I was in grade school when astronauts first landed on the moon. They brought a TV into our classroom at school so we could watch the coverage. We had never had a TV in the class before, you knew this was really big.
Those of you around at the time remember Neil Armstrong’s words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was an incredible moment. But it wasn’t that long before we went back to the moon again. It wasn’t such a big deal this time. Nobody remembers what those astronauts said. Since then, we have had a space station and space shuttles and we have put a Rover on Mars. We have sent Voyager spaceships to send back images from Jupiter and Saturn and Uranus and Neptune. We have sent spacecraft to explore comets and asteroids.
Now, we have private space flight companies. Elon Musk announced in February that his company SpaceX will take two private citizens on a space flight around the moon in 2018. (He didn’t say what the fares will be, but it is safe to say they will be more than a first class flight to LAX). This is all amazing stuff, but we don’t pay nearly as much attention as we did to that first moon landing. It was such a huge event because it expanded our idea of what was possible.
We live in a world with medical breakthroughs, technological marvels, instant communication, easy travel, and all kinds of really cool stuff. And we have come to mostly take it for granted. Like that Farmers Insurance commercial puts it, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” All of this is to say: we have lost our capacity for surprise, or at least had it seriously diminished.
When it comes to Easter, we have been through the routine before. We’ve gotten up early and had the big breakfast. We have sung “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” more than a few times. There is wonderful music, we have a nice crowd in church, and we feel genuine joy this morning. This is a great day, but we’ve heard the story before. We know what to expect from Easter.
But that first Easter—that was another story.
Jesus had tried to tell his followers what lie ahead. Time and again, as we have read through the gospel of Luke over these past weeks, Jesus would tell them that he must suffer and die. The disciples did not listen, did not understand. Or maybe they didn’t want to listen or understand. We talk about some things being too good to be true. The notion of Jesus suffering and dying – that was too bad to be true, so the disciples kind of glossed over or denied it. And when Jesus said that he would not only suffer and die, but then rise again on the third day – well, they didn’t really listen to that either. It all sounded preposterous.
And now, Jesus had been killed, executed in a death that was gruesome even by first century standards. Everything felt up in the air. Most of the disciples holed up and hid out of fear. But on Sunday morning, some of the women went to the tomb.
They arrived and found the stone sealing the tomb rolled away, but no body inside. If they had felt loss and despair before, now it was only worse. They were deeply troubled by this turn of events when suddenly two men in dazzling white stood beside them. They were terrified, as one might expect, and bowed down to the ground, but then the men said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has risen.” And then they reminded the women of what Jesus had said, how he would suffer and die and rise again.
The last thing they had expected that morning was joy. The last thing they had planned on was hope. But there they were, utterly amazed. They hurried back to tell the other disciples. The news that Jesus was alive was so incredible, so implausible, so fantastic, so wonderful, that life would never be the same.
But when Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women report this amazing news to the others, the response is rather disturbing. The male disciples are dismissive. They completely discount the women’s story. It was ridiculous, they said, and they wrote it off as fake news. For his part, Peter – fresh off of denying Jesus three times – goes to the tomb to investigate for himself. We are told that he went home amazed by what had happened, but it is not clear what amazed him and what he actually thinks about the whole situation.
Why did the men disbelieve the report of these women? In the words of those angels, it seems to me that they too were looking for the living among the dead. They were operating under too small a vision of what is possible.
Today, most of us experience Easter Sunday as bright, happy, and joyful. This was not exactly the experience of those first disciples. There was fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. Confusion. The four gospels have somewhat differing accounts, which is not surprising, as the accounts all come across as chaotic. This morning, the choir sang about Mary going to the tomb, but that anthem was based on the account in the Gospel of John. We read from Luke this morning, and in Luke, several women go to the tomb.
The details of the resurrection are a bit murky. And the fact that everybody doesn’t simply say, “Praise the Lord, just as Jesus promised he has risen again! Glory to God!”- the fact that the response of the disciples is slow and uncertain rings true. Even writing 40 years or more after the fact, Luke and the other gospel writers don’t try to clean it up or pretty it up. News of the resurrection was almost more than they could take in.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: “No eye can see; no ear can hear; no mind can comprehend the good and beautiful things that God has prepared for those who love him.” Paul was not simply referring to the resurrection of Jesus. That was a big part of it, to be sure, but Paul was not simply pointing to what God had done in the past. He is writing in the present tense.
We may be tempted to think of Easter as the conclusion, as the ending. And in some ways, it is. Way back when, on the first day of March, we began the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. We have been looking toward Easter for several weeks now. We had our cantata last Sunday that pointed us toward what would come on Easter. We gathered Thursday evening to share the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room and to remember the heartbreak of the cross. And now, it is Easter! Now, we celebrate resurrection! Easter is the pinnacle as far as Christian faith goes – it’s the absolute high point of the year.
All of this may be true, but it is not the whole truth. To say that Easter is the conclusion is in some ways to get it all wrong. In a much larger sense, Easter is not the conclusion; Easter is the beginning. And the real question this morning is not so much, “What happened on that first Easter 2000 years ago?” The question is, “If Christ is risen, what does that mean for us? What does it mean for me, today?”
After the resurrection, things do not return to normal. Until then, normal had been “looking for the living among the dead.” Until then, normal had meant having one’s vision limited by the resources and the powers and principalities and the track record of the past. Normal had meant being realistic, keeping expectations in check, acknowledging how small we are relative to the powers that be around us.
But the resurrection wiped that kind of normal away. After the resurrection, everything changed. There isn’t even a new normal. Instead, there is a world of possibility. Suddenly, there is an outbreak of hope. Now, we cannot even count on death. As David Lose puts it, “All we know for sure is that a risen Savior is on the loose.”
Toward the end of the Vietnam War, a shell came in and exploded a young man’s body. The only thing left were his dog tags. They sent those dog tags back home to his grieving parents and a memorial service was held. Their only child had been killed. They couldn’t come to terms with it, especially since there was no body. The grief just wouldn’t go away.
It wasn’t long before the war ended. Soldiers started to come home and the prisoners of war started to return. One day, the telephone rang. The woman picked it up, and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Mother, it’s your son.” Her heart stopped. “Is this some kind of cruel joke?” she asked. “Is this some kind of a hoax?” “No. It’s really me. I’ve been a prisoner of war, and I’ve just been released. I am calling to let you know that I am alive.”
A loved one who has been killed is suddenly alive. The word “amazed” doesn’t explain the rush of emotions one feels. Joy and shock and love and disbelief and gratitude and fear and astonishment and much more. That is the amazement and unexpected joy of Easter.
For us, Easter can become so commonplace, so routine, that it loses some of its power. But resurrection is something that we deeply need.
Earlier this week, a couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away. The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come home for a visit after all. “The grandkids say hello.” They told him that they understood, but when they hung up the phone they didn’t dare look at each other.
Earlier this week, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they had to let her go. She cleaned out her desk, packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her family.
Earlier this week, a woman suffered a miscarriage. It wasn’t the first time, and she can barely hold it together. Earlier this week, a man received a terrible diagnosis from a physician. The tests had come back and it does not look good.
Earlier this week, someone else heard the words, “I want a divorce.” Someone else received a call that her son was in jail. Earlier this week, someone had to decide whether to buy groceries or buy medicine. Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified. The darkness that human beings can face can be overwhelming.
We’re not really ready to experience Easter until we have spent time in that place called Hopelessness. Easter is the last thing we are expecting. Easter is about hope beyond hope.
Death is not just what happens at the end of our lives. We face all kinds of deaths along the way. Dreams die. Hopes fade. Relationships fall apart. We can struggle with health. We can struggle with meaning. We can feel despondent over the meanness and cruelty and coarseness that seem so present in our world. We can truly worry for our children and grandchildren.
We can experience all kinds of death in this life. But here is the Good News: resurrection is for dead people. Resurrection is the amazing power of God that we can experience right here and now.
That Easter morning, those women at the tomb felt fear, and confusion, and terror, and then pure amazement, sheer joy.
The message of Easter is not that we will be able to avoid pain. The message of Easter is that God is present in our pain and that even in the midst of what can sometimes be the awfulness of life, there is hope. The reason we celebrate Easter is not simply because of what God did 2000 years ago, but because of what God wants to do in our lives right here and now.
Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope and the assurance that new life is possible, even in those moments when we are so filled with pain and hurt and grief that we cannot see it or believe it.
Maybe what we need to relearn this Easter is the ability to be amazed. Life is amazing. God’s grace is amazing. God’s love is amazing.
A number of us met together over these past weeks and discussed Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow. She says that these are the three essential prayers – crying out to God for help, expressing gratitude for blessings, and truly experiencing awe.
Even though I often remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that this time God has met Her match – a child dies, or a young father is paralyzed. Nothing can possibly make things OK again. People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. It’s actually a nightmare. But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.”We don’t always get instant miracles. We don’t always get quick, dramatic change. We don’t always get angels and empty tombs and dramatic announcements. But what we always get is God’s love and presence and goodness, and if we are paying attention, countless things are happening that can elicit a response of Wow.
As it dawned on those women at the tomb what they were experiencing – the reality that the one they loved, the one who had been crucified, was in fact alive – their prayer and their testimony was truly, Wow. The resurrection was the ultimate Wow.
And maybe that is where resurrection begins to touch our lives, when we can look around us and say, Wow.
Seeing a tiny baby, with perfect tiny fingers and toes, one can’t help but give in to the amazement of life. Seeing the renewal of the earth, with green leaves and flowers blooming and new shoots on trees, really seeing it, one can’t help but be amazed. Looking back on one’s life and realizing that God’s love and care and grace has been there, surrounding us, sustaining us, one can’t help but be amazed.
And looking to Jesus, looking to the cross, and then looking to the empty tomb, we stand with the women, amazed. And we know that because of Easter, we indeed have hope.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Amen!