March 31, 2013
Rev. John Watts
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
E.V. Hill was pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles for 42 years. Back in 1957, he was one of the black pastors who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was to become the organizing force behind the civil rights movement. E.V. Hill died ten years ago. He loved to preach and he loved to preach on Easter Sunday.
One of his favorite stories was about the older woman who always sat in the front row at his church. He would be preaching about all the things that were wrong in the world and she would say, “Get to the good news!” He would go on about injustice and oppression and he could hear her there in the front row murmuring, “Get to the good news, pastor!” He would talk about Good Friday and the cross and all that Jesus went through for us and there she was saying, “Get to the good news!” And when he would finally start talking about Easter morning and Jesus rising from the grave, she would jump to her feet and clap her hands and shout, “That’s what I’m talking about! Preach that, preacher!”
Well, today we get to the good news! It is the best of news! I can’t wait to talk about it and have you people in the front row stand up and cheer! But we can’t see how good the good news is until we see how bad the bad news is. We don’t know how wonderful it feels to be healthy until we know how awful it feels to be sick. We don’t know how blessed we are with our families until we know how lonely we are without them. We don’t know how wonderful life can be until we know how awful life can be. We don’t appreciate light until we have darkness in which that light can shine. (Flashlight removed from backpack.)
We’ve been on a journey for several weeks now. We started on February 13, Ash Wednesday. We’ve been looking at some areas in our lives where we often struggle. We started with relationships. Some of our greatest joy and greatest pain comes from our relationships. Then we looked at self-esteem. Many of us struggle with that. We looked at our work, which can be a blessing or a curse. Then temptations and how easy it is to get off track on our journey. And money. No matter how much of it you have, money or the lack thereof can rule and ruin our lives. Last week we looked at suffering. Jesus’ suffering and ours.
Each of these areas can be bad news in our lives in a big way or good news in a big way. And each of these looks different when we look at them with the light of Jesus. The light of Jesus changes bad news into good news! (Flashlight illuminates the words and pictures of the six themes on our Journey to Hope. In the center is a picture of a sunrise and the words, He is Risen!) Before we get to the hope at the center of it all, we’re going to have to turn off the flashlight and spend some time in the darkness. So we can appreciate more fully the light.
The day Jesus was crucified was a dark day. Figuratively and literally. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that the sky turned black as Jesus was dying. And then his lifeless body was taken down and sealed in a dark tomb. It was a cave actually that had been enlarged painstakingly with hammer and chisel. It was sealed by a huge stone. They hurried to get done because Sabbath begins at sundown when no work was allowed. And so we go from the darkness of the sky at mid-day, to the darkness of the tomb, to the darkness of the sky at night. It was a dark, dark time.
Saturday, being the Sabbath, no one came near the tomb. The Sabbath ended with sundown on Saturday but still no one could come near the tomb because it was too dark to see. So the first opportunity for the two Marys we read about to come to the tomb was at the first sign of light in the eastern sky. They were eager to get there because it was a sign of love and respect to care for a body according to their traditions. There was the problem of that huge stone. We’re told they were “worrying out loud” about that as they walked. It had taken several men to get that stone into place and it would take several men to roll it away. While they were fussing and fretting over this they got close enough to see they didn’t have to worry.
And now we’re getting to the good news! That huge stone had already been rolled away. When they walked in expecting to find a corpse, instead they met an angel who knew exactly who they were looking for. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here.” And before they could say, “Well, then where is he?” the angel had said, “He is risen.” And at this point, that lady in the front row is on her feet saying, “That’s what I’m talking about!”
No event in the ancient world is better attested to than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Four historians record this story in great detail in their four gospels. Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 23 of them affirm the resurrection. So certain were the early Christians that this had really happened that they made the resurrection the cornerstone of the Church. Christianity has always been more than happy to stand or to fall on the truth of what happened on that first Easter morning.
E. Stanley Jones was a great Christian missionary who spent much of his life inIndia. He told the story of a Muslim who was talking about the Muslim duty, at least once in a lifetime, to take a pilgrimage toMeccaandMedina. He was pointing to this as something that made Islam superior to Christianity. “You don’t even have a burial place that you know for sure is the tomb of Jesus,” he said. And E. Stanley Jones calmly replied, “We have no tomb because we have no corpse.”
Jesus is risen! He is risen, indeed! Christians used to use this as their common way of greeting one another. When we see each other, we say “Good morning!” or “How are you?” or “Good to see you!” But for about the first three centuries after the resurrection, Christians knew exactly what to say when they met other Christians. “He is risen!” And the response would be, “He is risen, indeed!” Think we could do that right now? “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”
He is, indeed! We have no tomb because we have no corpse! That’s the hope at the center of our faith. (Flashlight shines on the “He is risen” words and picture at the center of the poster board.) That’s the hope that has been our destination on our Lenten journey. That’s the hope that has been our destination since the day we were born. Hope is at the center of God’s universe. And that hope changes everything!
What is so amazing and so wonderful about the good news we celebrate today is that the good news comes right on the heels of the bad news. Good Friday was bad, bad news. There was no hope on that day. It was the end of Jesus. It was the end of the hopes and the dreams of those who had followed him. Their journey to hope had come to a dead end in a cemetery. But as the third day was dawning, as the women entered that same cemetery prepared to do their little ritual with the spices to make the ending final, it suddenly became clear that this was not an ending at all. This was a beginning!
Endings and beginnings. What seemed the end for Jesus was not an ending. It was a beginning. He was not dead after all. He was alive.
And so were those whose hope had died on Good Friday. They too were now alive, as they had never before been alive! What a stark contrast it is between the picture the Bible gives us of the disciples before and after the resurrection! Before, they looked like they were the ones who had just been crucified. The life had been sucked right out of them. They were too heartbroken to speak, too numb to pray, too devastated to know what to do next. They were hiding behind closed doors, huddling in fear. They might go on living, but it felt like their lives were over. It was a bitter ending.
Seven weeks later the Bible gives us another picture of these same men. They were no longer hiding behind closed doors. Now they were out in the streets bursting with joy and with confidence. They were fearless. They knew what they were on earth to do and they couldn’t wait to get to it. They had lived a number of years already but it felt like their lives were just starting. It was a glorious new beginning.
Sometimes we confuse endings with beginnings. Sometimes we lose hope and we give up. We think it’s the end. But it isn’t the end. It just feels that way. There are no endings for Christians. Not any more. Even that ultimate ending we call death has been transformed by Jesus into a glorious new beginning. And all those little deaths before we die. All those dead ends and disappointments and frustrations and defeats. They aren’t final either. Jesus has transformed them, too. They can be new beginnings. So don’t give up. There is hope at the end of every journey and that hope is always the beginning of a brand new journey.
There’s a cute little saying perhaps you’ve heard. “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.” That captures pretty well the good news of Easter. If it’s not all right for you right now, you can know it will be all right. Not by the power of positive thinking but by the power of the risen Christ! The end of the story was revealed to those women on Easter morning. Christ wins! That’s really all you need to know to keep you going through the rough patches in your journey. Even the apparent dead ends. Christ wins! Hold onto that hope!
Chuck Noland held onto hope for four long years stranded on a deserted island. If you don’t recognize the name Chuck Noland you might recognize the name, Tom Hanks. That’s who played Chuck Noland in the movie, “Cast Away”. A FedEx delivery plane crashes into the ocean. Everyone dies except Chuck Noland. His life raft washes ashore on this island, along with several FedEx packages. He opens all but one. He’s looking for anything to help him survive. One box has a pair of ice skates. You wouldn’t think those would be of much help, but necessity can foster creativity. He used the shoelaces for rope and one of the ice blades as a hatchet. One of the packages has a volleyball which becomes his one and only friend, “Wilson”. He finds something to help him in each of the packages but for some reason he leaves one unopened. When he finally leaves the island on a raft he has managed to build, he takes the time to lash the unopened package onto the raft. Watching the movie, you’re wondering why.
The answer comes in the final scene. Chuck Noland is safely back in theUnited States. He is driving down a lonelyTexashighway with that unopened FedEx package in the passenger seat. He’s listening to the radio. The song is Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender”. That’s what he is doing. He is returning the package to its original sender in ruralTexas. He finds the address, he knocks on the door, no one is home, so he leaves the package on their front porch. But he takes time to write a note. The note says, “This package saved my life.”
What did he mean by that? He never opened that package. He never found out what was inside. He never used the contents to help him survive. Yet he says it saved his life? Watching the movie, you know what he means. That package symbolized for Chuck Noland hope. It was his hope that one day he would leave that island, go back home to family and friends, return to work, and deliver that package. It was for him a package of hope, hope that kept him alive for four long, hard years. Hope that turned what appeared to be the end of his life into the beginning of his new life. When Chuck Noland said, “This package saved my life,” what he was really saying was, “Hope saved my life.”
I’ve been in the people business for a few years now. One thing I’ve learned is that hope saves lives. Hope saves people spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and often physically. Hope can save a life in every way a life can be saved. And hope is what Easter is all about.
Martin Luther did something creative with the last verse of “the love chapter”. I Corinthians 13 is commonly known as the love chapter. You’ve heard it read at practically every wedding you’ve ever attended. The last verse I’ll bet you have memorize. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Martin Luther took some creative license with this verse. He said, “the greatest of these is hope”. Here’s his reasoning. Faith comes first. Faith says that “God is”. Then there is love which says that “God is love”. But finally there is hope, and hope has to be the greatest, because hope says “God will act.”
God acted on Easter Sunday. It was no ending for Jesus. It was a beginning. And God will act for you. The light that is Jesus will shine in your darkness and will give you hope.
What a blessing, dear God, to be alive for another Easter! There is no more wonderful day. Nothing is too great for you to overcome, dear God. Not death. Not despair. Not the worst of the situations we can get ourselves into. Not the most tragic and impossible circumstances facing your children on this planet earth. Nothing, absolutely nothing is impossible for you! And so help us on those days when hope seems elusive, do what the lady in the front row said to do. Get to the good news. Hold onto the good news. Allow the good news of this glorious day overpower any bad news. For nothing is too difficult for you. Through Christ, our risen, living Lord, Amen.