By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from god our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, Happy Easter! On behalf of the membership and the leadership of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, I extend to you a joyous and happy Easter Day. Six inches of fresh snow on the ground for your Easter Egg Hunt; Who would have thought it? If you are one who typically only worships on Christmas and Easter, you must be terribly confused today! But we’re glad you’re here this morning because we have good news to tell you: Jesus has risen from the dead; God’s grace has set us free from our sins. Happy Easter, indeed!
I want to begin this morning employing an icebreaker that has often been used in small groups or youth ministry programs in our church. The leader asks each member of the group to share five statements with the group; four of the statements should be true, but one of them is to be a lie, and the group has to decide which is which. It would take awhile for all of us to share our list, so today, I’ll share mine, and the rest of you can continue the game at your Easter table this afternoon. Here’s my list:
• I didn’t drink alcohol until I was 30 years old.
• I hate pickled herring.
• I failed high school speech class.
• I once played hockey against Wayne Gretzky.
• I was once arrested for vagrancy.
It’s not easy, is it? Sometimes, lies can sound like truth, and sometimes, the truth can certainly be mistaken for lying. And what do you believe if you can’t tell the difference? This has been the Easter challenge for nearly 2000 years…and continues to be today….what is truth?
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In each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the resurrection story of Jesus is told a little bit differently. But two common themes are consistent in all four gospels; in each instance it was women who were first to go to the empty tomb and learn of the resurrection of Jesus, and in each instance, there were angels waiting at the tomb to tell them the good news.
Today, in Matthew’s gospel, it was Mary and Mary Magdalene who made their way at sunrise, to complete the painful task of embalming Jesus’ body for burial. On Good Friday, the burial took place hurriedly because the Sabbath was about to begin at dusk, so these faithful women took it upon themselves to finish the job at the first light of Sunday morning.
When they arrived, they discovered that there had been an earthquake overnight, and at the same time, an angel of the Lord came and rolled the stone away from the opening of the grave. Apparently, those events were so shocking – so astonishing – that the Roman soldiers who had been assigned to guard the grave fainted from fear! In fact, they were still knocked out when the women arrived. And sitting on the stone that he had rolled away was this angel, dressed in dazzling white, and he began speaking to Mary and Mary. Four truths, he spoke to them. Four truths that would change the course of human history. Four truths that have echoed down the corridors of time, and now come to us, on Easter Sunday 2008.
The first truth is this: Do not be afraid. Have you ever noticed in reading the New Testament that, every time angels show up, they use the same opening line? “Don’t be afraid!” Think about it.
• The way Mary finds out she is pregnant with the baby Jesus is when the angel arrives and says “Mary, don’t be afraid; you will conceive and bear a son and his name shall be ‘Jesus.’”
• When Joseph finds out that his fiancé is pregnant, Gabriel comes and said “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
• When the angels scare the stuffing out of the shepherds in the field, the angel announces “Don’t be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people, for a savior has been born for you.”
• And now, after grieving Jesus’ death, and waking up to hopelessness, these women are told an amazing truth: “Don’t be afraid.”
What if God were to bring that message to you today? You have lost your job, or you have lost your spouse, or you have lost your house, or you have lost your hope; and in the midst of this dark chapter, God assures you that you are not alone in the darkness. If we hear that message often enough in our lives, someday we will begin to believe that it is true. Don’t be afraid, God is with you. Don’t be afraid, fear does not have the final word. Don’t be afraid, the angel said to Mary, and Mary, and you.
The second truth spoken on that Easter day grows out of the first. “Don’t be afraid because Jesus has risen from the dead.” They watched him die on the cross two days earlier; they saw the spear pierce his side, and the water and blood pour forth. The witnessed Nicodemus and Joseph place the body in a cold, dark cave. But now the angel gives the women the best reason for not being afraid; because Jesus was alive. He said he’d do it. He told his friends and his enemies alike “Tear down this temple and it will be rebuilt in three days.” They thought Jesus was speaking of the synagogue; who knew Jesus was speaking about his body? And if he was right about the resurrection, then what other truths did he tell us? That we might be forgiven for our sins? That we might die a physical death but that we would also have a resurrection? That we would one day be reunited with loved ones and spend eternity dancing in heaven? I don’t know if Mary and Mary were able to grasp all of these implications at that moment in time, but this much they believed at that very moment: the man they watched die on Friday was dead no more. And that is the mother of all truths for every Christian since that first Easter Day. Jesus is alive, and so are we!
The third truth the angel told them included a bit of tangible proof: come and see where he was lying. He wasn’t there. The grave clothes were there; the linen that wrapped his bloody head was neatly lying in the corner. But the body of Jesus was nowhere to be seen. For some through the ages, these grave clothes were not proof enough; they needed physical evidence. Next week, we’ll hear of Thomas, who, when told of Jesus’ resurrection, said “Unless I see him alive, unless I can put my fingers in the nail holes of his hands, I will not believe.” Maybe that describes you. You need more. Ancient writings won’t do it for you. You have to have evidence. You’re in good company; millions of people have struggled with faith because they could not believe what they could not see.
I recall, years ago, a young college co-ed walking in to my office and confessing that she didn’t believe in God anymore. Her dad was a Lutheran pastor and she had been spoon-fed the gospel all her life. But now, in college, she was smarter than all that; now she trusted science, now she believed in bright professors and thick textbooks and knowledge and reason; faith seemed to insult her mind. When she got up to leave, I said the only thing I should have said when she first sat down; “Jenny” I said, “God loves you, even when you don’t believe that he exists.” Tears filled her eyes, and she said “I know he does.” Faith, it seems, comes in all sorts of shapes and degrees. Maybe that’s why you’re here today; you’ve come to see and hear the story once again. You aren’t certain that it’s true; like Jenny, you struggle to wrap your brain around it. But you’re here. Thank God you’re here.
And finally, the angel says this: “Go and tell.” You see, once we hear truth, we are compelled to tell what we know to be true. In the case of Mary and Mary, they sprinted back to tell the disciples everything that they had seen and heard, so that others would know that Jesus was alive. And for 20 centuries, this has been the primary role of the church; to tell the world that there is hope because of Jesus. If we only share this story within the walls of the church, outsiders will never know. But if we leave this place today and share the story – in what we say and in the way we live our lives – people will come to believe what you already know to be true. That Jesus has brought forgiveness for our sins.
I close with this; it’s a story that I’ve told before, but it bears repeating. A first year student in a Catholic seminary was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no reason to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”
Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave the seminary.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”
The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed.”
But there is a subtle lie that is written between the lines every time the resurrection story is told, and the lie is this: (whispered) “The story’s not true, don’t believe it. Somebody made it up. Somebody is trying to trick you. Dead men don’t rise. God doesn’t forgive sin. You’re a miserable loser and don’t deserve the love of God.” On this Easter Day 2008, let’s confront that nonsense; let’s correct the lies that stand before us: Jesus has risen, I like pickled herring, and God loves you. Now, those who know the truth, go and tell those who do not know. Today, the truth has been proclaimed. Happy Easter. Amen.