Friday, May 2, 2014

Greetings! (Matthew 28:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On this morning, nearly 2 billion people on this planet are worshiping the Risen Lord.  From comfy living rooms of house churches to the imposing sanctuaries of Gothic cathedrals, from Pacific Beach to Jerusalem, believers are celebrating and rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus.

God surprised us at Easter.  Jesus, whom everyone thought was dead, said to the women that morning “Greetings.”  And Jesus the Lord is saying these very words to us this morning as well.    Easter announces that there is no grave deep enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough, to keep Christ in the tomb and to keep us from the Risen Lord.  Can I get an amen!

On Easter God’s power burst forth to reverse the irreversible, to turn an ending into a beginning, to bring victory out of defeat, to raise life out of death and hope out of despair.   God turned the anguish of the women and the disciples into alleluias and amens.

Non-believers and religious critics have spoken about Jesus' resurrection as a paradigm for higher spiritual truths or ultimate ideals within the reach of the human spirit.   It is really a metaphor for the triumph of the human spirit: overcoming defeat, courage in the face of death, the resilience of the human spirit, forgiveness, hope, redeeming a wrong.  Easter is about what is humanely possible.

Christianity says no, not so!   Easter is about the resurrection of one called Jesus of Nazareth.  The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith.  It’s the historical basis and support for the celebration of Easter.   We read in the letter of I Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”  

On Easter morning two women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus body with oil and spices as was the Jewish custom.  The women encounter an angel, who tells them that Jesus is not in the tomb but that he has been raised to life. They are to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  Filled with fear and yet overjoyed at hearing this astonishing news, they leave the tomb when suddenly Jesus stands before Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, saying: “Greetings, do not be afraid.”

Easter announces that the tomb was empty!  Why was the tomb empty that Sunday morning?  There are two fundamental arguments.  One is that it was due to natural causes.  Here are some of the theories critics have promulgated down through the centuries: the stolen body theory as we read about in our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew; the swoon theory, that Jesus was unconscious when he was buried, not dead, and awoke and hid when the tomb was opened; the wrong tomb theory, that the women lost in grief, went to the wrong tomb that morning which just happened to be empty; the hallucination theory, that the disciples and many others were hallucinating when they claimed that Jesus had appeared to them. 

The other argument is a supernatural cause.  That the tomb was empty because of Jesus' resurrection, which is of course the basis of the New Testament, the basis of the birth and growth of the Christian Church, and the basis of countless numbers of people who have testified about how their lives have changed after repenting and confessing their faith in Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.

Listen to the testimony about  Easter written a generation later from the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians: “I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you, unless you have come to believe in vain.  I handed on to you what I in turn had received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me.”  

Easter further announces that Christ's resurrection changes lives and transforms people.  It forever changed the lives of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary on that amazing morning.  New life begins when we dedicate, when we commit our lives to one greater than ourselves.  

I came across this story about a young soldier who lost his legs in an explosion in Iraq.  Something inside died in him the day he learned he would never walk again.  He refused to talk with anyone who tried to help him.  One day another patient in the hospital strolled in and sat down on a chair near the bed.  He drew a harmonica from his pocket and began to play softly.  The young solider looked at him for a second and then resumed staring at the ceiling.  The next day the harmonica player came in again, and did so day after day for a week, without saying a word.  Then one day he asked the soldier, “Does my playing annoy you?  The patient said, No, I guess I like it.  So they talked a little bit.”

One day the harmonica player played a sprightly tune and began to do a tap dance.  The soldier in bed looked on but was unimpressed.  “Hey, why don't you smile once and let the world know you're alive,” the dancer said with a friendly smile.  The wounded soldier said, “I might as well be dead.”  “Okay, answered his new friend, so you're dead.  But you're not as dead as a fellow who was crucified 2,000 years ago, and He came out all right.”  “Oh sure it's easy for you to preach,” replied the patient, “but if you were in my fix, you'd sing a different tune.”  With this the dancer stood up and said, “I know a 2,000 year old resurrection is pretty far in the dim past.  Maybe an up to date example will help you believe it can be done.”  With that he pulled up his trouser legs and the young man in the bed looked and saw two artificial limbs.  The harmonica player had also lost his legs in the war, and after going through the pain of grief and rehab, had experienced the power of Christ's resurrection.  The young soldier's own resurrection began at that very moment. The power of the Resurrected Lord who changed the lives of those two women on that first Easter changes lives today.

Finally, Easter declares that after death there is life.   Now of course many people do not share this belief.  They are represented by the thinking of actor Johnny Depp:  He was interviewed and said: “I went around for years thinking, "Well, what's it all for? All this stuff that I gotta do, interviews and movies and success or not success or this or that.  But when my daughter was born it was as if a veil was lifted, and things became clearer, and I went, "Oh, I get it now! That's what life is for … " I didn't have a real handle on what life is supposed to mean or be or anything like that.  And I still don't.   And I'm not sure life is supposed to mean anything at all. But as long as you have the opportunity to breathe, breathe.   As long as you have the opportunity to make your kid smile and laugh move it forward … . I think we're here and that's kind of it. Then it's dirt and worms.

But in stark contrast Jesus the Risen Lord says – Greetings!  Easter claims just the opposite; there is an afterlife, there is a life after death, there is an eternal life beyond this earthly life.  Eternal life awaits those who believe in him.  Jesus will welcome us into heaven.  I can imagine Jesus saying “greetings” as one enters glory.  Can you?

The prospect of death, our own death or another's death is frightening.  We don't like to talk about or think about our own mortality.   A recent article in the Wall Street Journal says, "By all observable metrics, zombies are totally hot right now. Zombies are everywhere.  They have become outrageously, staggeringly, mindblowingly popular.  With nearly 16 million viewers, The Walking Dead, the hit TV show about a world dominated by flesh-eating zombies, nearly outperformed the 2014 Winter Olympics.   So what's the big deal with this zombie craze?  Dr. John Ulrich, Professor of English at Mansfield University says, "At its most elemental level, the zombie represents our fear of death."   Do you agree?

Easter declares God's victory over death.  The resurrection shows that even the seemingly indomitable power of death is subject to the sovereign power of God.    Death is not the final verdict.  Easter promises eternal life through faith in Christ.  And this news is indeed something to celebrate.  The future is not closed.  Christ's resurrection inspires hope and says Jesus holds the future open for us. 

A movie based on the book, “Heaven is for Real,” which has sold over 1 million copies since its publication in 2010, is currently being shown in theaters.  It's about a little four year old boy's astounding story of his trip to heaven and back.  

In the book, his father, pastor Todd Burpo, writes that during the months after his son's emergency surgery in 2003, little Colton began describing events and people that seemed impossible for him to have seen or met.  Examples include a little sister who died in a miscarriage before he was born, whom no one had told him about, and his great grandfather who died 30 years before Colton was born.  Colton also claimed he personally met Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse and sat in Jesus' lap, while the angels sang songs over him.  Colton said:  “The angels sang to me because I was so scared.  They made me feel better.” “When was this, the father asked?  “At the hospital, I was with Jesus, when you were praying and Mommy was talking on the phone.”   

Of course the story is not without its critics.  Where would we be without skeptics and critics?  One critic wrote that the success of the book shows that vast numbers of Americans lack the reasoning ability of adults.

Jesus rose; so will other human beings.  Jesus lives and so will other human beings.  Jesus is the assurance that people who die in Christ will live again.  Jesus the Lord makes these wonderful resurrection promises:  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  Jesus says: “Because I live, you shall live also.”  Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believers in me, even though they die, shall live.”  

I close with this rather unusual obituary in our Union Tribune: Juanita Davis Notice Change of Address:  I want you to know I have moved.  On February 20, 2014, I received a call from my God informing me my new home is ready:  My new address is: 2014 Jesus Way, Godtown, Heaven 22014.”   Greetings!  Happy Easter!

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