John 20:1-18

Easter Sunrise

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John 20:1-18

Easter Sunrise

By Richard Niell Donovan

(This sermon was for an Easter Sunrise Service at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on the banks of the beautiful Potomac River just south of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. The introductory comments are tailored for that setting, but can easily be revised to fit a different setting.)

Happy Easter! I am honored to be with you on such a special day in such a beautiful place. Most of us have celebrated Easter in many different places. I have celebrated Easter on top of a mountain in Vietnam, under palm trees in Miami, at a Papal Mass at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and at the Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

I have been invited to preach for an Easter Sunrise Service only once before—in Pacific Grove, California in a beautiful park at the edge of Monterey Bay. I have always thought of that as the most beautiful place in the world, but this site overlooking the Potomac River is equally beautiful. What a special privilege it is to see the sun rise over this beautiful river.

But we are not gathered to watch the sun rise, even though we scheduled this service to coincide with the rising of the sun. We have gathered, not to watch the rising of the sun, S-U-N, but to celebrate the rising of the Son, S-O-N.

The sun, S-U-N rises every day of the year, but we come to watch it only on Easter morning. We are here this Easter morning because the Son, S-O-N has risen—the Son of God, who was dead, but who burst the bonds of death—the Son of God, who rose only once, but whom Paul describes as “the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

That term, “first fruits” is interesting. First fruits! We don’t use that phrase today. Let’s think about what it meant.

In Biblical times, people couldn’t fly fresh fruits and vegetables from California. They had to wait until the season came for fruit to grow. When summer came and fruit began to ripen, it was a happy event. People had waited many months—nearly a year—for the first fruits of the season. Imagine their delight in the first fruits.

In a couple of months, we will get the first fruits of the season. We will finally be able to eat a real tomato again—not the tasteless, hard tomatoes of winter, but the firm, ripe, red, juicy tomatoes of summer. That first real tomato of the year is a special treat, isn’t it! I love to fix a hamburger on our outdoor grill and to top it off with a thick slice of vine-ripened tomato. There is nothing like it.

A part of the joy of the first tomato of the summer is the realization that it is just the first of many red, ripe, juicy summer tomatoes. That one tomato announces the coming of a host of tomatoes. It is the first of many fruits.

And so it is with the resurrection of Jesus. Paul says, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Easter is God’s promise that, not only has Christ risen from the dead, but that we, through his power, shall also rise victorious from the grave. Christ rose as the first fruits, the first of many who will rise from the dead.

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Easter is special, not simply because Christ rose from the dead, but because he makes it possible for us to rise from the dead. Easter is special, not just because Christ conquered death for himself, but because he also conquers death for us.

We Christians use the word, “Gospel,” which means “Good News.” This is the good news—”Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep.” If that is not true, Paul says that we Christians are most to be pitied, because we have staked our lives on a lie. If it is true, it is the most important truth in the world. It is indeed Good News; in fact, it is Great News. It means that we live with the assurance of enjoying the life abundant and life eternal that Jesus said that he offers.

That is Good News for tomorrow, but it is also Good News for today. Many of us have lost loved ones—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives—even children—that is the hardest—the children. But Easter is God’s promise that the stone that stops the mouth of the grave is never great enough to block the resurrection.

As Frederick Beck said,

“The stone at the tomb of Jesus
was a pebble to the Rock of Ages inside.”

Herbert Booth Smith put it this way. He said, “The biggest fact about Joseph’s tomb was that it wasn’t a tomb at all—it was a room for a transient. Jesus stopped there a night or two on his way back to glory.” In other words, Jesus’ tomb was really nothing but a place to spend the weekend.

And, because Christ broke the bonds of death, the grave is not the end for your loved ones. One day we will reign eternally with Christ, reunited with those whom we love—and able, finally, really to love completely.

But the Good News of Easter is not confined to the resurrection of the dead. Christ is the Lord over death, but he is also the Lord of life. And we need help in life as well as in death. Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” A chaplain told me recently of seeing a sign in a home that said, “All life is suffering.”

I don’t believe that all people are desperate or that all life is suffering, but I do know that desperation and suffering are very real for most of us at some points in our lives. Easter is God’s promise that he can make an Easter of every Good Friday. When life is difficult—when we are in pain—when the bad guys seem to be winning—when we lose our job—when a loved one dies—Easter is God’s promise that he will, in good time, turn the tables and make good the winner.

As Phillips Brooks said,

“The great Easter truth
is not that we are to live newly after death—
that is not the great thing—
but that…we are to, and may, live nobly now
because we are to live forever.”

I have seen God bring Christians triumphantly through many terrible circumstances—you have too. God’s power and love are amazing to behold.

One of the best evidences of God’s resurrection power is what has happened to Christianity in the Soviet Union—a place where faith was discouraged and even persecuted.

Fifteen years ago, Andrea Lee, an American, spent a year studying in Russia, and wrote a book about the experience. At that point, Communism still looked very monolithic and indestructible. After decades of rule in the Soviet Union, Communism could be expected to have eradicated the Christian faith in the Soviet Union. People who had been Christians prior to the Revolution were mostly dead. Young people had been indoctrinated for half a century in atheism. Christianity should have been dead.

But Andrea Lee told in her book about the approach of Easter in Russia in 1978. Easter eggs began to appear in vendor’s booths. Many were inscribed XB for Kristos Boskres, which means, “Christ has risen.” One egg said, “Kristos Boskres, Happy Easter, dear comrades!” The secret police seized some of the eggs as contraband. The Soviets scheduled rock concerts on Easter to keep young people away from the churches. Nevertheless, so many people wanted to worship on Easter that churches had to issue tickets.

Now, fifteen years later, even more amazing things are happening. The communists had said, “God is dead.” But people from Fort Belvoir have been to Russia, and they have seen that God is alive in Russia—and Communism is dead.

But God’s resurrection power is even more immediate. The God of the open tomb is also the God of our daily lives. The God who gives us victory over death also gives us victory over life. What are your concerns today?

• Are you worried about your children?

• Are you afraid that you might lose your job?

• Are you afraid that your marriage might break up?

• Are you struggling with depression?

• Are you disappointed with your life?

• Do you feel guilty, and fear that God will punish you?

The Bible does not promise that we will be spared suffering. Our Lord suffered. He had his Good Friday, and we have ours. But the promise of Easter is that God in all his power is present with us in our painful moments—amidst our fears—when life seems darkest. The promise of Easter is that God not only walks with us through the darkness, but he will bring us into the light again.

St. Jean Vianney put it this way:

“Today one grave is open,
and from it has risen a sun which will never set,
a sun which creates new life.
This new sun is the Crucified One,
the Son of God.”

In closing, let me leave you with a thought from the great preacher, George Buttrick. Buttrick said:

“One item about the resurrection of Jesus
has sometimes been overlooked;
he showed himself after death
only to those who loved him.”

Jesus loves you. Love him—so that you might see him clearly. Love him—so that you might experience his resurrection power.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan