Monday, April 9, 2012

God Speaking: Like One Who Must Rise

Preached on Easter, April 8, 2012, at the "Sunrise Service"

Scripture reading: John 20:1-9

John tells us that he followed Peter into the empty tomb. He saw the large stone door rolled away. He saw the shelf along the side of the wall of the tomb, where the body had been set. He saw the body wrappings lying in place without the body inside them. He saw the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head folded and set aside.

There were no signs of theft or vandalism. There were no signs of breaking and entering; at least because there were no signs of haste. Everything was as neat and orderly as if Jesus himself had woken up and tidied the place before he left.

But Jesus was dead. John had been with Jesus when he died on the cross. John had seen the Roman soldier run Jesus’ through with a spear. The spear produced the evidence that Jesus had been dead for some time.

By the time the spear pierced Jesus’ body, it had been long enough, after his death, for the blood to separate between the plasma and the blood cells; between the clear and the red. So what came out of the hole in Jesus’ chest looked somewhat like water and blood, and not like the blood of a living man.

John says “he saw and believed”. (John 20:8) He doesn’t tell us what he believed, just that “he saw and believed”.

John was not bragging about believing. Remember he admitted that he was afraid to go in, at first. He and Peter ran to the tomb of Jesus together.

John was younger and faster than Peter. He got to the tomb first, but he didn’t go in. He looked inside, but he didn’t go inside. He waited for Peter to make the first move. Then he followed Peter into the dim light underground.

John wasn’t the only one who was afraid. Mary Magdalene came to him and Peter full of fear. She and some of the other women had actually visited the tomb while it was still dark.

Imagine that; walking through a cemetery in the dark! Imagine the restlessness, the sleeplessness, behind that!

They ran back into town with the news: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

We don’t know who they thought had taken the body. Maybe they thought grave robbers had noticed the signs of a recent burial. Maybe they thought it was a plot by the Temple authorities to humiliate Jesus and the rest of them even more. But the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers, who were more than a match for any gang of grave-robbers, and who could care less about what the Temple authorities wanted.

John wasn’t bragging when he said that “he saw and believed”. Later on he would see the risen, living Jesus, and Jesus would say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) John was not one of those blessed people of faith.

John’s faith was nothing to be proud of. He pretty much had to believe. He does not even tell us what he believed, on that first day of the resurrection. He only believed.

There is a comment that comes right after John tells us that he believed. It says, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9) So John did not believe because the Bible said so.

John believed because of what Jesus had done. What Jesus had done was confronting him. What Jesus had done was facing him square in the face. It was speaking to him, and telling him that it had to be so. Jesus had to rise from the dead. Jesus had to be alive.

The tomb was surprisingly in order on such a morning, and this seemed right. It was so like Jesus to simply take care of things.

It was so like Jesus to locate the donkey he rode on when he came to Jerusalem and the people welcomed him with palm branches. It was so like Jesus to take care of the wedding party for the first of the signs he gave to show who he was; when he turned the water into wine. At the last supper, when everyone was too anxious to remember to wash before the meal, Jesus stripped off his robe, and wrapped himself with a towel, and washed their feet like a slave. That was so like Jesus, to think of the details and take care of them for others.

Robbers wouldn’t have left the grave wrappings as they were on the shelf in the tomb. Neither would conspirators. They would either tear the wrapping to tatters in search of valuables or evidence, or they would have carried off the body in its wrappings. Really, who would want to carry a naked corpse, when you could have kept it covered up?

When Jesus was a carpenter, he must have always put his tools back in their place when he was done working; and he did that now. The tomb and the wrappings were his tools for the demolition of death. He was done defeating the power of death. Now he was done with his tools and he put them back in their place.

Later on, the scriptures would speak to them, and tell John and his friends that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Psalm 16 would tell them about Jesus’ burial and his resurrection. “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:9-11) But understanding this would come later.

Now John only “saw and believed”. Jesus had to be alive. He had to have risen from the dead. That much was clear from the signs in the empty tomb. They had all the marks of the human Jesus they knew, and they had all the marks of what only God could do; which was very much true of everything that Jesus did, all along.

There was so much to Jesus that was beyond them. It seemed as though they were always believing in Jesus; and their believing always seemed so little, with so much left to understand.

John believed. It had to be Jesus. This was not a robbery or a conspiracy. This was not an accident or some mischief. This was a God-thing. This was a Jesus-thing.

Though John did not understand it, he knew that this could never have just happened. This could only happen with Jesus and, because it could not have happened without him, John believed he was living in a new world created by what Jesus had done.

I long for heaven, myself. But that is not a particularly Christian thing. When I truly believe, as a Christian, no matter how little I understand, I know I am living in a strange, new world created by Jesus. I am living in a resurrection world.

I am living in a world where sin, and death, and evil, and injustice have been judged and stripped of their power. They look strong, still; but their power is only in their ability to make us afraid or confused.

The church of John’s generation scared the world whenever the world took notice of them, because the church was a body and a movement of people who were not afraid. They lived in a strange, new world (the same world we live in today); a world that is ruled by the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God. If he has risen from the dead then he is ruling now and everywhere; and the fact is that anything can happen. Anything is possible with Jesus. Jesus had to rise so that those who follow him will be able to follow without fear.

 Mary’s fears were unfounded. No one can truly rob us. No one can conspire against us. No one can overcome us. If they try, they have to go through Jesus first; and Jesus is stronger than death. When the world does its worst, we meet it with Jesus who is stronger than we are. We belong to the Jesus who was dead, but is alive. With Jesus we can face this world and live believing.

There is a Palm Sunday Psalm that is also an Easter Psalm. It is Psalm 118, and the sixth verse says: “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” The Scriptures tell us that Jesus must rise from the dead, and they speak for Jesus who is the living word of God.

There are times when you and I, like John, do not believe until after the event, until after our fears go away, and we need time to see and believe. In such times, Jesus speaks to us, even when we don’t quite understand. The signs of his work are there, in their places.

Signs like that change our world. They change us. They tell us that we live in a world where Jesus is king. Jesus is alive!

Yes, let us seek to understand. But, most of all, let us see and believe. Jesus is alive. Jesus is on the prowl. Jesus is on the loose, and we do our living in this world with him, from now on.

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