Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Sunrise
Exodus 14:10-15:1
Psalm 118:15-29
Corinthians 15:1-11
John 20:1-18
Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 16
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

The angel answered the women, ‘Don’t be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus, who has been crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, just like he said. Come, see the place where the Lord was lying.’

I usually try to find time during this time of year to listen to the soundtrack of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I usually do it when I am driving through the country on a wildflower adventure, because I have plenty of time and my favorite stations get lost as I travel away from the city. Since we are isolating due to the virus, I am not going on any adventures, so I will probably listen at home. Perhaps the theology is not perfect, but I enjoy the music and the story. Besides, it is tradition!

The song “Superstar” comes near the end of the show. Judas has already killed himself and Jesus is about to die on the cross when Judas begins singing. “Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned. Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

The pastor that performed the wedding ceremony for Bruce and I made a similar conclusion. He suggested that Jesus should have come during modern times when He could have reached a much larger audience. Radio, television, and the Internet would have made sharing the Gospel quick and easy. I’m not sure that Good Friday could have happened in modern times, but God would have found a way to accomplish His will whenever it happened.

Peter says in today’s lesson from Acts, “God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us.” The revelation of Jesus Christ at that moment in time was not meant to be given to everyone at one time. It was given for a few at first, who were then charged with taking the Good News to the world.

We began our Lenten journey with the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus several times, trying to convince Him to take His ministry in a different direction. At one point, Satan suggested that Jesus should do something that would catch the attention of the world. “He set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.’” If Jesus did this, God would protect Him; He would send a legion of angels to lift Him up. That would have had an impact on the world! Jesus knew that was not the way, and answered the temptation with God’s word. We are not to test the Lord our God, and Jesus refused the temptation.

It seems like the end of the story would be a good time to make that worldwide impact. Why not take the opportunity after the Resurrection to shine the light so that the whole world would see? Instead Jesus revealed Himself to a few very specific people that God chose to be the first recipients of the Good News.

At first Peter thought it was right to keep the message was given for a very specific group of people and them alone. He thought Christ came for the Jews, for God’s chosen people. He was willing to allow others to join into the blessings if they followed the prescribed path of a proselyte. They could not be Christian unless they first became a Jew. However, Peter learned a much different lesson when he met Cornelius.

Peter realized that God’s mercy is not given just for those we want to receive it, but God desires all to turn to Him because He loves us all. Christ does not play favorites, nor should we as we live our lives of faith in Him. We are called to rejoice when God has mercy on the enemy who turns to Him in faith, for in Christ we are no longer enemies but brothers. The world would truly be a much better place if we all loved our enemies by sharing the Gospel of Christ with them so that they will become our brothers in faith. The number of people to whom Jesus was revealed on that first Resurrection was relatively small, but God chose them to be the beginning of something that would more to the four corners of the world one person at a time.

Resurrection Day reminds us that God was doing the unexpected. God did everything differently than they planned. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they wanted; He didn’t teach the lessons they thought He would teach. He did not fellowship with the right people or do all the right things. I imagine it was tough for those first disciples as they discovered that God was doing something new in the world through them. God taught Peter an awesome lesson that day in today’s first lesson: that His love and mercy is for all men who hear and believe the Gospel message. Peter expected to minister to the Jews, to his own people, but when God called him to the house of Cornelius, he realized that God did not play favorites. The people who heard the Gospel were not all in the same circumstances. God provided the opportunity and the gifts for the apostles to share Him with all sorts of different people.

The celebration of Easter will be much different this year because we cannot gather together to celebrate the Empty Tomb. We are watching the joyful message from the privacy and isolation of our own homes on televisions and computers. We are using that modern technology, that mass communication that Judas sang about in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” What is interesting, though, is that it is not just members of our congregation who are watching the services online. We don’t know who the others are. They may be members of churches that do not have the capability to stream. But it also might just be people who are hungering for something other than “normal” in our strange world.

They want to have what we have.

The Old Testament story for Easter Sunrise is from the book of Exodus. It is the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt. They had just arrived at the Red Sea when they realized that Pharaoh had changed his mind and was chasing them with an army. They had nowhere to go. They couldn’t go into the sea, and they couldn’t return to Egypt; the only outcome for both possibilities was death. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. The people were afraid. They argued with Moses, “Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” They returned to this thinking over and over again as they journeyed to the Promised Land.

Though they wanted to escape the heavy hand of the Egyptians, God’s plan was as frightening because they did not know where it would lead. They were ready to turn back at the first sign of disaster.

This is an interesting text for us to read at Easter sunrise. Imagine how the disciples were feeling after Jesus died on the cross. They did not know what would come next. Despite His repeated assurances, they felt like they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Danger surrounded them. They couldn’t move forward and they couldn’t go back. Their lives had been changed, but now everything was for naught. They scattered during the trial, only a few saw Him on the hill. Though some returned to the upper room, we know that Thomas was hiding elsewhere because he was not there when Jesus appeared to the rest.

The answer to the Hebrews was to trust in God. “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh, which he will work for you today; for you will never again see the Egyptians whom you have seen today. Yahweh will fight for you, and you shall be still.” At that, Moses raised his staff over the sea and the sea parted before them. They ran for their lives. The Egyptians followed, but when the last Hebrew was safely on the far shore, Moses raised his staff and the sea closed up again. By the power of God they were saved.

The disciples waited and worried and wondered. I’m sure they prayed, but they may not even have known what they should pray. They probably discussed what they did wrong, what Jesus did wrong, what they should do next. They grieved, they cried, they were angry and confused. How could it turn out so wrong? Did they think, perhaps, that they should have told Jesus to leave them alone three years ago? “For it would be better for us to lead our normal humdrum lives, than to die at the hands of the powerful.” I don’t doubt that at least some of the conversation revolved around returning home, going back to the way life was before Jesus. No matter how good it was to be with Him, the old ways are better than death.

But God said, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see my salvation.”

He says the same to us today.

How often, during times of difficulty, do we think to ourselves, “If only we could go back to the good old days.” We remember better times, and those better times were not that long ago for us. Just a month ago we were living well. What a difference a day makes! While Good Friday reminds us that the triumph of Palm Sunday can disappear quickly, Easter reminds us that the darkness of Good Friday has been overcome. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we will see a resurrection of our own one day. We need only trust in God in this time, to praise Him now, to look forward to His promises and remember His faithfulness.

Those promises are being proclaimed to people who may not have ever heard. Though Jesus was revealed to a select few in the days following His resurrection, we can rejoice that He is being revealed to people who have never heard His story by pastors who are using social media to pray and teach and lead worship. Strangers are joining the streaming of congregations across the world. God’s Word is reaching the four corners of the world in a way that it would not have moved two thousand years ago.

The first to experience Jesus’ resurrection were the women who were headed to the tomb to take care of Jesus’ body. The Passover Sabbath loomed as He died and they did not have time to prepare His body properly for burial. Joseph of Arimathea took the body to a newly carved tomb, but he did not have time to give Jesus the honor due to a great friend and teacher. The women went back to do a better job, to anoint His body and wrap it correctly.

When they approached the tomb, a great earthquake shook the earth. If nothing else affected the women, an earthquake would have shaken them. However, they were already particularly emotional and there was more to come. An angel, whose presence would have been shocking and fearful, appeared before them and said “Do not be afraid.” I don’t know about you, but those words rarely have the intended affect on me. The angel told them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. After they saw the empty tomb, they began to run to tell the disciples. Matthew tells us that they departed with fear and great joy.

Along the way Jesus appeared and said, “Rejoice!” They fell at His feet and worshipped Him. Now, more than ever, you would think that they would let go of the fear. Their friend and teacher stood alive before them. However, Jesus knew that there was still fear; this was not a normal circumstance. He said, “Fear not!” and repeated the command to tell the disciples. Fear can become so all overwhelming that we do not do what we should do. This was an extraordinary experience, and Jesus appeared to them to give them peace so that they could go on and do what they were called to do. Jesus comes to us in the same way, giving us the courage to go forward despite our fear and do what we are called to do in this world.

What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. The news programs may be filled with information about the virus, but there is other news. People are still being murdered. Leaders continue to argue. Facebook comments are still hurtful. International relationships may not be at the forefront of our thought right now because the world is working together to solve the problem of the virus, but there are still struggles between nations. There seems to be no peace in our world today.

What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He lived with threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blaspheme and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross, which was a most horrific death. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the untouchable, spoke to the outcasts, and ate with the sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear, and He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.

Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, I give to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” Beauty pageant contestants are always saying that they want “Peace on earth.” The world thinks of peace as a lack of violence, but the peace we really need has nothing to do with a lack violence. As a matter of fact, violence is brought on by a lack of peace. The unending cycle of attack and retaliation will only be stopped when the hearts of the warriors find true peace. We have that peace; Christ’s peace is the assurance that God is with us. We live in that peace singing praise and thanksgiving to God and we have been called to share that peace.

It is tempting to read today’s Epistle lesson and think that Paul is suggesting that we reject the world and look toward heaven. There are many Christians who think solely about those things “above,” rejecting the things of the flesh. Yet, Christ calls us to live in the world even while we are no longer of the world. In other words, in Christ we are being transformed into His image and we belong to His Kingdom, but there is still work to do in the here and now. We are joined with Him and as we grow in faith and mature in grace, God shines through our lives in every increasing glory. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the world sees the work of God in our flesh and in our works. We become more and more like Him and it is Him that the world sees when they see our life.

We are called to seek after the things of God, not only heaven, but also His kingdom here on earth. We are to look for the helpless and the hungry, the lonely and the sinners. These may seem to be the very things that are ‘below’, but it is in the suffering of this world that we find Christ. As we reach out to those who need to experience God’s grace, then God’s glory will be manifested in our lives. As we do what we can to ease the distress of our neighbors during this time, we will find Christ in the midst of it all, taking us through our triumphs and our pains to resurrection and new life.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you experienced both fear and great joy? The most outstanding example of this would most likely be when women learn they are pregnant. What a joy it is to know that you are going to bring a new life into the world, but it is also an incredible responsibility. It can be frightening to face pregnancy, labor, delivery and then a life time of loving and caring for that new life.

In our modern age, we are not surprised or bothered that God used women as the first witnesses; women have earned the respect to be witnesses to events. Yet, in that day and age it was quite unusual for men to take the word of women. In Luke’s account, the disciples even said the testimony of the women was nonsense.

The first time the disciples saw Jesus, they were startled and frightened. They thought He was a ghost. The first time the women saw Him they fell to the ground and worshipped Him. It is not that the women had greater faith. It is just that men look at the world with a different point of view. In general, women see the world through their hearts and men through their minds. Men need answers, explanations. They need to consider what is happening before acting. Despite the fact that the disciples followed Jesus for three years, they would probably have had a similar response to the visitation of the angel as the soldiers at the tomb. Jesus had mercy on them when He gave them time to prepare for His appearance. Even then it was troubling, Jesus revealed Himself in a way that they could believe.

The women also give us hope that the message of the resurrection is meant for all people. In Acts, Luke writes that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. The Gospel is not meant for certain people, it is given for all. The promises for Israel have become our promises. Jesus is the right hand of God our Father and through Him we are saved.

Paul writes, “If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God.” Through our baptism we are buried with Christ and when we come out of the waters we are raised with Him. We are made new, transformed into children of God and through Christ we share in the hope of eternal life. He is our advocate, the one standing at the gates of the temple to welcome us in. He opened the gates by making us righteous before God as we wear His righteousness. He is our life. As Paul writes, “When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”

Though we see the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from a completely different perspective than those first disciples so long ago, we do not respond any differently than they did. Some want to run and hide, some need answers about what it all means. Others receive the news with fear and great joy. Like the women, however, we are called to run and tell others about what we have seen and heard, so that they too might know Christ and believe.

While we are inconvenienced by the isolation and we miss our brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember that God can use all our circumstances to make His will happen. This time may be hard for us, but it is an opportunity to share Jesus in a new way with a world that desperately needs Him. Jesus died, but He rose again and He promises eternal life with Him for all who believe. As we approach Easter Sunday, pray for the Spirit to help those who are ministering online, pray for patience and encouragement for those who are already Christian, but most of all pray for those who will hear the Gospel during this time and be saved.

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