Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

“The One Who is to Come? Really?” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

We in the church have made our doubts into something that has become a negative word for many.  It is rarely used in a favorable way.  For example, if I say to you, “I have my doubts about something.”  You would probably surmise that I don’t think too favorable about the matter.   Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church.  I love the following quote from Fredrick Buesner who said the following:

  “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”

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I have a suspicion that many among us have our doubts about matters of faith. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life’s most profound questions.

Times when I find myself doubting faith, I remember that doubt is not the opposite of having faith, in fact doubting is simply one aspect of having faith in something.  Take for example the main character in our Gospel text this morning.  Such was the case for John the Baptist.  His question – “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt. John the Baptist had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not match up with his expectation of the Messiah.

After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman. He did not function as a military ruler or one who lead with power and might, but as a servant. He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer. He did not bring condemnation; he brought God’s love. He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating the marginalized. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost. He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the outcast. And Jesus dared to teach the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptist became confused about the way in which Jesus talked about being the messiah. He had doubts about Jesus.  No doubt, he was concerned.  He spoke the truth to power and as a result he was imprisoned on account of his believe about Jesus.  His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Without pause, Jesus answers them,

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

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And that is one of the ways that we will have to respond to the One who comes to us during this season.  We will be forced to respond based on what we see and hear.  The One who is coming will not force himself on us.  No other person has the power to make us decide.  Our response will rest on what we hear with our ears and see with our eyes.  That was the way it was for John the Baptist and that is the way it is for you and for me.

There is a danger that we can look for Jesus in all the wrong places and listen to all the wrong voices.  The danger is that we look to the places of power, privilege and prestige as a sign of Jesus’ coming.  But chances are pretty good that we will not see Jesus in the halls of power and prestige.

Instead, Jesus will be found where sight is given to the blind, legs given to the lame, hearing to the deaf, and new life is found for the dead.  The Messiah is found wherever the powerless are given power.  Want to see Christ?  Look to the parts of today’s world where the weak are being made strong.

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It happens all the time, we simply need to open our spiritual eyes to see the power of God at work.  Weakness becomes strength for the homebound who receive a visit, for a homeless family who is housed in a shelter on a cold winter’s night, for a sick person who receives a visit from her friend, for a hungry child who receive nourishment because of the food pantry.

There is also a danger that we will not respond to the One who is to come because we do not hear his voice.  The reason that we do not hear his voice is because we are listening to the wrong ones.   Instead of responding to the voice of the Shepherd, we hear and respond to the voice of the commercial Christmas.  There are simply too many voices this time of year that appear so promising, alluring and so full of power, yet they are simply empty.  That danger for us is that we will listen only to those voices that promise us privilege, security, and power.  We buy into the idea that we need more stuff to live happy. And the greater danger is that we will not year the Voice of the coming One beyond and above the noisy crowd.

Only when we slow down and listen are we able to hear the voice of the shepherd. Only when we are alone, quiet and listen for the voice of Christ, does the story of Christmas make any sense.  Only then our doubts are overshadowed by our faith in Christ.

But, there is an even greater danger than the risk of looking in the wrong places and listening to the wrong voices. It is the danger of not looking afresh at what Jesus did and not listening anew to what he said. One of the ways that we can prepare for Christmas is to study again the deeds of Jesus and to read again the words of Jesus. Like John the Baptizer, we need to respond based on what we see and hear in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If we do not study Jesus’ deeds and listen to his words, then we will make the coming One into something that he is not.

Because of his doubts, John the Baptizer introduced us to the One who is to come. And like him, we will have to respond on the basis of what we hear and see.

As we move swiftly through the rituals of the season, let us not fail to look and to listen. Not looking and not listening might cause us to miss the point of it all, and that would be a sad and terrible thing.