Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday: He is Ahead of You! (Mark 16:1-8)

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


Did you notice me in that Bible story you all just read a minute ago?  I’m the angel, “the young man in a white robe” who was seated inside the tomb.  I know what you’re thinking – “Hey buddy, you’re not as young as you used to be,” and trust me, I am already well aware of that, thank you.  Or maybe, “You don’t look like an angel to me!” but you’d be surprised how often we’re among you and go unnoticed.  Maybe you’re expecting to see me in a white robe, like in the story, but I’ll bet you don’t wear the same thing every day, do you?  Neither do I.


Whatever you think you know about angels, you really don’t know the half of it, until you’ve flown a mile in my wings.  For one thing, the commute is a killer.  You think you rack up the frequent flier miles in your job; I was a million mile member just in my first month, and yet, I never get upgraded to first class!  And then, the clientele I’ve been assigned – people – are just so frustrating to work with.  I’ll tell you, for a species created in the image of God, you humans can be awfully thick-headed and unimaginative, sometimes.  But for some unknown reason to me, God just loves the socks off you people!


You see, as an angel, I’ve delivered more messages to humanity that are too numerous to count.  Those messages have all been different variations on the same theme: namely, how much God loves you.  Not just you as individuals, but collectively, all of you, the whole human race, the whole world, in fact.


God has been clear about this.  From the very beginning, everything God has done has been motivated by God’s love for all of you.  And each heart-breaking act of humanity only seems to increase God’s resolution to show you the full extent of his love, the wideness of his mercy, the depth of his grace.  Granted, God is the only boss I’ve ever worked for, but I continue to be surprised that no matter what you do, God just keeps right on loving you.  Boy, if that doesn’t tell us who God is!  That sort of unconditional love – well, I guess that’s why God is God and we’re not.  That holy, divine, perfect love – that perfect love that casts out fear and sin and all manner of darkness – has been the driving force behind everything God has ever done, is doing, and will do.


Today is Easter Sunday, the day when we remember and celebrate God’s greatest and most complete act of love toward humanity.  I’m talking about Jesus, of course!  The whole story is about Jesus the Christ, isn’t it?  Jesus is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s love for humanity.  At his birth, Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, the love of God with a human face, God’s very presence come to earth.  His life and teaching witnessed to God’s love, as he taught how to grow in love toward God and one’s neighbor, that the kingdom of God might be realized on earth as it is in heaven.


In hindsight, I think it’s all that talk about “the kingdom of God” that got him into trouble.  Existing kings didn’t like talk about a new king or a new kingdom.  Existing religious leaders didn’t like talk about a God who was more loving and inclusive than they were.  And so the religious and government leaders formed an alliance against Jesus’ message of God’s radical love and grace for all, and all humanity had Jesus, God’s love with a human face, put to death on a cross.


And really, that’s what broke God’s heart more than anything.  Around the office, we thought that might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Talk about tension at work!   God didn’t come into the office for three days, and it seemed he had gone silent.  We thought you all had pushed it too far this time – beyond the bounds of God’s love, outside the scope of God’s forgiveness, further than the wideness of God’s mercy, untouchable by the reach of God’s grace.  Humanity killed God’s own Son, for goodness’ sake; no one, not even a God named Love could overlook that, or so we thought.  We sort of thought that was the place God was going to leave you to your own devices – you’d made your bed and God was content to let you lie in it.


But, Lord love you and bless your hearts – I mean that literally, by the way – you all are pretty special to God.  All I can say is he must love you an awful lot to put up with the things you do to him, to each other, and even to his Son, because he turned that cross – an emblem of suffering and shame, what should have been an instrument of defeat – into the victory of love and grace over sin and death.  How like God to turn darkness into light, to bring life out of death, to turn mourning into dancing, to transform a symbol of the world’s hate into one of the power of his love.  How like God to take what should be an ending and turn it into a brand new beginning, and to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.


That first Easter morning, all the company of heaven got the news that Jesus was risen, and I got the assignment to go and wait in the empty tomb for the women to arrive.  I had hoped to maybe run into Jesus as he was leaving, a sort of tag-out at the tomb, but I was too late.  The risen Lord apparently had better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.


Now, I’m aware that I have a little bit of a celebrity status with some of my co-workers because of this particular assignment, “wow, you got assigned to the empty tomb!” Yes, it was an important assignment in a crucial and well-publicized part of the story, but truth be told, my role really wasn’t as glamorous as some of them want to believe.  I was basically tomb-sitting, waiting like some sort of executive assistant for the women to arrive so I could say, “Were you looking for Jesus?  Oh, I’m sorry – you just missed him!”


The women approached, a set of expectations in their minds about they would find.  They carried exotic spices and oils and perfumes because they expected to find the decaying body of an innocent man, sealed behind a stone.  They were pretty startled to see the stone rolled away, and me sitting there.  Standard reaction, by the way, when you humans see one of us – some combination of surprise and fear.  Angel training 101 is to tell people not to be afraid, which I did.


I knew why they were there, and what they expected.  “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, aren’t you?”  They nodded.  “Well, as you can see, he isn’t here.  He’s been raised from the dead.”


In hindsight, I probably should have given that a minute or two to sink in.  That’s not really the kind of news people hear every day.  And so, I admit I panicked a bit, and started filling the silence with my own rambling.  “Uhhhh, first time here, is it?  Well then, let me show you around a bit.  You saw the stone on your way in – wasn’t it a big one?  This tomb was originally owned by Joseph of Arimethea, but up until recently, it was occupied by, you guessed it, Jesus of Nazareth.  And right over here, this is where the body was laid.”


The women said nothing, and I realized I needed to get back on message.  “Ahem,” I continued.  “Well, again, Jesus isn’t here.  But he asked me to leave word for you that he is going on ahead of you.  I think he mentioned that to you previously, but he’s asked me to remind you of that appointment.  So, bottom line.  Jesus: not here.  Risen from the dead.  Gone on ahead.  Meet him there.”


They didn’t say anything.  They didn’t confirm what I had said, didn’t make any indication that they even understood.  In fact, during our entire one-sided conversation, the expressions of fright on their faces never changed as I shared the message.  When I was done talking, they simply fled from the tomb, and I was left wondering if my message had fallen on deaf ears, and if their lack of understanding was somehow going to become a negative mark on my performance evaluation that year.


Well, it didn’t.  I still have my job.  Got promoted to middle management, last quarter.  One of the things I’ve come to understand and appreciate about working for God is that when God gives us a message to share, we’re responsible to share it, but don’t have any control over what people do when they receive it.  I can’t make anyone believe anything, and I can’t make anyone do anything.  Thank God, I don’t have to.  Thank God he doesn’t work that way.  God just has us put the good news out there – again, and again, and again – sometimes to the point where we feel like a broken record, but that’s what God wants, so that’s what we do.


I didn’t have a lot of luck with the women at the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.  I proclaimed the good news, but they weren’t ready to hear it yet.  They didn’t grasp it.  They didn’t understand it.  No transformation happened – they showed up at the tomb in fear and they left in fear.


Now, thankfully, I understand that they did meet up with the risen Christ a little later on – just exactly where he promised he would be.  Thank God Jesus has a way of finding us even when we don’t know where to look for him.  And of course, an encounter with me doesn’t hold a candle to the radiance of actually meeting the resurrected and living Lord, and nor should it, because, this story isn’t really about me – it’s about Jesus.  Thank God that new life can be ours, even when our first encounter with it causes us to run away.


I didn’t have a whole lot of luck with the women on that day, so I’m hoping I have better luck with you, today.  You see, I’ve been sent to give you a message.  Now, I hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears or hard hearts, and I hope you don’t run away screaming.  I hope that the message I share kindles something of faith within you, leading you to trust God more than your own expectations.  I hope all of that happens for you today, but again, I also know I can’t make you experience Easter or believe in the resurrection or embrace the promise of new life in Christ.


The message I have for you is the same message I gave to the women, so here goes: the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive.  He’s got better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.  He’s gone on, he’s out there ahead of you, and if you’ll step out in faith, he’ll be waiting for you, and he’ll meet you there.


It’s the same message I’ve been delivering to humanity since my first assignment, the message I’ll continue to deliver until God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s a message that God still loves the socks off of you – always has, always will, and nothing you do can change that.  Through the risen Lord, he has opened a way for you to experience new life in him.


Friends, don’t take as long as all those Marys – however many of them there actually were, even I don’t have the exact figure – to find your way to the presence of the risen Lord.  Jesus is risen and he’s out there ahead of you.  Live as Easter people.  You’ve got better things to do than to hang around an empty tomb.

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