Sunday, April 1, 2018

Resurrection of our Lord
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 16
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. When we turn on the TV or scroll through our social media we are bombarded with information from home and abroad of violence, destruction and loss of life. There seems to be no peace in our world today.

What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He didn’t live without 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 – 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 sick, spoke to the outcasts and ate with the sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear; He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.

What peace are we praying for? Peace is not the lack of violence; 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, that He is at our right hand so that we will not be moved. We live in that peace singing praise and thanksgiving to God and we have been called to share that peace. As we share God’s Word, He works in the hearts of those lost in this troubled world, seeking their own kind of peace with weapons and threats.

Jerusalem wanted peace. The leaders of the Jews thought the status quo was good enough. They weren’t, perhaps, quite as independent as the nation under King David, but they were given enough freedom to live their Jewish faith. They feared insurrection because they believed the Romans would use it as an excuse to destroy what was left of their nation. They settled for their own power and prestige and knew that they would lose the most if there was a fight. Jesus wasn’t good for their future.

They didn’t realize that Jesus had a much different mission. They misunderstood the prophecy about the Messiah, or ignored it for their own sake, and they were afraid a military battle would lead to their destruction. Jesus had no intention of ever becoming the kind of king that the crowds were demanding. Jesus came to restore the true King, God, as ruler over His people. They’d lost touch with the peace that comes with knowing God is there among His people. They sought the death of Jesus so that He would not change the status quo.

They did exactly what God intended. We look back on that first Good Friday so long ago and wonder how God could allow such evil to win. We wonder the same thing today. Why is there so much violence? Where is the peace? Where is God? Even Jesus asked that question while He hung on the cross. “My God, why have you abandoned me?”

Sometimes God gives darkness its moment so that the Light will shine ever more brightly.

We have to be honest with ourselves and realize that we have become complacent in our faith. We are comfortable. While there are a few examples of people being persecuted for their point of view, most of us in the United States have never had to fear that we would be martyred for our faith. We see it happening elsewhere, but we can get in our car on Sunday morning to go to church without worrying whether we will make it home again.

I went on a wildflower adventure the other day. I drove to some of the most likely places where I might find fields of flowers. While this year is not a great year for the wildflower bloom, there are always a few places to see and photograph the flowers. My favorite site to the southeast of San Antonio is a cemetery. They keep the areas around the graves pretty clear of flowers, but the fields that surround it are bursting with life. I spent a long time photographing the many different kinds of flowers in those fields. I even caught a butterfly and a hummingbird enjoying the nectar. I know it seems odd to look for life in a cemetery, but it is especially appropriate during Holy Week to do so.

Easter proves that death leads to new life for those who trust in Him

I was on my way home when I took a wrong turn. I ended up in Sutherland Springs, the small town that experienced a tragedy six months ago when the people of First Baptist Church were gunned down. I didn’t stop, but I found myself in prayer as I continued to drive home. Later that evening, the news reported that the congregation is getting ready to rebuild their campus. We have had to deal with too many tragedies in the past few years, but in this case you can truly see the Light shining through the darkness. The people of Sutherland Springs have faced their grief and hurt with hope and peace and forgiveness. Though there is no such thing as a silver lining in this kind of tribulation, we are reminded that God is able to make good things happen out of the most horrific events. After all, we would not be celebrating Easter on Sunday if Jesus hadn’t been hung on the cross.

The hard part about writing for Easter Sunday on Wednesday is that we have not yet experienced Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We have twenty-twenty vision because we know the end of the story, but we still need to be reminded that Jesus’ death was necessary.

That first Holy Week must have been incredible for the disciples. On Sunday they entered Jerusalem with Jesus on a donkey being proclaimed king by the crowds. They had given up everything to follow Him and their sacrifice was paying off. Within days Jesus had stunned and upset so many people that they were afraid for His life and their own. At the Passover, just when they thought He might make some big announcement about revolution against the authorities, Jesus taught them to be humble servants and to live in love and mercy. Then He was betrayed, denied and crucified.

We do not know what the disciples did after Jesus died. He was hurriedly wrapped and placed in a freshly hewn tomb because it was the Passover Sabbath, a particularly holy time for the Jews. It is unlikely they did much; the law had many restrictions that were more closely obeyed during the holy periods. Besides, the disciples were in shock, afraid and in mourning. Perhaps they prayed, but it is more likely that they spent the time together discussing all that had happened, trying to decide what they should do. Without their rabbi, they had no guidance.

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 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.” Eventually 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 same thing is true for those facing tragedy in our world today. The people of Sutherland Springs had a hope that will not disappoint. Though they had to say good-bye to loved ones, they also know that they will be reunited with them one day. They believe in the promises of God.

The hope and joy of Easter is not found in a cemetery, or folded grave clothes, but rather in the Risen Lord. It isn’t found in anger or protests or “action.” 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. In our own moments of darkness, we will find peace when we look for the Light. We will shine the Light when we share the Gospel. The Gospel is not something we do; it is something God did.

Paul writes, “Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” He goes on to talk about all those to whom He revealed Himself.

From the earliest days of the Christian faith, believers gathered together to share their witness and confess their beliefs in Jesus. It did not take very long before they were praying familiar prayers or repeating the words of Jesus. Since much of their religious experience came from the Old Testament writings, we can even see the hymns they might have sung in worship by reading the Psalms. The letters of the Apostles were shared over and over again, establishing proper understanding of this new revelation of God. They began to form creeds, poetry and hymns that brought together the doctrines they had learned in a way they could easily remember and teach. By repeating these confessions of faith, they became deeply imbedded in their hearts and minds. When asked about their Christian faith, they could easily share the Gospel message in words that were seen as credible because the whole Church shared them.

Scholars generally agree that this passage from Paul is one of the earliest Christian creeds. It has been around since the earliest days of the church, having become a part of Christian worship within just a few years of Jesus’ death. By sharing this simple statement about the death, resurrection and appearance of Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord, the truth of salvation was written on the hearts and minds of the believers, giving them the strength and knowledge to share the Gospel with others.

There is a story about some mice that lived inside a piano. They were awestruck by the music they heard echoing in their dark world. They all believed in some unknown player, were comforted by the thought that someone made the music. They rejoiced over the Great Player they could not see. But one day one of the mice ventured to another part of the piano and found the strings. He came back thinking he knew how the music was made, for the music came from the strings as they trembled and vibrated. Everyone stopped believing in the Great Player. Later another mouse went exploring and found the hammers that made the strings vibrate and the simple explanation for the sound became more complicated but they still did not believe in the unknown player. Eventually the Great Player became nothing but a myth to the mice.

Isn’t that the way it is for many people in today’s world? We are like those mice, living in a world where we cannot see the One in control. But natural explanations to unexplainable things have made many people doubt in the existence of a Great Player. Science and Mathematics explain away the most extraordinary things, leaving behind nothing in which to have faith. For many in today’s world who are seeking something more, even spiritual understanding is being used to explain away the most miraculous things. To some, the stories in scripture should be seen in only a spiritual understanding – the virgin birth of Christ, the cross and even the resurrection. Yet, the wonder that is God can’t be explained away by our minds, hearts or even souls. He continues to play the music of our lives as we ponder what it all means.

Faith is the only thing that will get us through the times of darkness. We have to rely on God, knowing that He is faithful, blameless and pure. He is with us and everything we do we do only with His strength. Even when we cannot see the Great Player, He is playing the music of our lives. That’s what will get us through each day. We can’t allow the things of this world to cause us to lose our faith and we cannot allow our worries and fears to keep us up at night. We can only step forward trusting in God, knowing that He is with us through all our trials.

The Gospel passage from Mark is hard to read because it ends so abruptly. The final sentence says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” The women were too afraid to say anything to the others. Obviously someone figured it out. Matthew and Luke tell us that they did report what they saw at the tomb to the disciples. John tells us the story from Mary’s perspective. But in Mark, we are left hanging.

There are eight more verses that neatly tie up the story, but there is some controversy over whether those verses were part of the original text. There is another verse that is found between verses 8 and 9 in some manuscripts, that says, “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Again, this verse helps to alleviate the abruptness of Mark’s story.

These verses are helpful, but ending at verse 8 serves a purpose, especially for those who heard Mark’s story in the beginning. See, Mark was a storyteller. The book was not written at first, but was told orally over and over again. It was a story that developed over time. Mark was very young. His mother owned the upper room, so he probably served Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. He was there at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disciples hid in the Upper Room after Jesus died. Mark overheard their stories, learned them by heart, and then repeated them to others.

You know how it is... when someone we love dies, we sit around in the living room and we tell stories. “Do you remember that time when Jesus...?” “Jesus always liked to say...” They worked out their grief through those stories. They worked out their understanding through those stories. And the storytelling surely went on after Jesus appeared to them, and then long afterward. Mark could see in the conversations of Peter and the disciples that the experience of being with Jesus was something to be shared. You could not believe in Jesus and remain silent.

And so he took all those stories and told them to others. I can imagine a group of people sitting around a living room, anxiously waiting to hear about the One that was raised from the dead. They were seekers in search of the truth. As Mark tells the story, we are held mesmerized by the immediacy of Jesus’ ministry. I have seen people hearing this story told as it was in Mark’s day sitting on the edge of their seat in hopeful expectation. We can sense the fear and amazement of the disciples. We can feel the anger of the leaders. We are aware of the confusion and doubt in the crowds.

And then, after about two hours of storytelling, Mark says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” How would react? I can see the crowd erupting with questions and opinions. There may be good reason for adding those extra verses in the book of Mark because we are no longer hearing that story told directly from the eye witnesses. Something had to happen after the women were afraid or we would not be Christian today.

But let us, for a moment, see that by ending the story so abruptly, Mark is inviting the hearers into the story. What happens next? You are like one of those women at the tomb. What do you do? Do you take the story to another or do you run and hide out of fear? Do you join with Mark, Peter and Paul by sharing what happened so that others might believe?

When we are preparing our activities for our churches, we often ask ourselves the question, “What are they looking for?” We want to know what our visitors are seeking so that we can provide them with the programs that will keep them coming back. Perhaps we should be asking this question, “For whom are you looking?” People may want Easter egg hunts and BBQs, basketball leagues and teen dances, but they will never be transformed by those things. The chances we have to reach those who do not believe are so rare, that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to catch them at those moments.

Sometimes we miss the point and we forget what really matters. This might be even more true today as we are living in a time of great fear. We know we need to offer the Gospel, but we aren’t sure what that means. Do they expect us to be a church fighting for justice or protesting everything that is wrong in our world? I don’t mean to say that we should not fight for justice or peace in our world because we as individuals are called and gifted for unique ministry. It is even possible that the Christian sitting on the pew next to you has been chosen by God to stand in direct opposition to you. You, also, might be called to stand in direct opposition to them. God is using each of you to help the other seek God more deeply, to turn to Him and trust that He will make things right. The answer is never in the extremes; the answer is always in God.

Those who are coming to your churches this Sunday, curious about what you have to offer them in this world filled with violence, destruction and loss of life will never be truly satisfied until they encounter the living Christ. We know they’ll never hear the message if they will not enter through the door, so we give them what they want. We give them a show. We give them activities. We give them excitement. In the process, we often forget to give them what God has given us: hope, peace, forgiveness. We forget to give them Jesus.

The story of Easter, the rising of Christ out of death into new life, is something that everyone should hear. It seems like in that day it would have been best for Jesus to appear to the entire city of Jerusalem at one time, to do something spectacular to ensure that the reality of His death and life was understood by all. As it happened, many people doubted the story they heard. The Romans thought the Jews had stolen the body. The Jews thought the disciples had stolen the body. Those who doubted would have been silenced quickly if only they’d seen Him with their own eyes.

The Easter story is both the easiest message to preach and the hardest. For those who have heard the story a hundred times before, the words “He is risen” deepens the hope we have as we wait in expectation for the fulfillment of all God’s promises. However, when we gather on Easter Day, there are also many who only know part of the story. They know that Jesus Christ is Lord, but they don’t quite understand why. They know they are seeking something, but they can’t define their need. They want to be fed, inspired and to learn, but what they really need is to be transformed. They need to meet Jesus.

The world does not know what to expect when they walk through the doors of our church. We spend a great deal of time asking, “What are they looking for?” But we need to remember that they are not looking for the things we can offer them. They are looking for Jesus. We can fill our schedules with a bunch of exciting activities or focus our ministries on taking action against the darkness of this world, but let us never forget the center of our worship life: Jesus. Egg hunts and protests might bring people to the pews of our churches, but they will never save a soul. Only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus can give us true peace in this troubled world.

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