Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Easter Sunday Message

In lieu of a more formal post, I thought I'd post my Easter message from today.
“Do You Fear the Risen One?”
Mark 16:1 – 8

Introduction—Back from the Dead?! C’mon!!

On a lot of TV shows it’s not uncommon for a major character to die and then later to re-appear, having somehow miraculously escaped death’s clutches or having mysteriously been brought back from the grave through supernatural means. You see this in science fiction shows quite often. And I’m pretty sure it happens in soap operas. It’s probably become so common that most of us, if we ever make a habit of watching such shows, are no longer surprised at such plot twists. We almost expect them, even if there’s a part of us that when it happens thinks, “Aw, c’mon! Give me a break! The guy was dead!”

As common as this is, though, I suspect most of us would be wholly unprepared if we were to walk into a room and find ourselves face to face with someone we know to be dead. Think about it. How would you react if you were to encounter someone you thought—indeed, believed!—to be dead? I mean, assuming you didn’t have a heart attack and drop dead yourself, once you regained your consciousness and picked yourself up off the floor, what would you think? What would you say? What emotions would be swirling around inside you? How would such an experience change you? How would such an experience change your life?

Keep these questions in mind as we look at Mark’s resurrection account—and in particular on the experience of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body. Because as much as today is indeed a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, and a celebration of the new life we can have in him, I wonder if our text suggests that sometimes we’re less comfortable with an empty tomb than we’d care to admit! Perhaps it even frightens us a little—perhaps it ought to!

Wholly Unprepared for the Holy

Our story begins on the third day—Sunday, the first day of the week. On the previous Friday Jesus had been crucified and buried, and this had all happened before sundown, the official start of the Sabbath. Three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salome—make their way to Jesus’ tomb the first chance they get. They would have to have waited until the end of the Sabbath, which would have been sundown the night before. So, at the crack of dawn they go, bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body.

Stop right here for a moment. Think about this for a second. These three women, companions of Jesus, are traveling to his tomb expecting to see his body. Makes sense, right? Jesus was dead, after all. There was no doubting the facts of his crucifixion and its consequences.

The Rabbi and Lord they had followed for so long had been executed by order of Pontius Pilate two days ago. But because of the haste with which he had to be buried, since the Sabbath was near, there had been no time to anoint and prepare the body. So now is that time—and, of course, his body would still be there. Where else would it be?

So the women clearly expected Jesus’ corpse to be lying on a stone slab in this tomb. But the question is: why? After all, had he not told them that on the third day he would be raised? Had they believed all his words but not these?

And if we wonder whether these specific women were privy to Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection, look at what the angelic figure tells them: “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Just as he told you were the angel’s words. They should have known, right? Should they not have expected an empty tomb?

But either what Jesus had said hadn’t sunk in or it just seemed impossible to believe or maybe it was too much to process. Certainly the disciples were not known for grasping with great ability Jesus’ teaching on his resurrection—why would it be any more so with these women?

As prepared as they were to anoint Jesus’ body, they were wholly unprepared for this body not to be there—they were, you might say, wholly unprepared for the holy! For indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is a holy moment, a moment, an occasion, during which God’s glory explodes into our world.

Which one of us could have been prepared for this? Had we lived in that day, and had we been aware of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, I think all of us would no doubt have been caught just as unawares as everyone else. No one really expected Jesus’ resurrection.

But, the question is, what happens when the unexpected actually does happen? What happens when God does something so wholly surprising and so beyond the realm of our common experience that it comes at us sideways and we’re left bewildered and filled with awe? Has that ever happened to you? What has God done that you never expected? What happens when life opens up to horizons you’ve never glimpsed? Let’s look at what happened to the women—what was their reaction to what God did?

“For they were afraid”

So the women get to the tomb and discover that not only had the large stone covering the entrance been rolled away, but that an angelic messenger was present. He says: “Don’t be shocked by this, but this Jesus that you’re here to anoint isn’t here anymore—God raised him from the dead! He’s alive! Remember him telling you this would happen? No? Well, that doesn’t matter now. Go, and tell all the other disciples! Tell them Jesus will meet them in Galilee!”

So what do the women do in response to this? Our text says: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Amazement. Fear. These are the words that describe what these women felt. The word for terror implies trembling. The word for amazement could also mean bewilderment. The word for fear means exactly that: fear.

These women were shaking in their sandals. They were scared-stiff. They were terrified. And they did what any sensible and frightened person would do—they got out of there! They ran!

But why fear? Why this reaction to what should have been a wonderful revelation?

I think that there’s something to the idea of the-fear-of-the-Lord, that sense of holy awe when we come close to mystery, when something of God’s glory is revealed and, whether we hear a voice say so or not, we realize we should take off our shoes because we tread on holy ground. In this way, the empty tomb stands in the same category as Moses’ fiery bush, Elijah’s cave, and Isaiah’s moment in the temple. Indeed, I think we lack this fear-of-the-Lord much of the time.

But of course the women didn’t take off their shoes. They didn’t fold to their knees in reverent prayer. It doesn’t say that they spoke in hushed tones. They ran as fast as their feet could carry them!

And so I also think they were frightened—and unsurprisingly so—because they were completely unprepared for this moment. As we said, they expected Jesus to remain dead and buried. There’s no hint, no suggestion, no mention of the possibility that anyone actually thought that maybe there was something to this whole resurrection thing, and that come Sunday the tomb would be empty and they’d have something to celebrate.

And maybe they were terrified by more than this—by more than simply the unexpected nature of Jesus having been raised. Perhaps they were scared by what this meant; that is, if Jesus is alive, what does this mean? What does this change? What does this say about life?

“Just as Christ was raised . . .”

I think a lot of people resist placing their faith in Christ not just for reasons of the mind but for reasons of the heart. Yes, they may have reasonable questions about this or that aspect of the faith that keep them from taking further steps, but what really holds them back is what it would mean for their lives.

It means they would have to change—if Christianity is true, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then that makes all the difference in the world. Easter, if what it says is true, changes everything. So people instead choose to run from the empty tomb, from the words of the angel.

And it’s true. If Jesus has been raised—and there is every reason to believe he has been!—then that changes everything. It means I can’t live as I’ve lived. It means I have to re-adjust everything. It means all the categories by which I have understood life have to be re-organized. And it means I have to be willing to change—to let God in and let him change me.

In Romans 10:9 Paul says this: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” You will be saved. There are two questions, one more obvious than the other, that come to mind when I hear these words: first, the more obvious one, saved from what? And second, saved for what?

The first question—saved from what—speaks about the consequences of being saved or not saved: either be reconciled to God or separated from God. By believing in and confessing Jesus as Lord and that he was raised from the dead, I am saved from the consequences of my sin, of my wrongdoing, of all my mistakes. I am saved, in short, from eternal separation from God, what the Bible calls Hell.

The second question—saved for what—speaks about the purpose of our being saved. It speaks about how my life now is impacted by the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. In Romans 6:4 Paul says this: “Therefore we have been buried with him [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

And this newness of life Paul speaks of here is not eternal life—not life after death once Jesus returns. No, he is speaking of our life in Christ here and now. That is, as a consequence of accepting the reality of that empty tomb and the risen Christ our lives change in the present—maybe not altogether right away, but noticeably, demonstrably, by the power of God at work in us, the same power that brought Jesus back from the grave.

But some people don’t want to change the way they are. Some people fear change. This is true of both unbelievers and believers alike. Unbelievers are resistant to the first steps of that newness of life Paul speaks about. Believers can be resistant in allowing it to really take hold of them and draw them upward towards greater maturity in Christ. In both cases, the empty tomb can be more of a threat, a source of fear, rather than a promise and a source of joy and assurance.

So, where I am going with this? I think it’s possible that the women ran from the tomb, that the fear they felt, had to do with what his would mean for them if it were true.

They hadn’t expected this. Had they wanted it? We know eventually, once the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, that joy overcame fear—but in this moment perhaps they feared how this would necessitate change in them.

What about you? Do you fear the risen Lord? What is your reaction to this empty tomb? Is your impulse to run away, frightened at what it might mean for how you live your life now? I suppose all of us have had this feeling here and there—none of us naturally wants to change to accommodate God’s will for our lives.

Conclusion—Facing Our Fears

Let me say this: this Jesus, the one who lived 2,000 years ago is presently alive and in our midst. He is present to us by his Spirit. He is here. And he is here because he was raised from the grave by God the Father. I can’t claim to completely understand this. But let’s just say I am grateful that my heart can accept what my mind can’t fathom!

That Jesus was raised from the dead—that there was an empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday—means that everything about Jesus is true: all he said, all he taught, all he did, all he claimed.

It means that this Jesus was, as Paul says in Romans 1:4, “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.”

It means, astonishing as it sounds, that this Jesus is presently at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. It means that this Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead: you, me, everyone. And ultimately it means that this Jesus is trustworthy, that you and I can place our faith in him and not be disappointed.

Where does this leave us? Former US President Roosevelt once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!” And I want to say that this is especially true here. I already said that eventually these very women felt their fear cease. They and the other disciples encounter the risen Jesus—he comes to them, assures them, comforts them, and reveals himself to them. In the presence of the risen Lord, fear evaporates.

This happens for us too when rather than simply finding ourselves face to face with the absence of Jesus in the tomb we find ourselves face to face with the presence of Jesus in our hearts—when we allow ourselves, willingly, believingly, to confess Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts that he has been raised from the dead.

This can only happen for us when we face our fears rather than run from them, and run instead towards the Risen One who, with his perfect love, as Scripture tells us, drives out our fear.

Jesus’ resurrection, because it is true, changes everything, including us if we would but allow this living Jesus into our hearts and lives. And we will find that once we do—either for the first time or once again in a fresh way—that all of our reasons for fear disappear like that body in the tomb; and we will find, then, that all that is left is life, newness of life, eternal life, and that we too, like Jesus, will one day be raised and revealed in glory.



























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