Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Year's Easter Sermon: "Dawn of the First Day"

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. 2 Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. 3 Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. 4 The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. 7 Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.” 8 With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. 9 But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (Common English Bible)

Easter 2015

Nickajack Cave in Tennessee exists now as part cave, part pond, a result of our construction of the Nickajack Dam in the sixties.  The lower half of the cave is completely submerged in water, leaving only the upper half open for the colony of literally hundreds of thousands of bats that has made the cave an official wildlife refuge in the state of Tennessee.

But it is, as it so happens, amazingly enough a refuge for human life as well.  In 19, a year after the cave had been flooded, the legendary musician Johnny Cash traveled there intending to end his life within the cave.  Instead, he had a profound spiritual experience that ultimately led to his sobriety from drugs and another thirty five years of life before he would die of natural causes in 2003.

I grew up with Johnny Cash’s music; rare was the morning when I wouldn’t hear Folsom Prison Blues or Burning Ring of Fire being piped into the kitchen as I rolled my sleepy self out of bed for another day of school.  And those songs could have come from another music icon from earlier days who had died well before their time, like Marley or Hendrix, Moon or Lennon.  But instead, I was listening to the lyrics of someone who, at the time, was still very much among the living.

Johnny Cash emerged from Nickajack Cave with a new life.  Something had happened in the darkness of the rock, and I would call it a resurrection.  After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a resurrection had occurred behind the opacity of stone and hillside.

You might think me comparing Johnny Cash to Jesus a trifle blasphemous, no matter how much you may have liked Johnny and June.  But I’m not comparing Johnny Cash to Jesus so much as simply saying this:

How Jesus was resurrected is likely how you too can expect to one day be resurrected: in the darkness, in the cold, with nobody around to see it.  And then you will emerge from that dark and that cold and that isolation into a new dawn, into a new day, and into a new light that will forever shape your eternal life going forward.  In other words, all of us, great musician or not, are as Jesus.

The moment of resurrection is the first day of eternal life.  In Matthew’s Gospel, he says that Christ’s resurrection happens on the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath.  But it is also the first day of new life for Christ’s human form, a life that would last beyond that week; it would see another Sabbath, and then another, until after 40 days, enough eyewitnesses had seen (and, in the case of Thomas the apostle, touched) the risen Christ that there could be no doubt: He had indeed emerged victorious over the grave.

And so too, then, can we.  It is terribly ironic, Matthew’s wording about the guards of Jesus’s tomb in verse 4: an angel appears, and they “were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men.”  Of course they did, because that is what fear can do to you.  Fear can maybe not kill you outright, but it can make you as though you were dead.  Fear can deaden you to the vividness and vitality that is inherent in living, and in living for God.  Fear can make life not livable.

Fear can do to you, in the end, what the cross did to Jesus and to countless other crucified victims.

It can kill you, slowly and painfully, collapsing you upon yourself until you cannot breathe, lest you cry out in protest at what is being done to you.

And it is important to remember that, because it isn’t as though Jesus is arising from a death brought about by bubonic plague, or cowpox, or the latest Justin Bieber single.

He is arising from a death at our hands.  He is stronger than our violence, stronger than our hatred, and stronger than our fear of Him.  He is stronger than all of these things that led us to crucify Him.

But even after He has arisen, that fear can remain; again, just look at the guards of His tomb.  Even the female disciples of Jesus who, though excited by the angel’s message of the resurrection, are also fearful of what has really taken place here overnight, and what that means for their faith.

The difference between the guards and the women is, the women absolutely would not let their fear control them.  Their excitement would.  They hurried back to tell the male disciples of this, and Jesus appears to them en route, and what are the first words out of His mouth to them?

 Be not afraid.

The same words the angels say to the shepherds on Christmas when told of Christ’s birth.  The beginning of both of Jesus’s lives are accompanied by these words, by an exhortation to drive out one’s fear and listen, really listen, to what God is saying to us, both at Christmas and at Easter.

And both times, that message is: I, Jesus, am coming.  They, and you, will see me there.

The famous Great Commission—the go forth and make disciples of all nations command that Matthew’s Gospel ends with—is already put in motion.  The women are asked to go forth and tell the disciples of Christ’s presence, just as we are asked to go forth and tell of Christ’s presence.

Even though—and this is important—they hadn’t yet seen the resurrected Jesus in bodily form yet.

That is the sort of faith Easter asks of us, and the sort of faith we ought to be able to respond with.

After all, the women had faith in spite of their fear, even if the guards did not.

Which means that whatever your fears in your own life are, and your own trepidations about your own future, you can still have faith as well.  They are not mutually exclusive of each other.

If you fear what a world without your teachers or tethers to hold you back from self-destructiveness, well, you can still have faith that God can push on towards wholeness.

If you fear what will happen to you if you slide back into addiction, well, you can still have faith that God can lead you away from it or out of it.

And if you fear what may come in a world where you have no idea what it means that Jesus is once again among the living—because, unlike us, the women haven’t had 1,970-some years to ruminate and argue over it—then have faith that it is right for God’s divine love to conquer earthly death.

For, as the Presbyterian preacher Thomas G. Long writes in his commentary on Matthew:

The wonderful news of Easter is that Jesus is alive, and the terrible news of Easter is also that Jesus is alive, because nothing is nailed down anymore…The way the world used to be, if something troubling got in the way, like a call for racial justice or a worker for peace or an advocate for mercy, the world could just kill it and it would be done with.  But Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword.  We have to decide where we stand and what we will do in this new and frightening resurrection world.

A new world.  A resurrection world.  And Easter represents our first day in that new world.  Like Jesus Christ, like Johnny Cash, like so many others who have died to themselves and gone on to live once more, we have emerged from the darkness and loneliness of the cave and out into the morning light.  The mustiness and dankness of the tomb has been replaced with the freshness of air that God Himself breathes into us, just as He did to breathe life into Adam all the way back in Genesis 2.

And like Adam, we might well have no idea at first what at all to do with this new world that we have been given and re-given again.  Like Adam, we might well end up using this new life we have been given to hear out the voices of temptation, even if that was never our initial intent, because that is often how temptation works.

But unlike Adam, we have the testimony of the two Mary’s who have come to the tomb, found it empty, found the guards like dead men, and hurried off, spurred on by the words of an angel, to find a risen Savior who tells them that He will appear where they are going to next.

Wherever you are going to next, Christ can yet appear.

That is what the resurrection promises.  Because sealed off in a tomb outside Jerusalem, Christ appears only to the stones.

But now, wherever you are and wherever you will go, the risen Christ might meet you there.

Such are the ways of the resurrection world.  Such are the ways of the first dawn of the first day in this resurrection world.

And such are the ways of a God who makes it all possible.

He is risen!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

April 5, 2015

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