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4/12/09

He has risen...

Happy Easter! Here's the text of the sermon I preached for the Sunrise service at our church this morning.

Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was past, 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. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t choose one of the other resurrection accounts that might be a little more upbeat, a little more inspiring, a little more peppy for this early on an Easter morning. In preparing to preach at this service a number of weeks ago, I began to read through the resurrection accounts in each of the four gospels. Of course, they are all quite similar—in that they describe the same event—but each also provides different details; they have different emphases; they each have their own flavor. And at some point, I began to be drawn consistently to this passage. I realized that I was seeing a reflection of myself and my emotional and spiritual condition in the passage—not in the character of the angel, and certainly not in the resurrected Jesus, but rather in these female disciples. In particular, I was connecting with the final phrase of the passage—“they were afraid.”

To say the least, the last year or so has been challenging for me. There have definitely been many wonderful things and joyous things that have happened in that time, for which I am certainly thankful. But there have also been a great number of stressors and unanswered questions and heartbreaks as well. Last summer I bought the business for which I had worked for a number of years. And in becoming the owner and manager of a bookstore I was really living out something that had only been a dream in the back of my mind since I began working there as an employee years ago. But it was not an easy process. After months of preparation and number crunching and talking with family and friends and bankers—as well as spending hours and hours and hours talking to God—it took until less than 48 hours before the scheduled close of the sale for me to receive confirmed approval of the loan to finance the purchase. As you can imagine, such a long wait in uncertainty gave rise to some anxiety and fear, not only in me but also in my wife. I long to be a husband who can provide for my wife, not only financially but also emotionally, so the prospect of failing at both of those served to feed my fear of what the future might hold.

Soon after that was settled it was my family life that was thrown into upheaval. As foster parents, it is no mere cliché that we must expect the unexpected. But worse than that, it has been our experience that for much of our time as foster parents we have had to prepare for the undesired. Our first little girl, Gracie, was with us for almost 9 months before returning to live with her mother. Then last September, after over a year in our home and in our hearts, it was our beloved Leah who was placed back in the care of her mother. To make a difficult situation harder to bear, we didn’t agree with the decision, as we had with Gracie. That left us not only with broken hearts about losing her but also with an oppressive fear of what might happen and how her future might unfold. As it turned out, Leah’s absence from our home lasted about 4 months. But even now, we have no promises or certainty about what the courts may decide to do with her case. When I am honest about the situation, I can say that while I have hope that she will be our daughter forever, I am also experience lingering fear of what the future might hold.

And in the midst of living out my calling at work and my calling in my family, I have also tried to live out my calling as an elder here at Memorial Church. Even though I have led many Bible studies, and taught Christian Ed. courses, and preached sermons here, and even though I’ve graduated from seminary, and I’ve read lots of books, and even though I have gray hairs on my chin and few hairs on top of my head, I am so aware of how much I have yet to learn and grow and how far I am from the maturity in Christ that I am called to and long for. That realization does cause me to fear that I may fail in my calling in such a way that someone might be significantly disappointed or hurt. As I enter into various ministry situations, the fear of making the wrong decision or saying the wrong thing is sometimes only surpassed by a fear of failing to provide any response at all.

I imagine that, somewhere in that rehearsal of the circumstances of my life over the past year that have caused fears to grow in my heart, some of you have made a connection to fears that have taken root in your own lives. This is the universal experience of fallen, broken people; isn’t it? Many among us are having difficulty finding employment that meets your needs—not only financial needs, but the need to be engaged in a calling that provides you fulfillment—and some of us who have work are uncertain in this economic climate that it will continue to meet our needs with the stability that we desire. I also know there are those among us who are in relationships that drain you rather than refresh you. Some of those relationships are friendships that were once warm and close but have become cold and distant. Sadly, sometimes those are marriage relationships, or relationships between children and parents. Some of us struggle with relationships that have been over for some time—relationships of abuse, of betrayal, or manipulation—and the consequences of those experiences still impact you emotionally and spiritually much later.

Because there is so much in all of our lives that is uncertain, troubling, and broken, so much that we grieve for and have been disappointed by, it is no surprise that we can be fearful people. We can be afraid for ourselves or for others, afraid of what might happen or what we might miss out on, afraid of what God is going to do or afraid that He isn’t doing anything at all. As I said, considering the brokenness all around us, our fear is no surprise, and it is no surprise to God. In fact, God loves fearful people. He loves us so much that…

I.) The resurrection is announced to fearful people.
  • The reaction of the women that first Easter is described at the end of the passage when Mark says, v.8, “They were afraid.” But even earlier, when they see that the tomb is empty, and see an angel there, Mark says, v.5, “They were alarmed.” And it’s repeated in the next verse when the angel tells them, v.6, “Do not be alarmed.” This term is not merely surprise. It actually indicates fear, distress. Mark uses the same word earlier in the gospel to describe Jesus’ emotions while praying in the garden before His betrayal. It carries a sense of impending trouble or pain.
  • When we are fearful we try to get wrapped up in “busyness” or routine. The women were buying spices, intending to anoint the body. This is certainly evidence of devotion. But they give no thought to the many times Jesus spoke about His upcoming betrayal and death and that He would rise again. On their way, v.3, the women are discussing how they will move the large stone out of the way of the entrance of the tomb. They knew about the stone before they bought the spices, according to the previous chapter, but they are so intent on completing their task that they don’t consider the practical realities of the situation. If Mark was using our language, he might have said they were on “autopilot.” In their grief and confusion and fear, they were merely intent on doing what was they thought they were supposed to do, without considering what God was doing.
  • When we are fearful we hide from or deny God. This reaction of fear is only implicit in the passage, but it is definitely present. When the angel tells the women, v.7, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter…” We have to consider that if we were reading Mark’s gospel from the beginning, the last thing we would have read about the disciples would be Mark 14:50, “And they all left him and fled.” And the last we saw of Peter he was denying even knowing Jesus, actually calling down curses upon himself if he was lying—which he was doing.
These are the people to whom God chose to first bring the Good News of the risen Jesus—these fearful women, and through them, the fearful disciples and Peter. And we are so often just like them. We may engage in ministry or interact in our families and other relationships on autopilot, simply doing what we think is expected of us, without considering what God might be doing around us or through us. I’m sure some of you, gripped by despair or disappointment and fear of what the future holds have tried to avoid God as much as you can. Maybe that means you avoid searching the Scriptures and praying; maybe you have resigned yourself to the position of denying that God is at work at all, because if you don’t expect anything, then you can’t be disappointed. In our heart of hearts, we desire to be sure that God is at work, and that He is at work to bless and do good to us and to those we love, but we are so afraid of how another disappointment will affect us. Well, it is to us that God says, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen.” It is to us fearful people that God announces this Good News.

*What is so good about this Good News of the resurrection?

II.) The resurrected Jesus is faithful.
  • He was faithful to be crucified, even in His fear. As I mentioned before, Mark describes Jesus’ emotions before His betrayal with the same word that he uses of the women to indicate that they were afraid. This should not trouble us, because Jesus was fully man as much as He was fully God. Experiencing fear is no mark against Him, for a righteous Man may experience fear in this broken world without sinning. The question is, how will you respond to your fear? Will your fear cause you to avoid or ignore what God is doing? Or will you seek to hide from or deny God because of your fear? Or, will your fear drive you to deeper trust in God, more complete dependence upon Him, and more fervent faith in His promises? Certainly, Jesus prayed that it would not be His will but the will of His Father that would be done. It was the Father’s will that Jesus become a ransom for many, and Jesus was faithful to fulfill that mission when He submitted to death on a cross in our place.
  • He was faithful to rise again. This is the crucial point. A man can claim that he will be sentenced to death in a certain city at a certain time, and he can manipulate circumstances to ensure that it happens. But for One to promise that after His death He will rise from the dead, and then do it—He must indeed be who He says He is. This is what Jesus did. He taught His disciples that He would be betrayed, be killed, and then rise again—and then He did it! Jesus was faithful to do what could not be done unless God was with Him.
  • He was faithful to those who were unfaithful to Him. Paul explains it this way, Rom. 5:6-8, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It was for those fearful women, for those fleeing disciples, and for Peter who denied Him with curses that Jesus died and rose again. And it is for us fearful people, even when we do sin in our fear—especially when we do sin in our fear—that Jesus died and rose again.
  • He was faithful to lead the Church in mission. The angel told the women, v.7, that Jesus “is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” We know from the other gospels and from the book of Acts that Jesus did indeed go before them, and they did indeed see Him, just as He told them. This is important, because it takes the message of the resurrection and moves it beyond one that has merely personal-spiritual application. It is the resurrected Jesus who leads us in mission, as individual Christians and as a Church. It is His mission to take the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout the world, and we here this morning, in St. Louis, Missouri, across the world from Jerusalem and Galilee, are a testimony to His continued faithful mission.
So what should we do with this message of Jesus’ faithfulness? Is this supposed to be the instant cure to our fears? Are we expected to be suddenly set free from fear of the unknown or of repeat disappointment? No, that’s not how God works. If that’s what He expected, this passage wouldn’t have emphasized and even ended by focusing on the fear of Jesus’ disciples. As I said before, God knows and is not surprised by our fears. But He also loves us enough to not want to leave us in our fears. From Scripture and history, we can know that God overcame the fears of these disciples. The women did go and announce the Good News to the other disciples. The disciples did meet Jesus in Galilee to receive their commissioning to spread the Good News throughout the world. And Peter was restored as the leader of the disciples, and became a pillar of the early church, and probably the source of Mark’s gospel.

What will it take for our fear to be overcome? It is not merely knowing about the faithfulness of Jesus that will do it. If that were the case, we would really be overcoming our fearfulness on our own. Rather, it is knowing this Jesus, who is faithful. For, while we are fearful, He remains faithful. He was faithful to die for us, and faithful to rise again. He has been faithful to lead the Church in the mission of the Good News throughout the world. How will He not also be faithful to us in the needs of our everyday lives? Overcoming our fears is not a matter of working up faith in ourselves. Instead it is turning to Jesus in the midst of our fear, in the depths of our doubts, and saying, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” That kind of prayer is one Jesus has promised to answer, and He has proved He will remain faithful to His promise.

This kind of realization—or I should say, reminder—is another part of what I think attracted me to this passage. I saw in this announcement of the Good News of the resurrected Jesus to flawed and fearful people an announcement of Good News to myself. I was reminded that I can seek Jesus in the midst of my fears, even as these women did, and Jesus will be faithful to meet me where I am—in my need, in my brokenness, in my fear. And when I remember that, I am freed to realize all the ways Jesus has remained faithful to me and to us even while I have been unfaithful.

I think of our time with Leah. And while it is sometimes fraught with heartache and fear, it is also so precious, and so full of joy and love of a kind that does not dim or fade over time but only grows and deepens and brightens. And I think of the financial struggles of our church that still have not quenched the generosity of many who have responded quickly and amazingly to various special needs throughout the past months. And I think of ministries of our church, like More than Carpentry. I can remember talking with Jim and Tammy about their vision for a ministry years ago in their living room in South City, long before Wellston was even in anyone’s mind. And I can remember over the years many of the exciting developments and the providential opportunities, as well as the devastating setbacks and the heartbreaking obstacles. I can remember times of wondering why God wasn’t doing more to get this ministry going and fearing that maybe He wasn’t in it after all. But now, in God’s timing (certainly not Jim & Tammy’s) the ministry is firmly established and well appreciated in the Wellston community, and the McGarrys are on the verge of moving their home onto their mission field as they planned, and the next step of realizing the vision for More than Carpentry is right around the corner.

You see, ridding ourselves of doubts and fears is not a precondition for God to work. Because the risen Jesus is going to be faithful to accomplish His mission no matter what. But, in order for us to be rid of our doubts and fears, we must turn to the risen Jesus. And when we do, even when we are fearful, He will be faithful.

G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."