Sermon Text: Luke 24:36-49
The following is my original manuscript.
How did you feel when you got word last week that Osama Bin Laden was dead? I felt, more than anything, a sense of relief. Not that his death solves all the problems in the Middle East. But since Bin Laden was actively involved in planning murder, since he was a powerful symbol of resistance to peaceful, non-violent change, and since his personal fortune was continuing to subsidize hate-filled, violent, death-dealing activities throughout the world, I am relieved that he is no longer able to contribute further to these problems. I am also hopeful that this will enable the brave men and women of our armed forces to come home from their places of war sooner.
I am relieved and hopeful… But I’m not really satisfied that “justice was done.” Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that a rough and worldly approximation of justice was done, but it’s not enough. It’s not like—because of Bin Laden’s death—the scales of justice are now in balance. One man’s death doesn’t compensate for each of the nearly 3,000 lives lost on 9/11. It doesn’t compensate for each of the thousands of people in uniform who have given their lives, at least indirectly, because of Bin Laden. It doesn’t compensate for each of the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths—the men, women, and children who have died over the past 10 years because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb exploded or when they were caught in the crossfire.
I’m relieved and hopeful, and I’m happy that Bin Laden is no longer able to cause death and destruction, but I can’t take great comfort that justice was done.
If justice is going to be done on behalf of all the direct or indirect victims of 9/11—if justice is going to be done in an ultimate sort of way—in a way that will truly balance the scales, it’s going to have to be done by God. God is going to have to make it all right. This is where our resurrection hope comes in. Resurrection means that the bombs, the bullets, the dark, suicidal fantasies of terrorists, the unintentional evil caused by wars waged even for the best of reasons—these things don’t get to have the last word. The last word is love… God’s love is bullet-proof. It is bomb-proof. Terrorism poses no threat to it. It is invincible. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”—despite our best human efforts to thwart it, love will prevail.
The resurrection of Jesus means that love has prevailed.
“For I am convinced,” the apostle writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”1
Paul could speak with such confidence because he had seen the future in Christ’s resurrection. The eleven disciples in the Upper Room in today’s scripture had seen the future in Christ’s resurrection—and I forgive them for not quite believing their good fortune! “While in their joy,” our scripture says, “they were still disbelieving and wondering…” Talk about mixed emotions! Have you ever been so happy that you can’t quite believe what you’re experiencing? It’s almost too good to be true? It’s like you’ve been in a dark room for so long that when you’re thrust out into the bright, warm sunshine on a beautiful spring day like we’ve been experiencing here in Alpharetta, and our eyes can’t even adjust to it.
When I read the headline—in large, bold letters on the New York Times website on Monday morning—that Osama Bin Laden was dead, I did a double take. I had to look at it for several seconds; I had to process it; try to figure out if this was really real. Is it possible, after all these years, all these near misses, all the money and all the lives, that Bin Laden is now out of the picture—no longer a threat? Is it really true? While I try to trust the better angels of my nature and not rejoice in the death of this human being, it is good news that he’s no longer a threat—such good news, after all these years, that it is hard to believe.
The disciples were feeling that way, but even more so. There’s a great Paul Simon song which captures a little bit of this feeling of “joy while disbelieving”: Simon sings, “When something goes wrong/ I’m the first to admit it/ I’m the first to admit it/ But the last one to know/ When something goes right/ Well, it’s likely to lose me/ It’s apt to confuse me/ It’s such an unusual sight/ I can’t get used to something so right.”
Paul Simon is singing about a woman he’s in love with, and what Christ is offering these disciples is infinitely better than that… So of course these disciples are having a hard time believing in something so incredibly, perfectly, beautifully, eternally right…
I used to rock all three of my babies to sleep singing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” and that simple song captures a profound truth for me. On Good Friday, these disciples probably doubted this truth, but on this Easter Sunday evening it was crystal clear: our Lord has the whole world in his hands. This is true when we’re feeling happy and optimistic about the future, as many Americans are feeling right now, and it’s just as true when things in our lives or in our world are looking bleak, grim, and uncertain. It’s true today, now that Osama Bin Laden is no longer a threat and there are hopeful signs of peaceful change in the Middle East, and it was just as true on the morning of September 11, 2001. Our reason for confidence, hope, and optimism isn’t based on what’s happening in the news; it’s based on what happened on this first Easter 2,000 years ago!
Jesus asks his disciples in verse 38, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt? Does that have a familiar ring? These are the same questions that Jesus asked his disciples some time earlier when they were on the Sea of Galilee one night, fishing. A windstorm arose, and the waves were pounding against the boat. The boat was getting swamped… The disciples were afraid for their lives! Jesus, meanwhile, apparently wasn’t afraid because he was sleeping in the stern of the boat. And they wake him up: “Teacher, do you not care that we’re going to die?”2
And what does Jesus do? He says, “Peace! Be still!” And the winds and waves cease. And he asks his disciples the same questions he asks in today’s scripture: Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt?
Doesn’t Jesus have this way of entering into the storms of our lives, announcing his peace, and when we’re not feeling peace—when we’re feeling anxious and afraid—asking us, “Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt?” Do you think that Jesus asks these questions rhetorically? Or is he asking them because they’re really good questions, and we should think through whatever it is that’s causing us to feel anxious or afraid or worried.
Since today is Mother’s Day, do any of you mothers out there ever have anything to feel anxious, afraid or worried about? My mom, who is here today, didn’t worry about me very much; only when I was breathing. Comedian and actor Tina Fey is a mother to a young daughter with another child on the way. She has written a new book that includes a prayer for her daughter, which begins like this:
First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches. May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty. When the Crystal Meth is offered, May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half… Guide her, protect her When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.
You get the idea… So many perfectly good reasons to worry about your children and their future. One of you mothers told me last week that you were so glad that you attended a recent 20-year high school class reunion because it reminded you that there was hope for the future. There were all these losers you knew back in high school that you just knew were not even going to survive young adulthood, and you go to your class reunion and you see that they turned out O.K., with normal spouses and families and careers! [smoker’s section] That’s surely a sign of God’s grace! The future is in God’s hands. Because of the resurrection, Jesus has proven that we can trust him when he says, “Do not worry about the future,” right? He was resurrected! What else does Jesus need to do to prove himself trustworthy?
I said in my sermon on Easter Sunday that, although I am a naturally skeptical person, I feel confident that Jesus was bodily resurrected. I believe it strongly. I don’t struggle much anymore with those kinds of questions. I believe that the resurrection of Jesus rests on solid historical evidence. And I said that a couple of weeks ago as a way of encouraging those of you who do struggle to believe in the resurrection.
And I thought I was telling the truth at the time, but maybe I was really just a big fat liar. And here’s why I say that. Because last Tuesday afternoon, my car wouldn’t start in the church parking lot! It wasn’t the battery. It was turning over, but it wouldn’t start. I was not happy. I didn’t curse very much—or I should say I didn’t curse very loudly—at the time because it just so happened that church members were watching me while I was cranking my car in vain, hoping to hear that reassuring “vroom-vroom” sound to indicate that everything was O.K. But that sound didn’t come. So I went back to my office—upset, anxious, angry, worried. My 18-year-old Honda Accord, which should be graduating high school this year, which is just two years away from classic status, just 2,000 miles away from 300,000 total miles, has finally given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, gone to that great Honda dealership in the sky! And here I am, stranded, worried, anxious, angry, and cursing myself for driving this piece of junk.
Back in my office, I actually remembered a little bit of scripture, and I remembered one or two things I said in a sermon recently, and I prayed. And I sensed Jesus’ words of reassurance. By the time Lisa showed up to give me a ride home, I was already feeling better. And more at peace. It just so happens that when Lisa showed up, I cranked the car one more time, just to check… And naturally it started right up.
Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt? This car trouble may seem trivial to you, I know… But it just goes to show that my Christian faith is not usually undone by the “big things” of life. You know what I mean? I don’t struggle with profound questions related to the resurrection of Jesus Christ or Christianity’s other truth claims. My faith does not falter in the face of challenges from skeptics and atheists. I don’t usually doubt God when a big crisis comes along—usually that just motivates me to be more humble and pray more!
No, more often than not, my faith is undone by these daily little challenges I face, these daily little stresses I deal with, these daily opportunities to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus a little more faithfully—these daily opportunities to trust in Jesus a little more and not worry so much. That’s my struggle. This is where my faith often fails. I may not say that I struggle with doubt, but oftentimes the way I live betrays the very same lack of faith, which we otherwise call doubt.
Let’s make sure we get this straight. Maybe we have to take our glasses off, rub our eyes and adjust our eyes to this new day that’s dawning, this bright new light that’s shining through. Our Lord loves us so much that he willingly died on a cross for us—despite our sin and unfaithfulness—in fact because of our sin and unfaithfulness. And this same Lord defeated death for us through his resurrection, and shared that victory with us. And he’s with us today—never abandoning us, even though like the disciples on Good Friday, we so often abandon him.
Can you believe it? Do you understand what this means? If so, let me ask you… “Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt?”
1. Romans 8:38-39 NRSV
2. See Mark 4:35-41.