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|"Terror and Amazement"
I read my Bible, I frequently ask myself this question: "What was
it REALLY like back then? What did it FEEL like to live
then?" What were all those people really thinking?
The printed word can take me only so far, and then my imagination needs to kick into gear. The gospel writers couldn't write EVERYTHING, and we don't even know how good their memories were, writing their books years after the events on which they reported.
At this time of year one can find many television dramatizations of Christ's life and of his last week before the crucifixion. Some of this is, I think, very good. But also, some of it--again, my opinion--can be downright silly and even embarrassing.
And I have to ask myself, "Was it REALLY like THAT?" I have problems with a couple of extremes. I have problems with a "cute" Jesus. One with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect beard, perfect makeup, and, of course, the perfect, beautiful resonant voice. And, of course, he's always smiling.
And in response to this Hollywood creation, a little voice in the back of my mind is yelling, "Is this guy for real?"
Then, at the other extreme, there is the overly-dramatic Jesus, the melodramatic, the histrionic, the play- it- for- all- its- worth- maximum- effect Jesus.
Now, maybe I'm all wrong on this. Maybe I'm too picky. But I am fearful that some of the dramatized television and movie portrayals of Jesus rob us of who he really was.
And some of them remind me of made-for-children's breakfast cereals: lots of color and taste, but not much nutrition.
But today is Easter. Today is the day of resurrection. So today we're more concerned, or should be, with those who DISCOVERED that Jesus had been raised from the dead. So let's visit THEIR world, as we find it in the sixteenth chapter of the gospel according to Mark.
"When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him."
So we're talking, technically speaking, of Saturday night. The sabbath began at sundown on Friday, and continued until sundown of the following day. And notice that we are talking about strict adherence to the Jewish observance of the sabbath.
Even though these are loyal followers of Jesus, they are STILL good Jews.
But also notice who the cast of characters is: three women.
Now, I know that the Roman Catholic church refuses to ordain women to the priesthood, and only in the past few years has the Anglican church begun to ordain women, which has driven a lot of male Anglican priests crazy.
And, if you're a woman of certain Protestant denominations, and you want to be a pastor: fat chance. But the inescapable report of the gospel stories is that the first person to show up at the tomb after the resurrection was NOT a male disciple: it was a woman.
Now, maybe this is why I prefer the written word to visual dramatizations of the Christian story. The visual dramatization can control my attention and gloss over some things. The written word does not. In fact, when we look at the written word, REALLY look at it, all kinds of tough questions can come to mind. All kinds of potentially embarrassing questions. For starters, these three women are obviously good Jews. So, is it possible for good Jews to be good Christians?
And, if it's possible for good Jews to be good Christians, why is it so difficult for some so-called Christians to get comfortable with the Hebrew Scriptures?
And make no mistake, the women WERE the first to the tomb: "And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb."
Now, nobody with any common sense is going to doubt the leadership of women in the church. And in many United Methodist Churches, the best-organized group within the church is the United Methodist Women.
But the resurrection story raises an ugly question for us.
If, following the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus, all the male disciples have wimped out, and the first people to show up at the tomb are women, do you suppose, that just maybe, Jesus first twelve choices were not the best ones?
Well, culturally, they were the ONLY ones. The general view of women at that point in history was pretty low; and unfortunately, men have been trying to KEEP it low ever since.
So three women are heading for the tomb. And they're not heading there for an Easter Sunrise service. Yes, it IS the first Easter. But it doesn't BEGIN the way our Easters begin. We can wake up on Easter morning thinking, "Today is the Day of Resurrection!"
But those three women do not KNOW about the resurrection yet. It's not a special day for them. Not yet. They're just going to visit a tomb.
And then, an amazing line: "They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"
Now, the cynics might say, "Yeah, that sounds like a question that a bunch of weak women might ask." Or, "Well, why didn't they think about that before they started out? Why didn't they plan better?"
But whether they knew it or not, and I doubt that they did, they were asking an evangelistic question: "Who will roll away the stone?" They don't know it yet, but they're asking, "Who will reveal the resurrection?" And the ultimate message of Christians is that there WAS a resurrection. Of course, Jesus was a wonderful person: a wonderful teacher and healer. But if that is ALL he was, he would just fall into the same category as lots of OTHER wonderful people.
No, the power of Jesus the Christ lies in the resurrection, the answer to those who stood at the foot of the cross mocking, "He saved others; he cannot save himself.
“Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe."
"Who will roll away the stone?" Can WE roll away the stone? I don't hear many folks ask me WHY I'm a Christian.
But in the context of the resurrection, I would say to the unchurched, non-Christian, that I am a Christian because I follow Jesus of Nazareth, who spent his life working and teaching against an unjust earthly system; who was killed, crucified, by that unjust system; and on the third day BEAT the SYSTEM of an unjust world by being raised from the dead.
But when the women arrived at the tomb, "When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back."
The title for this sermon, "terror and amazement," doesn't show up until the final verse of the passage I'm preaching this morning. But I can't help but think that these mixed emotions are beginning when they first saw that the stone had already been rolled back. Because, WHY would the stone NOT be in place? Who would have moved it? They're undoubtedly surprised that the stone has been moved, but I also wonder if they aren't a bit scared, and a bit frightened by what this means.
And now let me back up to their question: "Who will roll away the stone?" The stone has been rolled away, but the resurrection has not yet been revealed. And maybe the best way to describe their reaction is "puzzled."
And again, consider the evangelistic power, or lack of it, in this question.
If we are asked why we are Christians, or if we are asked why we attend worship, and we give an answer WITHOUT the power of the resurrection, how should we expect others to respond? I expect they'll be puzzled.
It is not enough for us to say that we follow Jesus because we was a good person.
It is not enough for us to say that we are Christians because we love each other. All we're showing the non-Christian is an open tomb with the stone rolled away. And at that point all we should expect of ANYBODY is to be "puzzled."
But "As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed."
Terrified? Amazed? Well, something is going on that is unexpected. Obviously, they do not know this person, because he is unnamed. They probably suspect that he is responsible for rolling away the stone, but they don't know why.
And WHY would a stranger be sitting in Jesus' tomb? And they are still, I believe, puzzled. You see, we STILL have not made it to the resurrection. I don't care WHO is in that tomb, or how old he is, or how he is dressed. We may as well be outside the tomb.
The stone may just as well still be in place. Because until we KNOW of the resurrection, it does not matter that the stone has been rolled away.
"But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him."
"He has been raised." Now we know. Now we know WHY the stone was rolled away. Now we know the purpose for this young man in the tomb. The time of our puzzlement is past. "He has been raised."
But I wonder if it meant anything to those women for him to say, "Do not be alarmed." I don't think they could HELP it. This is enough to send them into shock! It's a momentous occasion! He who was dead has been raised! And I don't think that it is possible for us to understand the emotions they were going through. Just when they thought that everything in which they had invested their lives was over with, there is a hope for a new beginning.
And the young man in the white robe continues, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."
And we hear, not only that Jesus has been raised, but that he is in CONTROL of events. After denying Jesus, Peter is probably an emotional wreck. And Jesus expected that. So Jesus sends a personal message to him. Peter is singled out.
"Tell his disciples and Peter." But also, "he is going ahead of you."
Jesus is not only raised from the dead, but his ministry moves on. And he's waiting for us to catch up. And finally, "you will see him, just as he told you." Jesus is not only raised from the dead, but he is also fulfilling prophecy.
Now, that's a lot to handle. "So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
Now, I don't think we can take that literally. If "they said nothing to anyone," this story would never have made it into scripture. But the important thing here is their feelings. Terror and amazement had seized them; they were afraid.
Looking back almost twenty centuries we rejoice in the resurrection! But we need to understand that it was not that easy for the first followers of Christ. It was all happening too fast. It was all too disorienting. Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, found guilty of blasphemy, tortured, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead.
And even though the women hear, "He is going ahead of you and you will see him," the shock of it all is too much to handle. And they are terrified and amazed.
We may not be terrified. Maybe we don't NEED to be terrified. But can we still be AMAZED? Can we put ourselves in the places of those early followers of Jesus and realize how important, how significant, his resurrection WAS?
And in our day, who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb to reveal to others the significance of the risen Christ?
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