the Babylonians, not only to invade Judah, but to enter into, defile, and ultimately destroy the Temple, they were stunned.

The devastating effect the destruction of the Temple had on God’s people cannot be overstated. Do you remember how excited everyone got back in the 1950s when Madeleine Murray O’Hair sued to exclude state-written prayers from schools? And do you remember how that rumor that she was going to get all religious programming on TV banned just wouldn’t seem to die?

Well, if you take the outrage that Christians in the United States felt about that decision, and multiply that about 1,000 times and you might start to get some idea of how horrible it was for the nation of Judah, God’s people, to lose the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, and their homeland all at once.

They felt that God had abandoned them, that God was gone, and they wanted desperately for God to return to the nation, to God’s people.

But, even after they returned from Babylon about 70 years later, things weren’t the same. Even after they rebuilt the Temple, it was a pale version of the one Solomon had built. Even after they were resettled in their land again, they still pleaded for God’s return. For you see, not long before the Temple had been destroyed, God’s Spirit had left the Temple, just as dramatically as it had come when Solomon dedicated it.

The Promise of God’s Return

So, when Isaiah writes this passage, he is prophesying that one day, not only will God return, but when God does return, it will be glorious. It will be like a king coming home, Isaiah said.

God will throw a big party, an elaborate banquet. At this banquet there will be all the food you can eat, rich food, and great wine, fitting for the occasion. The best wine there could be, the best wine saved for last.

Okay, let me stop right here and give you a little preview of what I’m talking about. For that we turn to John’s Gospel, and the wedding at Cana of Galilee. This is the first thing that Jesus does, according to John. You remember this story – Jesus, his mother, and probably some friends are at a wedding of another friend. During the wedding, Mary realizes that the hosts have run out of wine. This, of course, would have brought disgrace on their family in the community. So, she approaches Jesus and says, “They’ve run out of wine.”

Jesus acts as though this does not concern him, but his mother realizes that Jesus is going to solve the problem. She instructs the servants attending to the food and drink to do whatever Jesus tells them to do.

Jesus has them fill 6 jars, which hold about 25-30 gallons each, with water. Then, without any fanfare or hocus pocus, he tells them to draw some out, and give it to the steward, who is the person in charge of the wine.

The steward tastes the wine, and is astounded. He doesn’t know where it came from, but he brags to the host, “Most people serve the good wine first, and then bring out the cheap wine when everyone is drunk, but you have saved the best til last.”

Now, do you see it? What Isaiah said about God throwing a big party, and serving great wine comes true in the wedding at Cana. Now I think that the wedding at Cana is not the final big party that Isaiah talks about, but I do think the miracle of Jesus turning water into great wine is just a little miracle to say to us, “Just wait, here’s a little preview of what God is going to do for everyone one day.”

But back to Isaiah:  Not only is God going to throw a big party when God returns to the nation of Israel, God is going to do away with the pall of death that has overshadowed the nation for far too long.

And for that we have to think back to how God gets the nation of Israel out of Egypt about 1000 years before Isaiah. Remember that God calls Moses, then God sends Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrews? Cecil B. DeMille made a great movie called The Ten Commandments about the Exodus, and the journey to the Promised Land.

You remember that God sent plagues on the nation of Egypt, one after another to pressure Pharaoh to let God’s people go. There was the plague of boils, the plague of blood, the plague of gnats, flies, locusts, and the plague of darkness. But the final plague was the worst of all – the death angel would pass over Egypt and take the life of the first-born from each family. To protect themselves, the Hebrews were to take the blood of a lamb, smear it on their doorposts, and the angel of death would pass over them.

This night would be commemorated as the greatest story in the Hebrew faith – the story of the Passover.

But Isaiah has that story in mind when he says that when God returns, God will remove the shroud of death from the nation of Israel. Because the very people God had spared in the exodus from Egypt, had been punished by God. They were humiliated before the nations of the world because of their disobedience.

But when God comes back, Isaiah says, God will lift the death-shroud. Not only that, God will dry every tear from their eyes. There will be no more cause for mourning.

John picks that thought up in the New Testament book of Revelation, when he says,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,[b] and God himself will be with them as their God.[c] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Rev. 21:1-4 NIV

So, when God comes back to God’s people, death will be swallowed up, the shroud of death lifted, every tear dried, and their reputation restored. In other words, when God comes back, everything will be as God intended. God’s will will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

The God We’ve Been Waiting For

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Six hundred years after Isaiah said, “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lifted up,” God comes to his people.

God comes to his people as one of them, as Jesus. And in Jesus everything that Isaiah promises to the nation of Judah 600 years before comes true.

Now for a while it looks like it might not come true. Jesus isn’t well-received, even in his hometown of Nazareth. The religious leaders who should have recognized him didn’t. The people whom he teaches, and feeds, and heals, also turn on him in the end.

By the time we come to the end of his short three-year ministry, it looks like Jesus is another failed messiah, another empty promise, another revolutionary who doesn’t live up to his billing.

And to top it off, the Romans crucify him. If there was ever any doubt that Jesus was a failure, his public humiliation and death at the hands of the most efficient and brutal Roman empire should erase that doubt.

The empire had done what it does best – it had enforced its rule by force. It had terrorized its subjects by the threat of death. It had made an example of Jesus by killing him publicly, viciously, and ignominiously.

But Isaiah wasn’t wrong. And Rome hadn’t counted on a god like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A God who could raise the dead. A God who would swallow death itself, and spit out life in its place. A God who would burst the burial shroud that held Jesus, and by doing so, strip away the culture of death that hung over Judea and Jerusalem in the first century.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that Isaiah was right – God did return. And when God returned in the person of Jesus Christ, death was vanquished, once and for all.

In Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, Herod Antipas hears about Jesus. He hears that Jesus is going around doing remarkable things – healing and feeding people. Herod Antipas is intrigued, and wants to meet Jesus, but then he hears the Jesus also raises the dead.

Oscar Wilde, certainly not a committed Christian, nevertheless understands the significance to King Herod of Jesus’ ability to raise the dead. He has Herod Antipas ask –

“He raises the dead?” and the servant replies, “Yes.”

Herod goes into a bluster, “I do not wish Him to do that. I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”

Herod knows that death is the last weapon he possesses. The Roman empire believes that death is their best threat to keep their subjects in line.

N. T. Wright puts it this way – “Now it is because Jesus has been raised from the dead that he was Messiah and Lord, the true King of the Jews, and the true Lord of this world.” (The Resurrection of Jesus, Kindle edition, location 392.)

This, then, is the God that Israel has been waiting for. This is the God we have all been waiting for.

Oh, we’ve allowed ourselves, just like the Jews did, to become distracted by other gods, gods that entertain us, gods we think will make us rich, gods that we pray will make us comfortable, gods that we make in our own image.

And just like those who came before us whether they lived in Jerusalem or in Chatham, we’ve seen all of those gods of our unfaithfulness and impatience fail us.

The god we’ve been waiting for is the God who saves us. The God who vanquishes death, not just once, but once and for all. The God who gives an only son to die, so we might live.

This is the God we’ve been waiting for, and his name is Jesus.

Easter Sermon: Taking Time At The Empty Tomb

It’s Easter!  Aren’t we finished with the tomb of Jesus by the time we get to Easter Sunday?  Can’t we leave behind the gory events in Jesus’s last days, and focus on the resurrection now?  This Easter, I am suggesting that we follow the example of Mary Magdalene who stayed at the empty tomb that day.  Because she took time at the tomb, Mary Magdalene experienced the power of God in ways the other disciples missed.  Let’s take some time today to linger at the empty tomb so that we, too, can discover what Mary Magdalene discovered. 

Continue reading “Easter Sermon: Taking Time At The Empty Tomb”

Easter Sermon: Feeding Straw To Lions

On this Easter Sunday, Isaiah provides a wonderful look at how everything changes as God’s Kingdom comes.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on this Easter Sunday.  I pray that your Easter will be a glorious one.

Feeding Straw To Lions

Isaiah 65:17-25

17 “Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
he who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere youth;
he who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the works of their hands.

23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.

Why Are We Here Today?

Today is Easter Sunday, and we have gathered here as we do each year on this day.  But why are we here?  After all,  Easter has become a mish-mash of wonderful, yet often conflicting experiences.

First, we have the word “Easter” itself.  You will not find the word “Easter” in the Bible.  It’s actually not even a Christian or Continue reading “Easter Sermon: Feeding Straw To Lions”

Easter Sunrise Sermon: You’re Not Alone

I realize that Easter is over, but here’s the Easter sunrise sermon I preached at 6:30 AM last Sunday.  The setting for our community sunrise service is spectacular — the Owen’s Farm.  The high hill where we stand faces east, and looks out over a magnificent valley where horses run across the pasture, the view stretches for miles.  Of course, this message is good anytime of year, and I hope it encourages you, too!

You Are Not Alone!
Matthew 28:1-10

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
On this Easter Sunday morning, we stand amazed with the women who see the angel at the empty tomb. The angel announces to them, “He is risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”

Often we think of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a past event.  “He was crucified, dead, and buried” is how the Creed says it.  And it goes on,

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

But between Jesus rising and his ascension, some wonderful things happen.  He goes before them, just as he has always done, showing the way.  He goes before them to lead them, to guide them, to encourage them.  Just as God’s presence in the Exodus went before Israel in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, Jesus goes before his disciples, too.

And on this Easter morning, Jesus still goes before us.  If Easter is about new life, God’s new kingdom, a new beginning for all of creation, then Jesus still goes before those of us who celebrate his rising 2000 years later.

  • Jesus goes before us in good times. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, his first public miracle, Jesus rejoiced with a bride and groom, and showed that God saves the best for last.
  • Jesus goes before us in lean times. When thousands gathered to hear him preach, staying long past the dinner hour, Jesus fed them.  Jesus feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 tells us that in God’s economy there is always enough and to spare.
  • Jesus goes before us in sickness. He knew what it was to touch those thought to be broken and outcast by disease and illness.  He made lepers whole, opened blind eyes, healed with only a word. Jesus goes before us in our sickness and pain, offering the touch of his hand, the encouragement of his presence in the midst of our physical limitation.
  • Jesus goes before us in conflict. He knew what it was like to be rejected by his own townspeople, but religious leaders.  He did not come for the purpose of creating conflict, but his presence was a threat to the systems of greed, corruption, and dead religiosity.
  • Jesus goes before us in doubt. He welcomed Thomas with his doubts, and assured him of his place in God’s kingdom.  He was patient with disciples who did not understand, fled in fear, and acted as though three years with Jesus had never happened.
  • Jesus goes before us when friends fail us. He knew what it was like, not only to be attacked by enemies, but to be abandoned by friends.  All the disciples fled, except Peter, and he denied he knew Jesus.
  • Jesus goes before us in sorrow and death. He wept for Lazarus at his grave, then raised him to life.  He mourned for a city that would not listen, wept tears of grief at his impending death, cried out in agony from the cross, and suffered in silence before his accusers.
  • Jesus goes before us to heaven. His death and resurrection breaks the hold of physical death on this world and ushers in the age of the inbreaking kingdom of God.  He goes to prepare a place for us, and if he goes, he will come again and receive us unto himself, that where he is we may be also.
  • Jesus goes before us into hell. The Apostles Creed says, He descended into hell. Jurgen Moltmann, renown theologian from Germany, says that because we have a Savior who descends into hell, there is hope.

But Jesus does not just go before us, he invites us to meet him in Galilee.  Galilee, where it all started.  Where Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors, where he taught beside the sea, and where he would meet his disciples again for breakfast on the beach.

Galilee is a place of memories, but also a place of ministry.  Galilee is where the world was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a new kingdom established by love, empowered by the Spirit, and including all who follow the King.

Galilee, where Jesus lives a life of love before those who come to love him; where he puts before the world God’s great plan to make all things new.

Bennett Cerf, writer and social commentator, told this story one year at Easter:

A little girl was orphaned when her family was tragically lost.  She was placed in a foster home, where unfortunately the couple who was charged with her care was more interested in the check they got, than in the little girl.  While they provided for her basic needs, the atmosphere in that house was cold and impersonal, and the little girl was left for hours on end alone in her attic room.

With little to do and no friends, the little girl soon spotted a squirrel in the tree that rose up by the window in her room.  Each day she would greet her new friend, and managed to sneak small pieces of bread and fruit from the table to him.

One day, the woman of the house heard the little girl talking.  Thinking someone must be in her room, she burst through the door, only to find the little girl at the open window, talking to the squirrel who was perched on a nearby tree limb.

Furious, the woman slammed down the window, and ordered the little girl never to do that again.  She left the room and waited on the stair for what she knew would be an angry outburst from the child.  Instead, nothing happened.

Peeping through the crack in the door, the woman saw the little girl bent over her desk, writing carefully in large block letters.  She watched as the little girl finished her writing, folded the note tightly several times, and them pulled on her coat.

The woman hid in the hall as the little girl made her way from her room, down the stairs, and out the backdoor of the house.  Quickly she pulled herself up on a low-hanging limb, and pushed the folded note into a fork on the tree.  Then, she came back inside, and went to her room.

The woman had watched the little girl carefully.  When her husband got home, she told him the story, and badgered him until he got the step ladder and retrieved the note from the tree branch.

The woman opened the note and to her amazement, read what the little girl had written:

“Whoever finds this, I love you.”

And that’s what God has done.  Sent Jesus, filled with God’s love, sent him ahead of every difficulty we might have in life, sent him into a world that did not receive him, turned on him, and killed him.  Sent him to say, “Whoever finds this, I love you.”

Easter sermon: He Is The One

 

Empty Tomb
Empty Tomb

I’m preaching from Acts 10:34-43 for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I hope you have a wonderful Easter and that the story of Jesus is told in new and powerful ways in every church on Easter Sunday morning.  He is risen. He is risen indeed!

He Is The One
Acts 10:34-43 NIV

34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

36“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

A Christmas Story at Easter

Paul Hiebert, the late missiologist and teacher, told this story of an experience he had when he served as a missionary in India:

It was Christmas time, and in the little village in South India where he had gathered with Indian Christians in the modest church there, the villagers had put on a Christmas play, the Christmas story.

The boys dressed as shepherds had come stumbling out onto the the stage, acting drunk.  Apparently shepherds in that part of India were notorious for their drinking, and so the villagers howled with laughter at the boys’ comical portrayal of the Biblical story with a local twist.

But then the angels appeared and shepherds and villagers sat in rapt attention at the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Wise men soon appeared, making their way to Herod’s court where they enquired as to the exact location of the birth of the new King of the Jews.  Everything seemed to be going according to plan as the play went along.

As the Biblical story came to its conclusion, Hiebert thought the play was ending.  But just at that moment, the stage curtain was pulled back to reveal Santa Claus with gifts for everyone!  Hiebert was shocked.  At first he thought that these new Indian Christians were guilty of syncretism — blending in Christianity with their own myths and ancient beliefs.

But then he realized that the missionaries themselves had brought two stories of Christmas.  The first, the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem.  In that story, the setting was not far from India itself, and the climate was subtropical.  Palm trees and deserts formed the landscape, and sheep, goats, shepherds, and wisemen were the characters.

The second story was the story of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, the giver of gifts with Mrs. Santa Claus, the elves, and reindeer as the supporting cast.  Santa was the giver of gifts, and lived in a climate of snow and ice, where it was always cold and wintry.

Hiebert realized that while the missionaries had brought two stories of Christmas, the villagers in South India had combined them into one great Christmas story of Jesus and shepherds and sheep, along with Santa and reindeer and elves.  Both wonderful stories, but each with a very different point.

You might wonder why I’m telling a Christmas story here at Easter.  Here’s my point:  we have to be careful about how we tell the stories of God.  And the Easter story is no exception.

The Story of Spring Is Not The Story of Easter

Of course, Easter has some of the same wonderful folk stories that Christmas has.  At Easter time, we look for the Easter bunny with baskets of candy and eggs.  We dye eggs multiple colors, hide them from each other, and then make a great game of hunting for these prize eggs outdoors among the rest of nature.

We no longer believe the ancient mythic tales of strange gods and goddesses, and of the rites of spring, or other such nonsense.  The Easter bunny and Easter eggs have been given a whole new story — a story of fun, of springtime, of a harmless and exuberant children’s activity.  And, that’s exactly as it should be.

But, here today, we know there is a difference in the Easter bunny and in Jesus, just as we know there is a difference in Santa and Jesus.  It does not hurt us at all to believe in jolly old men who bring gifts, or to believe that as a sign of spring the Easter bunny distributes eggs just for our amusement and enjoyment.  But, we know that one story is not the other, that there is a difference in the Easter story in the Bible and the Easter sale at the mall.

Okay, so we aren’t like the villagers in South India who confused two very different stories.  But we still must be careful when we tell the story of Easter, because even if we know the story of Easter is not the story of the Easter bunny, we still tell the wrong story sometime.

The Story of Church is not the Story of Easter

One of the stories we tell at Easter is the story of church.  And, many people put on their Easter best and come to church on Easter Sunday.  That’s a good thing to do.  But it’s not the Easter story.

Like many of you, I grew up in the South.  And in the South, we have a way of making language mean what we want it to.  We say things like, “Ya’ll come to see us,” when we don’t really mean it.  And we use phrases to qualify our gossip, like when we say “bless his heart.”  That conversation usually goes something like this:

“Did you hear that Billy Smith was out drunk again last night?”

“Well, yes, I did.  Bless his heart, he’s not ever going to amount to anything.”

So, the “bless his heart” kind of softens the gossipy part, and makes us sound really concerned for poor old worthless Billy.

Well, we did the same thing with this business of church and faith.  I remember as a primary boy, when you walked down the aisle most of the time we called it “joining the church.”  Which is exactly what part of that decision was, but not all of it.  Somehow, we in the South just couldn’t bring ourselves to say, “He became a Christian today.”  Or, “She became a disciple of Jesus today.”  No, we talked about the part of that experience that was less difficult.  We said, “He joined the church today.”

Now, before you get too concerned, I know we meant to include the full meaning.  You joined the church because you had professed faith in Christ, because you had asked Jesus to forgive your sins, because you had repented of all the bad things you had done, even if you were only 6 years old.  I know we understood it meant all of that, but mostly all we could say was, “He joined the church.”

The story we were telling then was the story about church.  And, here’s how the rest of that story went:

  • You joined the church by walking the aisle at the end of the service.
  • Then the church (if you were Baptist) voted to receive you into its membership upon your baptism.
  • Then you were baptized.
  • Then you were expected to take your place as a good church member, which meant coming to church, serving where you could, giving to the church, and doing some other things like reading your Bible and praying.  And when you came to church, they even helped train you to do all of that.

And that was the story about church.  We really thought it was the story about being a Christian, but in our Southern culture and minds both of those stories were the same.

I’m reading a fascinating book titled, The Death of Christian Britain.  by Callum Brown, who is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee in the UK.  Brown examines the decline of the Christian church in Britain where now less that 7% of the population attends religious services, even though The Church of England is the official state church.

Brown looks at the popular theories for church decline in England.  He examines the theory of the “wicked city” which is the theory that urban centers broke ties to family and friends as the population migrated from the rural countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution. But Brown actually demonstrates that during the period of manufacturing increase, more people joined churches than ever before.

He also looks at the theory of the Industrial Revolution itself as a contributing factor to the decline of churches, but again the data show that during the 19th and 20th centuries, up to the 1960s, church attendance and participation in Britain actually continued to increase, and at times increased sharply.

Brown concluded that neither the growth of urban centers, nor the rise of manufacturing were the causes of the decline of the church in England.

His conclusion was that the English simply began telling themselves a new story about church.  Let me explain.  The old story they told themselves about church, as did we in America, is that good people go to church, church is a good influence on growing children, respectable people live according to Christian principles, and that being a church member was a good thing.  You were baptized into the church as an infant, confirmed in the church as a pre-adolescent, married in the church as a young adult, and buried by the church when you died.  Your life was woven into the fabric of the church.

But some time in the 1960s, during the rise of the Baby Boom generation, a lot of social narratives were being called into question.  Women were finding a new place in society, young people were rebelling against their parents and the system, and society was in turmoil.  We experienced the same thing here in America, with similar results.

But, in England people began to tell themselves that you can be good and not go to church.  You don’t have to be baptized, or confirmed, that life isn’t much different for those who are than for others.  That you don’t have to do what the church tells you to do, and you can get along very well without all that religious fuss.  And church attendance began a steady decline that is unabated to this day.  Part of the point of Brown’s book is that there is a point at which Britain ceases to be Christian at all, and the church becomes totally irrelevant.

So, the story of Easter can’t be the story of the Church, because it’s easy to explain away the need for the institution of church itself.

The Story of Heaven Isn’t The Story of Easter

We have often told the story of Easter this way:  Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected so that we can all go to heaven when we die.  Now, there is truth in that statement, but that is not the story of Easter.  Actually, if you read all of the accounts of the Easter story, and of what the disciples experienced on that first Easter morning, there is nothing about going to heaven when you die in those accounts.

There is wonder, and mystery, and sadness, and surprise, and unbelief, and incredulity, but not much talk about heaven or our own death.  Now, we have come to understand that a result of the death and resurrection of Christ is our own salvation which includes being in the presence of God eternally, but the story of heaven isn’t the story of Easter, either.

The Story of Easter is the Story of Jesus

In our passage today, Peter is speaking to Cornelius.  Cornelius is a Roman centurion who lives in Caesarea.  Amazingly, Cornelius, even though he was in the unit known as the Italian Regiment, was a believer in the God of the Jews.  He was well-known and respected by the Jewish community.  One day in prayer, Cornelius saw an angel who told him to send for a man named Simon, who was also called Peter.  The angel told Cornelius Peter was staying in a house in Joppa, about three days’ journey away.

Cornelius dispatched 2 servants and a soldier to bring Peter to Caesarea.  As they were approaching the house where Peter was staying, Peter had a vision.  A large sheet was let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals, birds, and reptiles.  The voice told Peter, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”

Peter objected that he had never eaten anything unclean.  Jewish dietary laws prohibited the consumption of certain animals, or meat prepared in certain ways.  But the vision persisted three times.

Then the Spirit told Peter, “There are some men looking for you. Go with them.”

Peter does, and arrives at the house of Cornelius, where he is well-received.  Peter then begins to address Cornelius, and he tells him the story of his vision.  Then he begins with the passage we read today.

Peter tells this story:

  • God doesn’t show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Cornelius is a God-fearer.)
  • God sent the good news of peace to the Jews through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Not Caesar, who thinks he is Lord of all.)
  • You know the story of Jesus, how he preached in Galilee, was baptized by John.
  • You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth (Christ means Messiah which means the anointed one).
  • You know the ministry of Jesus who went about doing good, and healing (saving) those who were under the power of the devil because God’s power was with Jesus.
  • We, the apostles, are witnesses of everything Jesus did in the country of the Jews, but they killed him by hanging him on a tree (OT prophecy).
  • But God raised him up from the dead on the third day (more prophecy) and caused him to be seen (this was no secret).
  • He wasn’t seen by everybody, but by the witnesses whom God chose.
  • We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
  • He commanded us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one who God appointed to judge the living and the dead.
  • All the prophets testify about him, that every who believes in him has forgiveness of sins through his name.

So, Peter tells the story of Jesus.  Not the story of the church, or the apostles, or the things that have happened to him.  Peter tells this centurion who seeks God, the only story that matters, God’s story, the story of Jesus.
When we tell God’s story, Paul Hiebert says, “We must begin with the King, for it is the King who defines the kingdom.  The central message of the gospels is the coming of Jesus Christ as King and Lord over all Creation.”

Hiebert goes on, “In the end Jesus was tried for treason by the Jewish and Roman courts and executed as all insurrectionists were — on a cross.  The high court in heaven found Jesus innocent, and Satan and humans wicked.  Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to his lawful throne, and cast out the principalities and powers that had opposed him.  Ironically, his death, which looked like defeat to humans, was the means by which God wrought salvation for those who turn to him in repentance.  In the end, every knee, in heaven and on earth, [and under the earth] will bend before the King.

With the King comes the kingdom.  Within the kingdom is the body of Christ, the church.  And the mission given to the church is to tell the story of Jesus.  Not the story of an institution, not the story of a myth or legend, but of Jesus.

Peter says, “He is the one God appointed…”

  • He is the one born of a virgin, God incarnate.
  • He is the one who grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
  • He is the one who made blind eyes see, lame legs walk, deaf ears to hear.
  • He is the one who said, You have heard, but I say unto you — re-imagining the law of God in new, loving ways.
  • He is the one who forgave the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the cheating tax collector, and the thief on the cross.
  • He is the one who taught love for God and neighbor as the summary of the Law and the Prophets.
  • He is the one who wept at the grave of a friend, and then called him forth from the dead.
  • He is the one who broke bread with his disciples and said, This is my body broken for you.
  • He is the one who prayed in the garden, Not my will but Thine be done.
  • He is the one who walked into the night after that Passover meal, knowing it was a walk to his own death.
  • He is the one who was abandoned by friends, rebuked by the religious, mocked by the soldiers, taunted by the crowd.
  • He is the one whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross.
  • He is the one whose side was pierced and whose heart was broken.
  • He is the one who cried, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
  • He is the one who gave up his own life, and died the innocent victim of the Roman system of capital punishment.
  • He is the one whose body was laid in the grave.
  • He is the one whom God raised on that first Easter morn.
  • He is the one who comforted his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit onto them, and sent the Spirit to empower them.
  • He is the one who ascended back to the Father.
  • And He is the one who is coming again.

The story of Easter is the story of Jesus.  It is the story the world needs to hear, and we need to tell.  It is the story in which we find our place, for it is our story.  It is a story that goes on, it lives because He lives.

Podcast: Easter sermon, “Now We Understand”

I’ve fallen way behind in posting sermon podcasts, but am trying to catch up and keep them current.  Here’s the sermon from yesterday, Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008.  The title is “Now We Understand” from the text of Acts 10:34-43.  I hope it’s helpful, and that your Easter Sunday was glorious!  — Chuck

Sermon for Easter, Mar 23: “Now We Understand”

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching this Easter from Acts 10:34-43, another lectionary reading for this Easter Sunday.  I hope your Easter celebration is glorious!  He is risen!

Now We Understand

Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

I’ll Be Glad When You Have Children of Your Own!

I know this is hard to believe, but there were times when I was annoying as a child. As unlikely as this seems, it’s true. And at those times, and usually after I had thoroughly exasperated my very patient mother, she would say something like, “I’ll be glad when you have children of your own, then maybe you’ll understand!”

Little did I know that one day I would have children of my own, and I would indeed understand. Or, at least remember that she had wished that moment on me — the moment that you hear your mother’s voice in your head and you know that she saw this coming long ago, and it is sweet vindication of all your parents ever suffered for you. And, you do understand. Because you’ve had an experience, you’ve grown, you’re wiser, you’ve been changed.

Peter Has A Dream

That brings us to our text today, right out of the book of Acts, the book of the history of the early church. Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, writes the book of Acts with the same kind of insight and precision we found in his gospel account. The Acts of the Apostles, as it is properly called, is the continuation of the story of those early followers of Christ.

Acts chapter 10 focuses on Peter. This is the same Peter who was always speaking when he should have been listening, who vigorously denied that he would deny Christ, and then did so three times before he could catch himself. This is Peter who could be both arrogant and eloquent. Arrogant when he tells Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his whole body. Eloquent when he speaks words that no one had ever spoken to and about Jesus — “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The setting for this text is not that first Easter Sunday morning when Peter ran to the tomb and was dumbstruck because it was empty. No, we are a few years past that first Easter Sunday, past the empty tomb, past the almost dozen appearances of the risen Christ to Peter and the disciples. We are past the momentous day of Pentecost, 50-days after Passover, when the Holy Spirit fills Peter and speaks through him and every person present hears the gospel in their own language, and 3,000 of them are saved and baptized.

We are now in the early days of the infant church — struggling, persecuted, misunderstood, yet powerful. Peter takes center stage by force of his personality possibly, but more surely by the power of the Spirit in and on his life. He heals people, he raises a child from death, he stands up to the religious and political leaders — all the things that Jesus did, Peter now does himself in demonstration of the continuing power of the Kingdom which Jesus announced and inaugurated. And, still Peter is a Jew, a devout practicing Jew, as are most of the Christians at that point.

Then, one night Peter has a dream. In the dream, a great sheet is let down from heaven, and on that sheet are every kind of animal. Then, as Peter is looking at all the animals, a voice says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” In other words, you can eat any of these animals before you.

Now, based on Peter’s answer — “You’ve got to be kidding!” (Actually, “Surely not, Lord!”) — Peter thinks he is passing the dietary law test with flying colors. After all, what is Jewish culture noted for if not its dietary laws? We westerners have even picked up on the seriousness with which Jews take culinary restrictions when we exclaim, “That’s not Kosher!” to protest something that doesn’t seem right. Peter was kosher, if anybody was.

But, the Voice says something strange, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And, as if to make the point, this happens three times — a sheet full of animals, the command for Peter to eat, and again, and one more time.

Cornelius Has a Dream, Too

Now, while Peter ponders what this means, unknown to Peter, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, has also had a dream. Cornelius is a God-fearer, but not a Jew. Jews of the first century looked down on two groups of people — Roman soldiers, and everybody who wasn’t a Jew. Cornelius was both. But Cornelius was a devout man, and in his dream an angel of God, not just a voice, appears to him. The angel tells him his gifts to the poor and his prayers have come before God as a memorial offering. Because of that, the angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter, who is staying at Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa.

Cornelius calls two servants and a devoted soldier, and sends them to collect Peter and bring him back. This entourage arrives at Simon the Tanner’s house — a Roman soldier with two servants in tow — asking for Peter. The Holy Spirit has to tell Peter that these guys who have come for him are okay, and to go with them. If you’re a Jew, the last person you want to go somewhere with is a Roman soldier, so the Spirit had to tell Peter “It’s okay.”

When Debbie and I made our last trip to China together, we had dinner one night with about a dozen Chinese men and women, most of whom we did not know, and most of whom did not speak English. Our manager, Mr. Lin, explained who everyone was, and pointed out one man in particular. “He is Chinese CIA,” Lin explained, “Very important government man.” So, we all spent the next hour smiling, and nodding, and eating. With the Chinese military intelligence man. Or spy, or whatever he was.

I really didn’t think much more about him, because Chinese men in Shanghai have a tendency to inflate their resumes, so I really didn’t know if this guy was a military intelligence officer or not. But, when the time came for us to go back to the airport, Lin said, “Mr. Military Intelligence will send a car and soldier tomorrow to drive you to the airport.” Now, we had already tried to take pictures of some Chinese soldiers when we visited a Buddhist shrine, and were warned that was not a good idea. So, we didn’t know what to expect. But, sure enough, the next morning, a white minivan, with a fully uniformed, but unarmed, Chinese soldier arrived at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza to pick us up and take us to the airport, which was about an hour-and-a-half ride. Lin waved to us as we rode off into the sunrise, Debbie and I thinking we might never be heard from again. So, I can imagine how Peter must have felt when a Roman soldier shows up to take him to a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Nevertheless, with the Spirit’s assurances, Peter goes, arrives at Cornelius’ home, and Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet, tells him about his dream, and then Peter understands what his own dream meant: God’s people now included people other than Jews.

Now Peter Understands

Then, Peter begins to speak, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Of course, we agree with that statement, but it’s hard for us to comprehend what a big leap this is for Peter. Peter is a Jew. The Messiah was promised to the Jews. The Promised Land was given to the Jews. God’s covenant was with the Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Not the Gentiles, and certainly not a Roman centurion, his servants and friends.

But, Peter now understands. And he understands because God wanted him to understand. God sent the dream to Peter, and to Cornelius at the same time. God had Cornelius’ men arrive just as Peter is pondering his own dream. God wanted Peter to understand because the next step in redeeming the world is to include more people than just Jews.

Peter’s experience with God in a dream and in meeting Cornelius gave him a new perspective. Peter was able to say, “Now I understand.”

Peter Tells The Story

But, God wants Cornelius to understand, too. So, Peter tells the story to Cornelius. He says —

36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Peter tells Cornelius, “You’ve heard the message God sent to the people of Israel, the message of Jesus who is Lord of all.” This message is no longer just for the Jews, it’s for everybody. The events happened in Israel, but Jesus is Lord of all.

And, if that’s not enough, Peter says, “We’re witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem.” The events of Jesus life and ministry happened there, Peter is saying, but they’re good other places, too. And, Peter goes on that after they killed Jesus, God raised him from the dead and caused him to be seen. Not by everybody, but by us, Peter says. We even ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And, Jesus himself commanded us to preach to people and say that he is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead.

Oh, and by the way, all the prophets say that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. Everyone. Not just the Jews. Everyone.

Cornelius and His Friends Understand Now, Too

Now, this part isn’t in our reading for today, but the story isn’t complete without it. Here’s what Luke says happened next –

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Cornelius and his friends are so moved, so open, that the Holy Spirit comes upon them. They speak in tongues as Peter and the apostles did on Pentecost, and they praise God. The Jews with Peter (the circumcised believers) were astonished because these Gentiles were having the same experiences the Jews had — the Spirit was at work in their lives, too. I like Peter’s reply — “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” They had already been baptized with the Spirit, so now everyone there understood. God really was the God of the Gentiles, too.

Jesus Changes Everything

Into the first century world of power politics, racial division, and ethnic hatred, Jesus came with resurrection power. Some followed him, but they still didn’t understand. Peter was among those, those who wanted to follow Jesus, those who wanted a different world than the world they lived in, those who wanted to know God. But, Peter didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was doing when he fed the five thousand. Peter didn’t understand what Jesus did when he spoke calm to the raging storm. Peter didn’t understand how Jesus could tell them where to cast their nets, and then he didn’t understand how they could catch so many fish in the blink of an eye when they had been fishing without any luck all night. Peter didn’t understand when Jesus was arrested, and even though he tried to stay close, Peter denied Jesus. All because he didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t even understand when he ran to the empty tomb that Easter morning. Or when he saw the risen Christ, not once but maybe 11 times. He didn’t understand after Jesus’ ascension, as he and the other apostles waited in a room in Jerusalem because they were afraid for their lives.

But, on the day of Pentecost, when the breath of the Holy Spirit breathed into Peter so that he stood to preach a sermon like no one had ever heard, Peter understood. When tongues of fire appeared on their heads, and the sound of rushing wind filled the place, Peter understood. When 3,000 came to Christ that one day alone, Peter understood. And, when a beggar asked for money, Peter and John could say, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And the man lame from birth not only walked, but he jumped up and walked, following them into the Temple and praising God.

Peter understood that the apostles were now carrying on the work of Jesus — healing the sick, raising the dead, challenging the religious leaders, suffering persecution, gathering the flock. All because his experience changed him.

Forgetting What We Know

Now I wish I could tell you that’s the end of the story. That Peter finally understood, and lived in the light of that understanding for the rest of his life. But, not long after that Paul has to confront Peter. Peter eats with the Gentiles when there are no Jews present, but when a delegation comes from the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, Peter quits eating with the Gentiles for fear of offending the Jews. Peter’s memory is short, and though his experience changed him, his cultural bias betrays him.

We can say we understand because we had an experience. We can say that a break-through came in our lives when God taught us something, or circumstances arrayed themselves in a providential manner so that we had new insight into what God was doing. And we can live that way for a while.

But one day, we’ll slip back into old patterns if we’re not careful. One day we’ll forget the glow of that life-changing experience. One day we’ll find ourselves like Moses — still wearing the veil to cover our faces but without the glory of God on our faces.

And, that’s where Easter comes in. Because we need to come back from the culture of death that still tries to pull us down. Peter said of Jesus, “They killed him, but God raised him up.” In that resurrection is everything we need to live. Because the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that the resurrection is coming one day for us, too. That resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that the tentacles of death — despair, hopelessness, faithlessness, inconsistency, failure, and sin — that they are powerless to take and to hold us.

In the resurrection are the miracles of Jesus, the power of Pentecost, the hope for the future, the gates of heaven, the defeat of death, the end of fear, and the promise of tomorrow. We celebrate Easter as though it happened once, long ago. And it did, but it happens each day, each moment, when someone moves from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light. When someone dreams a dream that draws them closer to God, when someone hears the Spirit spur them on to a new walk with God.

And so this is Easter, and the refrain was, “He is risen, He is risen, indeed!” And when the power of Easter dawns in our own lives, we can say with Peter, “Now we understand.”

Easter sermon: “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time” full text

This is the sermon I preached last year at Easter. However, John 20:1-18 is the Gospel lectionary reading for this year, so here’s the manuscript of that message. The video and audio versions are also available. I’ll post my Easter sermon for this year tomorrow.

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time

John 20:1-18 NIV1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “

18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

A Week Of Extremes

The events of the past week were a blur for Mary Magdalene. Only a week ago, she and dozens of Jesus’ followers celebrated his entry into Jerusalem with an impromptu parade. Mary Magdalene remembered how the shopkeepers and pilgrims, in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, had stopped to look, then joined in the procession that had moved joyously down the crowded Jerusalem streets.

The days that followed were a confusing mixture of preparation for the Passover, and watching Jesus do things he had never done before. Like giving strange answers to the chief priest and the Pharisees who challenged Jesus as he taught in the temple. Watching Jesus create a small riot as he chased the temple money-changers out of the court of the Gentiles, creating quite a scene.

Then, of course, Mary Magdalene had heard about that Thursday evening. She wasn’t there, but she had heard the story repeated over and over. A meal around the table with Jesus and those closest to him. Jesus, saying things about the meal that he had never said before. Like “this bread is my body broken for you” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” – only later would she understand. Later, after Jesus had been arrested and word had come from breathless men, excited and shaking with fear. Men who had vowed to fight the Roman legions, men who had promised to stay with Jesus no matter what happened. The same men who had run away when the chief priest had Jesus arrested.

Mary didn’t know who was more pitiful. Those who had run under the cover of darkness, forsaking Jesus, or Peter who had followed Jesus. At least he did that, but who then denied not once, but three times that he even knew Jesus, much less was a student, a disciple of that Galilean. All were heartbroken. All were shaking, weeping, pounding their chests and foreheads with their fists, inconsolable for having left their friend, Jesus, in the custody of the chief priest’s henchmen.

But then it got worse. As day had broken over Jerusalem, word quickly spread that Pilate was releasing Barabbas. Barabbas was a terrorist, a murderer, an insurrectionist. If Barabbas was being released, something dreadful was happening.

Waiting in the streets of Jerusalem, Mary and the others milled around, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus, or hear what had happened to him. Pilate will have him whipped and then release him, they told one another. That’s what he usually does when he’s trying to placate the Jewish leaders. A little dose of Roman justice, but not too much, just to keep the Jews happy.

Then Mary heard the cry of the crowd and saw a procession, more like a mob, moving down the street. But, they were jeering and yelling and striking at something in their midst. Mary strained for a glimpse, and at first she thought, “That poor, poor man.”

She saw a figure, hunched under the weight of a Roman cross, blood streaming down the cuts on his back, blood dripping into his eyes from some sort of thorny crown that was pushed into to his forehead. The horror of that scene was enough and Mary began to divert her eyes. As she did, she saw something familiar. A profile she had seen before, disfigured to be sure, but familiar.

And then she realized – this man, this poor man was Jesus. She watched him struggle with the cross, stumbling, falling in the dirt, rising each time under the weight of a beam too heavy for him to bear.

The Roman centurions were tiring of this game, it was taking too long to move this procession-of-the-damned down the street and out of the city. So they grabbed a stranger, ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus, and the macabre parade resumed its march of madness.

The disciples followed, all too aware of how this would end. Once the verdict of death had been pronounced by a Roman authority, there was no reprieve, no second chance, no appeal. All they could do now was follow the cross in horror, weeping as they walked.

The scene at the Place of the Skull was even worse. Two other men were being hoisted up, nailed to crosses, their crimes placarded above their heads. This was Roman justice, this was capital punishment at its cruelest, and most heinous.

Mary could not watch as Jesus was thrown to the ground, Roman soldier on each side, grabbing a leg and an arm, and pulling Jesus into position on top of the cross. Mary heard the sound of the nails being driven through the hands and feet of Jesus. The hands that had touched her and released the power of darkness from her body. The feet she had washed, now bruised and bloodied beyond recognition.

The jarring thump of the cross dropping into its resting place, and the agonized cry of Jesus, caused her to turn and face him. Huddled with the others who loved him, all they could do was weep. Weep for the gentle man who had been their friend, weep for the ache in their hearts, weep because nothing else could be done.

Jesus cried out, the soldiers tried to push a foul mixture of soured vinegar and gall in his face, but Jesus turned his head. Time seemed to stand still, Mary felt as if she were in a scene from hell, but it was real.

Hours passed until Jesus died. He cried out loudly, then, as if the cry used his last breath, his body slumped on the cross, lifeless. Suddenly, the sky went dark, the earth shook, people were running, screaming — a centurion fell on his knees and said “Surely this was the son of God.”

Someone screamed, “Jesus said the stones would cry out!” It was as if all of creation were groaning, struggling with the death of the Creator, uncertain what to do. So the sun quit shining, the ground quaked, the sky were darkened, as if the world knew something no one else knew.

Slipping and sliding down the hillside as they, too, ran for safety, Mary glanced back and saw the lifeless form of Jesus, being ripped from the cross by the soldiers. Thrown on a makeshift stretcher without care, the lifeless body of Jesus was born down the other side of the hill, out of sight.

Word came that Nicodemus, kind, curious Nicodemus, and a man named Joseph had asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Joseph had laid Jesus in his own grave, a tomb cut out of the rock. But now it was too late to go, the Sabbath was coming. So Mary and the others stumbled back to a room someone had found, where they huddled together.

The Passover went on, in homes and dining halls around Jerusalem that night, the question was asked by the youngest in each household, “Why is this night different from all others?” And then the family told the story of how God had brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, out of darkness into the light of God’s promise.

But for the disciples, the Passover was meaningless. The evening passed for them, not in remembering the exodus, but in remembering their friend. It was too soon to tell stories about Jesus – too soon to laugh at the times they had shared together, too soon to recall the amazing things that Jesus had done and taught them. So they wept, and when they were worn out with weeping they sat, eyes burning with tears, in exhausted silence.

The women there began to talk about what must be done. Jesus body had only had a hasty entombment, without proper ceremonial care. So the women would go to the tomb. They left that morning, several of them together, for strength as much as anything, making their way through the darkness of night to the tomb. They were determined to be there when the first beams of sunlight broke the darkness, ending the Sabbath. Jesus would wait no longer than absolutely necessary for a loving and proper preparation.

Arriving at the tomb, the scene was amazing. The stone was rolled away, the grave cloths were in place, but there was no body. The women hurried, running at times, back to the disciples, back to the room where the men huddled. In their excitement, broken sentences, gestures, and tears told of more tragedy — Jesus body was gone.

Peter and John had to see for themselves. They ran, John fastest and most eager, Peter close behind. John, stopped at the opening to the tomb, peering into the darkness. Peter brushed by him, and ducking, shouldered his way into the tomb. The women were right, there was no body. John also looked, and believed that the body was gone. The two of them ran back to tell the others. Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping again.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed figures, angels, seated where the body of Jesus had been. Was she imagining these angels, but then they spoke – “Woman, why are you crying?” Mary blurted out, “They have taken my lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”

Then she turned and saw another figure, a man, not an angel. “Maybe he’s the gardener, he’ll know,” Mary thought.

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then, something happened. The gardener opened his mouth and said, “Mary.”

Instantly Mary knew that voice, that gentle voice. That voice had greeter her many times, that voice had commanded demons to leave her and never return, that voice had blessed broken bread in their homes, that voice had calmed swirling seas.

That voice belonged to Jesus.

“Rabboni,” Mary exclaimed. Grabbing him, holding him, weeping for joy this time. He is alive and he is here.

“Mary,” Jesus says gently, “don’t hold on to me now, for I am going back to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. But, go tell my friends.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Mary Magdelene runs toward the city, with the news, “I have seen the Lord.” She had seen Jesus, again — for the first time.

Easter sermon: “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time”

I’m still working on the sermon for Easter Sunday, but here’s the sermon I preached last Easter titled, “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time.” The text is John 20:1-18. The manuscript is here, and here’s the audio mp3 and the video. Sunday’s coming!