Easter 2012: “Why Are You Crying?”

April 13, 2012

Here's a tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo in Galilee last year.

Happy Easter! This sermon describes the victory that Christ won over death and what that means for us today. As I say repeatedly, “Resurrection changes everything!” In a personal testimony, I talk about how Christ’s resurrection changed everything for me.

Has Christ’s resurrection changed your life? Would you like for it to?

Sermon Text: John 20:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A long time ago, a wealthy family of Methodists from Jacksonville, Florida, endowed Emory University with money to enable non-rich people like me to pursue the ministry at an expensive private university like Emory. They gave me a generous scholarship. All I had to do in return was attend a fancy dinner each year and rub elbows with representatives from the family, who regaled us with stories about this family and their faithfulness to Christ—one legacy of which is the scholarship that bears their name. I am in their debt.

Last week, I was thinking about this family’s generosity, without which I would not be able to stand before you now and preach… I was thinking about them… and, for the life of me, I was trying to remember the family’s name. I had to look it up online. The Sherman family… It was the Sherman Scholarship. How could I forget their name after all they did for me?

But, you know… It happens. Think about your favorite athlete, politician, actor, musician, writer, artist… Sure, they’re well-known now, but will they always be? You would think, for example, that being President of the United States would pretty much secure a person’s fame forever. It’s the most sought-after, coveted, and powerful job in the world. We’ve been around as a nation for 236 years and we’ve only had 44 of them… And that counts one of them twice because he served two non-consecutive terms. And it also counts poor William Henry Harrison, who only served a month before dying of pneumonia.

Just last week I was scanning a list of presidents’ names, and honestly… Did you know, for example, that a guy named Chester Arthur was president? But even if you know the name, smarty-pants, can you name one thing that he did in office without the use of Google or Wikipedia? And yet, don’t you just know that back in the day, when he was president, Chester Arthur was about as big a deal as there was. Right? Everyone knew who he was. Today… just a name in a dusty, musty encyclopedia, all but forgotten.

If you’re old enough to remember Dead Poets Society, you may recall the teacher played by Robin Williams going to the school trophy case and showing his prep-school students sepia-toned photographs of their distinguished 19th– and early-20th predecessors. He told them that all these boys have one thing in common: They are now food for worms. So do you remember Williams’s advice to his students? Carpe Diem. “Seize the day.” Seize the day… because, you know… tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and somewhere down the line you’ll be what they are. Food for worms. It’s the circle of life.

We need to seize the day, Robin Williams said, because we will end up being "food for worms."

My college friends and I—in fact nearly every young man living in 1989 to whom that movie was marketed—loved this movie and its message. The movie’s message seemed perfectly reasonable. And the movie correctly identified the biggest problem facing life in this world: death. Death stands in the shadow of everything we do in life, thumbing its nose at us, mocking us, threatening to reduce to nothingness all that we love and cherish and hold dear. With death looming over our lives, carpe diem is a logical approach. After all, if death is an enemy that you can’t defeat, you may as well live life on its terms. With fear.

Jesus taught a different way to live. He taught weird things like, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross”—their instrument of torture and death— “and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”[1] These disciples who went to the tomb on Easter morning… Don’t you know that they were starting to doubt the wisdom of those words. For up to three years, they had given up nearly everything for the sake of Jesus—they’d given up their homes, their livelihoods, their possessions, their families. They had given up whatever hopes and dreams and plans they had for their lives before they started following Jesus. And if all that ended with Jesus’ untimely and unexpected death, what was it all for? What was the point? Was it all in vain?

The angel asks Mary, “Why are you crying?” Isn’t that a silly question? Didn’t Mary have plenty of reasons to cry, considering all that she lost when Jesus died.

The apostle Paul understood this problem perfectly well in 1 Corinthians 15, his most extensive discussion of the resurrection. He said that if Christ wasn’t raised then we Christians are to be pitied more than anyone else.[2] Referring to all the physical and emotional suffering that he had endured in his ministry, he asks, “From a human point of view, what good does it do for me…? If the dead aren’t raised, let’s eat and drink because tomorrow we die.[3]

But for some reason Paul chose instead to suffer, willingly, voluntarily—in every way imaginable. In 2 Corinthians he lists some of those ways: Imprisoned multiple times. Beaten more times than he could count. Faced death at every turn. Whipped “forty lashes minus one” five times. Beaten with rods three times. Stoned once. Shipwrecked three times. Lost at sea. He said, “I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes.”[4]

And not only that: we know from history that Paul sacrificed his life for the sake of the gospel, as did most of the other apostles. Years before Paul made that ultimate sacrifice, he was in prison, probably in Ephesus, suffering, facing harsh conditions, contemplating his death at the hands of his enemies. Yet he sounded positively nonchalant about about the prospect of his death: He said that living was good because it meant continuing the good work that God had called him to do. And dying was good, because it meant being with the Lord. “Because for me,” he said, “living serves Christ and dying is even better.”[5] What a strange thing to say!

In fact, all of Paul’s words and actions are exactly opposite the spirit of carpe diem and “eat and drink because tomorrow we die.” Far from being afraid of Death—that great mocker of life, which tries to control us through fear—Paul and the other apostles lived in a way that mocked death. Why did they do that?

Well, they did so because, like Mary Magdalene in today’s scripture, they had an encounter with the resurrected Lord. They did so because God, who bought our pardon and paid for our forgiveness through the cross, defeated Death through the resurrection. They did so because the resurrection changes everything.

It changed everything for me! And I’ll bet it did for most of you as well. The problem most of us face is that we’ve been Christians for so long that it’s easy to forget what life was like before. It’s easy to take for granted the gains that we’ve won through Christ’s resurrection. It’s easy to make this good news sound like old news. Or, to make matters worse, maybe we don’t remember a time before Christ was part of our life, a time when our eternal future was uncertain, so we don’t have a “before.”

Horrifying still from the made-for-TV movie "The Day After."

But for me, I have a “before”… When I was a young teenager, before Jesus Christ took hold of me, I lived in fear. My biggest fear—please don’t laugh—was of dying, but, more specifically, dying in a nuclear war. It may seem silly now but for me it was a real fear. When I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined what it would be like if the Russians dropped the bomb on us. The movie took place “the day after” a nuclear holocaust.

Remember "Missile Command"?

For weeks leading up to it, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, TV. Our teachers even had special classes in which we shared our “feelings” about nuclear war. “I feel like nuclear war stinks! I feel like I don’t want that to happen. I feel afraid to die.” Sting had a hit song and video on MTV, saying how ignorant it would be for the Soviet Union to drop the bomb “if the Russians love their children, too.” We were talking about “Star Wars” missile defense. We played video games like “Missile Command,” in which we tried, in vain, to protect American cities from nuclear attack. Because even if you blew up the first dozen waves of missiles, they just kept coming, faster and faster. We watched movies like “WarGames” in which Matthew Broderick nearly launches World War III by accident—a movie, by the way, which caused President Reagan himself to ask about the security of our nuclear weapon arsenal. These things scared me when I was an impressionable young teenager without Christ in my life. I was afraid that someone could permanently rob me of everything that I held most dear.

Add to that all the usual insecurities… I had just started high school, and I felt lost. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like I didn’t have enough friends. And although I grew up going to church, I was aware that I was still missing God in my life. I was afraid of what happened after death.

Fortunately, my parents forced me to go on a youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina. And I went, and I was blown away by a sense that God loved me, that God forgave me, that God accepted me, that God made me his child. And because of Christ’s resurrection, I knew I had eternal life; that I would live with God forever; and—even if it turned out that Sting was wrong, and the Russians didn’t love their children, too, which we suspected anyway—I didn’t have to be afraid of anything, including dying in a nuclear holocaust. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry and feel afraid and feel insecure sometimes, but it’s much better than it used to be. I have peace in my life because of Jesus. I have a confidence now that I didn’t have before. Sometimes I can even risk doing crazy things like leaving behind a successful, well-paying career in engineering, uprooting my life and family, going to seminary, and becoming a pastor! And I’ll bet that you can do some crazy things sometimes, too.

And we can do these things because resurrection changes everything. Or at least it ought to.

Last week, a clergy friend said, “I’m thinking of you and praying for you this week.” I’m like, “Why? Do you know something I don’t?” She said, “No, no… I’m thinking about you losing your mom. Easter reminds us of why we have hope. I hope this is a special day for you.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah! Of course!” Resurrection means that everything that I loved and cherished about Mom—all that was good about her, her personality, her smile, her eyes, her voice, her hugs… These things are not lost. God will save those, too. And for those of us who place our faith in Christ and are baptized into his death, we can be confident that we will share in his victory over death.

If Easter only meant life after death and freedom from the fear of death, that would be enough for me. But it means much more. When I first got to Alpharetta, one of you told me that the “A” in “type-A” stands for Alpharetta. Is that fair to say? We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed and accomplish and achieve. With that in mind, resurrection reminds us that God does the heavy lifting in our lives and in our world. It reminds us that God isn’t finished with us yet. It reminds us that we are works in progress. It reminds us that each one of us has so much potential, and no matter what we do, this potential will never be fulfilled in this life or this world. That thought should humble us.

In fact, the Bible says that life even at its best and fullest on this side of resurrection is merely a “bare seed,” waiting to burst forth in new life on the other side. So instead of anxiously trying to seize the day—because we’re running out of days and pretty soon we won’t have any more to spare—we can afford to wait. We can afford to wait on God. We can afford to be patient… with ourselves… with our world… and with God. Resurrection means that it’s not up to us to bring heaven down to earth or to make our lives on earth some kind of heavenly bliss. Only God can do that, and he’s got that under control. In the meantime we can afford to take a breath from time to time, to slow down from time to time—to rest, to play, to enjoy our children, to enjoy our life—to be still and know who is God—and to know who is not God. Resurrection takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?

Resurrection changes everything. But I wonder: has it changed you? Maybe you’re like me before I went on that church retreat so long ago. Maybe you’ve never given your life to Jesus. Maybe your life hasn’t been changed yet by resurrection. Maybe you haven’t been saved, and you don’t know what your future on the other side of death holds. And you’re afraid. If that describes you, I invite you to leave this sanctuary today the same way that Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple in today’s scripture left the empty tomb… With hope. And with the assurance that God loves you, forgives your sin, makes you his child, and, through Christ’s resurrection, gives you new and eternal life.

And if that’s what you want today for your life, well… seize the day by asking Jesus into your life. If you don’t know for sure that you’re saved, will you pray this prayer along with me in your mind. And after you do so, I hope you’ll tell someone or tell me about the decision that you made to follow Jesus.

Jesus, like Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the other disciples on that first Easter Sunday, I have come searching for you. I accept you as my King, my Savior, and my Lord. Forgive me for the ways I’ve turned from God’s path, and help me to follow you. Save me from myself, and help me to live for you. I receive you, Jesus Christ, and believe in your name. Make me your child, and bring me your joy. Help me to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. In your name I pray, Jesus my Christ. Amen.”

[1] Matthew 16:24-25 NIV

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:19 CEB

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:32 CEB

[4] 2 Corinthians 11:26-27 CEB

[5] Philippians 1:21 CEB. See Philippians 1:18-26.

2 Responses to “Easter 2012: “Why Are You Crying?””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon, Brent. Even for a Methodist! 🙂 “[F]ree those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2:15 (NIV).

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