April 20, 2014

As the First Day of the Week Was Dawning

Passage: Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10
Service Type:

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

“As the first day of the week was dawning”...I suppose that the dawn of this day was like any other. The gospel writers, however, assert that on this day a new day had dawned whose light would shine forever. Something had changed. Everything had changed. Every dawning day since this one emerges in the greater light that dawned on this resurrection day. As you read Matthew’s account it bursts with great excitement and urgent energy. Things happen “suddenly”, fear is to be cast aside, a great earthquake shakes the foundations, angels appear, a grave is opened to show that it is empty, Jesus, alive, greets these women! In the wee hours of the morning, when all was quiet, God was on the move ushering in a new age; by the time the women arrived “it” had already happened. He is risen.

Many days have dawned since this one. Countless Christians have gathered age after age on each succeeding Easter bearing witness that this Jesus who manifested himself to these women on this resurrection morning has also made himself known to them. As this day has dawned and once again we rehearse that story—“as the first day of the week was dawning”—do we believe it? Has it been reduced to a kind of symbolic representation of some higher spiritual truth, so called, like, "We must always keep hope?"

1. According to a new Pew Research Center survey on social trends, the Millennial generation—18 to 33 years of age—is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. They are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry—and optimistic about the future.

After analyzing this survey, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat claims that we're in a new and deeper "age of individualism." In a riff off 1 Corinthians 13, here's how Douthat described it: "In the future, it seems, there will be only one "ism"—Individualism—and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide—and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook."

When our culture hears the story of the resurrection the reaction is akin to the “like” or “dislike’ of Facebook. The individual is paramount—I like this, I don’t like that. Or favour is shown to some idea by “retweeting” the “tweet” of something someone else has posted. Would the resurrection story get retweeted? This is how our culture works; it is about likes and dislikes.
The point I ask you to consider is this: The resurrection was not preached in the early church as a symbolic representation of some higher spiritual truths, nor posted as a story to see who might acknowledge it with a “like” symbol or retweet it. The resurrection was preached as a hard, bare, terribly irritating paradigm-shattering, horribly inconvenient but impossible to dismiss fact. And facts are stubbornly insistent; though we may choose to ignore them, we will trip over them.

Take note of how concretely Matthew speaks of what happened. To be sure, nothing like this had happened before. Even so, the events are spoken of as actual. Women are on their way to a tomb, when they arrive the ground shakes, the stone has been moved from the entrance, they are shown that the tomb is empty. The empty tomb, while not proving what happened to Jesus, is not a dispensable theological point for Matthew. Keep in mind how concretely our Jewish foreparents think. When Matthew goes on to say, “Suddenly Jesus met them,” he doesn’t abandon his concrete description as if switching mid-sentence to an alternate reality.

Dr. Timothy Keller makes an interesting point about how people today hear this story. He writes: “We should be more sympathetic to our skeptical friends. The resurrection makes Christianity the most irritating religion on the face of the earth, and the reason is because how do people decide what they believe? They decide what they believe by reading it and saying I like it or I don't like it. Over the years I've had so many people say, "Well, I could never be a Christian." I say, "Why?" "Well, there are parts of the Bible I find offensive." I remember years ago … people were very offended very often by what the Bible said about money. Today in New York they are much more offended by what the Bible says about sex. I usually say, "Let me ask you a question: Are you saying because there are parts of the Bible that you don't like, that Jesus Christ couldn't have been raised from the dead?" They say, "Well, no, I guess I'm not saying that." I said, "Well, every part of the Bible is important, but would you please put the ethical teaching aside for a minute, and here's the point: If Jesus was raised from the dead, you're going to have to deal with everything in the Bible. If Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, I don't know why you're vexing yourself over that.”

I with Keller on this. If Jesus Christ isn’t raised from the dead let us adjourn to a sunny beach. The fact of the matter is Paul was more offended by Christianity than most today. He was killing Christians. But when he realized Jesus had been raised, it didn't matter what offended him anymore. It didn't matter, because it was true. The risen Jesus made himself known to Paul. And we have to keep that in mind. The resurrection is a paradigm-shattering historical event.

2. Perhaps you heard the story of a Mississippi man name Walter Williams. He had been receiving hospice care when the coroner mistakenly declared him dead after neither he nor nurses could find a pulse. Just before embalming he revived and kicked his way out of the body bag he had been placed in. Williams said to his family,”'It's all up in the Lord's hands. Whatever the Lord says, I'm willing to do it.” His near-death experience occurred on February 27. Two weeks later, on March 13, Williams died.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ our ancestors in faith revelled in their conviction that death had been conquered; not cancelled, but conquered. The difference is crucial. When Mr. Williams kicked his way out of the body bag his death had been cancelled at least for the moment; i.e., postponed. Two weeks later he died.
But to say that death has been conquered is to say that death has been stripped of its power. On the day when the Lord was raised from the dead and death was stripped of its power, his people—you and I—became gloriously free. The writer of Hebrew insists that Jesus Christ has "destroyed the power of death and has delivered—freed—all who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." (Hebrews 2:15)

N.T Wright wrote; “Death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant; resurrection does not make a covenant with death, it overthrows it.” Matthew’s core point is that resurrection of Jesus is not about human capacities or possibilities. If death as a final conclusion to even the most finely lived life is to be transcended, it is not because such goodness naturally lives on. It is, rather, because God acted at the boundary of life we call death and does something altogether new.

Sigmund Freud maintained that no human being could honestly face the prospect of dying, and therefore all human beings were unconsciously controlled by fear of death. But Christians aren’t determined and governed by their fear of death; Christians are determined and governed by the risen one who has freed us from that bondage in which the fear of death imprisons people and manipulates them.

Because the Christian is freed from the power of death and therein from the bondage arising from the fear of death, the Christian is free to give her life away. The Christian is free to risk himself on behalf of the one who risked everything for the people he loved. And since the world-at-large unconsciously tries to protect itself against death by piling up things and fortunes and reputations and rewards, the Christian is gloriously freed from preoccupation with things and fortunes and reputations and rewards. Because death is now stripped of all power to dislodge us from our security in Christ, we are freed from having to pursue the false securities, abysmal insecurities, of money and fame and mastery. We are free to give ourselves away.

3. When it comes to “like” and “dislike” of Facebook or favourable “retweeting” the story of the resurrection may get some likes because the story’s hero emerges alive after all that messy stuff on Good Friday. It is almost certain that the crucifixion would get few “likes” or “retweets”. But can we pick and choose? Even in Christian circles there is a disdain for emphasis on the cross; the idea is that the resurrection leaves all that nastiness behind. We are people of “resurrection”, so goes the claim. But the gospels are not so easily tamed; the Jesus who died is the Jesus who was raised.

When Jesus died on Black Friday, his followers had concluded that his cross meant one thing: his suffering was utterly disastrous and completely useless. But when God raised him from the dead, they knew something else: God had vindicated Christ's suffering and now advertised it as victorious. The resurrection of Jesus – and only his resurrection – turned Black Friday into Good Friday, “God’s Friday.” The resurrection meant, for our ancestors in faith, that God guarantees the effectiveness, the triumph, of all cross-bearing. Resurrection means that our Lord's cross-bearing has triumphed: atonement has been made for the sins of the world. If his cross-bearing has triumphed, ours always will too; ours will always be effective.

Our Lord guarantees the effectiveness, the triumph of whatever cross we take up for him and for his work and for his people. Resurrection doesn't mean that cross-bearing can now be stepped around; it doesn't mean that what we used to call "cross-bearing" is now no more than a minor nuisance. Resurrection means something entirely different: the crosses we take up anywhere in life, everywhere in life, will always yield fruit of some kind. The crosses we shoulder are gathered up in that one cross which includes them all. And they will all be rendered fruitful by the power of that resurrection which made our Lord's fruitful.

It is for this reason that we put our hand to relieve suffering in our world, teach Sunday school, offer our talents and time for the support of public worship and the proclamation of the gospel. It is for this reason that people go to offer hymn singing among our aged infirm citizens.

The sacrifices we make right now for the sake of the kingdom; likely only we are aware of them, and it would be both poor taste to speak too much about them. And of course there are days when we resent the pressure of the wood and wish we could ditch this cross plus so many others. Of course there are such days; after all, Jesus wasn't grinning on Calvary. Nonetheless, on Easter Sunday we are given fresh heart because our conviction is renewed: that resurrection which vindicated our Lord's suffering and rendered it victorious guarantees as much for us.

Friends, remember this. As the dawn of this day broke, Jesus former followers, who had misunderstood him over and over had finally forsaken him and written off their time with him as embarrassing naiveness. In the light of this dawn these same “former followers” began announcing zealously that he was alive. They were convinced he was alive, they said, simply because they had met him. No longer regarding him as deluded and themselves as naive, they worshipped him as Lord—he hadn’t been blasphemous after all when claimed to be the Son of God—and they insisted that with him a new age had dawned, the dawn of the “Age-to Come.”

“… as the first day of the week was dawning”, what a morning, indeed!!