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Sunrise Sermon for Easter 4 April 2021

First Reading: Exodus 15:1-11

1Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. 2The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. 4Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 5The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. 6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. 7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. 8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ 10You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”

Psalm 118:15-29

15There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: 16“The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! the right hand of the Lord is exalted! the right hand of the Lord has triumphed!” 17I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. 18The Lord has punished me sorely, but he did not hand me over to death. 19Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord. 20“This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter.” 21I will give thanks to you, for you answered me and have become my salvation. 22The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. 25Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. 26Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord. 27God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar. 28“You are my God, and I will thank you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.” 29Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8

6bDo you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Gospel: John 20:1-18

1Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples went back to their homes. 11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” — and that he had said these things to her.

Christ is Alive!

Pastor Billy Strayhorn tells a wonderful true story about a pastor who was asked to conduct a funeral and graveside service for a member of his church.  There was however, a problem; the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church.  The pastor wasn’t feeling well so he decided to ride with the Funeral Director in the hearse.  By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the pastor was truly sick with flu-like symptoms.  Despite his illness, he made it through the service, but was deathly pale and obviously not well.  As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the hearse since it was now empty.  Since there were curtains over the windows, no one would be able to see him.  The pastor gladly took the funeral director up on the offer and promptly fell asleep.  Sometime later, the pastor awoke when the vehicle stopped.  

Taking a moment to fully awaken, he slowly drew the side curtain back to see where he was.  Suddenly he was face to face with a gas station attendant who happened to be pumping gas.  Needless to say, the attendant was startled to see a body in the back of the hearse rise up and stare back at him.  With all the color drained from his face and his eyes as wide as saucers, the attendant bolted and ran for the office, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain.  “I’m pretty sure,” says Pastor Strayhorn, “that’s how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning . . . felt.  What happened that first Easter is an amazing story.  

A man had risen from the dead.  Occasionally, we hear about someone whose heart has stopped and is given CPR and revived.  But three days in a covered and guarded cave?  Other than Lazarus, this had never happened before, nor has it happened since in all of human history.  Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was once asked if he believed in the resurrection.  “Of course I do,” said Huckabee.  “Dead people vote in every election we have in Arkansas.  Resurrection is very real to us.”  Huckabee was of course being humorous.  But one woman took this question more seriously.  

The woman was sitting in church during Advent and in the course of the sermon the pastor asked this question, “What do you really want for Christmas this year?”  The woman said she nearly rose from her pew to answer saying, “[What] I would really like [for Christmas is] to believe in the resurrection.”  Sadly, I believe that there are a good many people in our churches in that same boat.  They have a difficult time believing Jesus actually died and then by the power of the Father was raised from the dead.  I say this is sad because without the Resurrection there is no Christian faith. St. Paul wrote, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.  But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:19-20). 

If we really believed in the resurrection, if we really believed that when we leave this world we shall stand before God clothed in a new body, if we really believed that Christ lives and that He is in the world today, then our lives should reflect this fact.  Believing in the Resurrection should cause us to live more confident, more courageous, more committed lives.  It is a fact; Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Yet, that’s too much for some to accept.  Even though Jesus appeared to many of His followers after His resurrection, some of the disciples as well as cynical critics have struggled with this reality.  We can read that in the biblical testimony.

Some forward that His disciples stole His body.  If you recall, that was Mary Magdalene’s response when she first saw the empty tomb.  “She came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’” (John 20:2).  Matthew puts the blame on the chief priests for the popularity of this stolen body scenario.  He says in chapter 28 that the chief priests gave the soldiers a large sum of money to say that His disciples came during the night and stole Christ’s body while they were asleep.  Then Matthew adds, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (v. 15).  For some, the stolen body scenario was credible.

Others contend that Jesus wasn’t really dead when He was laid in the empty tomb, He simply passed out from the excruciating pain and only seemed to be dead.  One lady wrote into a question-and-answer forum.  “Dear Sirs,” she wrote, “Our pastor said on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health.  What do you think? (Signed) Sincerely, Bewildered.”  Someone on the forum named Charles wrote back: “Dear Bewildered, beat your preacher with a cat-of-nine-tails with 39 heavy strokes, [ram a crown of thorns down on his head, make him carry a heavy beam until he drops under its weight, then] nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for six hours; run a spear through his side . . . put him in an airless tomb for [another] 36 hours and see what happens.  Sincerely, Charles.”

The resurrection is simply too hard for some people to swallow.  As far as they’re concerned, there must be some rational explanation anything but a resurrection.  And yet it’s true.  Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  He is alive today.  And how can we say this with such confidence?  There are three good reasons this Easter morning.  First, we have credible witnesses.  The good thing is, people don’t have to take our word for it.  They can go read the record themselves.  That’s what attorney and journalist Lee Strobel did.

For a time, Strobel says he was too intellectual to accept the resurrection of Jesus as established fact.  In his book God’s Outrageous Claims he writes: “I used to consider the Resurrection to be a laughable fairy tale.  After all, Yale Law School trained me to be coldly rational, and my years of sniffing for news at the Chicago Tribune had only toughened my naturally cynical personality.  But intrigued by changes in my wife after she became a Christian, I spent nearly two years systematically using my journalistic and legal experience to study the evidence for the Resurrection and the credibility of Jesus’ claims to being God.  I emerged totally convinced and gave my life to Christ . . .”

“I challenge you, if you have any doubts at all about the historical record of the resurrection, to go back and read the story for yourself.  The story doesn’t read as something that was made up.  It’s too chaotic.  Notice the initial reaction of the disciples to the resurrection, they didn’t believe it themselves.  Mark tells us that when Mary Magdalene and the other women told the eleven disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, even “they did not believe it” (16:11).  Luke is more blunt: “[The disciples] did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).  Even after the risen Christ had made Himself known to many witnesses, Thomas, still had his doubts.  He had to see the scars for himself (John 20:24-25).

Even when Christ made His final appearance to His disciples on the mountain where Christ gave them the great commission, Matthew adds these incredible words, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:16-17).  They were in the very presence of the risen Christ, “but [still] some doubted.”  The Resurrection isn’t propaganda.  It isn’t a story fabricated to deceive.  

No one tried to iron out all of the wrinkles in order to convince us.  This is the jumbled testimony of actual witnesses to the most amazing event in history.  These witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection recorded their testimony with all the doubts of their friends and the accusations of their enemies left intact.  That’s reason number one, we have eyewitnesses.  Reason number two is that this event changed people’s lives.

The disciples were absolutely transformed.  They moved from doubting and fearful to dynamic and ferocious in their witness to the resurrection.  Before Christ was crucified Simon Peter denied he even knew Jesus and yet, a mere seven weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter told the story of Christ’s death and resurrection with such conviction and power that three thousand people became believers (Acts 2:41).  How do you explain such a change in a person’s demeanor?  Even more impressive is that none of those who claimed to have met Christ after His resurrection ever recanted.  They were persecuted, tortured, even martyred, and right to the very end they stayed true to their testimony.  Jesus is alive!

Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of an encounter he once had with a teacher of Zen.  Pennington was at a retreat.  As part of the retreat, each person met privately with this Zen teacher.  Pennington says that at his meeting, the Zen teacher sat there smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth.  Finally, the teacher said: “I like Christianity.  But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection.  I want to see your resurrection!”

Pennington notes that, “With his directness, the teacher was saying what everyone else implicitly says to Christians: You are a Christian.  You are risen with Christ.  Show me (what this means for you in your life) and I will believe.”   That’s how people know if the resurrection is true or not.  Does the resurrection affect how we live?  It should!  The amazing thing is that every one of Jesus’ disciples passed this test.  Their lives were dramatically turned upside down by their encounter with Christ.

Why would you ever make something like this up and stick to it when stones are being hurled at you as they were at Stephen, the first Christian martyr?  Or as you were being crucified upside down like Simon Peter?  Or cruelly mistreated as did the other disciples?  It’s hard to dispute the testimony of someone who is so convinced of what they have experienced that they’re willing to suffer and die to tell the story.  A day after the terrible tragedy at Columbine High, CNN journalist Larry King did a live interview with a teenage girl named Mickie Cain, a student who had witnessed the massacre.

Mickie was having a difficult time maintaining her composure and was able to blurt out only a few words before lapsing into uncontrollable sobs.  Larry King was patient and gave her plenty of time to regain her composure.  Mickie recounted the chilling story: “Let me tell you about my friend Cassie,” she said. “[Cassie] was amazing . . . She completely stood up for God when the killers asked her if there was anyone [in the classroom] who had faith in Christ.  She spoke up [and said she did] and they shot her for it.”

The critical question is, would you make such a sacrifice for something that you knew was patently untrue?  Of course not.  And neither would those early disciples of Christ.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read the record for yourself.  These were not wild-eyed fanatics.  They were intelligent men and women, responsible men and women, sensible men and women, but something dramatic had happened in their life, something so dramatic, so extraordinary that it couldn’t be denied.  They met the risen Christ and they wouldn’t testify otherwise, even while being tortured.

The witnesses are so credible, the change in their lives so dramatic, that their testimony cannot be disregarded.  However, I said there were three reasons that I can say with confidence that Christ rose from the grave and that is, that without the resurrection, the presence of suffering in our world simply cannot be explained.  You and I have wrestled with this problem many times.  

The questions is asked, how can a loving God place us in a world where there is so much suffering?  In my heart I can only accept one real explanation.  It’s because the only way we grow spiritually is by struggling with pain.  A person who never confronts pain and suffering will forever remain a spiritual infant.  The real question we need to ask is, to what end do we grow spiritually?  We experience pain and suffering so that we might become like Christ, that we might be ready to dwell with Him eternally.  The only way I can accept some of the deep tragedies I see in this world is to believe that there is a better world to come.

Consider the fact of aging.  Our flesh withers, our energy declines.  This body is simply not capable of staying young forever.  You may recall years ago when fitness legend Jack LaLanne celebrated his seventieth birthday by towing 70 boats containing 70 people for a mile across Long Beach Harbor.  And he did it by holding the rope in his teeth.  Why?  Well, he was handcuffed and wearing leg shackles!  It was amazing!   Jack lived well into his 90’s.  Even the fittest of us will die.  But the good news of the Resurrection is that this world is not our final destination; it’s simply a prelude to a much greater life to come.

Without the resurrection, it’s simply impossible to explain a world in which people suffer.  But the resurrection is real.  Christ is alive, let Christians sing!  Lee Strobel is only one among many intelligent and scientifically trained men and women who have studied the record carefully and come to the conclusion that the evidence is overwhelming: Christ rose from the dead.  He is alive, and He is with us today.

I ran across a beautiful story recently about a woman named Rosemary who works in the Alzheimer’s Unit of a nursing home.  Rosemary and a colleague named Arlene brought the residents of the home together one Good Friday afternoon to view Franco Zeffirelli’s acclaimed production Jesus of Nazareth.  They wondered whether these elderly Alzheimer’s patients would even know what was going on, but they thought it might be worth the effort.

When they finally succeeded in getting everyone into position, they started the video.  Rosemary was pleasantly surprised at the quiet attention being paid to the screen.  At last came the scene where Mary Magdalene comes upon the empty tomb and sees Jesus’ body isn’t there.  An unknown man, in reality the risen Christ, asks Mary why she’s looking for the living among the dead.  Mary runs as fast as she can back to the disciples and tells Peter and the rest with breathless excitement, “He’s alive!  I saw Him, I tell you!  He’s alive.”  The doubt in their eyes causes Mary to pull back.  “You don’t believe me . . . You don’t believe me!”

From somewhere in the crowd of Alzheimer’s patients came the clear, resolute voice of Esther, one of the patients.  “We Believe You,” she said, “We Believe You!”  Well, Esther, I believe it too.  The evidence is overwhelming, we have eyewitnesses whose lives were profoundly impacted, so much so that they were willing to die for their testimony, and furthermore, life makes no sense without the Resurrection.  It’s a fact!  Jesus Christ has died, He has risen and He will come again.  Hallelujah! Amen

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