Monday, April 12, 2004

How Easter Can Be a Wow! for Us

Luke 24:1-12
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 11, 2004, Easter Sunday)

An expectant couple, anxious to confirm their suspicions about the gender of their baby, arranged to have an ultrasound done at the doctor’s office. So, they arrived for the appointment, the pregnant mom got onto the table, and the doctor began the procedure. Suddenly, the doctor let out a, “Wow!” “What is it?,” the couple wondered, “Is it a boy?” “Well,” the doctor replied slowly, “the middle one is.”

Sometimes life surprises us and the only appropriate response from us is, “Wow!” Easter records the greatest event in human history. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, rose from the dead. And yet, we manages somehow not to be stunned or amazed by it. How is it that you and I can “acquire the fire,” gaining or regaining our sense of wonder at the most wonderful thing that has ever happened? Maybe the answer lies in going back to the original Easter and following what happened according to one of the Biblical writers on the first Easter Sunday. I want to do that by considering Luke’s telling of the Easter story, doing so from three different perspectives.

First, there is the perspective of the women who came to the tomb at sunrise that Sunday morning. They’d come to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. Ordinarily this task would have been done before Jesus’ body was buried. But back in those times in Judea, a new day was thought to begin at sundown. Jesus had died shortly before sundown, on the cusp of the Sabbath during the Passover celebration. Had Jesus’ fellow Jews spent the time to anoint His corpse then, they wouldn’t have had time to become ritually clean and able to participate in the holiday. So, on Jesus’ death, He was wrapped in linen cloths and placed in the tomb.

But the women got a surprise. The stone had been rolled away. Jesus’ body was gone. Luke says, with probable understatement that they were “perplexed.”

I’ve seen that sort of perplexity in people’s reactions to our Kindness Outreaches. Our congregation has touched literally thousands of people with our acts of kindness—cold water or pop on hot days, free coupons for discounts at restaurants and filling stations. Most people react like the women at the tomb. What’s going on?, they wonder. Why would somebody do something so nice for us? The questions are like those the women may have had: If Jesus had such power over death, why would He have bothered dying for us? Has someone stolen His body and if so, why?

You see, most people have small expectations of life. But on Easter, God shouted that He reserves the right to surprise us! He reserves the right to replace our shortsightedness with an awareness of eternity!

The second perspective on the first Easter is that of the other disciples, the other followers of Jesus with whom the women at the tomb shared the news of Jesus’ resurrection that day. In the midst of their perplexity at the tomb, the women had encountered two figures in dazzling white—I think it’s safe to call them angels—who had reminded them that Jesus had said He had to die on a cross, bearing our punishment for sin although He didn’t deserve it, and then would rise again, opening up eternity to all who follow Him. And so, they told the other disciples about Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is alive!, they said.

The other disciples didn’t believe them. Why? Some scholars think that the women were disbelieved because they were women. It may be. In those days, a woman’s testimony was never deemed valid. Women were thought to be frivolous and unreliable. But Jesus had never shared the sexist attitude of first-century Judean culture. Unlike other pious men of that time, He spoke with women in public. And I think it’s especially delicious that God chose women to be the first ones to preach the Easter message!

But there may be another reason the disciples didn’t believe the women. A few years ago, a prominent preacher told the true story of a friend and his son when the boy was small. The little guy had two heroes: Captain Kangaroo and MisterRogers, back when both of those children’s show hosts were on TV. The father and son would sit and watch these two stars every day. Then an announcement was made that one day, MisterRogers was going to visit Captain Kangaroo’s show. The boy was so excited he could hardly stand it. Day in and day out, he would ask his father, “Is this the day? Is this the day?” Finally, the day came and the two of them sat in front of the TV to watch this magic. Captain Kangaroo’s show began and after a few moments, MisterRogers was introduced. The boy watched this for a few moments and then, left the room. Mystified, his dad found him in another part of the house. “What’s wrong?” the dad asked.” The son replied, “It’s just too good. It’s just too good!” The women’s story of Jesus’ resurrection may have been dismissed because it was simply too good to be true.

The third perspective on the first Easter comes from Peter. Peter, you know sometimes gets a bad press because like us, he’s proud, impetuous, and prone to snap judgments. But when Peter heard the women’s story of Jesus’ resurrection, he reacted differently from the other disciples.

Maybe that’s because Peter had a track record with Jesus, memories that came flooding back to him now. Maybe he remembered the early morning when he and his crew returned from a night of futility when they’d been unable to catch any fish. They found the preacher Jesus, from landlocked Nazareth, waiting on the shore. He suggested that they put back out and lower the nets. You can almost hear the smirk in Peter’s voice when he tells Jesus that, like generations of Galilean fishermen, they’d been out trolling the waters all night long. He knew what he was doing, Peter seemed to say. He was a professional fisherman. But then, he said, as if to prove Jesus wrong, he would go out again. They’d gone just a few feet from shore and lowered the nets. They became so full that the catch nearly sank the boat. Peter was overwhelmed. He collapsed before Jesus and begged the Lord to go away. Peter was aware in a sudden, dramatic way of how great the distance between him and the sinless Lord Jesus.

He may have also remembered the events of just a few days before. Jesus had told Peter that when the going got rough and the world turned against Jesus, Peter would deny knowing Jesus three times. Peter told Jesus that would never happen. But it did.

Peter had been the first to confess that Jesus was the “son of the Blessed,” a Semitic phrase signaling Peter’s belief that Jesus was God Himself.

That flood of memories may have incited Peter to not walk, but run, to the tomb and investigate for himself. There, he saw all the evidence he needed: the tomb empty and the linen burial cloths laying there. Our Bible lesson says that Peter went back home “amazed.”

Peter, I think, holds the key to our believing and greeting the good news of Easter with a Wow! And not just on Easter Day, but every day of our lives. For Easter to have meaning for us, it won’t be the result of our gaining knowledge through say, the reading of Scripture. (Although anyone who follows Jesus will want to read Scripture in order to know Him better!) And it won’t be the result of emotions. (Although the better we know Jesus, the more our emotions—like love and gratitude and even others like anger with injustice—will be roused. The wonder of Easter will come to us in another way, Peter’s way.

Psychologist James Dobson once told the story of being alone with his then-toddler son, Ryan, shortly after they’d moved into a developing neighborhood. Dobson was busy preparing dinner when he became aware of silence in the house. He called for answer. He looked all over the house and couldn’t find the boy. He then ran outside and saw, to his horror, some distance away that Ryan had crawled into the back of a large dump truck. How this little guy had climbed up there, Dobson didn’t know. He wanted to avoid startling his son, so Ryan approached him quietly. The closer he got to Ryan, the more he could hear that Ryan was sort of talking to himself. At one point, Ryan decided he wanted to get out of the dump truck bed. So backing up toward the edge of the truck, he began to probe with his feet for a place where he could land. Try as he might though, he couldn’t find it. Dobson heard his son saying quietly, “Somebody help the boy.” Ryan finally decided that he would just back off the bed and see where he would land. He did so and fell...right into the waiting arms of his dad.

In the end, we will only know the truth and the life-changing power of Jesus’ resurrection when we stop trying to get through this life on our own steam. The WOW! of Easter will be ours when after remembering at Jesus’ track record as Peter did, we surrender and fall into Jesus’ waiting arms. On this Easter Sunday, that’s what I invite you to do today and every day!

[The joke about the expectant parents is a variation of a story appearing in Philip Longfellow Anderson's book, The Gospel in Disney.

[The true story of the little boy and his dad as they watched Captain Kangaroo and MisterRogers in a joint TV appearance is told by Thomas G. Long in a sermon appearing in the April 4, 2001 issue of Christian Century magazine.

[James Dobson tells the true story of his son, Ryan, in a presentation that appears on his famous Focus on the Family lectures on film (now on VHS and DVD).]