“So Send I You”: An Easter Sermon

(Sermon preached on March 31, 2013.  Text: John 20:1, 19-23.)

staircaseOn the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb and found it empty. (John 20:1)

I.

Preaching on Easter Sunday is difficult for us pastors.  Sure, we’re excited about the occasion; we like to see the sanctuary swelling with great attendance, and we like to see family and friends visiting from out of town.  But the Scripture text is always the same.  Every year.  There is not much room for diversion and we can’t very well preach on anything we want.  People dress in their Easter best to hear a good Easter sermon.

Martin Copenhaven, a veteran pastor and popular author, is one of the few lucky pastors who still finds something new to preach even after pastoring the same church for over 18 years.  John Buchanon, another pastor and editor of the The Christian Century, is not so hopeful and positive.  Ethicist Reinhold Neibhur once confessed that he visited a church on Easter Sunday that had the least amount of preaching because no pastor, he argued, was up to the task of speaking to such weighty matters.

I must admit that I too feel that I’m not up to the task.  I feel that I am still in the dark many an Easter Sunday.  I have trouble finding new things to talk about.  But, then again, it’s in the dark where a lot of things take place:

  • It was in the dark of wilderness that Jesus was tempted and learned that no one lives by bread alone, but by the very words of God.
  • It was in the dark that Jesus gave his final breath: “From noon on,” Matthew wrote in his gospel, “darkness came over the whole land.”
  • The resurrection occurs in darkness.  Those of us who gathered in the wee hours of the mourning for sunrise service were too late.  Jesus already came like–you guessed it–“a thief in the night.”

II.

But, you know, I’m not the only one in the dark around here.  I have a feeling that many of you are in the dark too.  In fact, many people come here every week precisely because they’re in the dark.  It’s like when I hear people complain that churches are full of hypocrites.  Of course there are hypocrites in the church, dummy!  Why else go to church than to know that the only way to be saved from hypocrisy is found right here in this place, at the foot of this cross?

It’s because we’re in the dark that we come like King Zedekiah coming to Jeremiah at night, wondering, “Is there a word from the Lord?”  Or the Reverend Nicodemus sneaking away to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness to ask how he can be saved.  Or like Pharaoh, who comes to Moses after nightfall to ask for a blessing.

By being in the dark and owning up to our sin or our regrets or our hypocrisy, we become just like Jesus’ disciples on Easter day: We are nowhere to be found, locked in some room scared to death.  We fear the darkness and emptiness; but, we start in darkness before we move towards the light!

III.

John’s Easter story in chapter 20 is appropriate for those of us stumbling in the dark because the story doesn’t begin in glory or in the midst of Alleluias or hosannas.  Rather, according to verse 1, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “while it was still dark” to finish the burial rituals left undone from two days ago.

She came, according to local pastor Bill Self, like a sorry intern sent to clean up campaign headquarters after her boss lost the big election the night before.

So, here we have Mary at the tomb while it was dark and, upon finding the tomb empty, expected the worst.  She went to get Peter and another disciple, and they come to the tomb.  Same thing: They expected the worst and they headed back home, shoulders slumped ever lower, and went back to bed.

Mary remained there, however, and she wept.  Unlike Peter, she was not afraid of the dark or emptiness.  As a person who once had 7 demons in her, she knew a thing or two about darkness.

Finally, angels appeared and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Then Jesus appeared and repeated the question.  Mary, still enshrouded in darkness, didn’t recognize him and mistook him as the gardener.

Jesus called her name–light pierced the darkness!–and she recognized him.  They embrace, and he told her not to hold on, that his work was far from finished.  She ran and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

Interesting, this scripture is:  It’s not until nightfall–darkness–that Jesus appeared to the disciples for the first time on Easter with “peace” and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is in the midst of this dark that we are reminded how John’s Gospel begins in the first place:  “The light pierces the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

The Easter story moves quickly from here like a good action movie:  Next, we get the story of Thomas, himself in the dark and wanting proof.  Then Jesus disappeared for a while.  He left the disciples clueless, and the disciples went back to doing what’s familiar–they go fishing.

They fished all day long, and scripture tells us: “But that night, they caught nothing.”  Then: daybreak! (John 21:4)  Jesus appeared to them a third time, the disciples caught fish, Jesus made breakfast, they shared communion and–boom!– light pierced the darkness yet again, they recognized Jesus.

Jesus asked Peter over breakfast (three times): “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter responded, “You know I love you.”

“Then feed my sheep.”  To the rest of the disciples, Jesus added, “Follow me.”

It was a second commissioning because it was back on Easter that Jesus commanded them:  “Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

IV.

Once again, with a “feed my sheep!” Jesus pierces the darkness, and our own darkness too.  Will Willimon, in the devotional Disciplines 2013, puts it this way:

“Here in the darkness, we are witnessing the birth of the church, a group of half-understanding, often cowardly, people trying but not always succeeding to follow Jesus…down a path few of us really want to go.”

The difficulty of coming up with an Easter sermon simply reminds us that even after all these thousands of years–even after Jesus has appeared in our lives so many times–that we, too, still get stuck in the dark.

And darkness surrounds us.  There is…

  • Exploitation and mass consumerism consuming us in its slick blackness.
  • Broken tax codes that leave too many in the darkness of inequality and injustice.
  • War and violence that brings its deathly shadow to too many lands.
  • Poverty and hunger that creates dark in the pit of the stomach.
  • Cancer and grief and illness–a darkness that lingers and lingers and lingers…

We, like the disciples, continue to stumble in darkness, and we need Jesus’ light yet again to pierce it, to war against it, to remind us that we are not in the dark and empty space all alone.  We need bread broken, the taste of juice whetting our lips to awaken us from our slumber.

And we still have Jesus asking us–not once, not three times, but over and over and over again:  “Do you love me?”

“Yes, Jesus, we do!”

“Then feed my sheep!  Just as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

“But how Jesus?  It’s too dark?  We can’t see in front of our very eyes!”

V.

By walking through the Easter story, we walk with Mary and the disciples through these three movements:

  1. We start in the grief and sorrow and dark of Good Friday.
  2. We move to discovery and experience of Easter morning.
  3. And, after that, we repeat communion and get Jesus’ repetitive but never redundant commissioning.

It’s a movement we do continually because we will always stumble, but even in the darkest hour, light pierces our darkness yet again!

VI.

In a recent article in Desert Spirituality, occupational therapist, Mary Gilligan, tells a story of a time she was hospitalized for a serious illness.  She couldn’t eat for days other than those lousy ice chips–you know what I’m talking about.  Between her hunger and the medication, she experienced hallucinations and bad dreams.

She tried to pray, but no words–not even the “Hail Marys” she knew as a Catholic–brought her comfort.  She drifted in and out of consciousness, the pain was excruciating.  Then, one day, she had a vision:

She found herself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in darkness.  With just enough strength to take it one step at a time, she began to ascend.  Each step brought her closer to the light until, finally–like a child with a father–she saw herself crawling in Jesus’ lap.*

She held her hand.  She rubbed her head.  She spoke words of comfort to her:

“There will be a long journey ahead, but I will be with you every step of the way.”

Reminds me of the hymn we sang this morning, “Because He Lives”:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.  Because He lives, all fear is gone..”

It was in a similar place of darkness–in fear, behind locked doors–that Jesus gave the disciples strength to take their first step towards the light.  That is the same strength Jesus gives us today.  It’s not much–only a “Peace be with you”–but it’s enough for today…and tomorrow.

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus tells us as he pierces our darkness, “So send I you.”

It’s when we see and experience the light that we find ourselves running like Mary with a simple message, “I have seen the Lord!”

Amen and amen.

“Christmas Victory”: A Christmas Sermon

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem.  They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness.” (Zech. 8:7-8)

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked…he killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matt. 2:16-17)

“Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.” (Rev. 12:4b)

I.

For the past few weeks–about four advent candles ago–we have been taking a close look at what this whole Advent and Christmas thing means to us.  I must admit: Finding a fresh voice for an old tale has been difficult for me–We so want a Christmas that is like a Snickers bar, something that simply satisfies.  We sing, we remind each other in conversation, and we preach that Christmas is ultimately about the coming of the Christ-Child.  That’s what Advent means, after all, “coming.”

Yet, in the back of our mind, we also (I think) instinctively know that this yearning for Christ’s coming is more than just a ploy to get us into the “reason for the season.”  It’s a yearning for Christ’s return.  You know, all of that Second Coming business we hear about in doomsday sermons and read about in that Left Behind book series.

When we mention the Second Coming of Christ, its hard not to want to change the subject because it has been tied to doomsday for so long.  Our blood pressure begins to rise, and we start to recall all of the images that usually relate to the Second Coming: the blowing of trumpets, earthquakes and dark skies, antichrists and four-headed monsters.  Frightening images, for sure.

II.

I remember a period in my Christian life (when I was in high school) when I started to take a closer look at this Second Coming business.  I knew that, eventually, when Christ comes, the backdrop of our spiritual lives–the warfare between good and evil, angels and demons–would break forth into plain sight.

I wanted to be prepared, so I began reading all sorts of books.  One set of books were novels by Frank Peretti, who wrote captivating tales of said spiritual warfare breaking out onto the earth.  I read those books, like “Piercing the Darkness,” and became all the more fearful about this whole matter.  It was the type of fear that kept me in line.  (“Is this where you want to be when Jesus comes back?!”)

We pray for Christ to come, but do we really want Christ to come?

As I got older, this fear of good and evil grew until, finally, I became so sick of that Christian life.  It was in college that my belief of God’s condemnation–God’s judgment–in my life became too heavy to bear in the first place, and I wanted to cast off the whole lot altogether.

Now, mind you, I didn’t go off of the deep end.  I didn’t start binge-drinking or sleeping around.  I didn’t start some voodoo cult.  But my friends, my wife included, did notice a difference.  I prayed less; I became more cynical about my faith; I certainly didn’t talk about Jesus all that much.  It was a crisis of faith.

I was just sick of living in fear every day, wondering when Jesus was going to come back and judge me, along with everyone else–the living and the dead.

III.

We have come together today to recall several Christmas stories that, on the surface, seem rather frightening.  The two stories–from Matthew 2:13-23 and Revelation 12:1-11–both have in common threads and similarities, and both deal with the Christmas message in one way or another.*

The first story comes from Matthew’s gospel and has to do with a king who wanted to insure a stable reign.  Upon hearing from some traveling magi that a “king” was born, Herod signed an executive order to have all of the children in and around Bethlehem (two years and under) killed.  This would have insured that no rival, no “alternative king,” would supplant Herod’s already fragile rule.

For those of us who have little ones, this is a frightening story indeed, a story of genocide against the most vulnerable in society.   Matthew even broke out in liturgical hymnody as a result of the dread within this tale–a quote from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation!”

We know, however, that Herod didn’t succeed, for only a short time before his executive order, Joseph and Mary made their way to the wilderness landscape of Egypt.

IV.

The second story is not unlike the first one, aside from the fact that it uses a lot more poetry and metaphor.  This story sits at the center of John’s Revelation and dramatically tells of a woman–clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet–who is about to give birth.

It then tells how, while the woman goes into labor, a great red dragon appears and stands over her, ready to devour her newborn.  At this point, the narrative speeds up like an action flick:  The moment she gives birth, the baby is whisked away to heaven.  She makes a run for it to a wilderness place prepared for her by God–A place very much like Egypt.

If that wasn’t frightening enough, the text tells us that war breaks out in heaven between a cohort of angels and the dragon.  The angels manage to defeat the dragon, who falls to earth and runs rampant, tormenting all of humanity.

And here, not unlike our first Christmas story from Bethlehem, the text breaks out into a hymn–But this hymn is not one of lamentation, but victory:  Christ and His saints conquer the dragon by the blood of the Lamb, the Word of their testimony, and perseverance through adversity, even unto death itself (Rev. 12:10-12).

Within this hymn, within the power of these words–the praise of the saints and elders and angels, all of whom are confident in Christ’s reign–we see something special happening.   Something begins to shift and transform and morph.  It is the power of God coming forth from His Word, revealed and proclaimed in this place (see Rev. 1:3).

We enter the text frightened…Like we enter the first story; we are so overwhelmed and scared–A dragon, Herod, the Roman empire are ready to devour that Christ-Child who was said to be the ruler over all nations for all time–And we can’t help but to RUN, RUN!

Run, with Mary and Joseph to Egypt!  Run with the woman, she who is clothed with the sun–Run to the wilderness!   …To the place where this whole, grand story started in the first place!

Egypt!  A place of slavery and suffering and fear, but ultimately a place of God’s liberation and freedom and victory! Victory: Over the powers of darkness and principalities and spiritual forces, over all of the Pharaohs and Herods and Dragons in this world.

These are frightening adversaries, but there is also liberation in the message of Christmas.  Fear does not have to have the final word, and that’s the Good News of this season.

V.

It was right after my sophomore year in college, at the tail end of my crisis of faith, when I went back home, as I did every summer.  I had, as I mentioned, become quite cynical with this whole Christian faith thing; so, when I went into my bedroom (which my parents left undisturbed while I was away), you could imagine the rush of emotions I had when I saw all of those old books by Frank Peretti and other doomsday authors on my bookshelf.

I remember taking all of those books and, in disgust, throwing them into a huge garbage bag and tossing them into the garbage.

You see, folks, what I discovered from that act was not that I was throwing God away, for certainly God had been with me the entire time.  Rather, I was throwing away the whole notion that my faith was to be lived out under the heavy hand of God’s condemnation–the fear!–that lurked within the pages of bad theology.

It was a throwing off of the fear of loss–a dragon who devoured my Christmas hope within my heart–in exchange for an Exodus liberation.

It was within those pivotal summer months that I heard God’s call to the ministry.  God called me out of Egypt (Herod was dead, the dragon defeated!) and brought me into a place of liberation and of victory.

It was as if I heard God telling me: “Too many of My People live under a yoke of fear rather than in the light of Jesus’ liberation!”

VI.

We fear that we can’t please God.  We fear that God has our number.  We fear that God is punishing us whenever we face hardship.  A sermon William Sloane Coffin wrote after his son died in a car accident (his son was 24 years old), says this:

“Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels” (see notes below for source).

We fear so much, we almost forget what it’s like to approach God from a place of adoration and grace–We have gotten used to the dragons and the Herods of our life, we forget that what we approach in Christmas time is a baby, innocent and pure–a symbol of God’s love, a person who stands ready to crucify our fears once and for all, and even destroying death itself.

…I can’t help but to sing a song of my own!

The Lord is my light and my salvation! The Lord is my light and my salvation!  The Lord is my light and my salvation!  Whom shall I fear?

We no longer fear because Christmas is ultimately about life and not death.  We know that Jesus is not dead–His words and works did not end in Revelation.  Herod killed the wrong children!  Ours is a worship not focused on an historical figure–someone on the History or Discovery channels–but on a contemporary, living Christ whose reign lasts forever and ever, whose leadership continues to speak hope into our lives, whose Spirit brings us “from partial to fuller truth” with every passing moment.

I can’t help but to break out into poetry yet again, and read “Proclaim Liberty” by Kenneth Sehested:

Let praise leap from the lungs/ascend the throat/rattle the teeth and/flutter the tongue./The blessed Haunt of Zion/calls out to all flesh

To this Embrace, everything/that has breath shall come./The God who lingers in slave/quarters assails every/Pharaoh’s palace:

Let my people go!  Proclaim liberty throughout the land!

Independence from the/Reign of Death has been declared!/  The boundaries of transgression/have been breached.

The Liberty Bell of Creation/echoes across the hills and plains./The God who forges a people/of redemption sets the covenant/of freedom as the bond of bounty:

Proclaim liberty throughout the land!

Fear no more!  Amen, and Amen!

****

Sermon notes and sources:

*The interpretation of Revelation 12 is, as one would expect, hotly debated.  I must admit that I am making a leap (quite a leap some would argue) in making the story of the pregnant woman and dragon a Christmas one.  There is, however, the notion that the artistry of Revelation is within the interpretation itself.  The mystery and magic of Revelation, I contend, allows for such alternative readings.  Mind you, I would never submit the interpretation I use in this sermon to a scholarly journal; but it works overall, especially when set against Herod’s Christmas genocide in Matthew 2.

William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Tom Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), p. 264.

The paragraph that includes the phrase “from partial to fuller truth” is a re-envisioning (both thematic and in grammar) of a paragraph in Harry Emerson Fosdick’s classic sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” also in A Chorus of Witnesses, p. 244.

Kenneth Sehested, “Proclaiming Liberty,” in In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public (Raleigh: Publications Unltd., 2009), pp. 60-61.