Surprise!

Notes for a sermon preached at the Great Vigil of Easter, April 19, 2014, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton.

Texts: Matthew 28:1-10; Romans 6:3-11; Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21 


Resurrection Icon

When Fr. Chris asked me if I would preach at this service, I hardly waited a heartbeat before saying “Yes.” In my previous position in a different diocese I always had to relinquish the pulpit to the Bishop on major festivals, so it has been some years since I last preached at a main Easter service. Nonetheless, as I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded of the advice to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it!

Major festivals can be major problems for preachers. Both Christmas and Easter pose the challenge of bringing something fresh to stories which “everyone knows.” There’s nothing very surprising for most church-goers in hearing the Easter Gospel.

Or is there? Can there be? I believe so…

I was once asked to help some people deal with a difficult situation. They had been close friends for many years, but the relationship was now under severe strain. In the course of a long conversation, one of them turned to another and said “I know our old friendship is dead, but I am hoping there may be a resurrection,” and started to muse about what that might look like. My heart instantly said, “Yes!” and I was about to jump in and start addressing that possibility—but something stopped me short. Instead of affirming that hope aloud, I said “Just a second. Let’s back up a bit.” Why? Because my head then told me was that resurrection is never, and can never be, something of our devising, but is rather an act of God. It is not up to us to tell God what God should do (and then be cheesed off at God when God doesn’t come through), but rather to give God space to let God do what God will do.

What is the space into which God can bring resurrection? In one word: death. We cannot fully comprehend resurrection unless we have fully grappled with the reality of death. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion. There is no empty tomb without an occupied tomb. As the Apostles’ Creed says,

He descended to the dead.

Three times Jesus’ disciples had heard him foretell his passion and death, and then say “on the third day rise again,” but it seems very clear to me from the various accounts of the resurrection that what actually happened came as a total surprise. The women in today’s Gospel reading were not going there to wait for Jesus to rise again, but simply to “see the tomb.” It was an act of mourning and grief that led them there in the pre-dawn greyness. They had seen their Lord die on the cross. They had seen his body lain in the tomb. They had kept the Sabbath, and they returned to their graveside vigil as soon as it was possible to do so.

They went in grief, in full knowledge of the actual death of their master. What happened at the tomb is shrouded in mystery: the four Gospel writers all tell the story a bit differently, as they strive to bear witness to a unique event. What happened at the tomb was unlike anything anyone had seen before, or has seen since, so it should is hardly surprising that the four stories differ. Police today will tell you that eye-witness testimony is highly unreliable, even when reporting something as commonplace as a motor vehicle accident. There is nothing commonplace about the Resurrection!

In this one great act, God reached into our human history and reset everything. What humankind had accepted as normal and expected as our due—the eternal nature of death—suddenly becomes not so! The Resurrection makes everything new for all humanity, with the promise of a new creation, a new way of living, a whole new reason for being.

It is always and eternally new—even if the story is 2,000 years old! It says that what was is now over—including and especially the ultimate rule of death. As Paul wrote:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

It is so tempting to leapfrog the tough stuff: the Gethsemanes and Calvarys and silent tombs of our lives, and get immediately to the bright daylight of Easter. However, if we truly wish to enter the light, and to experience it for what it really is, we must first embrace the darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor, the noted Episcopalian teacher, preacher, and author, has recently published a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which I intend to read very soon.

In an interview about the book, she said this.

The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark but if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised. [1]

I believe that my friends who hoped for a resurrection of their friendship needed first to trust that God was with them in the darkness of the loss of that friendship—and then God could surprise them with what the truly new looked like.

Two young people come for baptism on this holy night. The waters of baptism are a sign of cleansing and rebirth, to be sure, but before that they remind us of danger and death, like the waters of the sea that overwhelmed Pharaoh’s armies. Amazingly, almost beyond surprise, the people of Israel found themselves on the farther shore, set forth into their new life as God’s chosen people. The risen life—the life of the baptized—is a holy life of wholly unexpected surprises. Let us pray that God will part the waters for these two, leading them into a life of seeking not their wishes but God’s.

Let our alleluia’s tonight and in the days to come be shouted with joy and thanksgiving—and with a renewed sense of surprise and wonder at how God has made all things new.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

[1] http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/

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About robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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