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An Improbable Word from the Lord
March 31, 2013
Easter Sermon 2013 Imagine what would happen if, on a Sunday morning, a stranger seated in the balcony suddenly stood up, interrupted the service, and shouted, “I have a word from the Lord.” Heads would whip around, hearts would skip a beat, members would bound up the stairs. Ushers would do their best to escort the man into the street before he had a chance to elaborate further on just what “word” he had been given.
Thankfully, thus far in our service no one has shouted from the balcony, but you did just hear from the pulpit Luke’s account of the first Easter which ended with the declaration: “This is the Word of the Lord.” Yet to my knowledge no gasps were heard and no apprehensive ushers rushed the pulpit to muscle me into the street. “Why is it,” asks theologian Tom Long, “that if a sudden unexpected shout erupts from the balcony, the place gets set on edge, but when a preacher starts into the Gospel word of the day, people crease their bulletins and settle in?” That question is especially pertinent if “the Word of the Lord” involves the report of an empty tomb and a resurrected body. As one commentator declared, “If the resurrection is not hard for you to believe, you’re probably not paying attention!” Well, let’s pay attention—not only to the responses of the first disciples, but to our own as well.
The Easter story starts off with the obvious, the expected, the understandable. Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. According to the four Gospels, none of the disciples harbored any expectations beyond what everyone knows to be true: dead is dead. Accordingly, Easter morning begins with certain women disciples coming back to the tomb where they had previously seen Jesus’ body laid. These were the same women who had followed Jesus during his ministry, and then after the crucifixion accompanied the funeral procession to the tomb where his body was laid. Now, early on the first day of the week, they come back to the tomb bringing the spices they had prepared, a customary ritual to show respect for the dead. The women assume, as do we all, that death is death is death. Up to this point, the events are sad but completely obvious and believable. Jesus died. Funeral arrangements were made. End of story.
But of course, this is not the end of the story. The body the women expected to find is not in the tomb. Suddenly two mysterious men appear in the empty tomb and tell the women not to look for the living among the dead. “He is not here,” they say. “He is risen.” Then the men remind the women of how Jesus had told them while he was with them that he would be crucified and, on the third day, rise again. Prompted by these messengers, the women suddenly remember Jesus’ words and, leaving the tomb, they return to tell the other disciples what has happened.
And with this news, our “word from the Lord” is no longer obvious, nor is it easily believed. As you may have heard, the national convention of atheists is meeting in Austin this week. If some of these convention goers happened to come to our Easter worship this morning, can you imagine their response to what we have proclaimed as “a Word from the Lord?” They would be incredulous. They’d let us know that the notion of resurrection is an affront to reason. It’s not believable. As an editorial in this week’s American-Statesman put it, the idea that the dead don’t stay dead is a “biological absurdity and an ethical impossibility.”
To this the first disciples might say: “That is our point exactly!” The women come back to the very people who had known Jesus best, who had followed him and loved him. Yet his own community of followers dismissed the news of resurrection as “an idle tale.” Greek scholars tell us that our English phrase “idle tale” is a cleaned up, G-rated translation of the Greek word leros. When the women proclaimed the Easter Word, the other disciples dismissed it as leros. That word is the root of our word delirious. Thus the disciples regard the women’s report as crazy talk, garbage, utter nonsense. We might have expected Luke to tell us that, upon hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples burst into a first-century version of the Halleluiah Chorus saying, “I knew it! He’s back, just he told us he would be.” But no, to a person, Jesus’ disciples greet the news of resurrection with skepticism, bewilderment, doubt, and outright disbelief.
All this is to say that if you’re having trouble believing in the resurrection, you’re in good company. You don’t have to go to the convention center downtown to find people who question the believability of the resurrection. Wherever the Word of an empty tomb and a raised boy is proclaimed—whether in the Bible, or in the sanctuary of this congregation, or in a convention of atheists—the logical response is: But that’s impossible!
So if any of you here today came to worship with your fingers crossed behind your back, you don’t need to feel hypocritical. If we’ve given the impression that faith conquers all doubt, then we’ve misrepresented the nature of religious faith. In truth, the biblical authors believed that faith and doubt are actually woven together quite closely. Doubt, questions, even downright skepticism, aren’t the opposite of faith, but rather an essential ingredient. From the very beginning, the Easter word of resurrection has been a problem, even for the most faithful followers of Jesus.
But Luke tells us that in spite of his incredulity, Peter got up to go and see for himself. The message was so outrageous that Peter had take a look for himself. He had to wonder, What if it is true? That’s the invitation Easter worship gives to all of us. It’s not our task, nor is it within our ability, to prove the resurrection. We’re not telling you to believe with a blind faith that says, Well, if the Bible says it, I have to believe it. Anyone can matter-of-factly affirm the resurrection as objectively true, but the invitation is to make it subjectively, personally true. During our new officers training last Sunday, we studied our denomination’s most recent Statement of Faith, called A Brief Affirmation of Faith. One of the elders-elect noted that our most recent creed uses the word “trust” instead of ‘believe.” Such a shift in terminology is significant, because it suggests that faith is more than objective belief. Faith has to be fully embraced and practiced. Faith is following in the footsteps of Peter who was curious enough, bold enough, trusting enough that he went to see for himself.
Last Monday our church staff took a break and went to the Bob Bullock Museum, to see the I-Max movie “Flight of the Butterflies.” The movie is beautifully filmed, and the 3-D projection makes the scenes come alive with astonishing clarity. The movie features the work of two Canadians, Fred Urquhart and his wife, Nora. They spent most of their lives trying to solve the mystery of the migration of the monarch butterfly. After forty years of research and a great deal of disappointment, they received word that the monarchs’ destination had at last been found in a remote mountain forest deep in Mexico. Urquhart, though weakened by poor health, went to Mexico against the advice of his doctors, and there he made the strenuous climb through forest to the mountain where the monarchs were gathered. You see, he had to go and see for himself, and his curiosity paid off. When he arrived on the mountaintop, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Clustered on branches of pine trees were literally millions of monarch butterflies. The trees were so covered with butterflies that they glistened bright orange in the sunlight. Awestruck by what he was seeing, Urquhart exclaimed, “What a glorious, magnificent sight.” Overcome with emotion, he sat down on a rock exclaiming, “It’s as if time stood still for a moment.”
Friends, we have a word from the Lord this morning. Yes, if we’re paying attention, it’s a hard-to-believe, reality-shattering word. But aren’t you curious? What if it is true? If it is, life is infinitely more amazing and magnificent than we can imagine. Death is real, but not final. Jesus is not dead and gone; he is present, and alive. There’s more to life than our eyes have yet seen, or our minds conceived.
Christ is risen! The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.