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Racing Toward the Impossible – Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18

It was good to just rest. After all the events of Friday, it was good to find some quiet time to process everything. The sound of those nails being pounded into the cross, the darkness, and the smell of death were overwhelming. So it was good to observe Sabbath, to have some time to think, the second day after Jesus was crucified.

Oh, I know you would rather talk about the third day. That’s the one everybody likes to celebrate. But that second day, that quiet Sabbath, was important, too. All of the disciples needed that day, to come to terms with the way things had played out. It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and getting over the shock of realizing Jesus was really dead would take some time.

What would happen now, without a leader? Peter could have taken over, but he was just as devastated as everyone else. More so, maybe. And the disciple Jesus loved had been sticking close to Peter’s side, as everyone huddled in that room together. There had been talk all day long. Hushed whispers, loud wailings, each one grieving, everyone trying to figure out what to do next. While some kept watch, in case the religious leaders came looking for more disciples to arrest, others slept, or tried to eat. A few talked through the night, trying to decide some course of action, but in the end, no one had a good idea, and almost everyone had dozed off by the time morning came. No one even noticed Mary slipping out while it was still dark outside.

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

There was a lot of running going on that morning. First Mary Magdalene ran back to the disciples as soon as she realized the stone had been removed from the tomb. Though Mary is the only woman mentioned in John’s version of this story, we get the sense that there were other women with her when she said, “We don’t know where they have put Jesus.” So they must have been running with her, as she raced back to tell the others what she had found.

We don’t know if Mary even looked inside the tomb before jumping to the conclusion that someone had taken the body away. It’s hard to tell why she assumed the body has been stolen. Maybe she thought the tomb had only been ‘on loan’ as a temporary burial place, just to get through the Sabbath, and its actual owner had removed the body. Maybe she thought the religious leaders had moved the body before this tomb became an unwelcome shrine. It’s hard to tell who she means when she says “they,” but it’s obviously not “one of us.” And it’s clear that Mary thinks Jesus is still dead.

But Mary’s words crackle like a starting pistol, sending Peter and the other disciple racing toward the garden to see for themselves. And this is where the scene becomes almost comical – you can practically hear an old piano playing silent-movie-chase-scene music, as one disciple gets there first, but doesn’t go in, and the other runs right past him to duck into the … empty tomb! Well, how about that! Mary was right, after all. There’s no body here. Just some grave clothes lying around, and what’s this? The head cloth has been carefully rolled up and placed away from the other wrappings. That’s strange. Peter and the other disciple leave, scratching their heads, believing that the body is certainly gone, but not quite clear yet on the concept of resurrection.

After all, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, someone else had to unwrap him after he walked out of his tomb. So, who unwrapped Jesus’ body for him, and why? Peter and his friend simply cannot comprehend that the impossible has happened here. So, they leave.

Before we condemn them for their lack of faith, or even for short memories that can’t remember Jesus’ own words about being the resurrection and the life, we might want to stop and consider how we, too, walk away from the things we can’t explain. When our view of God is challenged, when he doesn’t work in our lives the way we think he ought to work, how often do we give up and walk away, muttering to ourselves or anyone else who will listen? We aren’t much different from Peter and that other disciple.

But Mary comes back into the story, to remind us that there is more than one way to miss recognizing the miracle of resurrection. She must have run right back to the tomb behind those racing disciples, because here she is again, weeping as they walk away. As she bends over to peer into the empty tomb, just to be sure Jesus isn’t hiding under that pile of linen, she discovers that it is no longer empty. It was empty just a moment ago, but now there are two – not one, but two – angels, sitting there calmly, asking a simple question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

This might seem an odd question, since Mary is standing in front of a new grave. It’s a place where people normally weep. But they know something she hasn’t quite accepted yet. Mary is still stuck in the “He’s dead” reality of her own limited understanding. She hasn’t grasped the impossible fact that Jesus is alive. She can only answer, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

As she turns around, she sees a man standing there, who asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Her answer is another repetition of the theme, “I don’t know where they’ve taken him.” She’s stuck in this groove of grief, this firm belief that Jesus is dead, and she says the same thing she’s been saying all along, first to the disciples, then to the angels, and now to this man she doesn’t recognize, so she figures he must be the caretaker of this garden.

Aren’t we sometimes like Mary, too? When God doesn’t fit neatly into the box of our belief system, we might just walk away, as those racing disciples did, or we might act like Mary: senselessly, stubbornly repeating our view of truth, even when evidence to the contrary stands right in front of us.

Then, Jesus says her name. “Mary,” is all it takes for this sheep to recognize her shepherd’s voice. Jesus calls each of us by name, too, urging us to recognize him as our risen Lord. What keeps us from seeing him, when he’s standing right in front of us? What prevents us from reaching out to him, as Mary apparently did, naming him as our beloved teacher and Lord?

Theologian Karl Barth says we come to worship to answer this one, simple question: “Is it true?” Is it true that God exists? Is it true that he created a perfect world, and that humans were part of that creation? Is it true that he wanted us to love him the same way he loves us, freely, and of our own choice, so he made it possible for us to choose not to love him? Is it true that we broke his heart and the perfect world he created by choosing the wrong thing, and he’s been working to heal our brokenness ever since? Is it true that he loves us so much he gave his only Son to die, so that we could be reconciled to him? Is it true that this same Son not only died, but rose again, to give us eternal life?  Is it true?

There was a time in my life when I was pretty skeptical – maybe even downright cynical – about all this hocus-pocus we call faith. I had read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I thought I had it figured out. I was pretty smug about my openness to the possibility of a variety of mythological explanations for the things we cannot explain.

Then my world came crashing down around my ears and I found myself wondering: if there was a God, why didn’t he care about me anymore? I call that time in my life “the bottom of the well.” As I slowly climbed out of that well, I rebuilt my understanding of who God is, and I began to realize that he truly did love me. But I couldn’t quite get my head around that. I couldn’t explain it. I knew I wasn’t lovable. And then, one day as I read my Bible, without really seeing the words on the page, I realized I was like that other disciple, the one who entered the tomb after Peter, looked around, and believed. But we don’t know what he believed. The rest of that sentence says that the disciples still didn’t “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” And I realized I was a lot like Mary, repeating over and over my version of reality, trying to make the evidence right in front of me fit into a box that was too small. I remember saying out loud, “Lord, I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And it came to me, clear as a bell, “That’s okay. Just trust.” That’s when I was changed, like Mary, into someone who could suddenly recognize Jesus.

That’s what I invite you to do today. No matter what your questions are, no matter what keeps you stuck in doubt or skepticism, no matter what makes you walk away scratching your head. Trust Jesus to be who he said he was, to do what he promised to do, dying for your sake, rising again to new life, so that you can live, forever reconciled to God, starting now.

Then you, too, can join Mary in saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia.
Amen.

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Good Friday

Last year, I wrote the following piece for my Good Friday post on the Evangelical Covenant Church’s WorshipConnect blog. This year, I share it with you, as we prepare to enter Good Friday anew.

Dark.
Not dusk,
no moon or stars, as on a clear night;
No.

This dark was thick, oppressively thick;
All the goodness that ever existed
had been sucked out of the world.

Nothing.
Empty.
Dark.
And we were
suddenly,
completely
alone.

Dark.
It was so….
Dark.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

– Latin 12th c.; German, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
Translated, James W. Alexander (1804-1859)
Hymn 238, Covenant Hymnal

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A New Commandment

Meditation for Holy Thursday - John 13:1-17, 31-35

We gather soon, as they did in that upper room. Some will take off shoes and socks, and let the warm water bathe tired feet. Some will wash another’s hands instead. Some will receive bread and wine (or juice) and remember, as we were commanded to remember, that night when Jesus said, “this is my body, this is my blood.”

That same night, Jesus also said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Washing feet, wearing a towel, kneeling in front of each disciple, serving. That’s the example Christ shows us.

And he gives a new commandment: “Love each other, just as I have loved you.”

It’s easier to remember bread and cup, Lord Jesus.

I’d rather wear a towel and serve, dear Lord.

But love? The way you love?

Lord help me.

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Whatever you have to do…

Meditation for Holy Wednesday on John 13:21-32

Get on with it.

Get a move on.

Hurry up!

We’re burnin’ daylight, people!

What are you waiting for?

Hustle!

Jesus said, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Get on with it. If you’ve decided to betray the Savior of the World, there is no time to waste.

Get a move on. This betrayal sets everything in motion. There are lots of players involved. They are waiting for their cue from you.

Hurry up! The time has come. Get going. There is no reason to wait any longer.

What are you waiting for? It’s too late to change your mind. What’s done is done.

We’re burnin’ daylight, people! Did you hear “Walk while you have the light” only yesterday?

Hustle! Time is of the essence. Go. Now.

Do quickly what you are going to do. Get it over with, for your own sake. Don’t draw out the agony of knowing you have caused an irreversible sequence of events to unfold, events that will lead to the death of the One you call Lord, Master, Teacher.

Oh, I’m sorry, Jesus. Were you talking to Judas?

I thought you meant me.

 

 

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We Would See Jesus

Meditation for Holy Tuesday - John 12:20-36

I’ve always wondered what happened to those Greeks who approached Philip. Did they stand aside, waiting for a private audience, while Philip found his brother to go with him to Jesus on their behalf? Did they tag along behind the brothers, hoping for a word with the Word made flesh? Or did they merge into the crowd as Jesus began to teach about his own death?

We never learn the answer. By the end of this passage, Jesus has slipped away to hide from the crowd. Interesting … Many times, Jesus has escaped the pressure of the crowd around him, leaving them to pray, to be alone with his inner circle of disciples, or to rest. But I don’t recall anywhere before this that Jesus has left the crowd specifically to hide.

It is doubly ironic that, just before Jesus hid from the crowd, he told them to “walk in the light.” Just before sneaking off into the shadows, Jesus says, “If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.” Yet Jesus knew exactly where he was going. The Light of the World was about to enter his darkest days on earth. 

Lord, help me to follow you through the shadows of my own fear, my own blindness, into the light of your glorious resurrection. Keep me focused on you, sweet Lord Jesus. Amen.

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A Pound of Nard

Holy Week Meditation on John 12:1-11

This was NOT a funeral dinner. It was supposed to be a funeral dinner. Martha had been working on it for days  – but Jesus had changed all those plans when he’d shown up at Lazarus’ tomb. Now, instead of sharing fond memories of the deceased, the friends gathered around this table were talking and laughing with him. Lazarus had become an overnight celebrity: The One Who Was No Longer Dead. This was a celebration dinner.

But Death does not get to sit at this table. Lazarus offers visible proof that Death has no power over Jesus, and even if those enjoying Martha’s fine cooking don’t fully comprehend it yet, we know that Jesus will completely defeat death before John’s story is finished. For now, let’s take a closer look at this feast in Bethany, and especially at the gift Mary brings to the guest of honor.

The other gospels tell us that the nard was in an alabaster jar. The only way to open the sealed jar was to break it, so this was an all-or-nothing gift. It’s possible that the nard might have belonged to Mary’s dowry, so pouring out this perfume on Jesus’ feet could have signified a substantial sacrifice on Mary’s part. If she had been saving the nard for her own bride price, this gift has suddenly reduced her marriage chances to practically zero.

But Mary gave it all. She poured the entire contents of that jar onto Jesus’ feet, and rubbed it in with her hair.

What an intimate, scandalous thing to do! For an unmarried woman to touch a man was shocking. For a woman to let down her hair in public was also considered completely inappropriate behavior. Yet, here she was, abandoning all decorum as she wiped the perfume on Jesus’ feet with her hair. In a few days, Jesus would kneel at the feet of his disciples and wipe them with a towel in exactly the same way. But Mary was not using perfume like soap and water. Jesus said that Mary was anointing him for burial. Mary could not know the details of what was to happen in just a few short days, but she could worship her Lord now, in the present moment, with all she had to offer.

These last days of Lent are always the hardest for me. I get weary of lamenting my sins. I want to say, “Enough already! I’ve repented! I’ve confessed! I’ve submitted myself to discipline! I’m tired of all this introspection and self-examination! I’m ready for Easter! Let me get on with my life!” But do you hear those words? “I,” “Myself,” “Me,” “My?” It’s easy to fall into that trap of self-absorption, to become self-centered, instead of Christ-centered. These forty days of Lent, like the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, are just enough time to weaken us so Satan can tempt us to lose our focus on Christ. Mary comes to remind us to choose the better part, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to serve him with all that we are and all that we have.

As we enter Holy Week, let us ponder what we can offer the Lord of All. What would cost us as much as Mary’s perfume cost her? What are we willing to sacrifice to bring honor and glory to the One who died so that we might live?

 

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Palm Sunday … Passion Sunday

This is a day to let the scriptures speak for themselves. We marched in triumphantly (we had to sing through the processional hymn twice – Hosanna, Loud Hosanna!) and sang our responses to each reading, but here’s the gist of it. Grab a palm branch and read along, as we enter into Holy Week together. I’ll be posting a reflection on the daily readings throughout the week. Come, let us worship at the foot of the cross.

CALL TO WORSHIP from Psalm 18

Leader:       O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the people say,

People:       “His steadfast love endures forever!”
Leader:       This is the gate of the Lord;
People:       The righteous shall enter through it.
Leader:       The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
People:        This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Leader:       This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
People:       Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
                   We bless you from the house of the Lord.
Leader:       Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
People:       O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
                   for his steadfast love endures forever.

UNISON PRAYER

We praise you, O God, for your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph and was proclaimed Messiah and King by those who spread garments and branches along his way. Just as we carry these branches, may we follow Christ in the way of the cross, that, dying and rising with him, we may enter into your kingdom, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

GOSPEL LESSON - Matthew 21:1-11      

OLD TESTAMENT LESSON - Isaiah 50:4-9a

NEW TESTAMENT LESSON - Philippians 2:5-11

THE STORY OF THE PASSION

GOSPEL LESSONMatthew 26:14-35 

RESPONSIVE READING            Matthew 27:1-52, 54

One: Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him,
Many: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
One: Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them,
Men:

 

 ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, JesusBarabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’
One: For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him,
Women: ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’
One: Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said,
Many: ‘Barabbas.’
One: Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said,
Many: ‘Let him be crucified!’
One: Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more,
Many: ‘Let him be crucified!’
One:  So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered,
Women: ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’
One: So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying,
Many: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’
One: They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read,

‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’

Men:  Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying,
Women: ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’
One: In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying,
Men: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’
One: The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said,

Women: ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’
One: At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said,
Men: ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.
One: Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said,
ALL: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’