Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection of our Lord
Easter Sunrise
Exodus 14:10-15:1
Psalm 118:15-29
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
John 20:1-18
Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 116
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you. You are my God, I will exalt you. Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.

I was at a store yesterday, wandering the aisles while I waited for some photos to be printed. It was a pretty busy day at the store, with lots of people wandering those same aisles. Sometimes it was difficult to find my way through. It wasn’t just customers; the store staff members were busy straightening shelves. I turned one corner and the aisle was filled with shopping carts and mothers and children. I went to the next aisle and an employee had a pallet of merchandise. I came across two old friends who were chatting in an aisle in another part of the store. One man decided to abandon his cart as he shopped other places right in front of the product I was seeking. It seemed like I was trapped; there were people blocking my way every direction I turned.

I tend to be non-aggressive at the store. If I have to enter a busy aisle, I wait until those in front of me move. Others are not so patient and they rush past, only to stop and block the rest of us while they pick their product. Unfortunately, it seems like those most in a rush are the ones who take the longest. Others join the traffic jam and it quickly becomes impossible to move in any direction. I might not be aggressive, but I get very frustrated when I’m trapped in a crowded aisle.

I’m sure we all have examples of having been caught between a rock and a hard place. We can’t move forward, we can’t go back. This might be perceptible like at the grocery store, or it might be invisible like our spiritual life. How often have we been faced with experiences that give us two equally impossible outcomes and we don’t know how to get out of it?

The text from Exodus is the Old Testament lesson for sunrise on Easter day. It is from the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt. They had just come to 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. 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 were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” They would return 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 the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you shall never see them again. 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 did they even know for what they were praying? 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.”

The scriptures tell us that early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb to take care of the body of Jesus. They did not have time to complete the burial because of the Sabbath, so they returned to use spices for anointing and grieve for their Lord. Yet, when they arrived in the garden, they noticed the stone had been moved away. Jesus’ body was gone. Now we look to this empty tomb as the sign of the hope to come – our tombs will one day be empty because we have eternal life in Christ Jesus and we rejoice. Yet, at this point in the resurrection story, the disciples were not yet rejoicing. The women were afraid. Mary wept. The disciples were confused. They did not understand what was happening.

Then Jesus began appearing to them. He called Mary by name in the garden. He broke bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He entered through a locked door. He appeared to five hundred. Eventually, Jesus appeared to Paul. When He appeared to Mary, she ran to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Then they believed and rejoiced. We often think of the empty tomb when we think of Easter. While there is promise in that emptiness, there are also questions, doubts, fears and grief. The hope and joy of Easter is not found in a cemetery, or folded grave clothes, but rather in the Risen Lord. It was when the disciples saw Jesus that they knew all He spoke had been true. It was when He spoke their names, when He ate with them and showed them His wounds. It was when they heard His voice and saw His face that they believed.

The promise was fulfilled. The sea was parted and those who believed came out on the other side.

Do you believe? Do you believe in the God who created the heavens and earth? Do you believe in the God who saved Israel from Egypt and took them to the Promised Land? Do you believe in the God who gave us the Law to help us to live good and right and true lives in this world? Do you believe in the God who appointed the judges and the kings and the prophets? Do you believe in the God who repeatedly saved His people despite their failure to live according to His Word? Do you believe in the God who had mercy on His people who kept turning away? Do you believe that God was always faithful, even when His people were not?

Do you believe in the God who sent His own Son to be beaten, betrayed, denied and killed on a cross? Do you believe that the One named Jesus who was obedient even to being nailed on a cross? Do you believe He died and was buried in a tomb for three days? Do you believe that in doing so Jesus took upon Himself the entire weight of the sin of the world, including your own? Do you believe that He rose again? Do you believe that He did this so that you will be forgiven and raised to new life with Him? Do you believe that He has called and gifted His Church and sent us out into the world to tell the story again and again so that the whole world will believe?

The Psalm for Easter sunrise is a song of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance. It is not the song of an individual, but rather the hymn of a nation. While it was originally written and most likely sung in response to God’s hand against Israel’s enemies, it is also a foretelling of the ultimate salvation that would come to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We are lucky because we look at the Christian story from a post resurrection perspective. How would we have felt if we were one of those disciples, left in mourning and afraid for our own lives after Jesus died on the cross? Would we see the hope of new life? No, everything they had come to believe screeched to a halt when Jesus was arrested. We catch glimpses of some of the disciples: Peter in the courtyard denying Jesus, Judas in despair, John hovering with Mary at the foot of the cross. Yet, for most of the Passion, the disciples were nowhere to be seen.

Seeing the story from a post resurrection perspective might make us feel overconfident about the way we would have reacted. We believe and can see that Jesus is indeed all that He said He was. He is the right hand of God who has come to save the world. But would we have felt that way two thousand or so years ago? The disciples did not yet have the gift of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures tell us that when Jesus talked of His death, they did not understand because it was hidden from them. It was not until after Pentecost that they fully understood all there was to know about Jesus.

For those first disciples, the cross was the end of everything. Jesus was rejected, cast off, and killed. Again we read in the psalm a foretelling of this. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” That stone has been identified as Jesus Christ; His death and resurrection was the foundation of a new life, a new community of believers and a new hope.

The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it.” Who are the righteous? In the days of Jesus, the righteous were the ones who had the power, who had the appearance of righteousness. They knew the scriptures and they knew Law. Yet they did not know God. They did not recognize Him in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. So, they rejected Jesus, cast Him away to the cross. His death was not permanent, however.

Our minds are set on heaven as we experience the miracle of God’s grace in Easter. We see the world come alive with the fresh new growth of spring. We celebrate the day by gathering with our family and friends. We break out of best clothes, and even go buy a new dress or suit for the occasion. Our churches will be filled with sweet smelling lilies and we can once again since “Alleluia” to our God. The stories of the Passion and the Resurrection turn our hearts to the God who has done all this for us. He has parted the great sea and delivered us from sin and death.

The psalmist wrote, “The right hand of Yahweh is exalted! The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!” Then he adds, “I will not die, but live, and declare Yah’s works.” Moses was the hand that God used to part the Red Sea to deliver the Hebrews to the Promised Land. Jesus is the right hand of God, sent to deliver us from an even greater enemy. In ancient culture, the right hand attests to the victor’s powerful superiority. A commander, when entering a city, would raise his right hand in the air to show that he is the winner. God has raised His right hand, because He has conquered sin and death. He raised Jesus to show that He is all powerful. Jesus may not have been accepted by all the people in His day, and His death and resurrection may have been questioned by both the unbelievers and the believers, but He was still victorious.

The empty tomb was the sign that God did something amazing with Jesus, but as Jesus was revealed to all those witnesses everything became clear, not only to those who saw Him two thousand years ago, but us today.

On that first Easter God did something new and amazing; it was not the end but only the beginning for the disciples and for us. He gave us a peace that we could never know without Him. Peace of heart. Peace with God. Peace that changes the world. Let us join with the first witnesses in sharing that peace, preaching that Christ died but was raised by the God who keeps His promises. We might feel like we have been backed into a corner, or caught between a rock and a hard place, but God has delivered us from sin and death when Jesus, the right hand of God, parted the sea so we could cross into heaven and dwell with our God for eternity.

When you believe in the Risen Christ, you will be raised with Him, and when you have been raised with Christ you are called to a new life. God will make Him manifest to others through you. You are called, like those first disciples, to be His witnesses, revealing Christ in your words and in your deeds. There may still be moments of waiting and worry and wonder, but God says, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see my salvation.” You are called to a life of thankfulness and praise that leaves behind the old ways to trust in His promises. No matter what obstacles you face, in front or behind, He will always be faithful to lead you to the Promised Land. He is our God, let us give thanks and exalt Him for His loving kindness endures forever.

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