Sunday, March 23, 2008

Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10 or John 20:1-18

And he charged us to preach unto the people, and to testify that this is he who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and the dead. To him bear all the prophets witness, that through his name every one that believeth on him shall receive remission of sins.

We are blessed 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? 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 much of the passion story the disciples were no where to be seen.

Seeing the story from a post resurrection perspective might make us think that we would have reacted differently. We believe that we would have seen Jesus just as He said He was. He is that right hand of God who has come to save the world. But would we have really known that if we were there? 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 not know about Jesus.

Jeremiah writes of God, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” This statement is repeated throughout the book of Jeremiah. It is based on the promise that God gave to His people even before the Exodus, when He was establishing the relationship with His people. Exodus 6:7 says, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” He promised deliverance from their bondage in Egypt and repeated the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.” (Exodus 6:8, NIV) In the Exodus God would prove to both Israel and the nations that He is the LORD God.

The promise is renewed in Leviticus as God promises to look with favor on His obedient people. Here it seems as the promise is conditional—as long as the people do all that God has commanded, He will be their God and they will be His people. (Leviticus 26:1-13) This is followed by a list of curses that will come with their disobedience. If they do not listen to God and do all that He has commanded, they will suffer the consequences. The list is horrific: fear, illness, famine, defeat, oppression, discipline and wrath. It is an image of God that we would rather ignore, a picture of the jealous and angry God that heaps suffering on His people like a cruel father on disobedient children.

Jeremiah was writing to a defeated people. They had experienced the very horrors promised to the people who were disobedient. Jeremiah tells of the great sin of his people—idolatry, which included child sacrifice. The God who delivered them from Egypt was no longer their God. They worshipped others. In chapter seven, Jeremiah says, “Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat ye flesh. For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices: but this thing I commanded them, saying, Hearken unto my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you. But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward. Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have sent unto you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them: yet they hearkened not unto me, nor inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff: they did worse than their fathers.” (Jeremiah 7:21-26)

The consequence of their disobedience was the Babylonian invasion which led to their exile. God used political circumstances of their day, and a foreign nation, to bring the people to their knees. They had turned from Him; He allowed His hand of protection to leave them for a season so that they would remember that He is their God.

See, He never forgot His promises, but in that covenantal relationship, God’s people forgot that they were His. They lost sight of their identity as they merged and melded with the world in which they lived. They worshipped the gods of their neighbors and turned to allies for their protection. They no longer trusted in God’s faithfulness and took control for themselves. God does not forget, but we do. The horrors they faced were not really punishments from a jealous and angry God that did not care. The people suffered the consequences of turning away from their God.

Sin begins small but builds, as it takes more and more to fulfill the desire, drawing us ever deeper into the sinful behavior. Take gambling, for instance. It usually begins rather innocently—a successful trip to a casino or a night of bingo. It doesn’t hurt to buy just one lottery ticket and how fun it is to win! So, the gambler goes back to play again, certain that luck is on her side or that he is destined to get rich. So certain are they of their promise, they go back time and again, even when they lose, expecting the next trip will be the winner.

The consequences of sin do not begin as overwhelming problems. As a matter of fact, there is usually some pay-off: the occasional win for the gambler, the buzz for the alcoholic, the excitement and intimacy of promiscuous sexual behavior. It is mesmerizing to take ten bucks and turn it into a hundred. Then when they lose, they don’t want to give up so the play more and more. A weekly trip to the bingo hall becomes a daily ritual. Ten dollars becomes hundreds. The family is pushed aside so that the gambler can feed this desire to win, always hoping to recoup what has been lost. Eventually the money for food, rent and clothes is gone and the family is left desolate. Relationships break and the gambler is left with nothing but the need to gamble. Most hit rock bottom before they ever realize they have a problem. This is true for gambling and for other addictions. After a while the money runs out, one drink is not enough and promiscuous sex leads to disease or pregnancy. At that point there seems to be no way out, no hope for the addicted.

Even in the face of such overwhelming consequences, there is always hope. When salvation seemed impossible, God saved sinners from death and the grave. We all suffer the effects of sin in our lives, we are all tempted and we fall into that temptation. We may not be a gambler, drunk or minx, but we are sinners just the same. We are drawn so deeply into our sin that we know no way out. But there is always a way—God. He is our victory over the things of this world that threaten to destroy our lives. Even when nothing is left, there is hope in the salvation of our Lord. We have been saved from eternal death by His mercy and grace. In that grace God’s transforming Spirit makes us new and gives us the strength to face the things that threaten to destroy us.

God is always faithful. In Jeremiah we are reminded that God’s love is an everlasting love. Even while the people were in exile there was hope for the future. One day it would be over and they would be restored to their God. He always remained faithful even as His people did not. In that day they would remember that He is their God and that they are His people. Again they would see the blessings of that covenantal relationship. They would return home in joy and thanksgiving.

For those first disciples, the cross was the end of everything. Jesus was rejected, cast off, killed. In the psalm we see a foretelling of this, “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.” That stone is Jesus Christ; on His death and resurrection was built a new life, a new community of believers and a new hope. They did not see it at first. They had to experience the Living Christ to believe, and even then it was not until Pentecost and the anointing of the Holy Spirit that they really understood everything Jesus had taught them.

It is easy for us to look at the Resurrection story with hindsight. We can imagine what it might have been like—the joy, the peace, the sudden revelation of everything Jesus had said. We look at the people involved and think to ourselves, “Why didn’t they know?” “Why were they afraid?” We think these questions because we have twenty/twenty vision when it comes to the story. We have seen the end of the story. We have seen where it goes. We have seen God’s work in its fullness. They didn’t have the same perspective. They were living it and they could not see what would happen next.

How do you feel when something exciting happens? Isn’t there a bit of fear when you have been blessed with something good? A new job is a wonderful thing, but everyone suffers a certain amount of fear and doubt. What if I can’t do the tasks? What if I fail? What if it is too hard? What if I can’t get along with my co-workers? We do this when we become involved in a new relationship. Will it last? Do we really have enough in common to make it work? What will happen if I’m left alone again? New mothers perhaps suffer the greatest fears. What if I can’t handle the responsibility? What if my baby gets sick? What if I do something wrong?

It might sound pessimistic, but it is a reality of our human nature. We will be afraid when we are starting something new. We will have doubts and uncertainty when we do not know what is going to happen next. Those fears need not stop us from going forth, but we do have to learn how to cope with and overcome the fear. We have to learn to let go of the control and trust in God.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew we see the women going to the tomb. Matthew doesn’t tell us what they were going to do, but we know from the other Gospel texts that they were going to take care of His body. He died while the Passover Sabbath was looming and there was no time to prepare His body properly for burial. Joseph of Arimathea took the body to a newly carved tomb, but did little to give Jesus the honor due to his friend and teacher. The women went after the Sabbath to do it right, 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 faced even greater surprises and revelations. 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, “All hail!” 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 was standing before them. However, they were still afraid and Jesus recognized it. He said, “Fear not” and repeated the command. Fear can become so overwhelming that we can be paralyzed and unable to do what we need to do. Jesus came to them in this extraordinary experience to give them peace so that they could go on and do what they were called to do.

We are Easter people and look at the story with post resurrection eyes, and yet we still have fear when sent to tell others about the Good News of Christ Jesus. We are afraid of ridicule, of unbelief. We doubt our ability to share the message and sometimes even doubt whether we have a message to share. We wonder if anyone will believe our words or if we will suffer from them. Sadly, there is another reason why we might not share the message.

We are torn when we discover something great because on one hand we want to share that great thing with others. On the other hand, we know that if too many people hear about that great thing it will become more difficult for us to benefit from it. I have to honestly admit that I don’t like to tell too many people about the scholarship opportunities we have found for Victoria. After all, every student who applies for a scholarship is another person who will compete against her. Do we really want to tell another job-seeker about a great job opportunity? We don’t want a favorite restaurant or a beautiful park to become too crowded, so we wonder if we should share our find with others. It is as natural for us to want to keep these secrets as it is for us to want to share our great find with our friends.

Peter thought it was right to keep the message of Jesus for a certain group of people because he thought it was given for them 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. 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—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.

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 have been transformed into His image and we now belong to His Kingdom, but there is work to do in the here and now. We are joined with Him; as we grow in faith and mature in grace, God shines through our lives with ever 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 look at our lives and our work.

So, 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 like some to be the very things that are ‘below’, but it is in the suffering of this world that we find Christ. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember as we join together to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord this Sunday. Our pews will be filled with people who have come to hear the story of Hope found in the empty tomb. Many of them will be suffering in ways we can not possibly know. Many of them will not even know why they have come to worship that day.

We need to remember that it is not in our power to change their lives. As we reach out to those who need to experience God’s grace, we need to let go of our own goals and expectations to let God be manifested in our lives. They’ve come to see His glory, not ours. Those who need to hear about the grace of Jesus Christ come from different places. Not all will be prepared for the message in the same way; not all will receive it with the same heart. But God does not play favorites. He does not care who they are or what they have done. It does not matter to Him if they are male or female, young or old. He does not look at a person’s credentials, their job or the people they know. He only sees the heart. His message is given for all those who will hear and believe.

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