Luke 24:1 – 12: We're All in This Story

31
Mar

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, 2013 based upon Luke 24:1 – 12.

Look at you!
Did anybody ever tell you that you all dress up nice?  All clean and scrubbed, wearing all those bright colors, so beautiful and handsome — looking like you know just what you’re doing — why you’re here.  What’s what!
You don’t fool me, though.  In spite of how nice we’re dressed this Easter morning,
I know what a motley crew we actually are.
We’re here for a whole host of reasons, with a whole range of feelings and expectations.   Some of us are here because this is where we are most every Sunday.  We’ve heard this claim that Jesus has risen since maybe we were a little kid, and yes, we say we believe it, and yet maybe there’s a part of us that still wonders — a part of us that can’t make much sense of this belief in those times when life gets scary.
Some of us here are pretty well convinced that it simply isn’t true.  You’re come because it’s still a nice holiday with stirring music and all those flowers so lovely and smell.  You’re here, perhaps because somebody you love wanted your company this morning.
Some of us have a mighty hard time believing it’s true, but there’s a part of that wants to believe, and you’ve come here hoping that some sort of faith might get awoken this morning.
And some of us, in spite of being Easter, are feeling pretty heavily weighed down with sadness, or with fear, and some of us, though feeling pretty good about our present lives are keenly aware of how precarious everything in life really is, and inside of all of us there are places where we just don’t see any good reason to hold onto hope.
And so we come again to listen to this strange story.
Whatever the state you find yourself in this morning, I’m glad you’re here — there’s room in the circle for all of us. I would just like to plant the thought in your head that –whatever state of mind you’ve come with, you are where you need to be, that you were intended to be.
And part of the reason I say this is because the story we just heard includes all of us.
To review:   Brokenhearted women come to the tomb full of grief and sadness.  When they get there, their first reaction is one of being perplexed in discovering the empty tomb.  Suddenly, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes – presumably angels, though they aren’t called “angels.”   The sight of these angels doesn’t comfort the women though – it terrifies them.
The angels ask them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” The angels then proceed to remind the women of things that Jesus had said in the past — how he must suffer and die, and then on the third day rise.
At this point the angels seem to fade into the background.  The women are caught up in remembering.  “Yes, we’d forgotten the things he’d said.  He did say that, didn’t he?”
What are the women feeling at this point in the story?   Is it joy?  Maybe, but the word “joy” doesn’t appear.  They take off running, wanting to tell the others, what?  That they’ve seen Jesus alive?  Not exactly.  They tell the others that they found the tomb empty, and that two men who might have been angels told them that Jesus had risen,  and then reminded them of things Jesus said when he was still with them.
The male disciples, however, discount what the women tell them partly because they’re sexist, put probably mostly because they are so locked into their grief and despair they can’t let’s the women’s witness in. Death is death, and nobody is going to convince them otherwise.  This is just “idle talk.”  “Nonsense.”
The story now turns its focus on Peter.  Peter apparently shares the reaction of the other men; but there’s a part of him that is open enough to what the women have said to run to the tomb and check things out for himself.   He doesn’t find Jesus alive, but the tomb is empty, as the women said.  And something else is curious too.  The grave clothes Jesus was wearing are sitting there where his body should be.  That’s strange.  If somebody came and stole Jesus’ body, why would they bother to take off his grave clothes?
Peter leaves the tomb not as one who fully believes, but something has shifted inside him.  The dark certainty he had known an hour earlier isn’t quite so impenetrable.  A sense of mystery has opened up inside him — a mystery he feels compelled do pursue.
And so you see, we’re all included in these 12 verses.  There’s sadness, feeling perplexed, and fear.  There’s memories of times past.  There seems to be joy and hope, but there’s also scoffing – a refusal to believe the basic claim that Jesus has risen from the dead–because it just doesn’t make any sense.  And finally there’s curiosity and a sense of wonder before a great mystery.
Later the story will go on to describe face to face encounters with Jesus, but even then there will be struggles by people to believe what they’re seeing.
It’s as if the story is saying to us, “Yeah, this is hard to believe.  It contradicts what you’ve always assumed to be true — that in the end, death wins.  That’s okay.  Be patient with yourself.  Sometimes faith take time to evolve.”
Nonetheless, make no mistake: the reason we are here 2000 years later is because of the claim made that day by the angels: that death did not hold Jesus – that he arose from the dead.
Is it true?  That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it?  Is it true?!
None other than the Apostle Paul himself declared in his first letter to the Corinthians that if it isn’t true, this whole Christianity thing is so much bunk, and we who call ourselves Christians are the most pitiable of creatures for having been taken in by the whole charade.  He says this, however, as one who has come to a place of being absolutely convinced that Jesus has risen, for he himself – to his great surprise – had met Jesus’ living presence.
Now I can’t prove to you or to me that it is true.  What I hope to accomplish this morning is more modest:  If you find yourself most readily identifying with the men in the story who refuse to believe what the women are telling them – considering it nonsense – I hope to say a few things that may move you to the place of wonderment that Peter finds himself coming to at the end of our story.
The first thing to note is that this movement Jesus started took place in a remote corner of the earth — that Jesus was a peasant himself — the son of a carpenter in a podunk town called Nazareth.
The followers that Jesus gathered around him weren’t “the best and the brightest;” they were fishermen and such, unlearned men, with no worldly power to speak of.  Before his crucifixion, the movement had only been in existence at most three years.
It would have probably lasted a couple of more years if Jesus hadn’t decided to leave his native region of Galilee and head to the power center of Israel – to the city of Jerusalem.
His disciples tried to talk him out of it.  They knew how dangerous it would be to go there.  Jesus had been making enemies of the religious authorities, but they would have left him alone as long as he stayed up in the boonies.
But instead he went to Jerusalem, and the first thing Jesus did when he got there was drive out the money changers and those selling animals in the temple who were ripping off the little people in the name of God, creating barriers between people and God.
This sealed his fate, and in just a matter of days, the religious authorities had conspired with the Roman authorities to get this Jesus killed.  It wasn’t hard to do.  His disciples, none to impressive to begin with ran for cover when he needed them most.
What you need to understand is that in those days religious movements came and went like the seasons.   They were a dime a dozen.  As an oppressed people, the Jews lived in perpetual hope that someone would come along and lead them in overthrowing the Romans.  There were countless would-be messiahs with charismatic personalities who briefly had peoples’ hope attached to them, only to be disappointed.   This same hope was attached to Jesus, and he, too, was a major disappointment in this regard.
He wasn’t the first to be nailed to a cross, nor would he be the last. The Romans remained very much in power for years to come.
So when Jesus got nailed to the cross the movement he started should have come to an end.   We shouldn’t know his name at all.  The cross should have been a crushing blow to this pipsqueak movement.
But instead, in short order, it took off like wild-fire, eventually spreading to the ends of the earth.
The Gospels take pains to describe how pathetically the disciples behaved the night their leader was arrested.  They had nothing to be proud of.
So… what happened to transform them into people stronger, braver, more daringly loving then they had ever managed to be in their time before Jesus’ death on the cross?
What accounts for such a dramatic transformation?  Where does the power come from that led this movement further and further out into the world long after countless others had run out of steam?
Right from the very start, the singular explanation given by Jesus’ was that they had encountered Jesus alive again.
What are we to make of this?
There is a mystery here that defies easy explanations.
For instance, you could argue that the empty tomb was merely a hoax, designed by Jesus’ followers to keep the movement going.  They pulled off a big con job. They stole his dead body themselves, and then told a bunch of lies that people believed.
But that doesn’t make much sense.
Charles Colson, one of Richard Nixon’s top aids who did prison time for crimes committed in Watergate, became a Christian in prison.  He made the point that the 12 most powerful men in the land — sharp, smart guys every one of them — couldn’t keep their story together for two weeks about what happened with Watergate.
And the bigger question, how does a con job explain the transformation of the very persons perpetuating the con job?
It doesn’t.
It you line up the four different Gospel accounts of what happened on Easter, you will notice that the stories they tell vary significantly.
Now on the surface that might seem like evidence that the whole thing was made up.   But on the other hand, if they were out to pass on a con job, they could have easily gotten the details to line up.  But they weren’t concerned to do that.  What mattered to them was the core truth that the tomb was empty, and that Jesus was experienced afterwards in strange and mysterious ways as being very much alive once again.
And here’s one fascinating detail that that all four Gospels agree on:  it was women who first witnessed to the resurrection.  Now this is remarkable because if the followers of Jesus were making this thing up, they assuredly wouldn’t have made up a story in which women were the first witnesses, because women in those days were considered unreliable — their testimony wasn’t even permitted in court.  And Mary Magdalene, the one woman consistently described as present at the empty tomb, was a woman of particularly questionable reputation.  So the fact that all four Gospels present women as the first witnesses to the resurrection give the stories the ring of truth.
It makes sense to me that it was women who first witnessed the resurrection partly because I know that women sometimes perceive realities that men are oblivious to –truths perceived by the heart — truths sometimes missed by the head.
***
So if what I have said has made sense, then perhaps we can begin to identify with Peter, having found that  — yes, the tomb is empty, and that there is that odd detail of the folded grave clothes,  and finally, there’s the perplexing testimony of the women.
There is a mystery here.
Can we live with the mystery, and wait and see what the future will bring?
It’s important to keep in mind that the women’s claim has to do with a particular man – Jesus – who had a particular message.
If I was to try to summarize his message, it would be this:  that the God who created the universe, that created you and me and everybody who ever lived, loves us more than we know.  And that we can really trust this God with our lives, come what may.
As the disciples demonstrated through the course of Jesus’ ministry, this trust doesn’t come easy for us human beings.
Nonetheless, the message proved powerful during the course of his ministry in Galilee – many, many overlooked and burdened people were healed and transformed: the lame stood up straight, the blind could see, sick people became well, and in general, people moved from despair to hope, from fear to love.
All of this provided a certain amount of support for the proposition that Jesus was putting forth – that God truly does love us more than we know, and that we really can put our trust in God.  When people bought into his message, good things happened – life began to make a kind of sense it hadn’t made before.
So then Jesus made his decision to go to Jerusalem.  Why’d he do this?  In large part this was because the people in power there were using their power in ways that defied the truth of his basic proposition.  They were conspiring to deny the truth that every human being is precious and beloved by God; they were telling lies about the nature of God.
In Jesus’ mind, their lies had to be confronted.  The truth needed to be asserted in the face of their lies.  So he went to Jerusalem knowing that he would pay dearly for speaking the truth — that they would kill him in the most vicious of ways.
What then of his basic proposition:  that God loves us, and we can entrust our lives to God?  When Jesus got nailed to the cross, what became of his central proposition?
Those women coming to that tomb that first Easter morning, with spices to anoint Jesus’ body, must have come there as those who have been forced to conclude that in the end Jesus was nothing more than a beautiful dreamer – a dreamer whose dream, in the end,
was proven to be nothing more than a dream. A delusion, really.  In the end, the love of God seemed to mean very little.  God can’t really be trusted.  So play it safe with your life.  Play it very safe.
But something happened there at that tomb – something strange and mysterious awakening a conviction that Jesus was safe and sound after all, that he hadn’t been abandoned after all, and that his message was vindicated.  Something happened that led them to conclude that what Jesus taught wasn’t a dream after all – it was bedrock truth.
And eventually others became convinced as well, and how exactly this happened we can’t really say for sure.  But convinced they were, for they were able to step out in faith in a way they had never really managed to do before Jesus was crucified.
So I hope you’ll go away this morning with a sense of mystery and wonder – particularly in those places in your life where you’ve thought you know what’s what, and it’s not good – those places in your life where you don’t see any reason for hope.
Because you see, he’s risen.  He’s risen indeed.