The Resurrection of Our + Lord, April 20th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Surprises - John 20:1-18, 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 25:6-9
Christ is Risen! (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.)
Everyone seems so surprised by the Resurrection of Jesus.
In at least one sense, the Resurrection shouldn't surprise us. Now, I know, none of us have ever seen someone rise from the dead, especially not on the third day, after dying on a Cross. I know that death has quite an air of finality around it. The dead don’t rise, so, yes, in this sense, the Resurrection is surprising. But if we begin from the understanding that Jesus is God, well then of course He rose from the dead. God is that being who is all powerful, and the source of life, the source of everything, the eternal creator and sustainer of all things. From this perspective, that Jesus should rise from the dead isn't really surprising. The Crucifixion is the surprise. Or go back a step farther: the Incarnation, the eternal Son of God becoming a flesh and blood human being, that is a surprise. And then that God, once He had taken on human flesh and blood, would suffer and die, for His enemies? Who would ever have imagined? Very surprising.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ really should not have been a surprise to His followers, given the multiple times Jesus predicted it. Again and again Jesus said plainly: We are going to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man, (Jesus favorite name for Himself), will be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, and will die. But on the third day He will rise! Jesus told them, but the disciples couldn’t hear it, couldn’t grasp it. Perhaps because of the horror of the prediction of suffering and death, they were plugging their ears before Jesus got to the end of His prediction. They should have known, Jesus told them. And yet, the Resurrection is a big surprise to them, seemingly a complete surprise.
The first people to be surprised were the faithful women, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and those various other Marys that I can never keep straight. These faithful women, who intended to give Jesus a proper burial, are surprised to see the stone is rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and even more that there is no body inside. Their reaction? Fear, and confusion. How long did they rush off in fear, and in what direction, before they thought to go tell Peter and the others? We don’t know, only that their initial reaction was surprise, with fear, not joy.
The Disciples, the remaining Eleven of those men whom Jesus had specially chosen and taught, for three long years, the Eleven to whom Jesus predicted His suffering, death and resurrection multiple times, they were nevertheless also surprised. Hearing the women’s story, Peter and John ran to the tomb. Finding that Jesus’ dead body was not there, they were surprised, and confused. They doubted what the women had said, their report of the angel’s words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, He is Risen, just as He said” The disciples dismissed their report as idle women’s chatter. But hey, lock the door, just in case, something strange is going on.
The Resurrection of Jesus should not have been a surprise, but even for the Eleven, the men closest to Jesus, it was. Not until Jesus appeared physically could anyone believe it. Mistaking Jesus for the gardener, Mary Magdalene asks where he has taken the body. “Mary.” Just a Word from Jesus, and suddenly her tears give way to unspeakable joy. “Rabboni.” “Teacher.” Surprise! “I have seen the Lord!”
Later that day, the Lord appears to Peter, then to 10 of the 11 that evening, and to two other disciples on the road to Emmaus, the biggest of surprises, that changed their lives, and the world, forever.
From the surprise of the Resurrection grew the most important force in human history, but even more, the most important force in eternal history. Billions of people have heard the surprising news of Easter, and were recreated by that Good News into different people, who then lived their lives differently, people who, if they held fast to the word to the end of their earthly journey, now rest in the peace and glory of Jesus Christ. And the surprising impact of the Resurrection goes on today.
Consider Paul. The surprise of the Resurrection, as well as the Ascension of Jesus into heavenly glory, caused a complete 180 degree life change for him. Paul had been firmly, bitterly convinced that Jesus was a fraud, and that those who were forming this breakaway Jewish sect in His Name had to be stopped, arrested, tortured and killed if necessary. Then surprise, surprise, the Resurrected Christ, now Ascended to God’s right hand, appeared to Paul, stopping him on the road to Damascus, making Paul a believer, a believer whom God used to spread the Word of Christ all around the Roman world, and to write almost half of the New Testament.
The surprise of the Resurrection has affected not just those who became believers, but all people. It is very trendy today to speak ill of the Church, to portray Christendom as an evil blight on history, and of course there are all too many failures of Christians and Christian institutions which have caused real damage. Christians are, in God’s mysterious wisdom, still sinners in this life. The glory of the Church is not in her people, nor in their works. And yet, the impact of the Church on the world is profound. Hospitals, universities, charitable organizations, the foundations of science, widespread literacy, child labor laws, the abolition of slavery, art and architecture, the rule of law: the Church and Christians majorly influenced or completely caused all of these powerful forces for good. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, but it still has a surprising impact for good, on this world.
Whether you believe it happened or not, a fair consideration of history will teach you that no other event has had as surprising and profound an impact on the world as the Resurrection of Jesus. There are thousands of religions in the world, including a few that have grown very large. But none is as big as the Church of Christ, and none had a less promising start. It’s not that the first believers in Jesus were so few, although they were but a few hundred souls in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. But many religions started out small. And it is not that they were frequently persecuted, although this story too is full of surprises. Persecution was a major cause of growth for Christianity. However, the truly surprising thing about Christianity is its beginning, on a Roman cross. The surprise of Christianity is this message: the One who died on that Cross is God Almighty, the Savior of the World.
Christianity has a strange growth method, too. Isn’t it surprising that the Resurrected One only showed Himself to a few hundred people? Wouldn’t you think the best way for the resurrected Jesus to impress the world would have been to go public, to demonstrate His power over death visibly, to everyone? But the way of Jesus is not the way of earthly power and glory. Rather, it is the way of humility, and suffering, the way of simple Words, and hidden miracles. As God and His love was cloaked in the crucifixion, so also new birth is hidden in the simple washing of Baptism, and in heavenly food, the forgiveness you eat, hidden under simple bread and wine. These are God’s surprising Church growth methods, a surprising plan, the power of which is hidden from the world, visible only to eyes of faith.
So, what’s the point? Is there any surprise here for you here this morning? Well, the Resurrection of Jesus has caused you to be here. Whether you are a regular, week in week out Christian, or your attendance at the services of God’s house is sporadic, or maybe you are not a member of any congregation, whether you have a confident faith in Christ, or you are full of doubts, or maybe you go back and forth in your heart and mind between confidence and doubt, still your presence here this morning has ultimately been caused by a Roman execution, followed by the Resurrection of Jesus. You are here. But, what’s your surprise?
Well, first of all, despite what most people think, God’s purpose in bringing you here today is not to scare you straight. The Cross is scary, no doubt, for there the wrath of God against our sin was revealed. God’s Son died, because God hates sin, and Jesus became sin for us. But God does not intend to scare you straight, because fear does not lead to love. Fear can make you hate sin, and even hate your sinful self, but that is the end of the power of the law. Fear of punishment cannot make you stop sinning, or set you free from guilt.
No, the greatest and most powerful surprise of the Resurrection is what it says about God, and His disposition towards you. For the Resurrection of Jesus, on the third day after His fearsome death, declares that God loves you, that He smiles at you. The Resurrection declares your sins are forgiven, and you are right with God, through Jesus. In Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, your sins, my sins, the sins of the whole world have been swallowed up. Death, which is sin made visible, no longer has any power over Jesus Christ and those who belong to Him, for on the mountain called Golgotha, He by His death has taken away the power of death, which is sin.
The great surprise of Christian faith is the Good News that in the risen Christ, God says to you: fear not, your sins are forgiven. Stop doubting, and believe. There is nothing for you to do. There is nothing you can do. Jesus has done it all. It is finished. Despite what your many sins deserve, the glorious surprise is that God counts you righteous for the sake of Jesus, who lived a perfect life in your place, and then took all your sins to His Cross, and buried them forever in His tomb. Surprise, your sins are truly forgiven, by God. Believe it, the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life is yours.
Yea, but as the Geico commercials say, “Everybody knows that.” Or do they? The surprise of free forgiveness is vaguely known by many, maybe most people, but is all too often rejected, not believed, forgotten, or even despised. Indeed, people have always accused preachers of free forgiveness of leading people to sin. They say that without threats and demands, people will never shape up. But Christ is the One who proclaims free and full forgiveness, apart from any reformation or good works required to earn God’s favor. Faithful preachers just repeat what Jesus said.
We do need to understand that the surprise of free forgiveness is no “license to sin.” Do not imagine that the grace of God gives you a “license to sin, because God will forgive me.” God forbid that you think that! If you do, if I do, when we think like that, we need to look again at the suffering of Christ on the Cross. For in the Cross we see what God thinks of sin, and sinners. In the Cross we see what’s in store, forever, for those who think to mock God, and treat as nothing the suffering Christ endured. God grant that we repent of despising the Gospel by turning it into a license to sin! God grant us repentance, that is, true sorrow for our sin and a desire to be rescued.
God grant us to repent, to turn, and see the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, for what it is, the surprise that sets us free to live in harmony with God. For the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus is love, from God, for you. The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus gives life with God, a life of real joy, not the self-serving temporary pleasures of sin, but everlasting, wonderful, love God and love your neighbor joy, disappointment-free and guilt-free joy, that begins now, and lasts forever.
Christ is Risen! (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.) Christ is Risen with new life for you, the very best surprise, that lasts forever, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.