Monday, April 25, 2011

April 24, 2011 Easter Day

Hit the Road, Jack!
Matt 28.1-10

"Hit the Road Jack"
            Mark was three years old when his pet lizard died. Since it was her grandson's first brush with death, Grandma suggested that Mark and an older boy in the family hold a "funeral" for the lizard. Grandma explained what a funeral was: a ceremony where you say a prayer, sing a song, and bury your loved one.
            Grandma even provided a shoe box and a burial place in the backyard. The boys thought it was a great idea, so they all proceeded to the backyard. Taking the lead, the older boy said a prayer. Then he turned and asked little Mark if he wouldn't like to sing a song. With tears in his eyes, Mark clasped his hands, bowed his head, and belted out "Hit the Road, Jack” (2).

That's exactly what Pilate, Herod, the Scribes, Pharisees, and the mob that shouted, “Crucify!” were singing on Friday. That was their fondest wish.
"Hit the road Jack and don't you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more.
Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more" (1).

            Then, they buried Jesus in a borrowed tomb, out of sight and out of mind. As far as they were concerned, this Jesus thing was over. But, as you know, God had other ideas. On Easter, Christ was raised from the dead – not just returned to ordinary life like Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter. Jesus was raised – skin and bones, body and soul – to life that could never be taken from him again.

 I. GUARDS The story of Easter morning actually begins on Saturday, the day before. The chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate and said, "Order the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead.” So, the tomb was sealed with a large stone. Nearby, a Roman soldier stands guard – a seal against the fear that Jesus’ disciples might try to steal the body.

II. The Mary’s
            Now, on Sunday, Easter morning, two Marys make their way to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, one of the women who followed Jesus, and another Mary.
            Despite the fact that twelve men were known as Jesus’ disciples, it was these women who went to the tomb early in the morning. In the ancient Middle East, and to some extent still today, their society was male dominated. Men coming to the tomb early in the morning would be considered threatening to the soldiers. But women were not considered a threat to a soldier. They could approach the tomb without attracting much attention.
            So, two Marys walk toward the tomb. According to Matthew, they have not come to prepare the body for burial; they have only come to see. Perhaps the Marys have come to keep vigil at the tomb just as any of us might visit the grave soon after a funeral. There is no suggestion that they come to see if the tomb is empty. This is simply a sign of respect and love for Jesus.
Tomb watchers

Think about their gesture: Each of us should go out to stand as "tomb watchers" every now and then.
·         Maybe we are keeping vigil for a part of ourselves that lies dormant and seemingly dead or lost or has fallen into a coffin of depression or despair.
·         Maybe that shrouded figure in us is the loss of a way to pray, a deadening  unforgiveness, or a body experiencing its physical limitations. 
·         Maybe our "tomb watch' is us becoming the angel of vigil, attending someone else in pain. 

Easter is about "tomb watchers." It is about love that keeps vigil and waits and believes in life, no matter how dark and empty and cold the inner space feels.  Easter is about hope that is willing to sit at the tomb while it trusts in transformation. Easter is about faithful companions who keep watch with us and cheer us on as we wait for our inner resurrection (3).

But, any thought that this visit will be the gentle gesture of love and grief that anyone of us might offer for a loved one will be pushed aside. As I said, God has other plans.
            As the Marys approach the tomb, before they can speak to the guards, before they can do anything they might have planned, there is an earthquake. This is not the mechanism by which the stone is moved; this earthquake is a sign that God is intruding into the expected affairs of a Sunday morning. That’s all. And that is enough to get their attention.
            Now, an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, comes and rolls back the stone. And, just to show that this angel is in charge of the situation, he sits upon it. The point is that the guards and the stone which Pilate and the Temple rulers placed to keep the tomb closed are no more a problem for God’s angel than a Kleenex draped over the door. The angel is not afraid the guards; the angel can move that stone without breaking a sweat. Such is the power and the decisiveness of God.
            The angel is not hiding the fact that he comes from heaven. His appearance is like lightning, his clothing as white as snow. This is the messenger of God, and there can be no mistaking his purpose.
            Well, the guards, those representatives of Rome’s power, the pawns of the Temple rulers, are so undone they fall down like dead men. So much for earthly power when it is confronted by God’s power. It is no contest. You can just imagine the guards reporting to Pilate later that same morning. “There was an earthquake! And an angel streaked down from heaven! Then, he kicked the stone aside like it was nothing. We couldn’t do anything to stop him, so we ran to tell you as soon as we could.”
            The sad part of the guards’ role in this moment is that, lying near like “dead men” they were not addressed by the angel. The angel did not get to call them to see for themselves and believe. THE POINT is that Jesus’ resurrection was not offered to skeptics; God did not offer the resurrection as the proof that was going to change the minds of doubters. God offered the resurrection to strengthen the faith of believers.

            The earth stops shaking, the guards have fallen like dead men, the tomb is standing open. Now, the angel addresses the women, the Marys, “Do not be afraid.” This is the way most encounters with the divine begin. We are appropriately afraid in the presence of the holy; caught in the presence of God is to know that we have no more authority than those passed-out guards lying over there on the ground. So, the angel begins with reassurance: “Do not be afraid.”
            “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
            He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.
            Come, see the place where he lay.”
             Curious, isn’t it that Matthew sees no need to explain how the resurrection happened or to give details of the moment? We are hungry for the fantastic details; that is our way of savoring the miracle. Later writers tried to fill in the missing details mainly from imagination. Apparently, the mechanism of Jesus’ resurrection is not Matthew’s concern. Matthew is focused on something else.

            What Matthew wants us to hear is the commission that the women received from the angel: “Go quickly and tell his disciples. ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
            A. Like the disciples at the Transfiguration, who want to stay on the mountain and savor the resurrection moment, we want to stay at the tomb and savor the details. But, God’s angel will have none of that. “Go quickly. . .” This is Matthew’s interest. And thus, these women, the Marys, become the first witnesses and bearers of the Gospel message.
            You can almost conclude from the angel’s instructions that the core of the Christian faith is not in what we have figured out about Jesus; the core of the Christian faith is in our willingness to go to those who do not know and tell what has happened. “Go quickly and tell his disciples.”
            B. And what are they to tell? What is the content of the message that we are sent to deliver?
            “He has been raised from the dead,
            and he is going ahead of you to Galilee;
            there you will see him.”

            Now, the women leave the tomb quickly and with fear and great joy. They are running to tell the disciples. As they turn to go, they meet Jesus. He stops them, and they fall to worship him. Again, notice what Matthew is telling us: it is in going to tell the News of what God has done in our lives that we encounter Jesus most real and alive.
            A. Like the women running from the tomb on Easter morning, the message we carry is first: Jesus is alive! He is not among the dead; he is among the living. You see, if Jesus is alive, then he is a figure for the present, not just for the past.
The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?
            If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways we can relate to his life and his accomplishments. And, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, we might hope to learn more about him.
            If he is alive, however, everything changes. He not only spoke long ago, he continues to speak to the lives and situations that continue to unfold. If he is alive, he not only speaks, he might just confront us and our fondest assumptions. If he is alive, then he is present and watching as we carry out the lives he has given us.
            Go and tell the world that Jesus Christ is a living reality. He continues to be known; he continues to know us.
            B. The second message we carry: God has vindicated Jesus. God has said, “Yes,” to Jesus and “No” to the powers who executed him. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus against the powers who killed him. As Jesus said, God has given him authority over all other authorities of this world. In the words of one of the earliest post-Easter affirmations of faith: Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. Easter affirms that that the powers and assumptions of this broken world are not of God and that they do not have the final word (5).
+The peace of God is our future, not war without end. The old black spiritual got it right when it said, “I ain’t gona study war no more;”
+And “love your neighbor as yourself” works in the boardroom when we are making strategic decisions and on the street when we are skirting the panhandler who is always asking;
+And forgiveness 70 x 7 times really does welcome our children and our in-laws home again.

            Christians are sent people—commissioned to carry a message of hope, commissioned to serve the world in the name of Christ. On Easter, Jesus, who was crucified, was raised from the dead. But, we cannot set up camp outside the tomb; we have been sent to carry the news of a great hope that will heal the world. Hurry now, we must go to tell all the others.

1. Strayhorn, Rev. Billy D. "Resurrection: God's Final Answer,"
2. “Hit the Road, Jack,” written by Percy Mayfield in 1960 but recorded most famously by Ray Charles in 1961.
3. “OUT OF THE ORDINARY” by Joyce Rupp     
5. Borg, Marcus and John Crossan, The Last Week, pp. 204ff.