First Congregational Church
April 20, 2014
“What Difference Does Easter Make?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
One of the lesser known famous preachers these days is a guy whose nameplate hangs on the president’s door at Princeton Theological Seminary, as of January this year. I like to hear The Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes when I attend preaching seminars because he is, well, easy on the eyes, has a deep, resonant speaking voice, but most especially, because he’s pretty real and practical. So when he shared a sermon on Easter, I just had to take a peek at what he said, because at least for me, Easter sermons are the hardest ones to write. And he surprised me.
He started out by talking about how everybody has a plan. Some of us plan to work hard to make our dreams come true. Others plan to commit ourselves to something that will make a difference in the world, to find the right relationships, or to improve the relationships we have. Some of us plan to make more money, to have more adventures, or to eat right and exercise in order to keep our health as long as possible.
The more I thought about Craig Barnes’ sermon, the more it seemed to make sense Some of us are clear about our plans. Others of us take it as it goes, which is just another plan. Even if our only plan is to get a plan, we all want to exert some level of control on our lives. If Plan A does not work, we move to Plan B. But we all build our lives according to these plans. The problem is that sometimes our plans don’t work out so well.
Early that first Easter morning, before dawn, Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to the tomb where they had left Jesus dead and buried. In better times, they had planned on making this man their King - their Savior. They had seen him heal the sick, feed the hungry, forgive sinners, cast out evil, and raise the dead. But the previous Friday, they watched in horror as Jesus was nailed to a cross. They saw his dead body placed in a tomb, and that is when they most likely “decided” their plan had failed.
There was no telling how many times these women had been to Jesus’ tomb over Friday and Saturday. For some people, it somehow helps the grief just to be near the grave. Maybe that morning, as they returned again, the women told stories about their days with Jesus in Galilee, where they developed such wonderful plans. Or maybe they were lost in their despair. It is even possible that as they walked to the tomb, they began to make new plans, now that Jesus was dead. Would they go back to their old life in Galilee, or stay in Jerusalem and look for a new messiah? Modern grief “counselors” will tell you to wait at least a year before making any major decisions, if at all possible. But we all can appreciate all the “what if-ing” that may have happened on the way to the tomb.
When they got there, as Judy read: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid,” Angels are always saying that. They show up with lightning and earthquakes and say, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” And what is the women’s response? Do they say, “Oh, that is so like Jesus. I knew this would happen. It was just part of the plan.” No, we are told that the women were terrified. (At least they were conscious. The guards had passed out.)
Why would they all be so afraid? It was because they had been to the cross. They knew Jesus was dead. Not sort of dead, or pretend dead, but really dead. And if he was no longer dead, then they did not understand how life works. That is very hard on people who need plans.
One of the things that all of our plans have in common is that we know we will someday die. No one is agnostic when it comes to death, no matter how much we dislike it. And it’s not just about our physical bodies, but there are deaths of relationships, dreams, careers, and all the other “good” stuff of life, simply because life happens.
It’s interesting how our lives are organized around this double edged sword of death. The way you believe the story ends - affects the way you live the rest of it. That’s why we work so hard to achieve our dreams – before it is too late. We know life is short, so we try to live while we have life, achieve what we can, and leave our mark. “Making hay while the sun shines” is a concept that trains us to squeeze everything we can out of the present day, and can make us anxious about tomorrow. So we collect as much of the currency we value – love, knowledge, health, or experiences – before it is too late, and life is over.
This anxious belief in the inevitability of death may help our planning, but if we pay attention to the announcement of the angel this Easter morning, we would be not just anxious, but terrified. Like an earthquake, Easter shakes the foundations of our lives, because if death and loss are not the great enemies, then we do not know what we are fighting. We do not even understand our own lives anymore.
Easter is not some sentimental reassurance. Its true symbol is not crocuses, bunnies, or springtime. It is not even about the perseverance of the human spirit. Is any of that really going to shake you like an earthquake? The real symbol of Easter might rather be two women with their dresses hiked up to their knees running for terror out of a graveyard.
“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” The women and guards were right to be terrified. Everything we assumed about life has been turned upside down. If there is life after death, your plans for life on this earth have just been shaken apart. You are going to need a new mission. No wonder the guards passed out. They’d just discovered that they had spent their lives serving the wrong king. No wonder the religious leaders quickly devised a new plan to say his body was stolen. The Resurrection undermined the foundation upon which they had built their careers. One cannot believe in Easter without dramatically reorganizing one’s life.
Biblical commentators love to wrestle over the historicity of this event. “Did it really happen?” Maybe that is a question for some here today. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? If only it had happened today, we would have CNN or Fox News there to catch it on tape. DNA tests would be run to make sure it was “the” guy. Then, we think we would know for sure. But all of that would miss the point.
To believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead is not so difficult. As of three years ago, the Gallup Poll claims that 87 percent of the Christians in America believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but that is not the real question is it? Even the guards and religious leaders believed Jesus really rose from the dead, but they could not accept its implications. So the more interesting survey would be to ask what difference does it make that Jesus is risen?
What difference does Easter make when you walk into your office or classroom later this week, knowing that Christ roes? What difference does it make to your family that life is “different?” What difference does it make when you are struggling to find hope because your “plans” are failing, or your memory is failing, when you are lonely and discouraged or unsure if your life matters? The real question of Easter is not, “Do you believe that he is risen,” but, “Do you believe that this risen Savior is involved?”
The angel said, “‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’” I think that was always Jesus’ plan: to interrupt our plans with more hope than we could imagine. If you are have trouble seeing that the risen Savior is involved in your life - listen to the angel - directing you to go back home. Go back to your Galilee. Go back to work, school, and the ordinary places where life is lived. Go back to the routines. Go back to our world that is running out of good plans.
That is where you will find Jesus Christ at work. In the words of the angel, “he has gone on ahead of you; there you will see him.” You will see him filling the ordinary with extraordinary - mystery and miraculous possibility. You will find him creating a future that only a Savior could have planned.
What you believe about the end of the story determines how you will live the rest of it. If you believe now there is no end, and that the Savior is waiting - after everything that only looked like the end - then you will have to spend the rest of your life with earth-shattering hope. There is still hope for those struggling with broken bodies and broken spirits. There is still hope for those searching for a job, and for the unresolved business between the parent and adult child - between siblings. There is still hope for the places of unrest in our world, and those in trouble in our own backyard. There is still hope for you, because a Savior is waiting up ahead. There you will see him. Alleluia, and Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.