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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Easter Sermon

Do We Understand the Good News? (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:8-10)
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

            The end of 2016, and maybe the entirety of 2016, was hard for a lot of people; maybe for you.  Some felt roughed up, and at a loss because of the political climate in America.  The election results were a tough blow for a lot of people.  Others were happy with the election, but distressed about things going on in the world.  And then a lot of people have their own problems, personal demons or trials that are so intense, they couldn’t even focus on the national or international scenes.  Getting from one day to the next was tough enough. 
            As I took in the state of the world right around us here, I sensed a creeping, uncomfortable malaise.  Pastors and preachers have a variety of responsibilities including the duty to share good news.  I felt that need quite strongly as we turned the page from December to January.  I felt that on Sunday mornings, we had to turn our attention from distressing current events to deeper truths and greater realities – things that could not be affected by what happens in Washington or in the voting booth. 
            So, we began this year imagining just how big God is.  We turned all our attention onto God.  This was not a retreat from the realities around us.  We prayed over the immigration issue.  We prayed for refugees and many in our church have volunteered to help refugees.  We pray over race relations in our country.  And our church is going to spend the rest of this year examining how we can be a more diverse community.  Our decision to earnestly seek to see as much of God as we can was not a denial of the pain and frustration all around us.  The decision to look to God was a declaration that God’s goodness is bigger than the evils of the present day.  God’s light shines brighter than any darkness.
            We want to be witnesses to that light and to draw others into God’s light.  We can only testify to what we have seen.  So, we tried, as a church family, see God.
            As winter gave way to spring and Lent began, we took up an unusual Lenten discipline.  Rather than fasting, going without red meat or desserts or things like that, we instead engaged in story-telling.  This is our attempt to answer God’s call on us to be witnesses.  We set up a witness wall where anyone could write down a testimony of seeing God at work, working for good in the world.  Each week we invited the church to come to wall and share their stories of things they see God doing in their own lives. 
            I wrote down some of the responses.  These are all stories from people who worshiped in this room in the last 6 weeks.  One testified to provision – God met financial needs in a desperate time.  Another wrote of tangible experiences of God’s love, including gratitude for a loving church family.  One person wrote thanks for the opportunity to play school soccer; another for the chance to be in a school play; for opportunities for friendship; the opportunity to become grandparents; and, the opportunity to share the Gospel.  The wall is full of accounts of God helping people. 
            That last one I mentioned is quite important for today – Easter Sunday.  Someone was thankful for the opportunity to share the Gospel.  That word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek and it means, literally, ‘good news.’  The Greek word is eungelion, the root for the English ‘evangel’ or ‘evangelism.’  Technically, evangelism means ‘the telling of good news.’ 
Of course, if I just asked everyone to define ‘evangelical,’ I’d get a wide variety of responses.  Some would not have anything to do with sharing good news.
Similarly, if I asked everyone to write down and turn in a definition of ‘gospel,’ there would be a plethora of definitions.  Some might define it by terms of genre – ‘gospel music.’  Others might define it by terms of purity – ‘that’s the gospel truth.’
In any Easter Sunday crowd, we gather together as a mixture of people.  Some are experienced in church and in churches like ours, and are very knowledgeable about the Bible.  Others are not in church as often and it all feels unfamiliar.  The question I have is for everyone because I think we might all, in different ways, struggle with this.  Do we understand the good news?  We sing about Jesus’ resurrection with great energy, but why is this good news for us?    
            N.T. Wright gives a helpful definition of the ancient way the word ‘gospel’ was used.[i]
            The term actually was in use by the Romans before the New Testament was written.  It was used when there was a handover of power.  The Emperor had died and thus the empire was full of uncertainty.  Will the empire hold together?  Are we going to sink into chaos?  Will pirates or invading barbarians take over?  Is war inevitable?
When the new Emperor was crowned, heralds were dispatched to travel throughout the empire to announce this message.  “We have a new Emperor.  His name is Augustus.  A new age of peace and justice begins.”  That was the gospel, the announced “good news.” Of course people in the empire knew that for them – the majority who were poor peasants – it would be more of the same.  It didn’t matter who was in power.  For the majority in the roman empire, life was poverty and struggle.  The peace-and-justice gospel was empty political rhetoric.
In that world, a world of Jewish frustration – frustrated at being under Roman heel; a world of Greek cultural dominance; and a world of Roman military and political power; in that world, New Testament writers seized this term from the empire and used it to tell what God had done in Jesus.  The first verse of the Gospel of Mark – “Arxh tou euaggeliou Ihsou Xristou uiou qeou.”  “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
From the start, the New Testament did what we have been trying to do.  The New Testament told a different story, a competing narrative.  The New Testament challenged the dominant narrative of empire with news of God at work in the world changing everything.  The New Testament writers from Mark to Matthew to Luke to Paul responded to Rome.  “You say the good news is that Augustus or Nero or Domitian is now king?  That’s good news?” 
“No,” New Testament authors defiantly reply.  “We, a small group among the Jews, have the real good news.  God has come in the flesh, in a man in Israel, a peasant carpenter from backwater Nazareth, Jesus.  He is God and he is man; he is Savior, and he is Lord.  He died on the cross for the sins of the world.  And on the third, on this day, he rose from death in resurrection.”
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus includes salvation for the individual.  When you put your trust in Christ, receive forgiveness of sins, turn your life over to Him, and acknowledge Him as Lord, you are saved.  Jesus provides the story of your salvation, and mine.  But the Easter proclamation of Good News – Gospel – is much, much more than simply saying, ‘here’s how we get to Heaven.’  The resurrection is the dawning of a new age, one in which God is King.  Easter is God’s response to every oppressive power that would seek to rule the world. 
History is full of declarations of exceptionalism.  The superiority of the Aryan race; the sun never setting on the British Empire; America first; on and on it goes.  At Easter, Christians around the world join together to declare “No,” there is no government, king, general, or any other who has real power.  It is God’s.  The world is God’s.  All that is in it belongs to God.  And God is good.  God is love.  God is forgiveness.  God is light.  God is life.  We know God by way of the salvation we’ve been given in Jesus Christ. 
Of course whether or not news is considered “good” depends one where you’re standing.  A couple of weeks ago, we got the news on a Monday night.  “National Champions!”  What could be better?  Well, if you cheer Gonzaga or for Duke a lot of things could be better. 
But more importantly, how do we respond to the news that in Jesus God has come and inaugurated a new age in which God is king?  The resurrection set this in motion and when it happened, no one was ready for it, not even Jesus’ closest followers.
All four New Testaments Gospels convey the same detail the morning of the resurrection.  The male followers of Jesus were in hiding.  The women stole to the tomb in the early morning hours to anoint the dead body of Jesus as it had not been appropriately prepared for burial.  Those women went to the tomb as an act of love for Jesus, but they were fully convinced he was dead.
Mark reports that they found the stone sealing the tomb already rolled to the side and so they entered and found a young man that Luke and Matthew both describe as an angel.  Mark’s young man then gives the 2-part good news that is the beginning of Christian proclamation that we continue to this day.  Something has happened!
First, he says, “Fear not.  You are looking for Jesus, but he has been raised.  He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  This is unmistakable.  He’s not describing a new awareness.  He’s not talking about something that is spiritual but not physical.  Mark describes women entering a tomb where they saw Jesus buried.  Now the body is gone, and the young man they meet there tells them that after Jesus died on Friday and sat in the grave on Saturday, he is alive on Sunday.  His body is somewhere else, fully alive and on the move.
Second, he says to them, “Go and tell.  Tell the disciples they will see him just as he said.”  For the women to do it, to heed the word of the messenger, they have to believe it.  You don’t say something as preposterous as ‘the dead man lives’ unless you believe it. 
Matthew picks up the story here in chapter 28, verse 8.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples.”  He is alive.
Do we understand?
The Gospels were written between 30 and 50 years after these events.  The accounts on which the Gospels were based circulated orally throughout Christian communities in Jerusalem and Antioch and then in Corinth and Galatia and the rest of cities where churches cropped up.  In the later 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, these stories were told.  In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote them down.
They did this to get the story straight and help the church remember its foundation.  The Gospels introduce us to our Savior.  They also declare the church’s resounding “no” to the powers of the day.  The Gospels live on to reject the powers of every era including our own. 
Do we understand?
The only way we can understand is if we believe.  I have read numerous exhaustive historical studies.  The best conclusion to be drawn from the hard historical data is Jesus in fact rose from the grave and appeared to his followers.  But evidence doesn’t convince anyone – not in this case.  To fully grasp the news and to comprehend why it this news is good, we have to believe.
We have to believe that we are sinners, that God loves us and in Christ met us in our sin, died in our place taking our sins on himself, and then rose from death on Easter morning.  Once we believe that, then we’re right where those women were in the tomb first hearing the news. 
God has done something.  We’re right to be afraid just as those women were.  The reality of God is terrifying; wonderful, but terrifying too.  But then, as it did for them, that fear gives way to something else.  Because the tomb is empty it means Death is defeated.  We have life.   We have God with us and when we die, we will be raised just as Jesus was raised.  As he was resurrected, we have resurrection ahead of us!   
Finally, it hits us.  News is only news when it is shared.  So, to fully understand the Good news, we need the stories.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John help us there.  We need the honesty – we sin and we need help.  We need the realization that God has done something to help.  We need to believe.  Once we do that, then like those women on Easter morning, we must go and tell. 
There’s a lot of bad news out there.  The world is full of anxiety and uncertainty – a deadly combination.  But, we have another story to offer, one that is truer and one that lasts.  Jesus is alive and all can have life, eternal life, in his name.  Got it?  Good!  Now, we are witnesses called to share our testimony.  Go and tell.


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