Sunday, April 12, 2009

Celebration Mark 16:1-8

Blow small party horn. No, that does not begin to capture the spirit of the morning. Turn to Pat. He plays a dramatic beat on the kettle drums. Thanks, Pat. That gets us closer, but still does not capture the power of this moment. Steven, could you help me? Steve plays a measure or two from the Hallelujah Chorus or similar piece. That is great, Steven, but I am still not sure it capture the joy – the celebration – found in the declaration that “He is Risen!” These words change everything! We told the children this morning that Easter is a party, a party to celebrate that Jesus who was dead in now alive.

The dilemma of this moment is that we are looking at a familiar story. In fact, many years ago in a church where I served as Associate Pastor a man named Bill Anyway, Bill came to me in the minutes just before we were to begin our Easter service with a bit of a whine. He asked, “Why do I seem to hear the same sermon and the same songs every time I come to church?” I wanted to tell him that if he would show up more than once a year he might hear something different. But, I took a different path. I was glad he was there and willing to hear the story. I told him something in the order of “we have to tell this story on Easter morning. It is not just a story – it’s our story.” It is the story who makes us who we are as Christians. We are an Easter people – a resurrection people – claiming life and faith through the one who was dead and is now alive. So, here I am this morning. Reclaiming the same story retold every Easter for two thousand years. It is our story.

Kwame read the story earlier in our worship service. It tells the amazing morning when the women went to anoint the body of Jesus with burial spices and perfumes. They had witnessed his brutal death. They had seen his limp body. This was not pretend. They were witnesses that Jesus was dead. They came out of love and they came to morn. For them, the story had ended and there was nothing left but to grieve. So, just after sunrise they headed out. They did have one logistical concern. The tomb of Jesus was sealed with a giant stone. As they approached they the place where Jesus was buried they were trying to figure how to get that big stone moved so that they could do what they had come to do – to pour perfumes and spices over his body as symbols of love and respect. But in a moment, everything changed for them – and for us.

When they got to the place where Jesus was born the stone had been rolled away. John’s Gospel tells us that there immediate reaction was fear that the Romans or the Jewish leaders had taken his body away. They entered the tomb and saw a man in white robe sitting where the body of Jesus was suppose to by lying. Then they heard those words; “Don’t, be alarmed….You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” The angel sends them off to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee and that they would see him just as he had told them. It was more than the women could take in. I think it would have been more that I could have taken in. They hurry back to the disciples. It is interesting to note that Scripture says that they don’t say anything to each other or anyone else. I can imagine that they were scared to even say out loud what must have been racing through their minds. Other passages tell us that even when the women tell their story it was hard for the others to comprehend. Peter and John run back to the tomb to see it for themselves. The emotions of that first Easter morning were confusion, chaos, and confirmation. The picture from scripture invites us to hear them wondering to themselves; “Could it be?” they head themselves asking. “Could it be he has risen? Could it be just like he said? In the chaos and confusion – in the quiet place where death was supposed to be the final answer – in the shadows of the cross that was supposed to be the end of this one named Jesus – God steps in and changes everything.

I will always remember my first trip to Moscow. As a part of the trip my friends took me to the city’s center. When I walked along the Kremlin wall I mentally replayed the Cold War era television images of the May Day parades flush with Russian soldiers and frightening looking missiles rolling down the same street. When I walked through St. Basil’s Cathedral I was impressed by its architecture and amazed by its beauty. But, the moment that most profoundly impacted me was the visit to famed Russian leader’s tomb. I waited my turn in a long line and then saw the body of Vladimir Lenin, who had been on public display since his death in 1924. I was amazed how much energy and how many dollars had been expended in an effort to keep the body of a dead leader intact. There is no promise of life – no hope for power – just a monument to death. As I stood there in front of this lifeless body I could not help but think of picture of the empty tomb. Lenin’s place of power on the world stage has long since faded. In sharp contrast, an empty cave on the hillside outside of Jerusalem changed history and changes us even now.

We are tempted to linger at the cross, both with its brutality and beauty. The cross is the testimony of God love and grace. It is critical that we remember that the cross is first and foremost and always an act of God - a choice of God. Forgiveness rains down not because it is deserved or claimed, but because it is founded in the very nature of God. God makes the way for forgiveness. Instead of a symbol of Roman cruelty it becomes the means of grace. When we hear Jesus cry, “It is finished” on cross it is not an ending but a beginning. One of my favorite theologians is Stanley Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School. He sees it this way: "'It is finished is not a death gurgle. 'It is finished 'is not 'I'm done for….'It is finished' is a cry of victory. 'It is finished' is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work."(p83-84)..."God has finished only what God could finish. Christ's sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making it possible lives that flow with the beauty of God's Spirit. What wonderful news: 'It is finished." But it is not over." (p90) He is right. The story does not end at the cross. We do not claim a monument to death. (from the Cross-Shattered Christ)

Instead, we cling to the words, “He is Risen!” Resurrection is the moment that God rewrites history and creates the means of life and eternal life in and through Christ. Resurrection is the Easter story of life – of a living and loving God. It is the ultimate declaration that God is faithful and has fulfilled His promises – that forgiveness awaits – that grace reigns down. The cross has given way to the empty tomb. We who were destined for death now find life. We who were held captive by sin now find freedom. We who were separated from God are now drawn close. Come to the party and find new life. Come to the party and become the people of the resurrection. He is Risen! He is Risen, indeed! Thanks be to God!

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