First Day News
Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9; John 20:11-18
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Apr 16, 2017
Let us pray.
Great and good God, give us pure hearts that we may see you, humble hearts that we may hear you, hearts of love that we may serve you, hearts of faith that we may live in you, reverent hearts that we may worship you here and in the world out there, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Imagine turning on your television or logging on to your computers and hearing and seeing the "world news" on the night of the first Easter! What might we hear?
"Good evening, I'm Anderson Cooper," or "I'm Rachel Madow"; "Tonight in Jerusalem hundreds experience terror and joy as they hear an astounding story of death and resurrection! Our reporter standing by is interviewing a key witness: Mary Magdalene." What might we hear from Mary? How would she describe these remarkable events? Would there have been conflicting reports from other witnesses? How might people who have not seen the risen Christ be responding to this news? As you stare into your T.V. set or computer, how would you respond? Fortunately, today Easter marks the beginning of a 50 day season. That means that during the coming weeks we will have many opportunities to reflect on the "astonishing news." the First Day news, of Easter. Just as late-breaking news stories take days - even weeks - to unravel, we will have time this season of Eastertide to reflect on these mysteries.
One of the marvelous pictures of God's inclusive all embracing love is found in today's reading of the Easter Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 25. Isaiah the prophet paints a vivid picture of a royal banquet, a delectable feast set up by God to be enjoyed by people of all nations. At this sumptuous table, even death itself will be overcome. "On this mountain," writes Isaiah, "the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of fine food and well-aged wine!" Isaiah is writing during one of the darkest days of Israel's history. It's the mid 8th century before Christ; city after the city to the north of Jerusalem was falling into enemy hands. It was just a matter of time before the Assyrian forces would lay siege to Jerusalem as well, the great "city of peace."
In the midst of this despair and almost certain destruction, the lonely prophet steps back from it all and writes, "A day is coming when God will draw all peoples to this city of Jerusalem. There will be feasting and joy and no fear and no more tears; death will be destroyed and our God, for whom we have for so long waited, our God on that day will save us. Today we hear the pounding of enemy horses, the clatter of foreign swords, the cries of our sisters and brothers and children to the north. Even in this calamity, let us," writes Isaiah, "Let us be glad and rejoice in God's salvation." And then that next little verse, not in today's reading but so brilliant with hope, "For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain." Isaiah, in the midst of destruction and death all about him, speaks a word of coming life.
The question is not why hear Isaiah's word at Easter but rather, can we really hear Easter without Isaiah's word? You see Easter is also set in the midst of death! The Rabbi is dead, the hope of Israel gone, the friend of the 12 and the women, the one who so graciously welcomed children is no more. Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection! In Mark's gospel it was Mary Magdalene: Mary, the mother of James and Salome, who takes spices to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They find that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb and a young man is sitting inside. The young man, "the angel" in a white robe announces that Jesus is risen from the dead and then instructs the women to tell Peter and the rest of the disciples that Jesus was going back to Galilee to meet them just as he said. "Go tell the others," he said. Instead, the women are so frightened they tell no one! How many of us, when confronted by the news of a resurrection, struggle with our own disbelief? We are like those first women; we want to pay our respects, trying just to take in a death let alone a resurrection.
So that was all Mary was doing: paying her respects, going to the tomb to convince herself it was all true. John tells us that it was very early in the morning, the first day of the week, while it was still dark that Mary came to the tomb. What kind of Sabbath day had Mary observed the day before? Surely not a day of "holy rest" or the traditional anticipation of heaven, a day of prayer. More likely, Mary's Sabbath was spent in fury and grief! Fury against the Romans, the Sanhedrin! Maybe Mary's fury extended to God. How could Jesus be gone? And grief! Mary lost someone she loved. She lost a community of friends she loved. Without Jesus, nothing would be the same.
So Mary arrived at the tomb early Sunday morning, and even though it was dark, Mary sensed there was something wrong. She could smell the damp earth and the cold rock from inside. Someone had moved the stone! Maybe someone was afraid Jesus would become a saint. Maybe someone was afraid the tomb would become a shrine. So they took the body. Jesus' body was all Mary had left and now it too was gone. So Mary ran back, found Peter and John, reported the theft. John and Peter wanted to see or not see for themselves. John the younger outran Peter, timidly peering into the empty tomb. Peter, fresh from his denials, lumbers on in. And both saw the same sight. All the grave clothes neatly folded and no body. The text reports that John, "the other disciple," John, "saw and believed." But believed what? Not that Jesus was risen from the dead. The very next verse (verse 9) said that they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise.
No, for now John believed Mary's report that the "tomb was empty". John the gospel writer continues with the story, and unlike Mark or Matthew or Luke, John centers in on Jesus' encounter with Mary. It is Mary who stands outside the tomb weeping; the others had gone back to their homes. She looks into the tomb and sees two angels. They ask why she is crying.
Mary had these connections with Jesus and I believe that John put them here to describe our encounters with the same Christ. Note first of all, that Jesus pursues Mary; it's not the other way around. It's true that Mary goes to the tomb, runs to the disciples, back to the tomb, inquires of the angels, questions the gardener: lots of "to and fro" for Mary. But she would still be looking were it not for Jesus finding her. And that's a great truth of the Bible and a great truth of our Reformed theology: that it is not we who find God, but God who finds us! If you look at the great characters of the Bible: Adam, Sarah, Jacob, Samuel, David, Jonah, Isaiah, Esther, Paul and Mary - God found them, all of them. And in many cases God chased and caught them on the run. At Easter we enjoy and greet many visitors as well as our regular members. I would have the same counsel to visitors and members alike! God is pursuing you. It's not a coincidence you are here today. So stop running and let yourself be found and the irresistible grace of Christ will find you.
Francis Thompson described God as the "hound of heaven". Maybe you just need to stay in one place long enough for the Lord to find you. On Palm Sunday we baptized two adults and received five new members into our Westminster family. We did faith sharing when our leadership met with them recently. We are always amazed and delighted when we share with each other the varying ways God has touched our hearts, it's different for each of us. But what is no surprise is that God finds us almost always in our weakness, when we are powerless, when the "wheels come off our wagons", when we finally give up on the illusion that we are in control, masters over our own world. Christ's love finds us in our weakness, surrounds us and brings us home. Trappist Monk Henri Nouwen wrote that "new life can only be born from seed planted in crushed soil." Perhaps your heart is crushed this Easter morning. Mary's heart was. God just may plant seeds of new life in you today. And if that happens, by God's grace that God's spirit touches your spirit and a seed is planed in crushed soil, stick around, hang with us in the coming weeks. This church is a good garden, this garden is welcoming, it's inclusive, and it's most accepting of anyone and everyone! All are welcome.
Secondly, notice Jesus' personal encounter with Mary. The angels call her, "Woman, why are you crying?" Even Jesus, alias the gardener, said, "Woman," at first, "for whom are you looking?" But the moment Jesus personalized his encounter with Mary by naming her, "Mary", at that personal moment, "Mary," and that voice, "Why, it's Jesus!" Suddenly upon hearing her name, and her name from the voice of Jesus, all the memories flooded back to Mary: the Mary whom Jesus had cured of evil spirits, seven demons according to Mark. Mary who witnessed the crucifixion, that Mary whom Jesus names by name, it is that Mary who responds, "Master!"
I believe that we encounter a God who knows us by name, Jesus said that sparrows don't fall to the ground apart from the Father knowing it... and even the hairs on our head are counted by God. In another place in Matthew, children have angels that stare into the Father's face. Hurt a child and God knows. Don't you think God knows your name? And with your name God knows and seeks to meet your needs. What do you need? Courage, honesty, peace, power, a little encouragement, a lot of forgiveness! God in Christ speaks your name: Mary, Charles... and God tailor makes the gospel to you and me.
Have you noticed the way Jesus spoke with different people in the gospels? Jesus spoke tough and tender and everything between. Sometimes he spoke plainly, sometimes in parables, sometimes Jesus spoke by not saying a word. One time he drew on the ground. Me, I don't respond well to hearing "You should get what you deserve." I don't want to get what I deserve. I want to receive grace and live gracefully, undeserving receiving. Giving, that's the way I want to live. God knows that of Charles and God in turn just pours out God's grace to my undeserving heart. Grace-living is a much better way for me to live than "deserving-living". Where does God make the good news that "God so loved you in Christ?" Where does God make that personal for you?
Finally, Mary was going about her life doing the absolutely predictable. Mary wants the body of Jesus; she wants to do for him what is conventional and proper. Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him, holding onto the body. This time he won't get away. I want to organize and oversee this, and Jesus responds, "Do not hold on to me." The risen Christ cannot be held, not even by loving Mary. Her logical kindly pursuit of his deceased body cannot contain the miracle of a resurrection. Jesus shatters Mary's plans and opens up to her a brand-new future. If we are coming to God today thinking that we will basically believe and live the way we always have after a genuine encounter with God, we do not yet understand the resurrected Jesus. That risen Christ will turn us right side up.
Yau see, religion, the church, and even Christianity is predictable. We often come to God thinking not much will happen. But every once in a while, maybe just a handful of times in our lives, God pulls back the curtain and says, "Here's what's really going on." My son was dead. And he came back to life. Side with him, say with Mary, "I have seen the Lord", and your death by believing in him will give way to life with him.
The finding God, let God find you! The personal God, let God know you by name. And the unpredictable God. Mary's life and your life will never be the same, let Christ change you. Martin Luther wrote that the world tells us that, "in the midst of life there comes death." And that's the way of secular thought. Life moves along until it is stopped by death. But for the Christian - and this is the hope of our faith - the message of Easter instead said Luther, "in the midst of death there comes life." First day news! I commend you to go into your homes, your offices, your schools this week and say with Mary, "I have seen the Lord". Friends in Westminster, "Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!"
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Let us pray. Risen Christ our Savior of the world, Lord of our lives. We hear the good news of Easter that you have raised Jesus from the dead. Though we may not comprehend these resurrection mysteries, may we with Mary believe them and say with voice and heart and deed, "We have seen the Lord." Touch our spirits with your Holy Spirit that we may be servants of the Risen Christ this Eastertide in whose strong name we pray. Amen.
Westminster Presbyterian Church