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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Easter Day, April 1, 2018

 The Defiant Doxology

1 Chronicles 29:10-13; Luke 24:1-12

            Two men were sent to a developing country by an enterprising shoe company to open up new markets.  Shortly after arriving, the first person wired back home, and it said simply, “Mission impossible!  No one here even wears shoes.”  Almost immediately after, the other man wired back home, “No one here wears shoes.  Opportunities unlimited!”  Where you fix your vision, more importantly, where you fix your heart, often determines what you see, what you miss, what you believe, and what you dismiss as unimportant.  Both men experienced the same reality, and the two of them saw it in absolutely opposite ways.  I want to suggest that the same thing was true for the disciples of Jesus on that first Easter; where they fixed their gaze, and maybe even more importantly, where they fixed their hearts, determined what they saw, what they missed, what they believed, and what they dismissed as impossible.

            Today we turn to the last line of The Lord’s Prayer.  We have been focusing, verse by verse, on The Lord’s Prayer throughout this Lenten journey.  You know the last line: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”  Actually, it is not even a part of the prayer that Jesus taught.  Look it up in Matthew’s Gospel and you will find that as Jesus taught the prayer, it ends with the words “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  None of the earliest manuscripts contain this doxology, or words of praise, that end The Lord’s Prayer.  We have found evidence from the worship life of the Church, that from as early as the year 100 a.d., the Church attached this doxology, this closing line, to the prayer that Jesus taught.  Some traditions of the Christian Church omit this doxology at the end, believing that if Jesus did not teach it, then they are not going to pray it. 

            I have never had a problem with adding these words to Jesus’ prayer.  Because in its wisdom, the Church would have never done so were it not for something that happened in the life of Jesus that made anything less triumphant than a doxology, something that naturally flowed from their hearts and their lips: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  Something happened, something so awesome, so life-changing, so incredible, that the disciples who experienced that something let up a shout from their hearts that has never been silenced since.  That “something” happened sometime before the dawn, on that first day of the week, that Sunday that the church would come to call Easter, when somehow, someway, God raised the lifeless body of Jesus that had been, according to the Creed, “crucified, dead and buried,” from certain death to life in all its fullness.

            Even on that first Easter, in all of the Gospels, we discover that not all of Jesus’ disciples believed this message of resurrection and Easter faith.  I know that even as large a group as this gathers together on another Easter, in the year of our Lord, 2018, it is still the case that where you fix your gaze, and more importantly, where you fix your heart, determines what you see and what you believe, and what you cannot see and cannot believe.  Seeing and experiencing Jesus as risen and alive has never been something that it easy for everyone to do.  It has never been something that all people find it a shoo-in to say, “Oh, I believe that.”  All the Gospels, in different ways, point to how difficult for some this Easter faith was to have.

            Mark writes his Gospel before the other three are written.  It makes his the first account.  Women come to the tomb on a mission of death to anoint the body of Jesus, something they were unable to do because of the Sabbath and their faithful observance of it any earlier.  What they discover is completely unexpected.  The stone has been rolled away, and we are told by Mark that “a young man in white” is sitting inside the tomb where they expected the lifeless body of Jesus, his corpse, to be.  Mark concludes his Gospel with these terse words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and the women said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

            Matthew adds to the first Easter an earthquake, and he names the figure in dazzling white apparel an angel, whom he tells us, had descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and is sitting upon it.  The angel frightens the Roman guards so much that, Matthew tells us, “they shook and became like dead men.”  Matthew also tells that there were people who devised a plan to pay off these guards to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body, so unconvinced were they by the possibility of resurrection, that they engaged in deceit to discredit any such faith.

            In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the witness of the two Marys and Joanna, who tell what they have seen, encountering two angels who deliver to them a message.  When they share it with the other eleven disciples, we are told, “it seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe the women.”  Not everyone saw and believed what the three women saw and believed on that first Easter.  So why would we be surprised that not everyone on this Easter can see and believe this event that would forever change the world?

            Easter always coincides with spring.  This is a good thing because Easter and the crucifixion happened during the Jewish Passover feast, which always came in the spring.  But in another sense this is unfortunate, because we can readily, in a romantic kind of way, think that Easter is the equivalent of the coming of spring, that somehow Easter is just as natural as the flowers that bloom, when Easter is something altogether different.

            One of America’s greatest novelists in the twentieth century was John Updike.  John Updike wrote his novels about the lament he felt in many ways about the loss of God in American life, at the altar of an empty kind of materialism and egotistical ambition.  When he was a student at Harvard he was invited to enter a poem of his own creation in a contest.  He was the most surprised of all people when his poem won first prize.  It is called, Seven Stanzas at Easter.  I will read a few:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

 

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

 

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,

not a stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow

grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

 

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,

opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

 

 

            What John Updike is saying is: Do not make Easter into something other than what it is, a shocking intrusion into everything we know about life and death, and do not make it into anything less than the undoing of death, by the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            There is something very unnatural about what happened on that first Easter to Jesus.  Luke reminds us of this in a number of ways.  While Mark and Matthew each speak of one angelic figure, Luke alone speaks of two angels in dazzling white apparel.  This is the second of three times that Luke will use two angels to tell the Gospel truth.  In the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, on the mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus suddenly appears in dazzling apparel, and with Him two other figures identified as Moses and Elijah, who say, “Listen to Jesus.”  Then in the first chapter of the book of Acts, Luke’s volume two story of Jesus Christ and His church, when Jesus prepares to ascend, two figures in white apparel, angelic figures, appear and say, “Why are you gazing up into heaven?  He has ascended up to heaven, and it is from heaven that He shall return.”  On that first Easter morning at the tomb, two figures in dazzling apparel appear.  They say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but He is risen.  Remember how He told you while He was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified and rise on the third day?”  Luke wants us to know that these things, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension, are “God things.”  They are things that only the Living God could possibly accomplish in our midst, and these events change the world we live in forever. 

            I am indebted to an acquaintance of mine for the second observation.  Luke, unlike the other Gospel writers, fills his account of the Resurrection with a three-letter conjunction that we spell “b-u-t.”  Jesus is dead.  “But on the first day of the week, the two angelic messengers, the angels, say, ‘He is not here, but He has risen.’”  Six times in twelve short verses, Luke uses the conjunction “but.”  It is a word that speaks of reversal, a word that speaks of unexpected intrusion, of the unexpected and unpredicted.    Matthew only uses the word “but” once, and Mark uses it two times, but Luke uses it six times.  I think Luke wants us to know how unexpected, unpredictable and uncontrollable the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was and still is.  Where you fix your gaze, and more importantly, where you fix your heart, will determine what you see and what you miss.

            Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included a brilliantly written article by George Weigel called “The Easter Effect.”  George Weigel is asking the question of how such a small group of totally unsophisticated, powerless people turned an event, not even a footnote in history, like Jesus’ crucifixion, into a movement that would become the largest religion in the world, a movement that in three centuries time eclipsed the vitality and the power of Rome itself.  He finds in an historian from Baylor University a number of sociological explanations for why the Christian movement prevailed against such odds.  He points out that Christians treated women differently from all the classical cultures around them, including women in the original people who witnessed to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He also points out that Christians cared for the poor in Rome in a way that made them stand out as they were compared to other people.  Emperor Julian says in a complaining sense, “The reason Christianity is growing is because of the concern they express for the poor, and not just their own but also our as well.” 

            Another important reason for the growth of the Church had to do with the way Christians thought of time on the other side of Easter.  There is one symbol of that change.  It was a stunning symbol: The movement of the Sabbath.  All early Christians were Jewish, and for Jewish people the Sabbath began on sundown on Friday and ended on sundown Saturday.  Christians, within a century, moved the Sabbath to Sunday, from the last day of the week to the first day of the week, because it was on that first day of the week that God raised Jesus from death to glorious life.  This change is all the more astounding when you consider that God, in Genesis, rested on the seventh day!  This movement of the Sabbath was emblematic of a different way of thinking about and living in time, especially a different way of embracing the future.  Christians lived in hope, they lived leaning into the future as something that God held like a precious gift for them.  Read the twenty-first chapter of the book of Revelation, John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth....”  Christians were people of hope, eager to embrace tomorrow knowing that God held tomorrow in His providential and loving hands.  As such, the Resurrection put steel in the spine of these early Christians.  The Resurrection put hope in their hearts, and courage in their souls in a way that began to change the world around them.  The great Cambridge historian T.R. Glover said, “Christianity prevailed because the early Christians outlived, out-died and out-thought all the other people who lived around them.”  Christians were and are people who are intended to be excited about tomorrow, not fearful about what it may hold. 

            I have been thinking about this because Connie and I are leaving tomorrow on a trip to Prague, where our boys Miller and Turner live.  It has been three years since I have been to Prague to see them, and it would be an understatement to say that Connie is excited about what tomorrow holds.  I noticed two weeks ago her suitcase out on the bed in our guest bedroom, and every day Connie would engage me in conversation about her clothing selections for the trip.  (“Should I bring a quilted coat?”)  About four or five times a week, she would offer weather reports on what is happening in Prague, and what is predicted for next week as we get there.  She has been on the phone with American Airlines, probably six or seven times, with questions about our flight and a connection we are a little nervous about in Chicago tomorrow.  In a sense, Connie, for two weeks, has already had her heart in Prague, even though we will not get on the plane until tomorrow.  Every time she asked me a question, I was thinking to myself: “All I’m thinking about is my sermon I’ve got to preach on the Resurrection on Sunday, and you keep asking me all these questions about what I think about Prague!”  Then it dawned on me that Connie is leaning into the future.  She is excited about what tomorrow holds!  This is what Easter faith and Easter living looks like!  “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.”  For Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!  Praise the Lord!

                                                                                    Amen.

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