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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON EASTER DAY, APRIL 21, 2019 Now, the Angels! Isaiah 52:7-15; Luke 24:1-12 In 2013, I went with members of our church to Israel. While we were there, I often found myself asking, “How did I get here?” As we stood on a high mountain and looked down into the promised land, watching the Jordan River turn absolute desert into orchards of olive trees, I wondered. When we stood by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus calmed the storm and walked on water, I wondered. When we entered the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, and stood on the stones in the court of the Gentiles, I wondered. How on earth did a kid from Farmville, North Carolina end up not only thousands of miles from home, but making a pilgrimage to this place that, given its tiny size and lack of resources, should be meaningless? Happy Easter to you! Happy day of days, history-changing day, geography-bending, world-religion-extending day! According to the Apostle Paul, it all gets distilled to this: Christ died for our sins; he was buried; he was raised on the third day; and he appeared to many faithful witnesses. The Gospels, which aren’t so distilled, tell of the earliest Christians receiving this news in various ways. And that is a point I want to stress this morning. We didn’t get here this morning, all by the same way. We have come to Easter faith in different ways, on varying schedules, even with diverse conclusions, not unlike the first Christians. The women who got to the tomb on Easter morning to give Jesus a proper burial, surely didn’t expect anything odd that day. And even the surprise they got was not as great as what would happen later in the day: the risen Jesus himself appeared to his disciples. The risen Jesus demonstrated to them that God had vindicated his life. He gave to them something that he gave to neither Pilate nor Caiaphas nor the screaming crowds: a resurrection appearance, a bright assurance that Jesus was right to put the swords away, to refuse to come down from the cross, to trust God with his life. It was different for Thomas, who missed the first appearance and demanded one in order to believe. And after him, there would be people who would join the great cloud of witnesses: those who have not seen, and yet believe. We didn’t arrive here this morning all by the same way. Some of us have not seen, yet believe. Some of us have, by strange circumstance, received a sort of resurrection appearance, an encounter with the risen Lord. Some of us have heard the news but frankly, still struggle to believe. And the good news is that God is still at work, and it all fits the plan he formed before the foundation of the world. Now, before going on, I must confess a certain caution with the choice of that word, “plan.” Understand me, I don’t mean to suggest that Jeremiah was wrong to speak this word of the Lord, “I know the plans I have for you.” I’m just saying that even your favorite song can grow stale sometimes, and the best thing for it is a good cover version, or a live performance, or a new arrangement. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a beloved old message is to reframe it. So, God’s plan. Two weeks ago I was on the 28th floor of the Pinnacle Building, looking down at the intersection of Broadway and First Avenue. You know what I saw there, right? The NFL draft stage was going up. They say it’s seventy-feet tall, and the green room is 460 feet long. Thank the Lord that most of our cherry trees got saved, but it’s still huge! And the stage is just a visible symbol of an event that has to be one of the most complex operations ever to take place, at least since my family went to Disney in 2009. Who the heck is in charge of making this happen? Who on earth has the skills to make the plans that bring hundreds of thousands of people onto lower Broad, feed them all, house them all, entertain them all, protect them all, provide first aid to them all, and televise the whole thing to rabid fans, while at the same time there is going on this little thing called the Rock and Roll marathon? Whoever does this has skills that boggle my mind! Just ask my wife: I can’t plan a trip to the hardware store without forgetting something! Let’s just say that plans amaze me, and that comes in handy when the Bible talks about God’s plans. I’m amazed. And maybe it works in reverse, too. Maybe it works for the gifted ones among us, who, like the organizers of the draft and the marathon, know exactly how to make it all come together. They start with a vision, draft a schedule, make a list of tasks, and check each one off. Maybe the plans of God are simply beautiful. Maybe it isn’t that hard to believe that if Nashville can run two enormous events simultaneously, the Maker of heaven and earth can direct history to a place of blessing. God’s plans: “Abraham, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” “Moses, I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” “Thus says the Lord, ‘Surely I know the plans that I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’” “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” We didn’t arrive here this morning all by the same way. Some of us have not seen, yet believe the testimony. Some of us have, by strange circumstance, received an encounter with the risen Lord. Some of us have heard the news but frankly, still struggle to believe. And the good news is that God is still at work, leading us to a place of blessing. Maybe you saw the news this week about plummeting church membership in our nation. Since 1999, the percentage of adults who belong to a church or other religious institution has dropped from 70 to 50. Nancy Ammerman, who studies religion, says, “Culturally, we are seeing a significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular. We are also seeing a generational shift as the ‘joiner’ generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.” What might God be doing now? How does this time fit within the plans and purposes of God? In this age when trust is so difficult, what are we to do? Let’s start with one acknowledgment: it isn’t hard to lose your ability to trust. Anyone whose heart has been broken can tell you that. Any Baby Boomer who learned that elected officials sometimes lie, any GenXer who grew up when families were breaking down, any Millennial whose whole life has been about counter-terrorism measures and metal detectors at the doors of the school. It isn’t hard to lose your ability to trust. And let’s acknowledge that it can be hard to trust that God is real, that God is good, that God is completing a good plan for the world. It can be a long and winding road to faith. But people have walked this road before us, and arrived, and returned to share the good news. On Palm Sunday, we watched as Jesus refused to call upon legions of angels to save him. A disciple pulled a sword, cut off someone’s ear, and showed that he didn’t yet understand how God saves. With pain in his voice, Jesus told the disciple to put the sword away. He had to show us God’s way. Today, even as we rejoice in Jesus’ vindication, we realize that the plan is not finished. We realize that faith is required of us still. When public officials discourage us into thinking that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we have to trust God instead. When outbreaks of senseless violence make us want to bolt the locks or lock-and-load, we have to trust God. When the church in the west watches young people pass on by, we have to trust that God is real, that God is good, that God is completing a very good plan for the world. Frankly, as hard as that can be sometimes to believe, is it any harder than it was for Abraham to believe that God would bless the whole earth through him? Is it any harder than it was for Moses to believe that he would free Israel from slavery? Is it any harder than it was for the Israelites to believe that their exile was over and they were being returned and restored in Jerusalem? Faith will always have its challenges. So, sometimes God uses special means. Those women went to the tomb, and it was empty. By itself, an empty tomb means nothing. An empty tomb does nothing but confuse. But in that empty tomb, on that first Easter, God used special means: Angels. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had refused to call on the angels to save him. In the garden of the resurrection, God did call on the angels for this task. So, now, the angels! About three years ago, I walked over to the Cheek House, noticing a worker’s truck parked on the curb, with a used carton of Marlboros waiting to blow out of the bed. Inside the chapel was a painter, a friendly man with tattoos on both arms, on his right forearm one of a skull. He had on denim overalls and a doo-raggish head covering with a deer-hunting logo. He started telling me about God. He said, “My wife came to Christ first. When she went to church, I went fishing. My daddy always said, ‘If the wind is out of the south, the hooks are in their mouth.’” One Sunday, she asked him, not for the first time, to go to church with her. He said, not for the first time, no. He went fishing, and on that day he was catching all kinds of fish. But then, in the middle of it all, he heard a voice. Well, not really a voice, but he heard it – “You need to get out of here and go be with your wife.” And he did. He packed his gear and he went home. She was already on her way out the door for church. He said, “Do I have time to get dressed?” She said, “Hallelujah! We can be late!” And do you know what the sermon that morning was? “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Sometimes, God uses special means. That painter got an angelic message, just as those women did on Easter morning. Some people actually have been visited by the risen Lord himself. Most of us believe because someone testified to us. And then there are those still waiting, those yet fishing, those yet passing by, because it’s still too hard to trust this news, or to trust the church that shares it, or to trust that God is really that good. But it’s all part of the plan. All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Back in 2013, when our group was in Jerusalem, we went to the Garden Tomb, the likely place where Jesus was buried. I learned that day that many people trek there. Many people from all over the world go, and duck into a cut in the rock, and look at the niches in what looks like a family burial vault. Like all those people, I gathered with our group under a mesh tent, suspended from shade trees, and took part in a small communion service. Our hosts provided for us the elements of communion, including a small cup for each of us, turned from olive wood. In that place, I had a powerful realization. We were gathered. I read scripture and was trying to speak a few words of witness in that place. But it was difficult, because of the noise. There were groups from all over the world there, each hosted in a special area like ours, there to read scripture and pray and celebrate the Supper. There were charismatic Christians from Latin America, playing an acoustic guitar and singing in Spanish. There were joyful Christians from Africa, playing drums and singing in their native tongues. There were English Christians speaking our Mother Tongue very properly. And I had to stop. I was overwhelmed. The cacophony was more beautiful than any words I could say. All the ends of the earth had converged in Jerusalem, at Jesus’ empty tomb! All the nations were worshiping the Lord’s Messiah! Somehow, the Easter message, which began with two angels, had spread to the ends of the earth, and come back again! God is still at work, bringing the world to blessing. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed. Hallelujah!
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