Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sermon: News So Good It's Scary

Mark 16:1-8

1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Everyone seems to be making speeches these days. I suppose it’s always like that, but in an election year it’s even worse. Some of the best speeches in history are the inaugural addresses, when most of the political posturing of the election season is over and presidents start talking about what they really want to do. As strange as it sounds, I was reading some inaugural addresses last week.

In George Washington’s first inaugural he declined to take a salary—he asked only to be paid the necessary expenses of his office.

William Henry Harrison complained that the vicious way parties treated each other—the ‘violence of spirit’, he called it—was doing harm to the nation. He said that in 1841. Incidentally, Harrison’s speech was the longest in history—about two hours long—and was delivered on a very cold, wet day. He got a severe cold and died 30 days later—the shortest presidency in American history.

One of the most famous inaugural addresses came at one of the more frightening times in modern history. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt addressed a nation in economic chaos, threatened by war and internal unrest. In the very first paragraph of the speech he said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ That became one of the most memorable lines in American history. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

Of the four gospel stories of that first Easter morning, I’ve always liked the one we read today the best. Mark’s gospel is my favorite for a handful of reasons: for the emphasis on the Kingdom of God, for the clear call to discipleship that matters, and for the pace. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry moves so quickly you can hardly catch your breath, and yet just when it almost becomes too much, he downshifts and tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with a great eye for detail.

But maybe what I love most about Mark’s gospel is the way he ends the story of the resurrection: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ Isn’t that great? The best news anyone in the world has ever heard, and what was their response? They’re so scared they can’t even tell anyone about it.

Now there’s something about the text here that I should point out. Most of your Bibles will have another 11 verses to the story, separated by a line and some sort of explanation like: ‘The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.’ That should be a source of encouragement to all of us. The texts of the Bible work on the principle that older is better, and as older copies of the original texts are found, they correct some of the additions or errors of later copies.

That’s encouraging because it illustrates just how hard some men and women have worked to give us the most accurate and faithful translations of the Bible. Clearly some monk, working away to make copies of Mark’s gospel before the days of the printing press, was uncomfortable with the ending. He probably didn’t think it was fitting that the good news of Jesus Christ as told by Mark should end with people running scared out into the darkness.

But I like it like this. It feels more human to me—maybe more like I’d react to the miracle of the empty tomb. And regardless of how we feel about it, this is the more accurate reflection of what the original text looked like. So how did we get here?

We saw last week that Jesus entered the city being praised as a king, but that instead of leading an army to overthrow the Romans, he goes to the Temple and starts to challenge the Jewish leadership. Remember that part of Jesus’ message once he got to the city was to take on himself the symbolic meaning of the Temple. Instead of being able to say ‘That’s where my God lives,’ now they could say ‘That’s what my God is like.’ In Christ God made good on his promise to live with his people in a tangible way.

But it didn’t work out very well for him. Once his fans realized that he wasn’t going to overthrow Rome and take over as an earthly King, they turned on him and the same people who shouted Hosanna on Sunday were shouting ‘crucify him’ by Friday. Jesus was tried, beaten and executed, and his followers scattered. Their leader was gone. The one they thought would be God’s Messiah—the Deliverer—was dead and buried.

And so some of the faithful women among Jesus’ followers decided to take care of his body in the traditional way. It was the custom then to pour perfume and spices over a body just after burial—frankly, it didn’t have any ceremonial meaning apart from making the tomb smell better as nature took its course.

As they got closer the women started wondering about how they were going to get into the tomb—they’d seen the large stone rolled in front of the door, and they knew they couldn’t do it themselves. ‘Who would help’, they wondered as they chatted on the way. But when they got to the tomb they saw that the stone was gone, and when they went in they saw that it was empty—no body, no smell, no Jesus. Someone was there, though, dressed in white and waiting to explain what they were seeing. He said: ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ Right. ‘You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth—the one who was crucified.’ Again the detail just so that we’re sure they haven’t gone to the wrong place. ‘He has risen. He’s not here.’

Can you imagine the shock? It’s impossible for us to grasp what that moment must have felt like. The years of following Jesus and listening to his teaching. The personal cost of leaving families and businesses and homes. The danger of following someone who was preaching about a new kingdom in an occupied territory. The disastrous visit to Jerusalem and the horrible death on a cross. All of that must have come back into their minds as they confronted one more catastrophe: Someone had stolen Jesus’ body.

But just to make sure they understood what had happened, the messenger told them to find Peter, to tell him and the other disciples what they had seen. Their response was completely understandable. You can’t really blame them. They ran away from the tomb—they didn’t tell anyone what they saw, because they were afraid.

We all have things we’re afraid of: War—Terrorism—Maybe the financial crisis? We have all kinds of fears—Julie will wilt at the sight of a spider—some people can’t stand the sound of thunder and lightning.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—known as the DSM to psychologists and therapists—arranges phobias into three main categories: agoraphobia (fear of open places), social phobias (or, anxiety disorders) and specific phobias (where a particular creature or thing causes a wave of panic and fear)—about 15% of adults suffer from some form of clinically recognized fear.

We can be afraid of so many things. What were they afraid of when they found the empty tomb?

They may have thought that the body had been stolen. There was some talk of this at the end of Matthew’s gospel—no one wanted anything to happen to the body—everyone just wanted it to stay put.

They may have thought they were all still in danger for having been his followers. Jesus’ death had pretty much ended the hostility toward his followers—there was really nothing to do to them if their leader was dead and gone.

Both of these first two options presume that Jesus was dead…for good.

But maybe, just maybe, they were afraid that it had all been true.

We don’t usually explore this part of the story, but it’s possible that the people around Jesus felt a little bit of relief at the loss of Jesus. The loss just made them like any other misguided person who thought they’d found the Messiah—sad but safe.

And that explains why they may have felt a wave of fear at his resurrection. The resurrection meant that the rest of Jesus’ teaching also had to be confronted and dealt with, and that was made them afraid. They go to the tomb to dress Jesus’ body, only to have the messenger say: “You’re looking for a dead guy. He’s not here. There’s no one here who fits that description.”

The news is so good, it’s terrifying.

What’s so scary about the empty tomb? For the last stage of his ministry Jesus had tried to explain to his followers that he was the Messiah, sent from God to offer grace and forgiveness to anyone who would listen and believe. He also said that in order to accomplish that he would have to suffer and die, but also that he would rise again on the third day.

I don’t think they ever fully believed him. I don’t think they could even begin to conceive that God would do that—ask his son to give his life so that others could fully live. We struggle with that, too, don’t we? People ask me pretty regularly why Jesus had to die. Now there are some classical answers to that question that have to do with God’s holiness and perfection, and the need for someone to pay the price for the sin of all people. That’s the ‘A’ answer on the theology exam, and I believe in some mysterious way that it’s true.

But I also think that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is meant to teach us something about who God is and how much he loves us—that there is something we’re supposed to learn and live from that image of someone taking on pain and punishment that didn’t belong to him. Stories of sacrifice mean something to us—they affect us and impress us and stir up our hearts as we plow through our days.

David Landsborough was a medical missionary to Taiwan in the early 1900s. He and his son built one of the first teaching hospitals in that part of the world—they trained hundreds of medical doctors who saved countless lives—the hospital is still there.

In 1928 a young country boy came to the hospital with an infection on his leg. No matter what they tried they couldn’t stop it, and so they decided to try what was then a new treatment—a skin graft. The problem was that there wasn’t anyone there who was willing to be the donor—the treatment was new enough for the doctors, it sounded bizarre and extreme to the local people. In the end Dr. Landsborough’s wife Marjorie offered to be the donor, and in the end she gave four grafts which saved the boy’s life. He went on to become a Presbyterian minister and leader in Taiwan.

That story resonates with us, doesn’t it? It was a selfless, sacrificial act—literally giving of herself—that saved someone’s life. Christ’s death on the cross was a selfless, sacrificial act that offers salvation to the entire world. He gave himself so that we could be reconciled to God in a meaningful way—that’s it, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

And yet I know that’s so hard to swallow in our contemporary culture. How did all of this happen? And does it really mean what Jesus says it means?

This Easter I want to invite you to think about this in a different way. Instead of getting hung up on what we know or think we know about science, and on what our modern minds say about the idea of a resurrection, let try something different.

If we, just for a moment, let ourselves focus not so much on how this happened, but on why, we might find a side door into the life of faith.

From the very beginning of the Bible God has shown us that he loves us and wants nothing more than to have us close to him. But the bonus is that it’s not just so we can know him, but also that we become the kind of people who would share his blessings with the rest of the world. God’s gift of life comes with a calling attached, a calling to be Christ-like people in a world that doesn’t see much of that happening at all.

But why did God do all of that? Why go through it? The answer is simply because he loves us. We can complicate it all we want, but the truly amazing—truly frightening answer to the question of why God acted so dramatically in the cross and the resurrection is that he loved us too much to do anything less. I think that’s what scared those first few followers who saw the empty tomb. I think that’s what scares most of us about being disciples of Jesus today.

Isn’t it possible that we’re more scared that the Gospel might be true, than we are that it might not? If it’s true then there’s an amazing gift with our name on it—the gift of new life in Jesus Christ. If it’s true, there’s a calling on our lives to live as people who have received a gift of love that we can barely comprehend.

John 3:16 sums it up in one glorious sentence: God loved us so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes will never die, but have everlasting life. In the midst of the flowers and chocolate bunnies and eggs, never forget that this is God’s real Happy Easter card to us.

Sometimes parts of the Christian faith are too much for us to understand or hold on to. In those times it’s often the music that does the heavy-lifting of helping us grasp and feel the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the song we’re about to hear, it’s God’s love for us that comes out. God’s love that experiences death so that we can have life.

Love crucified, arose
The One who lived and died for me
Was Satan's nail-pierced casualty
Now He's breathing once again
Love crucified, arose
And the grave became a place of hope
For the heart that sin and sorrow broke
Is beating once again.

Listen for the good news. And try not to let it scare you. Amen.


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  3. Dude,

    The sermon is very good and true. You actually came up with this? On your own? I guess all those years of seminary paid off. Truly wonderful.


  4. Anonymous11:49 AM

    Hi John,
    Your Easter sermon is wonderful. It is so true that some of what is in the bible scares us.I often wondered what I would have done if I saw Jesus' tomb empty that day. Thanks for getting away from chocolate bunnies.
    Cathy Ercek USA


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