Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Following the Spectacular

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, April 16, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Now, I think it’s pretty obvious that today is Easter. I mean, the kids have gotten their spring break: Hancock two school days, Brooke six (something that makes Maggie really irritated.) And the weather is starting to get nice and warm, but remember we live in the Northern Panhandle which means it could snow on Friday. And I’m breaking out my seersucker suit and blue suede shoes, thank you very much. And of course, we’re surrounded by all those cultural reminders of the day, you know what I mean, things like bunnies and chicks and colored eggs. And even though I hope everyone here recognizes that Easter is all about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the single most important event in human history, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t eaten my share of jelly beans and marshmallow peeps, the yellow chicks, never the pick bunnies. Those pink bunnies just don’t taste the same.

Well, this morning I’m going to give you a brand new cultural image that from this service on, we can associate with this special day. And so, in the future, when you think about Easter, your mind won’t go to days off school or changing weather or seersucker suits. Man, you won’t even think about bunnies and chicks and eggs. After this message, whenever this spectacular day comes to mind, you will think about King Kong. That’s right, the big gorilla himself. Now, I’m sure there are some folks who are right now thinking, “I can’t believe he mentioned King Kong on Easter?” But before calling your thirty or so closest friends to share this little bit of heresy, please give me a chance to explain.

About three weeks ago, I did what I love to do on Mondays, my day off; I went to the movies. I saw Kong: Skull Island. And I’ll tell you, although I wouldn’t put it up there with Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane, it was pretty good. And you know, why shouldn’t it be? I mean, without giving anything away to those who haven’t seen it, the movie runs almost two hours and for about ninety minutes of that time, Kong is either knocking down helicopters and fighting monsters and stomping on people or people are running from Kong so they won’t be knocked down, fought and stomped. Who could want more from a movie? To call it spectacular would be an understatement. Well, when I saw it, after it ended with Kong marrying Godzilla (I’m kidding, that didn’t happen.) most of my fellow Monday, early afternoon movie-goers, well, most of them got up and left, except these four people sitting in front of me. They stayed. In fact, they didn’t move through the entire credits as though they knew something might be coming. And so I stayed too, because I had this gut feeling that they just might be right, and if they were, I’d miss out. And so I decided to do something, to something dramatic, to do something important. Man, I stayed in my seat so that I could see what might happen, you know, following the spectacular.

And I’ll tell you, I think something very similar happened in the resurrection story we’re looking at from Matthew. In other words, something really important followed this spectacular event, and it was all based on a decision. I mean, just think about what occurred. According to Matthew, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” Now that’s all Matthew said, just a pair of Marys going to look at the place Jesus was buried. But then, in an instant, everything changed, and they entered into something that was every bit as spectacular as a George Lucas movie. Matthew wrote, “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” Now, this is pretty awesome, am I right? But Matthew didn’t stop here; he continued: “But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’” Now that’s what happened.

And even though it would have been even more dramatic if Matthew had described the kind of thing we see in most of those passion plays, you know, with Jesus stepping out of the tomb with lights flashing and lasers shooting; let’s get real, even without all that, this is pretty good. One might even say spectacular. But you know, it was right at this point in the little story, that the women had an important decision to make. I mean, the angel had told them to do basically two things: one, “do not be afraid;” and two, “go quickly and tell his disciples.” Now that’s what the angel told them to do, right?

And it was right here that the women had to decide whether or not they were going to do it. I mean, following this spectacular event, you know, after the earth quaked and the angel came and the stone rolled and after that dazzling guy from heaven told them that Jesus had been raised and showed them where they’d laid him and after he gave the Marys two very clear and direct commandments, those women had a decision to make. I mean, they certainly could have left that empty tomb and not done what the angel said. Good night nurse, they could have high-tailed it out of there and told no one, you know, sort of like Mark described when he wrote, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]  For those two women, doing something like that was certainly an option.

But is that what they did? No, according to Matthew, “so they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and [they] ran to tell his disciples.” You see, the angel told them not to be afraid, and “so they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy...” And he told them to “go quickly and tell his disciples, and according to Matthew, “...[they didn’t walk, but they] ran to tell his disciples.” In other words, those two women not only listened to what the angel said, they did what they were told to do. And as a result, as a result of their ability to listen and their willingness to obey, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’”

Now that’s what happened, and just consider what this meant. As they were doing what they’d been told to do, they encountered the risen Christ. And they discovered that they were not only obeying an angel, but also doing what their Lord wanted them to do, because he told them to do the same thing. And as a result, I think those two Marys recognized exactly why the name Emmanuel was important, you know, that Jesus would be with them as they did what they were commanded to do. And that’s the same lesson the disciples would understand when they’d gathered on that mountain in Galilee and were told by Jesus, “When you go, make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and by teaching them everything that I commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’.” [Matthew 28:19-20] You see, following something that was truly spectacular, those women listened and obeyed, and as a result, they encountered Jesus.

And I’ll tell you something right here and now, I think the same can be true for us. You see, this morning, we heard the story of the resurrection, one that included an earthquake and an angel and a bunch of frozen soldiers. And I’ve got to tell you, when taken together, I think this is all pretty spectacular. And that’s just the stuff on the surface. Good night, just think about what it meant then and now. I mean, when Jesus was hung on that cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” at that point, heaven and earth touched and that curtain that had always separated the sacred from the profane, man, it was ripped apart and that when he was raised from death, a new age, the age of resurrection actually started, a process that began with Jesus but will include all of us, man, when we consider all this, I’m telling you, that’s pretty exciting, too. You see, whether you like it or not, because you came here this Easter morning and heard the story, just like those women, you’ve been exposed to the awesome, the bomb, the spectacular.

But that also means that, just like those women, we have a decision to make. You see, we can hear it all, and then we can make the decision not to be changed, in other words, not to do anything at all. I’ll tell you, right here and now, following everything we’ve discussed, we can decide not to believe that the crucifixion and the resurrection applies to us. In other words, we can make the conscious decision not to believe that God loved us before he created the heavens and the earth and that he won’t love us when he recreates the universe and that right now he doesn’t love us so much that nothing in all creation can separate us from that love. You see, following the spectacle of Easter we can decide not to be changed. We can decide to do nothing. And even though it won’t be easy, I think if we work really hard and deny that presence which surrounds us all the time, we just may be able to pull it off and avoid any change at all. But of course, since the love of God also doesn’t change and the death and resurrection happened two thousand years before we were born and stopping the movement of the Holy Spirit is pretty much not going to happened, we’re going to have to make that decision not to believe, not to trust, we’re going to have to make it tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and the day after that. Do you see where I’m going? But still it’s a decision we can make.

Or we can follow in the footsteps of the women. And we can decide to listen and when we do, we’ll hear Jesus give us two very clear commands. You see, when asked for the greatest commandment, “[Jesus] said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” [Matthew 22:37-40] Now, that’s really what we’re told to do. And it’s something we’re going to hear when we decide to listen. And then, we can decide to act, you know, to do something that demonstrates love, love to a God who couldn’t love us more than he does right this minute and love to people we meet on the street or the guy who lives in the home down the block or the girl who sits two rows over in homeroom. You see, we can decide to something even though that may require making a few changes. And I’ll tell you, when this is our decision, you know, when we stop resisting and start responding, I don’t think we’ll be doing it alone, because just like it was for the women, I believe the risen Christ will meet us on the way. You see, this is what we can decide to do as we move from the Easter story out into the world.

Now remember how I was telling y’all about Kong: Skull Island a little while ago and how following this awesome movie, a few of us stayed through all the credits. Well, as it turned out, that was a good decision. You see, after reading all that stuff, including about how “the story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious” (I mean, give me a break; did they really need to say it? It’s about King Kong; I assumed it was fictitious. I mean, da), but still, after all that, there we’re a couple of minutes of actual story, explaining the future of the Kong franchise. Something important followed the specular, and it was grounded in a decision I made. And with the women, following their encounter with an earthquake and an angel, they did what they were commanded to do and as a result encountered the risen Christ. And for us, well, we can also respond by showing love to God and neighbor, something that’s more than possible following the spectacular story we heard this morning.

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