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Sermon for Easter Sunday 5 April 2015

FIRST READING Isaiah 25:6–9

6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

PSALM Psalm 16

1 Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the LORD, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” 2 All my delight is in the godly that are in the land, upon those who are noble among the people. 3 But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied. 4 I will not pour out drink offerings to such gods, never take their names upon my lips. 5 O LORD, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot. 6 My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a rich inheritance. 7 I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me night after night. 8 I have set the LORD always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. 9 My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. 10 For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the pit. 11 You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 15:1–11

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

GOSPEL Mark 16:1–8

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation



If it weren’t for the fact that this is Year B of the liturgical calendar and the reading from Mark is the gospel assigned for the day, I would have probably chosen another Gospel from which to read the Easter story. All the other Gospels tell a fuller and more complete, even more dramatic, story of the Resurrection. For me, Mark’s announcement of Easter is really understated. In Mark’s Gospel, the big day is Good Friday. He builds up to that day for five chapters, beginning with Palm Sunday. I don’t know whether you’ve ever noted it or not, but the events of Holy Week take up one-third of the Gospel of Mark. He uses only 8 verses to describe the Resurrection — 8 verses compared with 5 chapters. For me that’s an understatement.
It was such an understatement that somebody felt they needed to add to it – so there is a second ending to the Gospel of Mark. Earlier manuscripts ended with chapter 16 verse 8; the 9th verse begins a second ending. Some of your Bibles note that. In fact, if you were to open your pew Bibles, you’ll see how that is highlighted. In the older Revised Standard Version, verses 9 — 20 are simply printed as a footnote. So, according to earlier manuscripts, Mark describes the Resurrection in just 8 verses. Now you understand why I say it’s an understatement. Easter Sunday is the most earth shattering, world changing event in history! So why do you suppose Mark tells this event in 8 verses?
Why such a glaring understatement? Could it be that Mark wanted to make the point that the story doesn’t end there in the First Century? Those first 8 verses are the beginning of the story of the good news of the Resurrection. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the reason he wrote only 8 verses. Maybe for Mark, Easter is to be a preface to the gospel that you and I would write. For isn’t it true that the real story of the Resurrection is still being written wherever and whenever anyone experiences the gift of new life that comes undeserved and unearned and unexplained?
With that in mind, it might then be good to lift some pungent truths out of this understatement of the most dramatic event in history. First, I think 3 verses tell it all. Starting in verse 3 we read: “And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?”’ It was quite the dilemma. They were moving quietly through the streets of Jerusalem toward a tomb in the garden. The first rays of sun were just beginning to give a hint of daybreak. If we were to look closely, there’s a look of sadness, of deep grief, in their faces. Their slow, somber steps suggest a weariness and heaviness of heart and spirit. They’re carrying spices to anoint the body of Jesus. As they walked slowly along, they asked a single question, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?”….
That stone was a tragic reminder of the death of Jesus. The women were still in a state of shock as they recalled the events of Friday. On Friday, they had seen their leader and Lord strapped to a post and stripped to His waist. They had seen a Roman soldier take a whip and beat Him again and again until His back was cut so deeply the flesh was torn lose. It was a terrible punishment. Men often died during these beating. Others went insane. On Friday, Jesus had been cruelly beaten. They saw Him crowned with thorns. He had been mocked and spit upon.
On Friday they heard the crowds yell for the release of Barabbas, a criminal, and cry out that Jesus should be crucified! On Friday they had seen Him carry the heavy cross through the streets of Jerusalem; they had seen Him stumble and fall; they watched as Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross for Him. On Friday, they heard the ring of the hammer against the nails as the spikes were driven through His wrists and feet. On Friday, they saw the cross lifted up and dropped into the ground. On Friday, they watched as Jesus struggled for every breath of air.
On Friday they heard His final words from the cross, “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46). On Friday they watched as His dead body was taken down from the cross, was wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a borrowed tomb. The cries of the mob, the shrieks of the crowd, the cursing of the thieves all the sounds still rang in their ears. The stone was a grim reminder of Jesus’ death. They had no thought or hope of resurrection. Who will roll away the stone?
And what about the stones in our lives? Our own death? Or the death of someone we love? I’m sure the stone sealing the tomb of Jesus was for those women a gruesome reminder of the “grim reaper” who had not only claimed Jesus, but would claim each of them. Woody Allen speaks for most of us when he says, “I don’t mind talking about death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But not only the mystery of death and the finality of that pronouncement, the stone represents the unfairness of life. Ask these women about the fairness of life and they’ll remind you that Jesus had done only good in His ministry.
Jesus had healed the sick and reached out to the hopeless. Still He died an agonizing death between two criminals. It wasn’t fair, and still isn’t. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer – all sorts of illnesses come along. Birth defects, tragic accidents things happen all the time where lives are twisted and broken. It doesn’t make any sense, and life isn’t fair. That stone is a reminder of the tragedy and adversity that can come to the people we love, just as it had come to those women.
The stone is a reminder of death and the unfairness of life, but also the other things which happen over which we have no control. Who will roll away the stone? But this is something we need to take note of about those Easter women. They kept on, walking through the pre-dawn darkness to the tomb — walking on, even though they were burdened by the question, “Who will roll away the stone?”
In a letter to the editor of Sojourners Magazine, Anne Cauzillo, helps us identify with these women. In her letter she wrote: “‘Recently, while working in a shelter for the homeless in Harlem, I found myself becoming more and more despondent with a seemingly hopeless situation. One day I was walking with my head down, letting depression and discouragement claim me, then a gentleman of Harlem, who had often greeted me on the streets, called out to me. “Hey, Anne, lift your head up. When you walk with your head up, you never lose hope.” We say Amen to those women who walked on toward a stone-sealed tomb, wondering how that stone would ever be rolled away — going on to perform their loving tasks, giving us a model.
It’s a model for us because “we weren’t created to be intimidated by unmovable stones. We were created to live victoriously – to share the Resurrection victory of Jesus Christ. God wants us to know that our life matters. It matters and every moment of our life is important. Which leads to the next verse which we need to look at, verse 6: “And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here; He is risen. Come see the place where they laid Him.”
It’s glorious news — but it’s not always easy to believe, is it? It took the women, and Jesus’ other followers, a long time to believe that Jesus was really alive. Look at those women’s response to this shout of Easter; in verse 8 we read: “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s the way the Gospel of Mark originally ended. “They said nothing, for they were afraid.”
He is not here; He is risen. The women couldn’t believe it — couldn’t take in the meaning of that. At best, it was wishful thinking. “He is not here; He is risen.” That was the truth, but the women were frightened. Yet, in their heart of hearts, they were wishing it were so. It was left to Paul in the New Testament to state the truth theologically. First Corinthians 15:22 says it, “As in Adam, all die; so in Christ shall all be made alive.” That’s the truth that gives us hope.
D. L. Moody claimed it, and so can we. “Some morning you will read in the papers,” said Moody once to a group of friends, “that D. L. Moody is dead. Don’t believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I was born of the flesh in 1837. I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die: That which is born of the Spirit shall live forever.” He’s right. Death cannot touch this glorious thing which is ours in fellowship with Jesus. “He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life.” “And death lies dead forever.” Is it incredible? Is it just wishful thinking? No.
That’s the truth which gives us hope. That’s quite possibly the reason Mark tells the story the way he does. Mark’s point is that the resurrection was undeserved, unearned, and unexpected. There’s no reason for it, but it’s true. God’s grace is given to us because of who God is, not because of what we’ve done.
It’s given to us — ‘As in Adam, all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Not tomorrow – today – this very moment, if by faith we accept His life-giving offer. Do you know what Easter is about? It’s about life – eternal life. It’s about a war of escape from eternal death and separation from God. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” That’s written in the present tense. We can claim it now – and when we die we’ll simply be ushered by God’s angels into another realm, a higher realm of reality where life will go on uninterrupted in fellowship with God and with those who were baptized and believed. And that moves us on now to the one other glorious truths at which we want to look.
Look next at verse 7: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He told you.” What a bracing truth. Christ always goes before us. Galilee was the site of the disciples’ first witness and mission. But for Jesus’ disciples, going to Galilee was also going home. The risen Lord goes before all His disciples, both when they are preaching the gospel news to the world and when they are attempting to live the Good News at home.
We’ve always had a “go-ahead God.” When Moses led the people away from Pharaoh and into the wilderness, the Lord went ahead of them as a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day. When the Israelites were struggling to establish their foothold in the land of Canaan, the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence in their midst, would always go ahead of them into battle. When the psalmists and poets of Israel described God’s ever-guiding presence, they sang of the “mighty arm of God” that went ahead of His people.
When God wanted to speak to the people, a divinely called prophet was sent ahead with words of warning and comfort for all Israel. When the political entity of Israel finally fell, God went ahead of the people into exile. When the women who had witnessed Jesus’ death and burial went to anoint His body with spices, God went ahead of them to roll away the stone from in front of the now empty tomb. God has been ahead of us every step along the way since our creation. And the Easter moment celebrates the greatest “go-ahead” event, when Jesus willingly “goes ahead” of us into the future, even to suffering and death.
If we then believe that God goes ahead of us into pain and suffering, torture and death, then how can we doubt God will be there ahead of us wherever life may take us? Just as He was “going ahead” of the disciples into Galilee, the risen Christ will “go ahead” of us into a new classroom. He will “go ahead” of us into a new family. He will “go ahead” of us into a new career. This is the secret of Easter. There is no place we can go, in this life or in the next, where we won’t find that God has already “gone ahead.”

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