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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Not a Creative Easter Sermon

2011-04-24 EASTER John 20:1-18

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

In the week before Easter, I talk to other preacher-boys and preacher-girls and they're all saying the same things. "Oh, man, I'm so swamped. I have all these extra services to prepare for, and it's Easter and everybody's coming, and I want the sermon to be fresh, and new, and exciting. It's sooooo hard." It's a sign that I've been doing this for while that I remind the young whippersnappers, "Don't worry about it. Nobody remembers what you said last week. Much less, a whole year ago." I can't remember what I said last week. But it's an occupational hazard. Preachers want to bring their A-game and be extra-creative when the house is full. Especially on Easter. But it's hard because Easter is pretty much the same every year. You run out of new, and fresh, and exciting things to say.

And that, my friends, is a very good thing. It's a good thing because the story remains the same. Year after year, after year. The women go to that open tomb. The disciples have a footrace to the open tomb. They look in. And Jesus is gone. Mary meets the gardener and gets huffy with him. "Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where!" Jesus says Mary's name, and she gets it. She runs to tell the disciples. And then they get it. And then they tell other people. And they get it. And other people tell other people, year after year, Easter after Easter, and eventually the whole world starts to get it. It's a very good thing. And it's a very good thing that we say the same very good news, year-in and year-out, because in all the changes in all the world, God's Word stays the same. The good news for preachers is that we don't have to be creative at Easter because God's creative at Easter. God's creative and re-creative. On a morning when the world thought Jesus was dead, on a morning when the disciples thought hope had died, on a morning when women were crying and men were dumbfounded, God came alive. Hope was reborn. Tears of sadness turned to tears of joy because God. Changed. Everything. The disciples didn't do it. We can't do it. God does it. God brings life out of death. God brings light where there is darkness. God hope when we don't have anything left to hope for.

It's very good news, great good news, that the story never changes. Easter is the same last year as this year. And next year, Easter will be the same as this year. It doesn't change. Though the world changes, though the mountains shake in the tumult of the sea, though the waters roar and foam and the mountains tremble, Easter. Does. Not. Change.

You may have seen video of the tsunami rolling over Japanese fishing villages. There's a new one on YouTube that just came out last week, shot by handheld camera from on top of a high school. It's the most spell-bindingly terrible thing. You can see the dust rising in the distance as everything is ripped from its foundations, and in less than 5 minutes, the entire town is gone. Just erased. You can see the people running for their lives, and hear the people on top of the school moaning, unable to do anything to save them.

And so many people have wondered, "Why didn't God push back the waves? Why didn't God do anything to stop the devastation?" And from the cross, Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God seems to stay achingly silent as every year the bad stuff keeps rolling and the world keeps coming up with more inventive ways for bad things to happen. People keep coming up with more creative ways to hurt each other. Like the Psalmist says, The waters keep roaring and the mountains keep shaking, louder and harder, it seems, every year. Bad news keeps getting worse, or so it appears.

And yet, Easter doesn't change. The little girls wear white shoes. The little boys put on ties and tuck in their shirt tales, for an hour or so. Someone bakes a dinner. Families get together. The dogwoods bloom. People from foreign counties drive so incredibly slow on Maloney Road. Egg hunts, candy, six-foot-tall bunnies that are, in truth, a little scary even to the grown-ups. (Kind of like birthday clowns?) You know what's going to happen because the same things happen year after year.

Christ is taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb. And after three days, the traditional length of time you waited back in those days to make sure someone really, truly was dead - after three days, the stone has been rolled away and Jesus is gone. It doesn't change. You can count on it. Year after year, the story is the same. And praise God for that. The very good news stands firm. The city isn't moved. The holy habitation of the Most High holds tight. Though everything else changes, for good or for bad, Easter does not.

Take a moment and reflect on where you were a year ago. Chances are some very good things have happened between then and today. But chances are just as good some not-so-good things have happened, too. The waters roared and foamed and maybe you surfed them, cowabunga, dude. Or maybe you're just grateful to stick your nose up for air once in a while. Probably some of both, for most of us. Remember this: the first place Easter came was to the darkness of a tomb. The first place Easter came was to the broken hearts of disciples who thought they'd lost everything. The first place Easter came was to a noisy world waiting for a silent God.

But surprise! God didn't fix the world. God changed the rules. What looks like defeat, isn't. What feels like death, isn't. What hurts like hell, isn't. God didn't fix the world; God changed the rules so that heaven could be seen in the world. Even in the terrible places. Especially in the terrible places. God didn't make it easy, but then, easy was never really God's style. It makes no human sense that God's most present when it feels like God is absent. It makes no sense that God's most vocal when it seems God is most silent. It makes no sense. But that's OK. If God were easy for human minds to understand, God wouldn't be God. I can't understand my cell phone. How in the world could I possibly understand God?

Which is not to say we should turn off our brains when we talk about God, although a lot of people do. It means that sometimes faith is more important than understanding. Hope is stronger than the deepest despair. It means that trust is more important than creativity, especially where God's concerned. Especially where Easter's concerned. We don't have to be creative at Easter because God's creative at Easter.

So here it is. Listen for the unchanging Word of God.

John 20:1-18

20Early 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. 2So 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." 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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." 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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." 16Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.'" 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

- James