Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Have You Heard the News?”
John 20: 1-18, Easter
, March 27th 2016
Easter is a joyous occasion; it is a day for families to get together to rejoice and celebrate! Easter is about rebirth and new life! Easter is much like the day of Christmas; it is a major event in the life of Jesus, and in the history of humankind! It is a surprising and life giving occasion, just as the Christmas event proclaims. It is about new birth, just as Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The Easter event proclaims and celebrates the rebirth, and the new life through the supreme and ultimate gift of a selfless God – known to us through the life and death of the man Jesus. His gift to humanity, God’s incarnate gift has given us what we all long for: life, everlasting life! Yes, there is a lot to celebrate as we mark this annual celebration of Easter! Yes, it is indeed exciting to embrace the shocking and astonishing news of the Living God, the Risen Christ in our lives!
We need the good news of Easter! All of us – we all need this good news. We live in a world sorely in need of some good news. Ironically, we are no different than the people that lived back at the time period – when the news and excitement of Jesus was fresh in the minds of people that personally knew him, or knew someone who did. They, like us, needed some good news. The world they lived in was very different than the world we live in now; yet, in so many ways – it was the same! People, throughout history, have sought after the same things we seek after: food, shelter and clothing, and a safe place to raise a family. Basic freedoms to pursue happiness. And the opportunity to pursue their own understanding of creation and what is this thing – this thing called ‘life.’ How did it all start? What or who is behind it? And why must it end in death?
From the beginning of time humankind has debated what is behind the whole concept of life and death, and in the pursuit, we have come to believe we have a purpose and that there is an entity, a being, which we have come to refer to as God. And yes, there are hundreds of different opinions on the details! Throughout the Bible and history we have debated this subject in every possible way. Yet, here we are virtually twenty one centuries after the birth and death of a man named Jesus and despite all the arguments against – we still celebrate – millions upon millions of Christians celebrate the resurrection of the crucified man named Jesus!
And why not!
The only plausible argument against this historical, mystical and miraculous event boils down to this. And I quote what was simply stated to me in conversation just last week, when I was saying out loud I needed to write my sermon today. “Either you believe in the Easter story or you believe that every single one of the disciples and everyone involved – lied!” /Barbara Bailey/ That means that ‘that small group’ whom were closest to Jesus, the loyal disciples, the ones who ran away and hid when Jesus was arrested (they hid because of their paralyzing fear, fear that made Peter deny Jesus three times); yes, we would need to believe that these cowardly men, these humble yet simple men, came up with a conspiracy that fooled the ruthless Romans and religious leaders that persecuted Jesus. And somehow their elaborate scheme has still stumped every historian and scholar since the First Century, whom have been unable to disprove the resurrection event!
How ridiculous is that!?
One Pastor tells us: “Our faith rests more on conviction than on concrete fact. Like John and Peter, we have to go with our heart more than with our head, for in the end our faith rests on little tangible evidence.” /Rev. Bryan Findlayson/ Who cares if some of the details may not be literally true? At the very least the accountings of the Risen Christ have captured for us the very spirit of four and a half decades of oral tradition that carried this riveting and miraculous event into our hearts and minds today. Jesus is quoted as saying that his true followers would be known by the fruit they produce. Well there is some mighty fine fruit within the Christian church! And yes, like any bowl of fruit some of it has spoiled and ought to be discarded!
Today is not the day to debate the minor details! William Loader puts forth that: “Easter is a moment of celebration in which faith bursts the normal bounds of ‘detailed information’ (report) and memory.” Today is a day of celebration! Today is a day to marvel at new life and new beginnings! Resurrection? You can bet your last dollar on it! We are challenged to believe in the Living God! We are led to believe that the Living Spirit of Christ lives within the Christian church, and within the hearts of millions that are willing to trust in the truth, truth that is revealed to us in the scriptures and within the heart and spirit of the essence of our Christian traditions!
Something transforming and dramatic happened on that first Easter morning! No question about that! Mary in her grief experienced a transformative event that utterly changed her life! One theologian says it this way: “It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can. It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are telling. They tell it as softly as a secret, as something so precious, and holy, and fragile, and unbelievable, and true, that to tell it any other way would be somehow to dishonor it.” /Frederick Buechner/
Whatever happened – fear of death left his followers and all who believed. They became free to fully live! “The good news of Easter is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see! Easter faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead points us in hope to the possibility that God really is working to make all things new.” /Alan Brehm/ What holds most of us back, and causes many to choose the wrong path is fear. The ultimate fear for all of us is what happens after our human lives end. Most of what is wrong within the human realm is motived by this ultimate fear. The Easter event, the Easter experience is when you come face to face with the Spirit of the Risen Christ, the Living God. No one would have told the story of Jesus if there were not so many that have talked and shared with others about their encounters with the Risen One, the Holy One. In the weeks to come we shall talk a bit about some of those witnesses.
Barbara Brown Taylor puts forth this thought for us to ponder: “What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening – not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living God (Lord).” Are we not more interested in the God of today, than the God of yesterday? Sure the accounts of the past are important and helpful, but it is what is happening now that moves us and motivates our lives today! It is in the here and now that we want to encounter God. You and me, we want this to be personal. We want it for ourselves. And, we barely allow ourselves to think it, because we are so afraid that we will not honor the Living Spirit of God in our lives today. It’s OK to want God in your life. We all want and we all need that. This needs to happen before you can truly be of service to God. Trust me, you must experience God, then you can help others to experience what you have – through your personal example and witness.
What makes Easter difficult for some is that it doesn’t fix everything. Perhaps some of us expect too much of God. Jesus offers that our sins be forgiven; Jesus did not suggest or imply that our wrongs, our mistakes and our calamities of our days gone by, would be reversed. Craig Barnes writes that: “What we long for, what we miss and beg God to give back, is dead. Easter doesn’t change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it was. The way out of the darkness is only by moving ahead.” If you are struggling with this, look again to the new possibilities that your tomorrows will offer: unexpected new options and opportunities, as-well-as new beginnings. Yes, Easter happened a long time ago, yet, our rebirth is in the present and will take us into the future. Don’t look back, look ahead!
When we look back we will see all the preparation and all the anticipation of this event. When we were in that space it was good and proper. That’s what lent was meant to be; it was meant to bring us here and remind us once again of the Easter event. It is like hiking into the mountains; you cannot get to the peak of the mountain until you walk through the valley and climb up the rugged trails to the top. Those that organized and prepared for the Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday, they, like us, did not know for sure who would come. Yet they did the work anyway. We do not know when we will encounter Jesus face to face, but now we are prepared, or at least better prepared than if we had done nothing. This is important, because we do not know the hour or the day when God will surprise us, and do the unimaginable!
Emily Dickinson once said: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Believe in the amazing goodness and mercy of God. Embrace the impossible, millions have. Let go of your fear. Once you do this, renewing this each and every day, then you will live life with a new joy and new happiness. Weak-kneed disciples became empowered to carry the news of the Living God, and against all odds the message of that first Easter has lasted and lived through the centuries. The truth, the essence of what they experienced is self-evident if you open your hearts and set aside your doubts.
George Eliot wrote: “It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.” We are invited this day to join with others in embracing these prophetic words. Our hunger and thirst is what causes us to seek after and long for the fullness of God’s love. Through grace we have been forgiven; through mercy we have been saved; and through love we shall, like Mary and the Disciples, we shall come face to face with the Living God.
Open your hearts as-well-as your ears to this ancient scripture. Hear from the Gospel according to John, chapter 20, verses 1-18, the accounting of the discovery of the empty tomb on that first Easter morning.
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Let us allow God’s Living Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, to cause us to understand, more clearly, the meaning of this Easter lesson put before us this day.