Monday, April 5, 2010

The King: The Rule of the Last Word

SERMON Dennis Evans 4-4-2010

Main Easter Sermon

Scripture Readings: Psalm 93; Matthew 28:1-10

From the early hours of Friday, all of the friends and followers of Jesus had been hammered over and over again by one bleak, dark message. It was a steady, unchanging message of danger, fear, death, and grief. Danger, fear, death, and grief defined them, and defined their world. It was all they knew, and all they could see. There was no answer to this message.

Their leader Jesus had been arrested, tried, and executed; crucified, for capital crimes against the state and against the established religion: treason and blasphemy. With their leader gone, they expected the mopping up operation to begin at any time, and take them too; yet life went on.

In spite of death, when life goes on, so does love. Since love goes on, some of the women who followed Jesus plucked up courage to go to the place where they had left their dearest love. It was the place where some of their dearest hopes lay too, even though those were now lost hopes. The place was the tomb of Jesus; their leader, their love, their hope.

The door of the house where they were staying was locked behind them in fear, as they went out into the predawn shadows of the narrow stone streets of Jerusalem. The pre-dawn sunlight rounded the horizon and struck the top of the great Temple, and the tops of the towers of Herod’s palace, and trumpets blared from the Temple to greet the morning sacrifice, and from the city walls to announce the opening of the gates. Now people could go in and out, between the country and the city, without being stopped for questioning. It was the beginning of a new day, the beginning of a new week, and life went on.

The trumpets of dawn, the Jewish trumpets in the Temple, and the Roman trumpets on the walls reminded the women of the powers-that-be of their day. These were the powers that had killed Jesus.

And then there were other powers, behind the power of Rome and the Temple, much stronger and more universal than they were; and much more deadly. There was the power of self-righteousness, the power of rumors and lies, the power of anger and fear and hatred, the power of injustice and indifference, the power of wealth, the love of power, and the violence of power when it is insecure.

Jesus never opposed Rome or the Temple outright, but he had opposed these secret powers that lurked behind them. He claimed to bring a different kind of power where none of these dark powers would stand. He claimed to bring the power of the kingdom of God, and Jesus shook the powers-that-be with the weapons of forgiveness, humility, servanthood, speaking the truth in love, care for the poor and the weak and the sick and the outcast and even the sinner.

The women, who were on their way to the tomb of Jesus, had been among the weakest people in a world that loves power. They had learned to fit into this world, but Jesus taught them not to fit in.

It looked to them as if Jesus knew something; that he knew a way to win and defeat the way the world worked under the powers-that-be. The powers even trembled at Jesus, for a short time; for a few days maybe.

But the day of the cross clearly changed that. The way the world worked under the powers-that-be reasserted itself and snuffed Jesus out on the cross. This is how these women and the other disciples would see the cross in the predawn hours of that first day of the week, so long ago in Jerusalem.

There is another thought that Jesus tried to teach them. They remembered it, and they remembered how serious Jesus was about it, but they didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense to them.

Jesus had told them something that was the very foundation of his mission. The very core purpose of his mission explained why he seemed strangely, and almost insanely determined to die. Jesus called himself the Son of Man, and this is what he said about his mission as Son of Man: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) And at his last meal with them, Jesus gave them a cup of wine to share and he told them: Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:17-18)

Somehow, underneath all the powers-that-be, underneath all the powers that Jesus opposed, there was another power that was at work in every human life, from the strongest to the weakest, from the some-bodies to the nobodies. This underneath-power could only be defused and destroyed by the power of sacrifice and forgiveness.

The underneath-power at work in all human beings was called sin, and it was the thing that robbed human life of love, and peace, and goodness. Sin was a life buried in the power of the self that separated all humans from God, from others, from nature, and even from their own true, God-created life.

They knew that Jesus seemed determined to die, and that his death was his plan to take down the underneath-power of sin that made the world work the way it did, and made this such a dysfunctional planet. They had heard him say as much, but they didn’t understand it; and where was Jesus now? Where had all his courage, and faithfulness, and sacrifice gotten him?

It had gotten him defeat, and death, and a grave.

And yet it didn’t end there. As the women entered the gate of the stone fence that enclosed a garden where the tomb of Jesus was, and where the Roman soldiers kept watch, there was a rumbling, the sound of trees swaying, the rattle of loose rocks rolling down the hillside, and the women felt unsteady on their feet. The earth shook.

There in the garden a light like lightening seemed to fall through the air and land on the great millstone door of Jesus’ tomb. It was alive, and they felt its holiness. The soldiers collapsed in a dead faint. The women thought they would faint, but they didn’t.

A person full of light opened the door of the tomb and spoke to them as they stood among the fallen soldiers. The angel spoke to them: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go, tell.” (Matthew 28:5-7)

Then Jesus comes to meet them. He lets them touch him. He says the same thing the angel said: “Don’t be afraid.” Then he says another thing the angel said: “Go and tell.”

There is a story the women were told to “come and see” and “go and tell”. Just as the instructions form two parts, the story they are to see and tell has two parts.

The empty tomb tells the two parts of the story. It is a reminder of the powers that caught and killed Jesus. It is the proof of their seriousness and their strength. It is also a reminder of what Jesus promised to be able to do. It is the proof of Jesus’ strength.

We live in a world where the powers of nature can be scary and awesome. But the scariest thing about this world is the use of human power.

By this I don’t just mean government. I mean that all our human abilities seem bent out of shape. We misuse our thoughts, and our emotions, and our relationships. In life we have power over ourselves, to some extent, and power or influence over other people’s lives, and we misuse this power. And other people misuse their powers over us.

We misuse our powers by neglect and by control. We are unjust and then we are unmerciful. We don’t see. We don’t listen. We forget the wrong things and remember the wrong things. We harm ourselves and we harm others. This is our personal power.
And then when you get groups of people together (families, organizations, communities, nations) all this becomes multiplied and amplified. There is the potential for things to go powerfully wrong. There is great good in this world; and great wrong.

The power at work within us and among us as humans is the real powers-that-be that killed Jesus, and this is serious stuff. The empty tomb is a reminder of this story.

And then there is the part of the story about how this tomb got empty. This part of the story begins with the fact that Jesus was killed, but also makes it clear that his life was not taken from him.

Jesus sought out the confrontation with the powers of the world and with the powers of our rebellious hearts. He chose the confrontation. He chose the death, in order to defeat the powers of wrong that are so much a part of us, so that we could die on that cross with him. He chose death so that he could rise from the dead. He chose death so that he could live as the conqueror of death, and so we could live as conquerors too, and be his conquering brothers and sisters.

Jesus wanted those who loved him and followed him to understand this and so he arranged a meeting in Galilee, where their memories of him were strongest. There he would tell them, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The cross alone, without the resurrection, is like forgiveness alone. Have you ever tried to forgive someone and give them another chance; a second chance; a third, fourth, or fifth chance; a tenth or twentieth chance…and it didn’t work? You gave them grace, but the grace did not seem to take hold?

The cross without the resurrection is like forgiveness without the power to transform. But the resurrection is the victory that gives power to everything that the cross of Jesus is about. The fact that there is a power in the resurrection tells us that there is really power in the cross, which looked so much like defeat to his friends.

If we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus (and this is what he wants to call us) then the resurrection of Jesus tells us that everything that we do to live as the people of the kingdom of God has the inherent power of the resurrection in it. What we do for the love of Jesus, and what we do for the sake of his love for others, and for the world he so loves, has the power of Jesus, the victory of Jesus, in it. It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives power to the crosses that we bear in life.

The story we need to come and see, the story we need to share, and go and tell, is the story of Jesus that shows us and others how to live in this world. What Jesus faced, and what Jesus did and achieved, helps us to understand the world we live in, and to understand ourselves as human beings. What Jesus faced, and what Jesus did and achieved, helps us to understand his grace and power, and the hope it gives us to live well; to love and serve faithfully, humbly, and joyfully.

This is the message of the resurrection. This is the message that has the final word.

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