Sunday, April 05, 2015

Terror and Amazement: Easter Sunday


Sunday, April 5, 2015 | Easter
Resurrection of the Lord
Easter Day
Year B

Old Testament Reading     Isaiah 25:6-9
6     On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7     And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8        he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9     It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. [1]

Gospel Reading              Mark 16:1-8

16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[2]

Terror and Amazement
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

When I was in Scotland last summer, we made a day trip to St. Andrews: home of a renowned university and golf course and of the “Chariots of Fire Beach.” (Yes we played the theme song loudly on our phones and ran in slow motion.) It’s also the home of the church – St. Andrews Cathedral – where the great Presbyterian father John Knox preached. While much of the cathedral has been rebuilt over the centuries, the tower is something like 800 years old. It’s usually not open to tourists, but since the current minister of the church in St. Andrews had been a student of our group leader and is a graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary, he let us go up the tower to the very tippy top of this giant cathedral overlooking St. Andrews.
It was every bit as cool as it sounds. Inside the tower, was a spiraling trail of old stone stairs. It was so narrow that there wasn’t room for a banister, so there was simply a rope running from the bottom to the top right up the middle of the spiral of stairs. You could just feel the history pulsing from the walls as you climbed up the smooth, worn away steps. There were still helmets from World War II in some of the tiny windows – a throwback to when the allies used the tower as a defensive position in the war. I wondered how many times John Knox himself had been up that very tower, walking those stairs contemplatively on his way to pray over the city.
At the top of the tower, the view was astounding. Tiny, classically Scottish buildings spread out for miles. In the distance, the beach gave way to the ocean. The sky was unusually blue – we had surprisingly lovely weather the entire time we were there. It was simply amazing . . . and I have the selfie to prove it.
That picture I took of myself up there at the tippy top of St. Andrew’s Cathedral hints at another reality of that tower, though: It was terrifying. Even the people in the group who are usually OK with heights were a bit nervous up there. And those who aren’t usually OK with heights – like yours truly – were more than a bit nervous. In the picture, I’m clearly leaning back to look like I’m much closer to the edge than I actually am. The short, stone wall that circled the outside of the tower roof was not the most comforting safety feature. I won’t name names, but there were at least two of us who were a bit dizzy and glad of the center pillar to cling to. When another group member said he was going to head down well before the rest of the group was done taking in the view, I was more than happy to offer my services in helping make sure he got to the bottom of the tower safely.
The tower at St. Andrews was one of my favorite parts of the trip to Scotland. It was beautiful. It was full of history. How many chances do you get in one lifetime to climb an 800 year old church tower in one of the most iconic Scottish towns ever? And yet, with all that wonder, all that adventure, all that amazement that I experienced there. . . it was so scary I thought I might be sick. I was so terrified I was literally shaking. It’s weird when those two emotions collide like that: Terror and amazement. Even in a really cool, but totally normal, earthly experience, these emotions can make your body tremble, make your stomach turn, make your mind fly in a hundred directions at once.
If that’s what a pretty regular event can do to a person, imagine walking in on the most extraordinary, unexpected, once in the course of history, humanity redeeming, creation shaking scene like the empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Last week, as Jesus entered into Jerusalem to a crowd shouting, “Save us!” not even the disciples still really understood what exactly was going on. When he washed their feet at the scene of their last meal together, even Peter still insisted that Jesus wasn’t making much sense. When Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine at that dinner, his followers only understood a dim shadow of what was happening. When he hung on the cross, Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
When Mary and Mary saw the stone had been rolled away, they still didn’t quite get it.  God had to send an angel to tell them, “Ladies! This is what he’s been talking about! This is the victory! Death has no more power! Let that sink in!” And the women were seized with terror and amazement as it finally dawned on them what Jesus had been talking about. Think of how they must have trembled, perhaps they even felt a little queasy or dizzy. Their adrenaline levels must have shot through the roof as they suddenly wondered what was going to happen next!
Now they know! This Jesus, who showed up on earth just like other people show up on earth inside of time and space and history, was not just like other people. He wasn’t just another human who did things better than the others. He didn’t come and go like other people come and go.[3] He wasn’t constrained by the same boundaries that we are.
The women at the tomb were not the only ones who trembled that morning. The resurrection of Jesus Christ – very God come for humanity – Savior of us all – it rocked the very fibers of creation. It is a victory and it is the beginning of the end of all that we know as evil. This was the moment that all of history pivots on! In the resurrection of Christ, the powers of death lost their control. No longer are we bound to our sin. No longer do we have to fear the unknown on the other side of life. We are new creatures. We share not just in the death but in the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
We don’t celebrate Easter as just a time to look back on a cool thing Jesus did. It’s not just about spring and new beginnings. Throw the bunnies out the window (not literally – I like bunnies as a general rule.) Forget about the candy. This isn’t just another miracle story. This isn’t just a day for pretty flowers because the temperature is finally bearable outside again. It’s not just “zombie Jesus day” where we tell a weird story about a guy who didn’t die right. It’s not a story about how the disciples tricked the world into thinking that Jesus died and rose again. This is the celebration that ties us to the very moment that defines the entire history of humanity’s relationship with God! Today we declare that we no longer have to live under the thumb of the tyranny, injustice, greed, and corruption that have this world by the throat, but we now live under a new rule: one of love and compassion and justice and redemption.
This is where we say, “Death has no hold on us!” Sin does not win! This is a day to be met with terror and amazement! If you’re thinking “nice, thought, Pastor, but this stuff is hard to believe.” You’re right. This stuff is hard to believe. The whole time I was writing this sermon for this morning, my brain was spinning in circles around itself going, “Whoa! Those are some pretty big claims you’re making there, sister.” Statements about the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ should not be made without trembling, without the knowledge that these are audacious claims!
Faith isn’t about having all the answers. Faith isn’t about being able to explain metaphysics or being able to scientifically prove there is or isn’t a God who did or didn’t come down as the man Jesus Christ. Faith is not about being able to say, “I never waiver.” Faith is about saying, “Whoa. I don’t even know why this makes sense, but I know who I am without Jesus and it’s not someone worth being.” Faith is about saying, “I don’t know exactly how this works, but there’s just something about it and I know that it does.”
And if you aren’t at a point right now where you can’t say that honestly, I want to encourage you that God has not, does not, and will not give up on you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here every Sunday for the past 50 years or if you haven’t been here since Christmas or if this is your first time walking through those doors. God has not, does not, and will not give up on you.
God doesn’t just work in mysterious ways, but God works in unique ways in each person’s life and when you are gripped by that surprise – that terror and amazement – you will have a story to tell that is one of a kind. And it is my prayer that as we spend the next 5 Sundays observing what we call Eastertide that every last person in this sanctuary today is at some point in that time gripped by the terror and amazement that comes with an up close and personal encounter with the Living Lord Jesus.
I don’t know about you friends, but once upon a time, I was a complete disaster. And by once upon a time, I mean earlier today. And probably later today too. And it completely blows my mind that Jesus didn’t just die to save me from my own mess or you from your own mess (you all look very nice today, but I won’t believe anyone who tries to tell me they don’t have any mess in their life): He didn’t just die, but he rose again from the dead to break the power of sin and death so that some day – many, many years from now when this body of mine gives up (I’m hoping that’ll be at the finish line of a marathon when I’m about 98) – someday, I will rest eternally in the presence of God, redeemed and restored in a body that will never fail. Friends, that waits for you too. Can you release yourself from the box of common thinking long enough to hope, to believe that one day, you will rest eternally in the presence of God, redeemed and restored in a body that will never fail?
Christ is risen! Christ is risen and we are no longer citizens of a world that is falling apart. It’s OK to be amazed or terrified or completely dumbstruck or a bit skeptical of that.
We see in the scripture’s account of that morning when the stone was rolled away many emotions. The women were struck with terror and amazement in much the way I felt those emotions collide in that tower in Scotland. . . only so much more so. They didn’t know what to think or feel. I imagine they didn’t quite believe it. They seemed to believe at first that someone was playing a trick on them. But they heard God’s message and despite their confusion, any doubt they may have had, in spite of their complete terror and amazement. . . they ran. They ran to tell the news of what had happened. In the following verses that we didn’t read today, we see that they were the beginning of the movement. They started the word that Jesus had risen.
In spite of our fears, our doubts, our confusion, our terror, our amazement, the word spreads through us. God moves in goofy, imperfect, emotional people like us. Today is the day to burst forth from the doors of this church in terror and amazement at the task laid before us and say, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 25:6–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 16:1–8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics: The doctrine of reconciliation, Part 2 (Vol. 4, pp. 159–160). London; New York: T&T Clark.

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