December 14, 2017

Sermon: Easter at Ground Level

Spring Purple

Easter at Ground Level 
Easter Sermon: March 27, 2016

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

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Preachers always face a dilemma on Sundays like Easter. On Resurrection Sunday we celebrate an event so monumental and theological truths so rich and profound that it is hard to find language that will do justice to the significance of this day.

We are also trying to talk about something that happened that is completely foreign to our experience: Jesus, who died by crucifixion, was raised from the dead; a fact attested by many witnesses. Let me say that again: Jesus, who died by crucifixion, was raised from the dead; a fact attested by many witnesses. 

This may seem like a fairy tale or science fiction to many of you. If anyone here has met someone who has actually been raised from the dead, I’d like to talk to you after the service and ask why you aren’t up here giving the sermon this morning! This is way above my pay grade.

Normally, when trying to help folks understand the scriptures, I might tell a story that relates to the theme of the text. But I have no stories that shed any light on resurrection. Or, I might try to find an illustration that will connect a difficult theological truth to something in nature or life experience. The problem is: there aren’t any. The resurrection of Jesus is a singular event, utterly unique, unlike anything ever seen before or since.

So that’s our dilemma this morning. It’s like we’ve all been blind from birth and here we are, trying to grasp what a beautiful sunset looks like. It’s like we’ve all been deaf from birth and we are trying to wrap our minds around the glorious sounds and movements of a Bach cantata. I’m just not sure I can help anyone understand.

But maybe that’s not what I should be trying to do anyway.

Maybe we need to just be ourselves and try to experience the resurrection the way the first disciples in the Gospels did. If we do that, we find that the Bible is actually quite helpful when it comes to the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Take this morning’s text for example. Except for where we meet two mysterious strangers dressed in “dazzling clothes,” this resurrection account is as down-to-earth and human as they come. This is Easter at ground-level.

Today’s Gospel starts with grief, and there are few things more basic and human than that. A group of women come to Jesus’ tomb to weep over him and provide care for his dead body. I’m a hospice chaplain, and I see people mourning and grieving like these women almost every week. I can see their expressionless faces, blank and numb. I can see their slumped shoulders, their slow, plodding steps. I can hear their sighs and see their tears. They are so sad they seem weak and disoriented as they stumble along in the darkness toward the cave in which their loved one is laid.

As they get to the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and something doesn’t seem right. They look inside the cave and the body’s gone! Now they are perplexed, the text says. Their minds are in no condition to solve riddles or figure out mysteries. Perhaps they try to shake the cobwebs out of their heads. Perhaps they rub their eyes to make sure they are seeing what they think they see. Perhaps they look around at each other and back and forth and in and out of the cave in confusion. These are entirely human and understandable reactions. Something is not right and they are stunned by bewilderment.

So there these women are. It’s early morning, they are filled with grief, and then, when they get to the tomb, they are confused by what they find. That’s Easter at ground level.

Next, out of nowhere they see two strangers in dazzling clothes. The women are startled, caught off guard. These remarkable figures were so impressive and intimidating that the women fell right on the ground and the text says that they were terrified. Frightened out of their minds! Utterly paralyzed by terror.

We are to understand, I think, that these strangers were angelic messengers, and it seems clear to me that the women thought they were. I have never been confronted by an angel, but there have been times when I have felt a sense of awe and danger that almost overwhelmed me, so I can begin to relate to this falling-down fear that the women had. Fear is one of the most common responses people have when they are faced with a situation that is way beyond their comfort level. Fear is a ground-level emotion.

It is at that point that these women, these grieving, confused, frightened women, get their Easter sunrise service sermon. The two men proclaimed the good news of Easter to them. They say:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

I’m not sure they were ready to hear any sermon at that point. But imagine hearing this for the first time! This is good news that I can’t imagine these women grasped immediately. The text says they remembered that Jesus had said these things, but it doesn’t say they “got it.” It doesn’t say they digested this message. How could they possibly have understood such an announcement?

So they did something that makes complete sense. These women went to tell Jesus’ closest friends, his disciples, what had happened. When something amazing happens to you and you don’t get it, you tell someone else and discuss what it might mean. However, when they reached the apostles, the report sounded so unbelievable to them that the text says it sounded like a made-up mess of wishful thinking. But it was clear that something must have happened, and it definitely got their attention. So Peter, who was always, it seems, the first to speak and the first to act, went running to the tomb to check it out.

The Gospel says that when Peter looked in, he not only saw that the tomb was empty, but he also saw Jesus’ grave clothes lying folded off to the side. This must have seemed very strange. If grave robbers had stolen the body, do you think they would have taken the time to unwrap it from its grave clothes and make sure they were neatly put in the corner? Yet that’s how it looked — the body was gone, and the tomb was straightened up! Peter, it says, went home amazed — astounded, stunned — at what he had seen.

And that’s where this morning’s Gospel text leaves us: with a bunch of people who are utterly human, utterly unprepared for what they experience, utterly incapable of explaining anything. They move from grief to fear to hearing an unbelievable message to talking about it with others to checking it out and then going home amazed and stunned by it all. It’s Easter at ground level.

And somehow, that is the message of Easter I have for you this morning.

Spring MixHere we are, just a group of ordinary, everyday people, living at ground level, going about our business, trying to take care of ourselves and our families, doing our work, experiencing all the normal ups and downs of life. Then we come to church on March 27, 2016 and some guy stands up front and tells us Jesus has been raised from the dead and is alive! That a man who lived and taught and healed and proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom, who was arrested and tried and executed by crucifixion and laid in a grave rose up from that grave in a new resurrection body and is alive forevermore.

When we hear a message like that, are we any different than these women? Than these disciples? Than Peter? Can we begin to grasp what has happened here?

I’m telling you that, if we are going to live in the reality of Easter, if we are going to get a handle on Jesus’ resurrection, if we are going to believe that he is alive and present and reigning in our lives and in our world today, and if we are going to participate in his risen life, if we are going to experience the presence and power and love of the risen Lord in and through us today, then we’re only going to experience them in the context of our very ordinary and common human lives.

We’re going to be surprised. We’re going to be startled. It’s going to take us a while to get it. So much of it will seem confusing and bewildering. Resurrection and resurrection life is just not something we can process that easily. It may take us an entire lifetime to even begin to understand it.

Because this is from God! This is God’s doing, and not ours. When the living Christ makes himself real to us, it is not because we originate it or anticipate it. We do not and cannot control the surprising things God does!

I’m just me, and you are just you, and we just stumble along in the darkness most days. Some of our days are ordinary, some are graced with joy and celebration, and others are filled with intense grief and sorrow. Then, out of the blue, something happens and all of a sudden we realize that God is trying to get our attention. We hear his words but can’t quite grasp them. We come to church, we gather with our friends, we talk to each other about what we’ve heard and experienced, and we hope to get more clarity. We study our Bibles and pray and look deeply into the empty tomb and try to figure out what happened.

Most days, honestly though, we walk home scratching our heads.

But let me encourage you today. This is just the first story of Easter, and early morning on Easter Sunday is just the beginning. Jesus rose from the dead and he lives in our midst. He will not always leave us in confusion. He has more appearances to make! He has more to say, more to do to prove to us that he is alive and at work in our lives and in our midst. The risen Lord will come to you and me and transform our lives, bit by bit, piece by piece, day by day.

So today, on Easter, don’t worry if you don’t quite get it or that you can’t explain it.

Jesus is alive, and nothing will ever be the same for you and me again.

Comments

  1. “Because this is from God! This is God’s doing, and not ours. When the living Christ makes himself real to us, it is not because we originate it or anticipate it. We do not and cannot control the surprising things God does!”
    If not for this, what would our faith be but some intellectual assent to a credo? His actions in my life, few and far between though they may appear and subtle enough at times that discernment is required, are props to my faith like nothing else. They bring real tears of gratitude and “Aha” type recognition that gives me exuberance. Typically if I am skeptical about some phenomenon or another it was likely not Him. If I’m questioning it, it was probably me or my imagination veering off. Simplicity, ingenuity and elegance are hallmarks of the Spirit’s work, bringing a smile, a chuckle and a strong sense of gratitude and love. I’m not always but often on the lookout for the activity of Jesus in both the physical and the spiritual realms of life. Simply attending to the possibility. Christ is not a credo or a system of belief. Christ is the living, risen Jesus.

    • Typically if I am skeptical about some phenomenon or another it was likely not Him. If I’m questioning it, it was probably me or my imagination veering off. Simplicity, ingenuity and elegance are hallmarks of the Spirit’s work

      I’m happy for you that this is true in your spiritual life, but please leave room at the table for us modern day Thomases as well… 😉

      • Robert F says:

        Yes. For modern day Thomases, the Spirit’s work may seem quite messy; in my experience, the Spirit has blown down my house of cards on more than one occasion, without leaving anything that I could easily discern in its place.

      • Yes, this conversation has been had more than once. Life can be lived with an awareness that God’s plan is not specific and personal to me or anyone. A Christian life can be lived that way with fruitfulness and joy. I grant that. There is room at the table for that. Nonetheless I see His active participation. I don’t see it every minute, hour, day or week except passively ( real loose term as nothing He ‘does’ could be considered passive ). I am not any more spiritual than anyone else. I think of this as standard fare. Certainly there is an abundance of experience that gets misconstrued as God’s activity but the longer I am at it the more that gets pared away until, as I said earlier, there is a genuine beauty and elegance to the work of the Spirit that engenders love. It’s, for me, not a bang and a splash. It’s a joyful pause and a, “Wow, you’re amazing. Thank you. I love you.” I could no more discount those real experiences than I could my real relationship with my wife so I talk about it when something inspires me to talk about it. It first struck me as very odd that someone would take that offensively as if I were saying something bad or being haughty but now I get the connections to some crazy charismatic excesses and so forth. Anyway, when Mike typed the line I quoted I would think of nothing else in response.

        • Ok I will admit my first line, upon review, leaves little room. “If not for this, what would our faith be but some intellectual assent to a credo?” I suppose that gives me away. I do believe that some living experience is inevitable when dealing with a living being as opposed to a set of ethics or strategies for living. The point is that Jesus is living and deserves attendance. How He is perceived is different for all of us but He is owed nothing less than our personal attention however that plays out in each life. Whether we see a response from Him is the bit that is left in question.

        • I’ve seen patterns of God’s hand in my life. Things I can look back (always back) at and see how things are connected. Or maybe not, I’m not sure.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

          The more I study this world and the way our bodies are designed, the more I come to two conclusions: one, God designed it all in such a way that’s incredible remarkable, and two, if he did, he did it all in ways that don’t point to him but back at his creation. Which…that’s pretty cool, God.

  2. A few questions I’m saving for the other side: When Jesus said he would “rise” on the third day, exactly what did that mean? It obviously was not the same thing that happened with his friend Lazarus, who was not able to walk thru doors after he rose from the dead and he faced his body dying all over again. The body the disciples saw after he “rose”, was this any different from the body of the angel(s) some of these disciples saw at the tomb? Presumably they could have touched these angels and watched them eat a Snickers bar, and apparently they could appear and disappear at will.

    In the West we think of Jesus somehow lying paralyzed or nonconscious, dead, until something like 6:00 am Sunday morning, but it would appear that he was actually hard at work during this time, at least from our time-bound perspective. Apparently a huge and momentous drama took place in the place of the dead during this time and multitudes of those souls we saw in the story of the other Lazarus were liberated and healed and taken to Paradise, whatever that is, including one of the guys that died alongside Jesus. Was the “body” that Jesus was in while doing this different from the body he continued working in after Easter sunrise?

    If there had been an infra-red surveillance video camera installed in the tomb before it was sealed, what would it have shown? At what point did the body do whatever it did to fold up the grave clothes, or did the angels do that? Was it lying there all the while Jesus was rearranging Sheol to his liking? Did it disappear at some point or did it just get up and get started back to work with the disciples only with even more super powers? What’s with the apparent shape shifting so as to be unrecognizable? Does anyone else carry the scars of their life on earth as Jesus did, and presumably does? Is that how we can recognize him for sure even if the face doesn’t match the Sunday School pictures? Does everyone else get their missing limbs back and scars erased?

    I know, these questions can’t be answered here and I don’t expect them to be, but I think about them. Yesterday along with the congregation of folks gathered I mouthed the words “I believe in the resurrection of the body . . . .” I have no idea what that means, and that is one of the reasons I find creeds objectionable. I do believe that when my body dies that I will continue on uninterrupted in a recognizable or at least observable body, but I find that picture of folks floating up out of cemeteries on the supposed Day of Judgement something a five-year-old would draw in Sunday School, and that would be okay for a five-year-old. I’m not five years old. I’m looking forward to seeing what actually happens and I have questions to ask.

    • Robert F says:

      Charles,
      My wife is scheduled for a hysterectomy this Wednesday. It’s not an uncommon or especially risky surgery most of the time, but she has complicating health issues. We are struggling with a lot of fear. Please remember us in your meditations/prayers.

      • Absolutely, Robert. You and yours are in my daily prayer of blessing but I will double down. May angels prepare and cover this whole situation for the highest good of all concerned. May doctors, surgeons, and all staff be guided into the best procedures and care. May you and your wife experience now the healing touch of God for peace of mind and wholeness of spirit, soul, and body in the Oneness of God’s Love. God is good. May that goodness carry you both thru all darkness and doubt and temptation for despair unto the healing light of a brand new day. May the Lord Jesus be with you both in overcoming strength of spirit. Be blessed, be healed, be made whole and well beyond our sight in the eyes of God Most High. So be it and amen.

  3. But is all this navel-gazing really necessary? Do we really need to try to see the Holy Spirit in the flutter of every leaf? We have our mandate in Matthew 25; to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted. Leave it to the M.Divs to speculate about the resurrection body.

  4. The latest cartoon from David Hayward, the naked pastor, is entitled He Descended into Hell. It shows a church committee meeting with everyone seated at a table and the leader pointing to the agenda. Jesus is seated at the table amongst them, snoozing.

    http://nakedpastor.com/2016/03/jesus-descended-into-hell-and-what-it-means/