This is the message I preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
6 On this mountain,
the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples
a rich feast, a feast of choice wines,
of select foods rich in flavor,
of choice wines well refined.
7 He will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples,
the shroud enshrouding all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever.
The Lord God will wipe tears from every face;
he will remove his people’s disgrace from off the whole earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 They will say on that day,
“Look! This is our God,
for whom we have waited—
and he has saved us!
This is the Lord, for whom we have waited;
let’s be glad and rejoice in his salvation!”
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
Still speaking God, who speaks to us not just in the pages of holy Scripture but throughout our lives, so that there is not a place we can go, situation we can enter, person we can encounter, where you are not already there so that, if we can just quiet the noise of our lives, we can hear you speaking, we know yet have more light and truth to break forth from your Holy Word. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, my Rock and our Redeemer, so that we might see and hear what truth you have for is in these words of Holy Scripture. Amen.
I’ve mentioned to some of you that I am a big bluegrass and country / western music fan. One of the songs that I love is Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You were Dying”, in which he sings about a medical scare in his 40’s that made him face his own mortality.
He poignantly describes how “When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’
Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I
Took a good, long, hard look
At what I’d do if I could do it all again
Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying”
He faces in this song a question I am confronted with daily in my work as a hospice chaplain, and which I have to help others grapple with: how would I live if I was certain I would die? Because in those moments in the lives of the people I support in hospice, it becomes very clear that none of us get out of this life alive. Many of you have had to face these questions in the illness or death of ones you love, or in your own bouts of illness or with nearly dying.
And as McGraw sings about, for most of us, realizing our days are numbered by health or illness motivates folks to take stock of their lives, to make choices that are more life-giving and whole-hearted, that connect them with the people and things that matter most to them.
Yet our Scriptures this Easter Sunday challenge us with a different question.
Isaiah looks forward to a day in which the veil or shroud of death which falls over our whole world – every single life – will be lifted, and people need fear death no more. In Jesus’ resurrection, we see the life of one who lived fearless in the face of the threat of death, trusting God’s power over death, trusting that even death ultimately cannot hold down a person whose life is lived in God, and shows such a life ultimately vindicated by God. For though Jesus’ courageous stance does in fact lead him to be killed on Good Friday, come Easter morning, the stone is rolled away. Come Easter morning, Jesus’ grave clothes including his own death shroud are left empty, and the word is announced “he is risen!”
Because of this, the Scriptures make it clear, that for those who follow in Christ’s footsteps, death is not the final end nor anything to be feared.
The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians “Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). He also promises us in 2 Corinthians,
“… even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.
”We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven. We groan while we live in this residence. We really want to dress ourselves with our building from heaven— since we assume that when we take off this tent, we won’t find out that we are naked. Yes, while we are in this tent we groan, because we are weighed down. We want to be dressed not undressed, so that what is dying can be swallowed up by life. Now the one who prepared us for this very thing is God, and God gave us the Spirit as a down payment for our home.
“So we are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. 7 We live by faith and not by sight. 8 We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9 So our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9)
Ultimately, we are promised that, if we are following in Christ’s steps, we need not fear death itself, just as he did not fear death. We can face it with the certainty that, on the other side of death and burial for us there is, as there was for Jesus, a new resurrection life ahead for us, which will welcome us into our eternal home with God in the heavens.
Which means the question Easter challenges us with is not, as Tim McGraw so poignantly asks in his song, how would you live if you knew you were dying? No, instead, the question is, how would you and I live if we need never fear death again?
This ability to no longer fear death is a good description of how Jesus lived his life. As we talked about last week, Jesus consistently spoke out for those pushed down, pushed out, and left out by his society. He did this at great cost, and it seems as if his willingness to call people in his day back to doing justly, practicing mercy, and walking in humility before God, rankled people’s feathers and caused waves so much that the people in power couldn’t handle it any longer and decided they wanted him silenced, by any means necessary. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus made it clear he knew death was coming his way. Jesus was clear that he knew the work he was doing would take his life, and yet he did it anyway.
Interestingly enough, while in the other Gospels the event that causes the powers that be to decide to silence Jesus is the event we celebrated last week — Jesus riding into town in a public demonstration against in justice on the back of a donkey, with palm branches waving, with defiant cries of “Hosanna”,followed by his overturning the tables of those cheating the least of these at the House of God and driving them out — it is not that event which the Gospel of John points to as beginning this move by those in power to silence Jesus. Instead, it is an earlier event: when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus raises Lazarus from death, the powers that be are terrified and furious. If we cannot kill people and keep them dead, how can we silence the voices we disagree with? How can we stop people from calling us out for mistreating them? Without the fear of death, they knew they had no control. You have to remember — the cross we have up in our sanctuary, that many of us carrying around our necks or even have tattooed on our bodies, was not a pretty picture of peace and serenity in Jesus’ day. No, it was the firing squad, the gas chamber, the electric chair, and more all wrapped up into one. It was the way Rome and its powers that be had perfected torturing, humiliating, and killing all who stood in their way and all who wouldn’t fit in — not only to silence them but also to silence all who might decide to follow in their steps if they died. And so these people in power decide: let us kill this man, who is only one we know who has power over death itself. If he dies, we have nothing to worry about. Then the dead can stay dead. Then the people can continue to live in fear, knowing we have the power to snuff out their life as we see fit if they get out of line, or don’t fit our mold. Then we can never lose our control. They decide then to make Good Friday happen.
So it is really appropriate that this Easter Sunday is April fool’s day, isn’t it? Because, what a trick God played on everyone anywhere interested in bullying people through fear, especially the ones who decided to kill Jesus to silence him and keep power over the greatest fear we face, death itself, in their own hands!. For, as we read in John’s Gospel, come Sunday the tomb was empty. Come Sunday Jesus was out and about, appearing to others. Come Sunday, Mary Magdalene could hear his voice even though her tears and grief that clouded her eyes too much to recognize his face and say, upon hearing her name on his lips, “my teacher! My lord!” Come Sunday Jesus could say to Mary Magdalene, Don’t cling to me. I must ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God. And ascending means, according to the apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians, Jesus rising to fill all things, all creation, with his presence, so that now Jesus is not stuck to the few miles his feet could take him on the dusty roads of Palestine, but instead that now Jesus can through the Spirit be present working with each person, on every corner of the globe, in ever room and building, and in all places people and God’s good creation lay threatened, all at once, with his voice echoing now to all who will hear in all those places what it echoed again and again in his earthly ministry — “Fear not.”
And what a surprise those who wanted to silence Jesus must have had, to see his tomb empty and to see that those who followed after him did — first Mary Magdalene, then John and Peter, then the other women and men whom Jesus appeared to those next forty days following Easter before his ascension — and many others, like Paul and you and me, to whom Jesus later reached out to after ascending to fill all things with his presence and all whom he is still reaching out to today with the words “Fear not.”
These stepped out with courage. These stepped out with faith. These were willing to go into the places they were afraid, not worrying how others would receive them, not worrying about success or failure in the eyes of the world, not worrying even if they would be betrayed, tried unjustly, tortured, and executed like Jesus. For they knew they followed not just a teacher of men, not just an activist or idealist, not just a preacher or even just a prophet. They knew they walked in the steps of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. They knew the words of the apostle Paul to be true for them when he wrote to the church at Phillippi saying, “I hope with daring courage that Christ’s greatness will be seen in my body, now as always, whether I live or die. Because for me, living serves Christ and dying is even better. If I continue to live in this world, I get results from my work. But I don’t know what I prefer. I’m torn between the two because I want to leave this life and be with Christ, which is far better. However, it’s more important for me to stay in this world for your sake.” (Phillippians 1:20-24).
What fears hold you back? What choices would you make differently, what relationships dive into or change, what conversations have with family and friends, what risks take to serve others or live out your faith, if you did not let fear control you, but chose to hope and act with daring courage?
Friends, Christ is risen! Death, the greatest fear of all, is conquered, and its sting broken! We know that because of Easter we have won “a sweeping victory through the one who loved us”, Jesus Christ and that “nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created” (Romans 8:37-39). Fear not! Amen and Amen.