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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Easter Sunrise Sermon

“Approaching the Resurrected Jesus” (Matthew 28:1-10) Rob Tennant, April 24, 2011Easter Sunrise Service

How do we approach Easter Sunday? One’s answer to this question has a big say in whether or not Easter makes a difference in a person’s life. So, pay close attention to your own answer. Be completely honest. And be willing to change. Be willing to lay your life out before God that God may enter and begin rearranging your life. We allow God to work change in us because as we hear the story with ears opened by the Holy Spirit, we hear it as we haven’t heard it before. Through the story of resurrection and the Spirit alive in us, God makes us new creations. How do we come to Easter Sunday?

Maybe we come dispassionately, bored, yawning. [Mocking tone] O wow! Women came to a tomb before sunrise on a Sunday. And surprise of all surprises. It’s empty. Jesus is alive. Woo hoo! Like I haven’t heard this every single year for the last 40 years. Nothing new; been there, done that.

Maybe we come knowingly. We aren’t bored, but neither are we suspecting to learn anything new. We’re all ready to shout “AMEN!” because we know the story so well. We’re ready to carry the story into the world and present it to unbelievers to convince them. We conjure up excitement in ourselves because we know this is the story of God’s victory over death. But, we feel we own this story. We know it; it is ours. And our posture toward Easter morning is planned celebration. Our handling of resurrection lacks a sense of wonder. We can to help someone else be amazed, but we’ve already felt it. We know what it’s all about.

Maybe we come the way we come to every text, every Sunday morning. We hope to have an experience in which we meet God, but we aren’t sure we will. We come with an unconvinced optimism. We’re not arrogant. We’re not bored. We’re not indifferent. But, we our faith is colored by seasons of spiritual dryness or disappointment or by pain. We want to meet God in the gathering of His church; but deep inside, we doubt we will.

Many of among us are seekers. We don’t spend much time in church and don’t read the Bible often, but it is Easter. Here we are. We approach curiously. Is there something for me? Is there anything in the Bible or church that’s worth my time; that could make my life better?

The entry point to the resurrection, to Easter is related to how we approach, our mental posture, our demeanor, our expectations, our sense of self and our sense of God. In the Gospel of Matthew we see two approaches on the morning the tomb was discovered empty. We are invited to enter this story. Which of the two approaches here will our entrypoint?

First, we meet the women. It was dawn on Sunday, which was the start of the work week after the Sabbath. Mary Magdalene and another Mary – there were so many women by the name of ‘Mary’ in this story it is hard to track them – came to the tomb. Who were Jesus’ women disciples?

First century women did not have rights as 21st century women do. The Mary’s and the other women were second class citizens. Some had money. In Luke’s we see that they gave of their resources to financially support Jesus in his mission of itinerant teaching (8:3). These women were not completely powerless. But even the affluent among the women were dependent for their well-being in life on the men in their lives. Others among the women were extremely peasants.

We know these women loved Jesus deeply. Also from Luke, we remember that when Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross out to the place of crucifixion, women walked behind him weeping openly (23:27-28). They did not care what anyone might do to them. They openly poured our their emotion at seeing their rabbis suffer.

Finally, the women recognized that Jesus was special. Martha, another of Jesus’ followers declared him to be the Messiah (John 11). And, at the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman violated social conventions and came to the table where the men reclined in order to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. Hers was certainly an act of appreciation and even has the appearance of worship.

The women Matthew introduces, who came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, were a part of a group of female disciples who supported Jesus, followed Jesus, and worshiped him. In them, we can enter the story, but before we do, we read on a little further to see the other characters.

As they approached the tomb, the earth shook violently and an angel from heaven descended rolled back the stone that had sealed it, and sat on the stone. Matthew reports that guards were stationed at the tomb, and when the earth shook, they fell to the ground trembling.

Here is our second entry point, and I don’t mean the angel. Not a one of us can say we would enter the story in the clothes of a divinely appointed being. We are created beings, made by God, and from the earth. The second entry point or point of identification is these guards.

Matthew tells us that chief priests and Pharisees requested that the tomb be guarded so that Jesus’ followers would not steal the body and then claim resurrection. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate granted this request, and here we have the very moment the temple leaders anticipated. It is a couple of days after the crucifixion, and Jesus’ followers show up at the tomb. The battle-hardened soldiers, assigned by Pilate, stand between these Christ-followers, these women, and grave.

Who were these men guarding the tomb? Might they have been among those who flogged and mocked Jesus? Or were they part of the unit assigned to the crucifixion? They stand in stark contrast to the women. If women, especially Jewish peasant women, were a picture of powerlessness, mighty soldiers stood for violence, power, and war. They were indifferent to Jesus’ identity and completely opposed to his ideals.

Turn the other cheek? They would smash it. Love your enemies? They were the enemy, and they weren’t going to love you. They were going to step on you. The soldiers didn’t ask permission. They took what was theirs and often they would take what was yours, and go ahead, try complaining. To what authority could one complain about abuse from soldiers, which was very common? They were the authorities!

So then, where are we in the story? Honesty here is crucial! Do we perceive ourselves to be powerless in our world, dependent on others? We are the women. Do we make our own way through hard work? Do we possess strength we have acquired through our training and through learning tough lessons? Do we perceive ourselves to be among the powerful in the world? We are the soldiers.

Most people who can be defined as middle class, who own their own home and car, and who have education and can vote, are people who have some level of power. Middle class, property owning, educated, citizen of the most powerful nation on earth – is that me? Yes. Is that us? Where do we enter the story?

See what happens. The earth quakes, the angel descends, and the stone is rolled back. And 4 times, Matthew uses a form of the Greek word Fobos. It is the Greek root of Phobia and it means fear. Who is afraid in this story? Everyone. (Well, not the angel). But, both women and all the soldiers, however many there are, are afraid. In fact, Matthew says, “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men” (v.4).

The mighty soldiers “shook” – it’s the same word used to describe the earth quake. First, the earth rumbled, and then the mighty guards trembled. And they became like dead men. They who were entrusted to guard the tomb of the dead themselves became like the dead. And from that point on, they were ignored.

In the first century, soldiers were feared. When they walked down the street, you moved out of their way. When turned down the lane in your village, you locked up the cottage and prayed for them to pass by. Now, here they are on the ground, trembling, probably losing control of bodily functions at the site of the angel, real power, and Matthew promptly loses interest in them. In the first century, women, even wealthy ones, lived at the pleasure of men. Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies were dominated by men in the first century. But in Matthew, these powerless Jewish women move to the center of the story.

The angel, indifferent to the petrified guards, says to the women, “Fear not! Jesus has been raised. Go quickly and tell his disciples. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”

What does one do, when one is visiting a cemetery, and one sees an angel? That angel says, the dead we came to visit is alive and we need to go report the news and go to Galilee because not only is he alive, he’s there waiting for us and we will see him? How do we handle that? It depends how we come to the story.

Recall the song of Mary when an angel told her she was going to be the mother of the son of God. She sang God’s praise. Specifically, she said, “[God] has scattered the proud. … He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). There are the proud, mighty soldiers, cowering, brought low.

There are the lowly, women followers of Jesus. They came on a mission of grief, but now, the angel has given them a mission from God. ‘Angel’ in Greek, aggelos literally means ‘messenger.’ The divine messenger has chosen of all people these women to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew tells us “with fear and great joy, [they] ran to tell the disciples” (28:7).

Both the women and the guard were filled with fear. The illusion of power the guards lived under was shattered when the angel descended and rolled back the stone. The reality of their smallness and their powerlessness before God crushed them. They weren’t ready to tremble before God. The women knew they needed God, so when God showed up, they didn’t collapse. They trembled. They were afraid. But, they were also ready to listen. It was to them that the message and the mission were given. They were the first preachers of resurrection and I believe this is so because of how they came.

Now, we said that Matthew uses forms of fobos four times. The guards were afraid. The angel said to the women, “Fear not.” And the women ran off in fear and in joy. Suddenly on the path, Jesus greeted them. The angel said they would see him, but still it was a surprise. And they were terribly afraid. Fear of God is appropriate. God is holy. We are sinful. God is divine. We are of earth, profane. God is eternal. We are temporary. It is right to fear the Lord. But, there’s just one thing to do in the face of such fear. It’s tempting to hide or try to run away. The women didn’t do that. They did the only thing one does when one comes before God powerless, in humility and dependence.

“[The women] took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10).

If we come to Easter Sunday as people who have heard the story before and as people who own it and as people who can no longer be amazed by the power of God expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, then we cannot ever have the moment these women had. If we come in our power, we will experience what the guard experienced. We will be knocked down and scared senseless. It might not happen at the Easter sunrise worship service. It might not hit and sink in until Judgment Day. But rest assured, if we come to God from a standpoint of power – like God needs us – we will be made aware of just how powerless and how small we are.

If we come to Easter in humility, and if we come to God in repentant, humble confession, acknowledging our absolute need for Jesus, we will be raised up as they were. We will hear the words, “Fear not.” We will worship in wondrous, awe-struck joy. And we will be sent out as those women were on mission to proclaim to a lost and hurting world that Jesus is alive and salvation is available to all who put their trust in Him.

Hiking through a thick forest up the side of a tall mountain, we come to the clearing at the top. When you come out of the shadow of the trees, with a view of the entire valley below and other mountain ranges in the distance, it takes your breath away. You could walk along complaining about the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down your back, and the ache in your legs from walking four miles up hill. All that complaining could poison you so much, you can’t appreciate the spectacular view once you get there. Or, you can enjoy the walk, the beauty of the green forest, the feeling of strength one gets from accomplishing such hike, and the appreciation of nature. The bugs and sweat and fatigue are just part of the journey and the view makes it all worthwhile. The quality of the experience really does hinge on the approach.

On resurrection morning, we meet God when we start out in fear and we start out knowing God doesn’t need us but we desperately need God. No matter how come in awe, seeking, bored, or in arrogance, Jesus is raised. Nothing we do affects the story. Furthermore, at the final judgment, nothing we do affects what God’s judgment will be how. How we approach it impacts how we experience the story. When we come in humility, seeking God, the resurrection begins shaping our lives and we live everyday in awe-struck, fearful joy. Everyday, the risen Lord says to us, “Fear not. Go and tell.”

That’s the final word this morning. Jesus conquered death. Jesus is alive. He was crucified for the sins of the world and the grave could not hold Him. People need to know. So, come in humility. Rejoice in faith. Then in love, go and tell.


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