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Sermon for Sunday 21 April 2019

First Reading                                                                                    Isaiah 65:17-25

17“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them. 24Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Psalm                                                                                                    Psalm 16

1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the LORD, “You are my LORD; I have no good apart from you.” 3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. 7 I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 8 I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 11 You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Second Reading                                                                  1 Corinthians 15:19-26

19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Gospel                                                                                                 Luke 24:1-12

1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, {the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee} went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.


Grace, mercy and peace to you this joyous Easter morning from God our heavenly Father and from Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior.

I read an intriguing story this past week about a pastor named Wayne.  When Wayne was in high school, he and a friend loved to pull pranks.  The great majority of these pranks were harmless and done in good fun.  One of the two friends owned a car in which you could pull back the upper part of the back seat and in turn slide into the trunk.  This is what gave them the idea for the prank.  One of them would hide in the trunk while the other would drive the car and pick up one of their other friends.  The two guys in the front would get involved in a deep conversation.  Meanwhile the one hiding in the trunk would remove the upper part of the backseat, crawl in and then quietly sit in the backseat as if he’d been there the whole time.  The person previously hiding would then suddenly join in on the conversation.  Needless to say, the reactions the two got were priceless.  Wayne shared all kinds of stories of the various startled responses that they got with this stunt.

As we know from experience, some surprises are good, and others are less than appreciated.  There are plenty of TV shows that capture the surprise of folks placed in staged situations.  There are ones we like to see, ones like military members returning home, without notice, to surprise their loved ones and then there are those that frighten the mess out of us.  I guess you could say that there are good surprises and bad surprises.  Isn’t it funny:  you can take a single event and you can get several completely different reactions.  For some the surprise is a joyous occasion.  For another it can be meet with confusion or ambivalence.  And for yet another, it could be devastating.  Surprise:  if I had to choose one word to characterize the reaction of Jesus’ followers that first Easter Sunday, it would be, “Surprise!”  

For the women who went to the tomb that morning, especially Mary Magdalene, Joanna and James’ mother Mary, the surprise that came was one of joy.  For the religious leaders, the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead was a surprise of great dread and concern.  For the disciples, especially Peter, it was either an occasion of disbelief or of marvel and confusion.  But for you, me and all Christians today, the empty tomb shouldn’t be a surprise.  The resurrection is, after all, the most astounding event in human history.

A Baptist church in Bangladesh was showing a film about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to an audience filled with people who had never before heard the gospel.  Little children sat in front and in the aisles.  The adults stood in the back.  As the story of Jesus’ crucifixion unfolded and Jesus’ abused and lifeless body was laid in the tomb, there were tears and audible gasps.  As the affected audience watched, one young boy suddenly spoke up.  “Don’t be afraid,” the little boy said.  “He gets up again!  I saw it before.”  Can you imagine being exposed to the Gospel for the first time and watching the crucifixion scene being reenacted?  And then through the power of the motion picture, to witness His resurrection?  Surprise!  He who was dead is now alive!

Another pastor tells of driving his five-year-old son past a local cemetery.  Of course, five-year-olds sometimes have an interesting perspective on things.  Noticing a large pile of dirt beside a newly dug grave, the boy pointed and said: “Look, Dad, one got out!”  Phil said he laughed at the time.  But, he writes, “. . . every time I pass a graveyard, I’m reminded of the One who got out.”

This morning, I’d like for you to see the events described in our gospel passage through the eyes of the women who first visited the tomb.  Imagine their surprise when they discover that Jesus “got out.”  These women had come to the tomb to finish what needed to be done to properly care for someone deceased.  It took a long time to anoint a body for burial, and those who placed Jesus in the tomb couldn’t complete the process before the sun went down on Friday evening.  The Jewish Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and ended at sundown on Saturday.  Since these were devout Jewish women, they were careful not to do any work on the Sabbath, even if that meant delaying the burial process of a cherished friend.  So, the women had to come back to the tomb on the first day of the week to complete the burial ritual.

In our gospel lesson we read, “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.  In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!  Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’”  Then they remembered his words.  When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others.  It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles . . .” 

Somebody saw a cartoon of the women after they had visited the tomb on Easter morning.  One woman is kneeling and weeping in joy, the other one is looking at her basket and commenting with a scowl on her face, “Well, I certainly hope you kept the receipt for all these burial spices.”  I seriously doubt any of the women were worried about the cost of the spices that morning.  I doubt they were worrying about anything.  

These women were the first witnesses of the most important event in history, and they were determined to share the good news; to share their surprise that Jesus is alive!  With that in mind, it would be good for us to reflect once again on the surprising elements of Easter, the first of which is, the resurrection marks the moment when Jesus defeated the bonds of death.  That’s the primary reason we’re here today isn’t it?  Death has been overcome.

Professional golfer Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer at age 33.  He wrote about that experience saying, “A genuine feeling of fear came over me–I could die from cancer.  But then another reality hit me even harder:  I’m going to die eventually anyway, whether from cancer or something else.  I am definitely going to die.  It’s just a question of when.  [Suddenly] everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me.  All I wanted to do was live.”  And that’s when he remembered something that his friend Larry Moody told him: “Zinger,” he said, “we’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying.  We’re in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living.”  And that’s what Easter is all about.

Listen again to the angel’s words, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”  We’re not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying.  Easter reminds us that there is hope and joy:  we’are in the land of the dying and we’re on our way to the land of the living.  Paul Azinger wrote about how his perspective on life changed as he underwent his cancer treatments and then returned to the PGA tour.  

Paul wrote, “The only way you will ever have true contentment is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I’m not saying that nothing ever bothers me, and I don’t have problems, but I feel like I’ve found the answer to the six-foot hole.  I know I’ll spend eternity with God, and I have a promise that as a child of God, He’ll help me deal with anything.  He promises to offer me contentment regardless of what life brings, even cancer.”  For all who possess this hope, the resurrection marks the moment when life overcame death.

The second thing the resurrection marks is the moment when hope overcame grief.  The power of death and loss and grief can destroy a person.  It can make us lose all hope.  Pastor Stephen Brown says he was devastated after his younger brother, Ron, died suddenly of a heart attack.  Ron was only in his forties, a popular district attorney, a terrific father.  Stephen never even got the chance to say goodbye.

Several weeks after Ron’s death, Stephen decided to visit his brother’s grave.  It was a cold, rainy afternoon in late winter.  Ron’s grave was not yet marked, and Stephen couldn’t find it.  As he trekked through the mud, his grief overwhelmed him.  Standing in the rain, Stephen began sobbing.  “God, this has been the worst month of my life, and now I can’t even find my brother’s grave.”  Suddenly Stephen sensed a presence near him, as though Christ had drawn alongside to help.  These same words that the angel spoke came to mind like a burst of light: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?’  “Those words comforted me,” Stephen later wrote, “and I haven’t been back to the cemetery since.  I don’t need to go back.  The One who loved Ron and knew him came to me in my grief.  He promised never to leave, and that has made all the difference in the world.”  Even death cannot destroy the hope of those who believe in Jesus Christ.  The resurrection marks the moment when hope overcame grief.

Finally, the resurrection marks the moment when we have to make a decision.  The question we must leave here today with is, will we leave here like the women, bursting with joy and telling everyone we know about the eternal life offered through knowing Jesus?  Or, will we leave here like Peter, who saw the empty tomb and the grave clothes and just walked away marveling and for the moment was unconvinced?  We could react like the disciples and simply dismiss the resurrection as a prank.  Or, we can leave here like the religious leaders, scared of what this means:  Angry that our world has changed and desperate to deny the event and all that it means? 

One of the most surprising elements to me, of the story of the first Easter, is the initial reaction of the disciples to the women’s testimony about finding the tomb empty and the announcement made by the angles.  Luke tells us that they didn’t believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.  After Jesus had explained to them multiple times what was to come, they still refused to believe.  There was one exception.  According to Luke, Peter got up and ran to the tomb.  Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.  What a tepid response to such a dramatic event!  

The resurrection demands a much greater response than that.  It is the decisive moment in human history.  Jesus, who is the living embodiment of the one true God, died.  Not sorta died, not in a shock induced comma; died.  Dead, as in no physiological or neurological activity.  Then after three days, by the power of the Father, Jesus came back to life.  There is no other belief system on earth that teaches this about their founder or prophet or god.  The resurrection serves as the foundation of the Christian faith and the Christian church.  Without the resurrection, all we have is a nice philosophy for living.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 wrote, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).  If the resurrection is a lie, then the Christian faith is a lie.  If the resurrection is a lie, then death is the end of the story for all of us.  If the resurrection is a lie, then you had no reason to get up and come here this morning.  If the resurrection is a lie, then millions of Christian churches across the world should close their doors for good.  If the resurrection is a lie, then all the hospitals and orphanages and homeless shelters built in Jesus’ name should close their doors.  If the resurrection is a lie, why in the world would the people of France be willing to spend untold millions to rebuild Norte Dame Cathedral?  Ultimately, what do any of these have to offer?  But the good news this morning is, the resurrection isn’t a lie.  It’s real.  It’s true.  And it’s the most important truth known to humanity.

A young woman, for years, kept house for her father and mother.  Morning, noon, and night she got their tea out of a can which had a picture of the rock of Gibraltar on the lid.  Later in life she was able to take a trip to Egypt.  On the way, one bright morning, she looked through her porthole of the ship and saw the rock of Gibraltar–the same rock she had seen on that can of tea all those years.  “I almost cried out,” she said.  “I kept whispering to myself, ‘Then it’s real!  It’s been real all the time!’”  That’s how we will feel on that day when the dead in Christ are raise . . . It’s real!  It’s been real all the time!

This is why we proclaim the mystery of our faith regularly when we celebrate the Eucharist:  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Christ is risen from the dead and because He lives, we too have the promise of life everlasting.  We too have the promise of life everlasting in the presence of God for all eternity.

New York City pastor T. DeWitt Talmage preached a sermon over 100 years ago.  Talmage illustrated our coming resurrection by referring to what was then a new-fangled invention called a phonograph.  He spoke of how a person’s voice could be recorded and preserved on a cylinder and then played back again and again even after the person had died.  Then he asked this question, “If man can do that, cannot God, without half-trying, return the voice of your departed?”  But if God can bring back the voice, then why not the lips and the face and the body and bones?  He concludes with this wonderful sentence: “If man can do the phonograph, God can do the resurrection.”  This is the message of Easter and the greatest news of all time:  God can, and God did!  God raised Christ from the grave.  And God will raise all those whom we love who are in Christ.  I’m here to tell you, the resurrection is real, it’s a fact and we have hope!

In his classic novel, The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas has a character called Marcellus who had become fascinated by Jesus.  He wrote letters to his fiancée Diana in Rome.  He told her about Jesus’ teachings, about His miracles, then about His crucifixion and His resurrection.  Finally, he informed her that he had decided to become a disciple of Jesus.  In her letter of response, Diana said, “What I feared was that it might affect you.  It’s a beautiful story.  Let it remain so.”  She concluded, “We don’t have to do anything about it, do we?”  The answer to her question is a resounding, Yes!

Yes we do have to do something about it.  We must decide:  first we must resolve, is the resurrection the truth or a lie?  If you refuse to believe the truth of the resurrection, then you are most to be pitied as Paul said.  However, you and I have no reason to be pitied because we believe it is the truth, it’s a fact, and the resurrection marks the most important moment in human history.  And because the resurrection is a fact, this calls us to a very special kind of life here and now–a life following Jesus.

When Jesus was born, a host of angels announced it and sang His praises.  But the only ones who heard it were a few poor shepherds working the night shift.  When Jesus rose from the dead, only two angels showed up to announce it, and they told it to a handful of grieving women.  It’s a sad reality, fewer and fewer people today accept this truth and the message of Jesus.  Far too many people today are like the religious leaders who do everything they can to deny the facts of the resurrection. 

This means that sadly fewer and fewer will experience the joy of Jesus’ return and of our eternal heavenly reward.  But you and I have been given the power to change that sad reality.  You and I, as believers in the greatest event in history, must leave here and go tell everyone we know, “Jesus is alive!”  The resurrection is the foundation of our beliefs as Christians and as such, you and I must leave here today proclaiming, He is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Hallelujah!


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