Sermon for April 1, 2018

                                                                              April 1, 2018
                                                                              Rev. John Watts
                                                                              Nampa First UMC
THE WORD IS “WOW!”
John 20:1-18
The seventh in a series of seven.

 

The last time April Fool’s Day fell on Easter was April 1, 1956.  I had barely entered the world.  Some of you hadn’t yet.  This is your first April Fool’s Easter.  Quite a few people live an entire lifetime and never get to see an April Fool’s Easter.  Abraham Lincoln, for example.  From 1809 to 1865, Easter never once fell on April Fool’s Day.  Others, like our first grandchild, Harper McKenna Anderson, had to wait a whole eleven days before she saw her first April Fool’s Easter.

Did I tell you that we have a new granddaughter?  It may have slipped my mind.

An April Fool’s Easter is really very appropriate.  They thought He was dead, but Jesus had the last laugh.  It turned out the joke was on them!

I’ve been looking forward to preaching an April Fool’s Easter sermon ever since, well, 1956.  I even have a clipping in a file that has waited a long time to be shared with you this very morning.  This is what I consider almost the best April Fool’s joke ever, second only to the resurrection itself.

April 1, 1974.  Sitka, Alaska.  It was a frightening sight in the distance.  Actually just 13 miles from the city limits.  The long dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe was erupting.  This is what the residents of Sitka woke up to that morning.

Well, it turned out it was an April Fool’s joke.  A guy named Oliver “Porky” Bickar had been saving old tires.  He hired a helicopter pilot and carried all 70 of them up to the top of the mountain and then set them on fire.

Six years later, when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, someone wrote a note to Porky Bickar.  It said, “This time you’ve gone too far!”

God has the last word when it comes to volcanoes.  And God had the last word on the first Easter Sunday!

We’ve been in a Lenten series on single, life-changing words from the Bible.  The words have been “no, yes, sorry, enough, thanks, and help”.  What’s the word for Easter?  The only word that fits is “Wow!”

So what does “Wow!” even mean?  It’s the only word in our series that doesn’t really have a definition.  It’s defined by listing its synonyms:  “holy moly, holy mackerel, and holy cow” are the three we can mention here.  “Wow!” is an expression of wonder and awe and astonishment.  Another synonym for “Wow!”, when there is nothing else to say is, “Oh my God!”  If you are texting:  OMG!

Which tells us something.  There are moments in life when we feel in a deep and powerful way the awesomeness of God.  Even people who don’t believe in God have moments like this.  “Wow!” moments.

A few weeks ago we looked at a video of last summer’s solar eclipse.  I asked you to count how many times you could hear the people around the cameraman saying “Wow!”  It was quite a few.  What else do you say?  Or just looking up at the stars on dark clear night away from the city lights.  Or getting up in the mountains.  Or studying the beautiful perfection of a tiny flower.  Or using a microscope to see wonders we would never even guess were there.

But it’s not just the universe that is filled with “Wow!”

Your life is filled with moments when there is nothing else to say.  Like birth.  We do have a granddaughter, by the way.  Not sure if you knew that.  That was a “Wow!” for sure.  Every birth is.

God’s made the greatest things ever made.  But humans, made in God’s image, can display amazing creativity as well.  Go to an art museum.  “Wow!”  Go to the symphony.  “Wow!”  Go to the Final Four, men or women.  “Wow!”

Then there are those moments in life you never forget.  I got my driver’s license.  “Wow!”  I won my first race.  “Wow!”  I met Helen.  “Wow!”  I proposed and she said, “yes”.  “Wow!”  We got married and I took her on our honeymoon to Lincoln City, Oregon.  She said, “wow”, but not in a good way.

Every life is filled with “Wow!”  The universe is filled with “Wow!”  Birth and death are both a “Wow!”  But today we celebrate the biggest “Wow!” of all.  I have three things to say about Easter.

First, the resurrection really happened.  It is no April Fool’s joke.  This is important because there’s an idea about Easter that even some Christians buy into.  It goes something like this.  Jesus probably really lived.  He probably was a really great man, a great teacher, a great leader, very inspirational, but he was just a man.

When he died he was missed.  He had made such an impact on people that it was almost like he was still alive.  He was remembered fondly.  And so, since people were primitive back then, they started believing the legend that was circulating that he had come back to life.

But modern people know better.  They know that the resurrection is really just a symbol of the truth that life is stronger than death and good is stronger than evil.

Those who wrote the New Testament did not see it that way.  They believed absolutely, without hesitation or reservation, that what they were writing about was something that had really happened.

Richard Bauckman has written a book about this.  Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  He challenges our modern dismissal of ancient historians.  When they wrote history they were not using their creative imagination.  It was important to them to get it right – to make a record of what really happened.

Eyewitness testimony was critical to their work.  So they would find people who were there, who could tell what really happened.  And when there was conflicting testimony, they would find more eyewitnesses so they could get to the truth as best they could.

In other words, ancient historians were serious about their craft.  And we see this seriousness in the gospels.  We see it in the first four verse’s of Luke’s gospel.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things

that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you . . . so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke makes it pretty clear right up front that he is not writing a work of fiction.  Nor is this some symbolic story where we are supposed to use our imagination to get to the deeper meaning.

This Bauckman guy says that ancient histories, like the one Luke wrote, were meant to be taken seriously.  Today we use footnotes in serious literature.  Back then eyewitnesses served a similar function.  If you want to check it out for yourself, don’t take the author’s word for it.  Go talk to one of the eyewitnesses.

Here’s an example of that from Mark’s gospel.

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander

and Rufus, was passing by . . . and they forced him to carry

the cross (15:21).

There is a lot of detail here that Mark might have skipped over.  He doesn’t just say this man is named Simon.  Lots of people were named Simon, so he specifies that he is from Cyrene.  And he specifies further that he has children named Alexander and Rufus.  Who would care about that?  You would care if you were interested in finding this Simon.  Or maybe it’s too late for that.  Maybe he’s dead.  But Mark gave you the names of his two sons.  They would have been living when Mark wrote his gospel.  So go find them.  If you aren’t sure you believe what Mark has written, ask them.  That’s why Mark included their names.  He wants the truth of his narrative to be verifiable.

So what does this have to do with Easter?  All four gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – make it a point to include names of eyewitnesses to the resurrection.  And what’s really fascinating is that in all four cases the first eyewitnesses were women.

Why does it matter that they were women?  Women in the ancient world were not regarded as reliable witnesses.  They were not allowed to testify in court.  It was a patriarchal world in which it was commonly assumed that only men could be trusted.

That explains the verse in Luke where it says the women came back from the empty tomb and told the men what they had seen, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).  The women said, “Jesus has risen from the dead!”  The men said, “Fake news!”  It wasn’t until the men saw it for themselves that they believed.

Here’s the point.  If the resurrection is a story made up to convince people that something happened that didn’t really happen, they would have cast men in the role of first eyewitnesses.  If they were making it up anyway, they would have made it up in such a way to make it as believable as possible.  The only reason to say women saw it first was if women really did see it first, which means it really is true.

Second, the resurrection changed everything.  It is the hinge of history.  Even today, we date history by the life of this one man who lived, died, and rose again.  We all have our “Wow!” moments.  Most of them were really cool, but they didn’t really change anything.  The resurrection of Jesus was the one “Wow!” moment in history that changed everything.

So here we have this man named Jesus.  He taught as no one ever before had taught.  He taught that God is real, that God is loving, that God really does care about us.  That God cares about justice.  That God cares not just about us but about all people, even people who don’t care about God.  He drew a following.  It was a mass movement that was just starting to take off.

Then he was dead.  On Saturday morning after Good Friday, it was all over.  There was nothing left of the Jesus movement.  It died with him.

Then came Sunday.  Then came the news that Jesus had come back to life.  And with him, the Jesus movement came back to life.

Every other religion grew and developed gradually.  Christianity is unique in that one day it did not exist and the next day it did.  One day the followers of Jesus ran away and hid.  The next day, they came out of hiding and were willing to die for Jesus.  Many of them did.  One day the cross was an “emblem of suffering and shame.”  The next day it was the symbol of God’s greatest victory.  To this day, people see it and they know that everything now is changed.  Now that Jesus is alive!

Third, the resurrection is deeply personal.  It’s not just an event in history.  It’s not just a theological concept.  It is for you.  Whoever you are.  Wherever you are in your life right now.  However discouraged or defeated or fearful or shameful or empty your life might be, Easter is for you!

We all face the awesome wonder of having been born and one day having to die.  The Bible has a lot to say about this.  Here is what it says in Hebrews:

Just as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to

bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, this time

not to deal with sin but to bring salvation [deliverance, healing, forgiveness] to those who are eagerly waiting for him (9:27-28).

Are you eagerly waiting for him?

Today’s word is “Wow!”  Easter is a “Wow!”  But did you know that the biggest “Wow!” of your existence is yet to come?  The most unbelievably, amazing, and awesome moment of your life will be the moment after you die.  We don’t talk about that much.  We should talk about that more.  The biggest “Wow!” of our existence.  It’s coming.

A little boy said to his mother, “Mom, is it true that we all came from dust and that after we die we are going to turn into dust again?”  His mom said, “Yes, but why are you asking me such a serious question?”  He said, “Well, I was just looking under my bed, and I’m pretty sure someone is either coming or going.”

Someone is coming or going every minute of every day.  Someone is born.  Someone dies.  Someone’s life on earth is just getting started.  Someone’s life in heaven is just getting started.            That’s God’s plan for you.  It’s a very personal thing. Just for you.  Just because God loves you.  God says, “I want you to have grace and forgiveness for wherever you have messed up in life.  It’s my gift, my free gift.”  And God says, “I will be part of your life every moment of your life on this earth, and when you die, your life with me will keep on going.”  The moment after you die, not only will you be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.  You will be celebrating the resurrection of you.  “Wow!”

Bear with me.  I have a somewhat clever idea to bring this April Fool’s Easter sermon to a close.  I tried to find an old Sesame Street video from the day when “Wow!” was their word of the day.  It does not exist.  So this won’t be as clever as that would have been.  But I thought this might be fun.  There is an old tradition of saying to someone on Easter Sunday, “Christ is risen!”  And the answer is, “He is risen, indeed!”  We could end with that, but that wouldn’t be clever or original.  So how about this?  I will say, “Christ is risen!”  And you will say, “Wow!”  Say it like you mean it.  Say it like it matters.

Here’s why.  The resurrection of Jesus means that sin, your sin, is forgiven.  It means that death, your death, is taken care of.  It means that you can have hope and purpose and meaning and joy and life, eternal life.

Not only that.  It means also the creation itself is going to be redeemed.  It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, because of the resurrection of Jesus, suffering will be repealed, God will wipe away every tear, restore every loss, make right every wrong.

And not only that.  The resurrection power empowers you to be one of God’s workers in this great work of taking on evil, injustice, and oppression.  Jesus living in you can truly make a difference.  Rather than resign ourselves to all that is not right with our world, we can make things better.  We can love people, and it won’t be just our love.  It will be God’s love flowing through us.

All this because of the resurrection of Jesus!

So here we go.  Here’s the “Wow!”  Ready?

“Christ is risen!”

“Wow!”

God had the last laugh on that first Easter.  It really happened, it changed everything, and it can change you.

Dear God, every day is a great day, but this one especially.  Thank you God for Easter.  Thank you that the impact of what happened on that long ago day has never diminished and never will.  Make us Easter people – people who have been brought back from death to life, who will live for Jesus as long as we live, and then we will live with Jesus forever.  In his glorious name,  Amen.