Sermon 03-31-13: Easter 2013

April 8, 2013
This picture, taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011, reminds me of Peter's "stooping and looking in" in Luke 24:12.

This picture, taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011, reminds me of Peter’s “stooping and looking in” in Luke 24:12.

Happy Easter! Sorry this is late. My family and I just returned from our spring break trip in Florida. Yesterday, I left Vinebranch in the very capable hands of my friend John Alan Turner.

At first blush, the angels’ question to the women at the tomb seems a little silly: “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” “Because Jesus is dead,” the women might have responded. “We watched the Romans kill him, and the Romans are nothing if not experts at killing people!” Contrary to modern myth, people in the first century knew as well as we do that when people die, they stay dead. It’s no wonder they had a hard time believing in the resurrection at first. So if you struggle to believe in it, you’re in good company! You’re starting in the same place as people who would later lay down their lives because they believed in it so strongly.

If you already believe it, however, this sermon will challenge you to consider what it means for our lives and world today.

Sermon Text: Luke 24:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Nearly everything I learned about working with people—or didn’t learn but should have—I learned from my experience working in sales for a large telecommunications company. My friend and mentor was a man named Don. Don worked on a large national account with a partner, Allen. The account was an important client that would soon be spending millions on new communications equipment—either with our company or with a competitor. In an effort to close the deal, Don and Allen invited their customers on a lavish business trip. And they wined and dined them, treated them like royalty, pulled out all the stops, spared no expense.

And that was exactly the problem, you see: they spared no expense. And when they returned from their trip, and our boss, Eddie, saw their expense report, he was furious. First, he called Don into his office and chewed Don out. And all Don said in response was, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It will never happen again.” After coming out of Eddie’s office, Don told me, “I better go warn Allen.” Allen, you see, was a little more hot-tempered than Don. Don knew that Allen’s tendency was to argue back—and Eddie was in no mood for arguing today. So Don said to him, “Allen, no matter what Eddie says to you, you just need to agree with him and apologize profusely. I’m serious, Allen. Don’t try to argue. Don’t try to defend. Don’t try to justify. Just say, ‘Yes, sir. You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’ Otherwise, you’re going to get in trouble.”

But Allen would have none of it. “Don’t worry, Don. I can handle Eddie.” “I don’t think…” “I can handle Eddie.” “But you don’t…” “I can handle Eddie!” With great confidence Allen walked into Eddie’s office. And although the door to Eddie’s office was closed, you could hear Eddie yelling all the way down the hall. You could hear him on the other side of the building. You could hear him across the courtyard in the building next door. From a distance he sounded like Yosemite Sam in the cartoons when he cursed, and it came out like gibberish. But when you got closer to Eddie’s office, you heard the words themselves: Loud words. Angry words. Colorful and descriptive words—comparing Allen to various parts of the human anatomy… And other animals’ anatomy. And so, about a half-hour later, Allen emerged from Eddie’s office beaten down, shaking, red-faced, humbled, a shell of his former self. He was suspended a week without pay.

Don took one look at Allen and said, “You argued back, didn’t you?” And Allen’s like, “Yep.”

Poor Allen. Even though Don told him what was going to happen in advance, Allen couldn’t hear him at all. Maybe something similar has happened to you?

If so, we should have sympathy for these women who went to the tomb early on Easter morning. These women knew that Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus, had taken Jesus’ body off the cross, wrapped it in linen, and buried it in his tomb on Good Friday, but Luke told us that the Sabbath was fast approaching. Joseph didn’t have time to prepare the body for a proper Jewish burial, so the women went to the tomb to do it right—bringing with them fragrant spices and perfume.

Why was this important? Because in ancient Judaism, burial was a two-step process. First, you would wrap up a body with spices and perfume and put it in a tomb. Over the course of a year, in the hot climate of Palestine, the body would decompose until nothing was left except bones. At this point, the family would reenter the tomb, collect the bones, and place them in a bone box—or ossuary. It was important to wrap the body with spices and perfume so that when someone reentered the tomb a year later, it wouldn’t stink as badly as it otherwise would. Tombs were made to go in and out of. And the stones in front of tombs were made to roll away. They were hewn into the shape of a wheel, and there was a groove in front of the tomb entrance that enabled it to roll easily. The women went to the tomb expecting that they could open it.

What they didn’t expect was that Jesus’ body would not be there; that the tomb would be empty. Sure, Jesus told them that he would be crucified and raised from the dead. They heard it—but like my coworker Allen—they didn’t really hear it. They heard it, but they didn’t believe it. They heard it, but they couldn’t comprehend it—none of the disciples could.

Why?

According to modern myth, they should have had no trouble believing in Jesus’ resurrection. After all, weren’t people in the ancient world gullible and naive about death? When powerful and influential leaders died, weren’t their followers eager to believe fanciful stories about their being raised from the dead. Didn’t “resurrection” stories happen all the time back then? Well… no. In fact, as theologian and historian N.T. Wright has argued persuasively, in Jesus’ day, there were literally dozens of charismatic, would-be Messiahs who led large movements against the Roman Empire. And like Jesus, they were crucified. Unlike Jesus, however, when they died, no one ever claimed that their leader had been resurrected. And why would they? From an ancient Jewish perspective, resurrection was something that happened to everyone all at once, at the end of history. No one believed, prior to Jesus, that it could happen to one person, in the middle of history. It was unheard of!

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” the angels ask. With apologies to angels everywhere, this is—in one sense, at least—kind of a silly question. “Why do you think we’re looking for Jesus among the dead?” the women might have replied. “Jesus is dead. We know this because we watched the Romans kill him, and the Romans are nothing if not experts at killing people!”

These women were looking for Jesus among the dead because, despite our modern prejudices, they knew as well as any 21st-century skeptic that when people died, they stayed dead. And we should appreciate the honesty and candor with which Luke and the other gospel writers report the skepticism and lack of faith on the part of Jesus’ disciples. The gospel writers are secure enough in their faith in the resurrection that they feel no need to disguise the fact that Jesus’ closest friends had a hard time believing it. So if you have a hard time believing it this morning, cheer up! You’re in good company. You’re starting in the same place as people who would later go on to lay down their lives because they believed so strongly in the resurrection!

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Maybe this is a profoundly good question—a question we could ask ourselves. Are there ways in which we look for the living Lord Jesus among the dead today?

Let me go first… As a pastor, I “look for the living among the dead” when I become a professional Bible reader. When I become someone who reads and studies the Bible only in order to write sermons, in order to develop Bible studies, in order to answer questions for parishioners. When I forget or stop believing that the living Lord Jesus has something to say to me personally—if only I would take time to hear God’s word instead of treating it like the teacher’s edition of textbook—with all the answers in back!

So I can become a professional Bible reader. I can also become a professional pray-er. What I mean is, I pray a lot as part of my job. At the beginning of every church meeting: “Brent, why don’t you open us with prayer?” At the end of every meeting: “Brent, why don’t you close us in prayer.” I pray beside hospital beds and in people’s homes. Obviously, I pray in this service. I pray at weddings and funerals. In my role as pastor, I sometimes even get asked to give blessings and invocations at charity events and banquets and city council meetings. Even at family reunions: “Brent, you’re the preacher: why don’t you ask the blessing?”

What if… I lose sight of why I’m praying. What if my prayer is for the sake of appearances. What if I pray, not to seek the guidance and direction of our living Lord Jesus, not to ask for him to help me, but to make a good impression on church people? Honestly… I often have to go for ”continuing education” credit to pastors’ seminars, classes, and conferences. And the theme is often something like “seven keys to successful church leadership,” stuff like that. There’s value in these things; don’t get me wrong. But I sometimes want to say to my fellow clergy: “Guys, our Lord knows all the keys to successful church leadership. Why don’t we get on our knees and listen to what he has to say to us first?”

My point is that we can “look for the living among the dead” when we forget that Christ isn’t just a character in a great book to be studied—although he is that. And he isn’t just an inspirational leader from history—although he is that. And he isn’t just a hero or role-model of faith for us to copy and emulate—although he is that, too. More than anything, however, he is an ever-present reality in our lives, speaking to us, leading us, empowering us, and shaping us through his Holy Spirit.

Another way in which we “look for the living among the dead” is when we get overly nostalgic about the good old days. For example, in the news last week, as you know, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether or not it’s constitutional to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. I hope it is constitutional—because I, along with our United Methodist Church, believe strongly that God intends marriage to be between a man and a woman only. I blogged about the question last week if you’re interested. But so many Christians last week were getting so worked up about it—they’re complaining about our country going to hell in a handbasket; they’re saying the future’s a lost cause; they’re wishing we could return to the good old days when something like redefining marriage would have been unthinkable.

You know the “good old days…” Back when Jesus was still in charge of things.

I was talking with a theologian friend about this marriage controversy. He said, “Yeah, a lot Christians fondly remember the ‘good old days’ as a time, for example, when kids could still pray in school. And I always want to say, ‘Which schools? The white ones or the black ones?’” His point is, the good old days weren’t nearly as good as we remember them. And Jesus is Lord of all days, past, present, and future. Nothing is happening now that he can’t handle, that he doesn’t have under his control. Our hope for the future, you see, doesn’t depend on us; it isn’t based on whether or not we human beings finally get our act together. That probably won’t happen before the Second Coming, I’m afraid. No… Our hope for the future depends on God alone, and it’s based on the fact that we have already seen our future in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, and that future is good.

Having said all that… By far the most important way in which we “look for the living among the dead” is when we forget what the resurrection really means.

Christian writer and thinker Philip Yancey wrote a famous book many years ago entitled Where Is God When It Hurts? Since writing the book, he says he often gets invited to speak to audiences who are grieving in the face profound loss. For example, last December, in the wake of Sandy Hook, he spoke to a group of grieving parents and others in Newtown, Connecticut. The response to that tragedy reminded Yancey of the insights of Desmond Tutu, who headed up South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the collapse of apartheid there.

Through his work on the commission, Tutu listened, for years, to first-person accounts of unspeakable horror, murder, torture, inhumanity. Yet, oddly enough, he came away from the experience with this firm conviction: He said, “For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”[1]

So, as Yancey was preparing to speak to Newtown, he reflected on these words from Desmond Tutu. But he also reflected on some other popular words. For example, those words of atheist writer and scientist Richard Dawkins, who believes that the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

So, who’s right? Desmond Tutu or Richard Dawkins?

Yancey had the guts to ask his audience in Newtown if Dawkins’s description of the world matched what they’d experienced. Then he said, “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen… I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14.’”[2]

Brothers and sisters, the resurrection of Jesus Christ means nothing less than this: the lives of each of those 20 children and six adults matter to God; that their lives are something of inestimable worth to God; that God paid an infinite price—namely, his own life on the cross—in order to rescue them and give them new life; and that God is unwilling to let horrific acts of injustice and violence and evil stand.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God intends to make all of this suffering right.

So God will make right the life of the mother whose personality is all but lost to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. God will make right the life of the child who dies moments after hopeful parents bring him into the world. God will make right the life of the friend who dies too young of cancer. God will make right the life of the grandfather who’s been debilitated by a stroke. God will make right the lives of the children molested by clergy. God will make right the life of an adolescent girl sold into sex slavery.

Resurrection means that God will make all of this right!

But not yet. Or at least not completely on this side of eternity. Because we’re living in a world that finds itself between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But the resurrection of Jesus means for sure that Sunday’s on its way. In the meantime, we wait with patience and hope. In the meantime, God calls us to action.

Where is God when it hurts? Right here! Among the healing hands and feet of Jesus Christ in his holy Church! You and I will show the world where God is when it hurts, because we will be right there with them in the midst of their pain! That’s what the Body of Christ does. Amen?

The 17th century English poet and Anglican minister John Donne was suffering from a near-fatal illness when he wrote these words:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me…”

Because of Christ’s resurrection, Donne goes on to say, death is now as harmless as sleep. He concludes:

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”


[1] Philip Yancey, “National Tragedy and the Empty Tomb,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april/national-tragedy-and-empty-tomb.html (accessed 30 March 2013).

[2] Ibid.

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