“Easter Prequels and Sequels” FBC Sermon (4/1/18)

 Mark 16:1-8

Easter is the big event in Christianity. In the mode of Star Wars, we will think of Easter prequels and Easter sequels. Easter tells a big story, a meta-narrative: God brings life out of death. The story is so mind-boggling that the women looking resurrection square in the eyes couldn’t grasp it:“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.” We sense how death-determined our culture is when we are more afraid of life with God than we are of anything else. Sam Wells, Anglican priest, says that overwhelmed by “God’s inexhaustible” passion for life, we turn away, finding such a God “too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand.” But we are going to try here and now.

Easter seals the deal. In resurrection God has given us everything we need – the gift of life. Jesus was now alive and loose in the community. In a movie, he would say, “Hello, boys! I’m back.” The powers of politics and religion – the deathly powers of a secular culture – could not hold him or stop him. Life wins!

God has been doing this forever. Not every day, but often enough to give us a hint that we should have been Easter coming. Saint Paul calls it the “pledge of our inheritance.” The word pledge comes from the real estate world and the idea of “earnest” money. So these Easter prequels are God’s earnest pledge that life will come forth from death.

This sermon is our story wrapped in other biblical stories. Life wins. We should have seen it coming but our imaginations are dulled and our memories faded and our secular proclivities too deeply ingrained. Here are just a few of the Easter prequels brought to us by the God of the living.

Creation is the first Easter prequel. Creation and resurrection are two of a kind, a matched pair. Science tells us that there was a “first event,” a point from which the universe begins to expand. Back of the energy and movement, the “fire in the equations,” there was a power that energized it all. We name that power God. “Let there be light.” “And God breathed into man the breath of life, the spirit of God, and there was life.” This is the first Easter prequel. Science labels it “the big bang;” the Jews label is “In the beginning;” Christians confess, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” God has been taking our dismal modes of chaos and forming them into launching pads for new life. That is life out of death!” (Walter Brueggemann,The Collected Sermons, Vol 2, 96-97).

Billions of years later, the Easter God came to that old couple, Abraham and Sarah, and gave them the child of promise, and opened a future for them. As Paul says in Romans 4: “God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was >already as good as dead, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” “And since then, God has been giving people futures when they thought there was no possibility for newness. That is life out of death!” (WB, 97).

Let’s stop long enough to apply the story of Abraham to the present reality of FBC Peoria. If you have told me once, you have told me a thousand times that you are getting old and that we need some young people around here. And your telling of this story sounds often like a kind of resignation, an almost surrender to despair. I pray and hope that you are not in despair. This church is not dead and you need to remember that God has done some of God’s best work with old people. Noah was 600 years old when he built the ark. Abraham was almost 100 when Isaac was born. Simeon was an old man, serving in the Temple, hanging on to life by a promise, when he held Jesus in his arms and said, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Don’t be telling me that you are too old, that you are out of energy, that you don’t have any more get up and go. If you have to say junk like that, say it behind my back but don’t say it to me, please. With Mark Twain, let us say, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

But times slip by. Generations blur into one another. There’s more death than life. Despair settles in like fog on a coffin lid.

Then, of all things, when we least expected it, in the prophets Elijah and Elisha new life comes from the depths of despair. Elijah, we are told, stretched himself upon a widow’s dead child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” Life wins!

When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child of the Shunammite woman lying dead on his bed. So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the LORD. Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm. He got down, walked once to and fro in the room, then got up again and bent over him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.” A sneezing attack as a sign of life, how about that? Life wins.

Those are just a few of the sequels of our Easter story.

Then our big story hits the stage: Easter. Everyone was caught by surprise. The disciples saw the empty tomb and went back to the house. Some heard the story of the resurrection didn’t believe it and hit the highway of despair, called the Road to Emmaus.

A defeated bunch of disciples have just been enrolled in the graduate course of “Life out of Death.” We take Easter breaks, but Jesus starts popping in here and there to repeat previous lessons to his disciples.These we label Easter sequels.

See him in the upper room with the disciples passing out courage and peace and power. He breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. He even comes back another day to reclaim Thomas who was still trapped in the culture of death.

Jesus comes to the seashore where his despairing disciples, thinking all was lost, have returned to fishing and are catching nothing. Jesus tells them how to catch a boatload of fish and stays for breakfast and the disciples learn that life wins. Simon Peter receives forgiveness for his denials. Life wins!

There’s one story of life coming from seeming death that is so much fun that I couldn’t
leave it out. Paul was preaching on his last night before leaving the city and the sermon
extended until midnight. That’s a lot of preaching, and a young man named Eutychus
was sitting in a window. He fell asleep in the sermon, and he fell to the ground three
floors below and was picked up dead. A long sermon can be a deadly event, huh? Then
Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be
alarmed, for his life is in him.’ And Eutychus lived again. Do you see why I just had to tell
you that story? One of the characters in Lisa Alther’s Original Sins comments on a
Tennessee preacher: “The pastor droned on . . . . Mother and I endured the eternal
sermon with downcast eyes.” Even bad sermons can’t kill the church and you have my
permission to always count bad preaching as due penance for those weeks you have
lived badly.

Even more, I want you to know that there can be an Easter sequel for you – a
resurrection of whatever has died in your mind and heart. Participation in the story is
what matters not just some dogmatic assertion of belief in a historical resurrection.

Perhaps God’s Word has lost its meaning in your life and today God offers to resurrect
you so that the Word of God becomes second nature to you and you will find that a guide
and a source for a new life.

Perhaps you are caught in a cycle of living that has promised you everything and you are
caught in despair because the promises now appear as a giant deception. You have a
sense that you have been conned into making a deal with the Devil and you have the
short end of the stick. You feel dead in a system of wealth and power and control. The
culture promised to make you whole and it hasn’t delivered. Today like millions of others
we are relentlessly chasing false gods, false hopes, false dreams of success and wealth.
Perhaps you are caught in a religious system that thinks faith is all about beliefs and
taking care of your individual salvation. Well, it hasn’t been as good as promised. Now,
the Easter God offers you a new life of caring for widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor
people. Now the Easter God offers to resurrect you to a life for the neighborhood, a life
devoted to the vulnerable, a life that includes all the others who are unlike us who are
left behind in our system of economics. God offers to bring us out of this deadness into
new life.

Let me tell you a story that I believe shows that your Easter sequel, your resurrection can
come as a small gift from a loved one, can be an ordinary, flesh and blood human
moment. We are programmed for life and I don’t think it takes much to call us back to life
again. So here’s the story:

Once upon a time a father and daughter are exchanging letters.
The Father writes: ” Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is such pain, would have to
go to the hospital to have it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners.
There are big holes in my thigh where my leg brace buckles the size of dimes. My head
pounds from the high pressure. It is awful not to be able to get out, and I fell in the
bathroom and the girl could hardly get me up at all. Sure thought my back was broken, it
will be next time. Prostate is bad and heart has given out, feel bloated after supper. Have
made my peace because am just plain done for and have no doubt that the Lord will
come any day with my release.”​

The hopelessness of this old man causes great pain in his daughter. Willing to try
anything to help change her father’s spirit, she sends him a bird feeder. That’s right an
ordinary bird feeder.

At first, it doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. Her father writes, “You say you
enjoy your feeder, I don’t see why you want to spend good money on grain for birds. We
enjoyed your visit, it was nice of you to bring the feeder but a terrible waste of your
money for that big bag of feed since we won’t be living more than a few weeks longer.
The father has lost what a Southern novelist calls “his starch.” He has surrendered to the
deadliness of despair and hopelessness. And then it happens and we have no idea
exactly when and how it happens, but life sneaks in the back door and takes charge of
one tired old man’s spirit.

Now listen as he writes words of new life: “The birds are eating and fighting, Ha! Ha! All
shapes and colors and sizes coming out of our woods but we don’t know what they are. I
sent the girl to town to buy some more feed, she had to go anyway. The girl took a Book
of Knowledge on loan from the library and I am reading up on the habits of birds, did you
know some males have three wives, some migrate some don’t. I am going to keep
feeding all spring, maybe summer, you can see they expect it. Will need thistle seed for
Goldfinch and Pine Siskin next winter. Some folks are going to come see us from Church,
some bird watchers, pretty soon. They have birds in town but nothing to equal this.”

This is the nature of God’s universe. When we have all but given up and given out, life
kisses us on the forehead and we are alive again. Do one or more of you need a Easter
kiss? Your own resurrection sequel to add to the stories of God’s living people?

God is standing in the wings this morning ready to give you new life, ready to raise that
which has died in our minds and hearts. God is ready to give the gift of resurrection.
Maybe this is the Easter that you will extend your hands to receive the gift of the Easter