Another Boring Easter Sermon

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Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling over death by death. Come awake, Come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Christ is risen from the dead, We are one with him again. Come awake, come awake, Come and rise up from the grave.// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! The glory of God has defeated the night!// Oh death, where is your sting? Oh hell, where is your victory? Oh church, come stand in the light! Our God is not dead, He’s alive, He’s alive!

I don’t know what you all think, but those words from Matt Maher’s song, “Christ is Risen,” are some of my favorites from Christian radio because they make me want to dance and shout and cry and praise and do all kinds of crazy things. That’s some serious stuff there. If it weren’t for all those lessons about self-control we learn growing up, I would be a slobbery mess up here just thinking about them. It’s happened before.

The words of that song tell the Easter story from so many directions. They proclaim the historical truth of the resurrection, that our God was dead and is now alive. They point out the irony in this whole situation, that death, which is the only undefeatable force in the universe, proved how strong it was by killing God, and that was its very undoing. The words from this song tell us that the Church is united to Christ and is united in Christ. And then it calls us to wake up, because the time for sleep is over. You’ve been dead, Church, but it’s time to get up and stand in the light. You’ve been quiet for way too long, and it’s time to make some noise!

(Note for readers: If you’re not cheering at this point, you’re probably not alone. But you should be. This story should make you cheer. For reference’s sake, on a 1-10 scale measuring audible excitement, I expected a 2 or 3 from “the average church” and FBC-Marissa was at about a 6. They’ve got some spunk in them. 🙂 )

But we don’t know what to do with that kind of excitement, which probably goes a long way to explaining why the American church is overall pretty stagnant in its membership and missions outreach. We were the dominant cultural force in our country for so long, and we relied on the power it gave us to assimilate people into our midst, but now we’ve lost that position and that power and so we’re waiting on someone to tell us what to do next because we don’t understand what’s going on and how all this happened and what it all means. Even on Easter Sunday.

Not much has changed in 2000 years, because that first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ followers had that same uncertainty. Their world had been dramatically altered because their teacher, their leader was dead – had been arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced, killed, buried, and sealed in a tomb. Turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of John, chapter 20, where we’ll pick up the story at this point and read verses 1-18.

TEXT

There’s a lot of uncertainty in this text. It was still dark when Mary got to the tomb, but she could see the stone had been moved away from the tomb, so she ran to tell two of the disciples that Jesus’ body was missing. When they arrive, they’re apparently confused. We don’t get much commentary on Peter’s reaction, and we’re told the other disciple saw and believed, but still didn’t understand about the resurrection, so I’m not sure what it was that he believed. All we know is that they went home, which sounds like they were disappointed. Silly boys.

At this point the story switches back to focus on Mary Magdalene. She is crying outside the tomb,still wondering where Jesus’ body could be. She looks inside the tomb to find two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. When they ask what’s wrong, she tells them. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus enters the scene. Well, Mary doesn’t know it’s Jesus, but we do. She thinks he’s the gardener until the Good Shepherd calls one of the sheep by name. He sends her off to tell the disciples what she now knows, and she becomes the first apostle, the first person sent to bear witness to the resurrected Christ.

Mary’s message is simple, just five words – “I have seen the Lord.” This is the heart of the Easter message, not because it should surprise us that God has power over death, but, as Gail O’Day writes, “The heart of the Easter proclamation resides in the moment when we are claimed by the truth of the resurrection” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 379). For Mary, that moment happened when Jesus called her by name. Until that point, we knew what Mary did not; in that moment, we rejoice with her as she realizes what’s been there the whole time. Jesus has been present with her all along, but now she knows it. The truth is revealed to her, a truth that was previously unknown. Her uncertainty was real; so was the resolution of that uncertainty.

There is no real drama in this story for us, though. We know how it ends because we’ve read it so many times before. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get excited about the Easter story. But what if we could? What if we got so excited about Easter that we couldn’t contain ourselves, that we felt like we were about to explode out of our skin the way grace exploded into the world that first Resurrection Sunday? What if our lives reflected the reality of the resurrection in the way we lived, day in, day out? What would that look like? How would we be different people? If the resurrection of Jesus totally changed the course of the world, how might our lives reflect a total change?

I’m sorry to tell you that I have a lot more questions for you today than I have answers. This is only my second Sunday at FBC-Marissa, and it would be presumptive of me to think I could tell you where your lives fall short and where they measure well. All I can tell you is that the process starts for each of us like it did for Mary – “I have seen the Lord.” Something about that encounter, when Jesus called her by name, changed her from a fearful and confused person into a certain witness. She knew who called her, and that was enough. This is where it starts for each one of us, by knowing the Jesus who calls our names and who commands us to go tell others what we know.

Today we celebrate this command because it comes from a risen Savior. We have divine permission to party it up today, and for the next few weeks of the Easter Season. The rest of John’s Gospel is full of liberating stories that move the disciples from being timid folks hiding behind locked doors to a restored, rejuvenated community inspired to do great things because of great hope. Many years later, a similar kind of community would rejoice in the good news of that first Easter Sunday with several praise offerings that spoke to Jesus’ exalted status. Today, and for the next few weeks, may we be able to understand with Mary the true nature of the one who calls us. May we be able to pray the following words from the Book of Revelation, a book that tells the story of another community who, in the face of great uncertainty, were captivated by the power of the resurrection and who were transformed by its promise of new life for all who believe:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! … To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! … Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! … Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

What do you get when you combine a Delorean, palm branches, and an old piece of rock? A Palm Sunday Sermon!

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Below is the prepared manuscript of a sermon I preached at First Baptist Church-Marissa, IL on April 1, 2012. Naturally, the moment of delivery is never identical to the moment of conception, so discrepancies exist between the text of this sermon and the sermon those in attendance heard (moreso in this case than seems normal for me).

Has anyone else here ever wanted to travel through time? It fascinated me when I was younger. I would think about returning to the day when I met a friend of mine just to observe our first interactions, or going way back in time to some historic era like when dinosaurs were still on the earth. Maybe some of you would go back to the day when your first child was born, or to a birthday party that was really special – just so you could feel that excitement over and over again.

But despite our best wishes and the dozens of movies made about time travel, no Delorean is going to get us back to the future – or the past. The best we can currently do is to imagine what it would be like. I wonder if we could try to visit a couple of places in the past, together. This is a little risky for the first time you preach somewhere; somebody might end up stuck on a remote island back in the Dark Ages with no one around to bring you back. If that happens, we’ll make sure to send a Great Rivers Region Area Minister to scour the annals of history for someone with amazingly good dental work for the time period so that we can try and bring you back.  Think we can handle that?

First, imagine yourself in the city of Jerusalem, around the year 30 AD. If you’re having trouble getting there, open your Bibles to Mark 11:1-11. Amazingly, this happens to be our scripture passage for today, Mark’s account of Jesus entering Jerusalem just a few days before he was crucified. —

Mark 11:1-11 – “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

See, time-travel’s not so bad. It’s like you never even left the room!

The words of this scripture passage are probably familiar to most of us, though there is always more we might understand when we read the Bible. We’ll come back to this place soon. Next, though, go back about 40 more years, from AD 30 to 9 BC, about five years before Jesus was born. This time we’ll end up in modern-day Turkey. Quick history quiz – Anyone know who was Emperor when Jesus was born? (A: Caesar Augustus). What I’m about to read is not from the Bible, but was written on an ancient piece of rock that archaeologists found and translated. I think it can help us understand the meaning of the passage about Palm Sunday. See if you hear any words that sound like they’re describing someone we talk about in church a lot.

Priene Inscription Excerpt: “‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [excelled even our anticipations], surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’” (emphasis mine)

This is kind of amazing, isn’t it? Five years before Jesus is born, this inscription is talking about one given by Providence to benefit humankind, calling him savior for us and our descendants, that he might end war (we might call him a prince of peace?). Caesar Augustus, according to what’s written on this piece of rock, was better than all the people who came before him with no hope of being better than him. “And since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings of the world that came [through] him.” That is so much of what we say about Jesus, written about somebody else – Augustus, the emperor, the king. This kind of thing didn’t stop when Augustus died, either. Later Roman emperors claimed these same kinds of divine titles for themselves. I don’t think humility was part of the application requirement.

So we have this piece of rock that calls Caesar Augustus a savior, says that the king’s birthday was the beginning of good tidings for the world. And some of you are thinking, “Yeah, sounds like Jesus. So what?! Why are we talking about some old piece of rock in church?” Anybody thinking that? You can be honest, it’s ok. If you can’t be honest in church, where can you? Anybody thinking that?

Now look back at Mark 11. Notice in verse 2, Jesus tells the disciples where to go and what they’ll find and what to say, and it happens. Jesus is the one making this story happen. Jesus is in control; what he wants, happens.

What are the people saying to Jesus when he comes into town?

“Hosanna!” – Save us!

“Coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” – They’re referencing another king, one of their own kind who they hope will rule again. The thing about having a king, is that usually only one person can be the king at any given time. If Caesar is already the king, how can there be another one? What do you think Caesar would think about this kind of talk? Jesus, the one making this story happen, hears people talking about David’s coming kingdom when he arrives. Hmmmmm….

And what does this man who controls the story ride in on? Jesus wants to ride on a donkey, so he does. In those days, the donkey was the animal princes and kings would ride when they wanted to signal peace to the place they were entering. There’s probably also a reference here to Zechariah 9:9 – “Lo, your king comes to you;//triumphant and victorious is he,//humble and riding on a donkey.” Jesus rides on the animal mentioned in Zechariah when talking about a victorious and humble king coming. Jesus is putting this story together and riding the animal that signals peace to the townspeople.

Now add to all of this what some scholars believe about that particular day. It was the beginning of the week before Passover, when some of the Roman authorities would come into Jerusalem as security forces. How many of you know that when big crowds gather, it can be more dangerous for people who are there? When big crowds gather, some folks might get ideas of trying to start some trouble. Trouble had happened before in Jerusalem during Passover week, so the Roman authorities probably came in that very day to keep the people in line. When you want to do that, you don’t ride in on donkeys; you bring the war horses to make sure everyone can see your power. Fear is a powerful motivator, after all.

So on one hand, we have a powerful empire that rides in on warhorses, striking fear into people who are gathered. Their allegiance is to Caesar and no one else. Caesar claims divinity for himself – and no one outside the royal family. The Romans say Caesar is Lord, and Caesar is in control.

The Gospel of Mark says something very different. In Mark, we have a group ruled by a man who’s about to die, riding in on a peace donkey, birthing hope in people who have been waiting for someone to free them from the fear they feel under the Romans. Mark’s allegiance is to Jesus, and Mark hopes our allegiance is to Jesus – and no one else. Mark claims divinity for Jesus – and no one else. Mark says Jesus is Lord, and remember what we said before – Jesus is in control of this story. Now you see why that old piece of rock was worth talking about.

Palm Sunday makes very clear that we have a choice to make. There are two powers that are part of this story. One is Rome – it leads by fear and war and intimidation. It says Caesar is Lord. It is the easy way to fit in, and it will live for at least another 400 years.

The other power is Jesus – he leads by love and peace and invitation. Mark says Jesus is Lord. Following Jesus makes it hard to fit in, and to make things harder, Jesus is going to die in five days. Mark knew this when he wrote, and Mark’s readers knew it when they read.

So our choice is simple and hard at the same time. Do we live for 400 years through fear and intimidation, or do we live for five days through love and peace? Do we “go along to get along” or are we “All to Jesus I Surrender” kind of people? Are we like the crowds of Palm Sunday who by Good Friday have changed their cry from “Hosanna” to “Crucify”? I am here to tell you; there are no time machines to help with this question, and it is complex. You are not left to your own ways to decide; you have the Spirit and the church to help you. But you have a choice in the matter. Your choice is always, “Now which way will I go?”