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A New Word of Beginning

Date:4/21/19

Passage: Luke 24:1-12

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

The call to worship had just been pronounced, beginning the Easter Sunday morning service in an old East Texas church. The choir started its processional, singing “Up from the Grave He Arose” as they paraded in perfect step down the center aisle to the front of the sanctuary. The last woman in line was wearing shoes with very slender heels. Without a thought for her fancy heels, she marched toward the grating that covered that hot air register in the middle of the aisle. Suddenly the heel of one of her shoes sank into the hole in the register grate.

In an embarrassing moment, she realized her predicament. Not wishing to hold up the whole processional, without missing a step, she slipped her foot out of her shoe and continued marching down the aisle. No one even noticed. The processional continued to move with military precision. Then, the first man right after this woman spotted the situation in front of him and without losing a step, reached down and pulled up the shoe, but ended up picking up the entire grate with it! Surprised, but still singing, the man kept on going down the aisle, holding in his hand the shoe with the grate attached.

Everything still moved like clockwork. Still in tune and still in step, the next man in line stepped into the now open register and disappeared from sight. The service took on a special meaning that Sunday, for just as the choir ended with “Alleluia! Christ arose!” a voice was heard under the church floor shouting… “I hope all of you are out of the way ‘cause I’m coming out now!” A little girl closest to the aisle heard the man’s voice and shouted, “Come on, Jesus! We’ll stay out of the way!”

Today is a day when Jesus’ resurrection does all of the talking and we simply need to get out of the way. We don’t need a lot of words on Easter, do we? No, like at Christmas, the joke around here at Royal Lane is that for the Christmas Eve service, the only thing we need to do is simply shout, “It’s a boy!” and then go home. And the same is true for Easter. What the angelic messengers said that resurrection day is the only thing we need to say this morning – “He is not here, but has risen!” And when we encounter the risen Christ, we no longer need words. The harsh Good Friday words are finished. Jesus already died because of an empire’s execution and now we must follow the risen Christ. Since words have ceased, transformation is now required. It’s time to act, because we have become a resurrection people.

But living as resurrection people doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps and bruises along the way. We see in our Gospel lesson for today that the women were shocked and they were scared. All they could do was fall on their knees. We see that Peter ran to the tomb because he doubted the women’s testimony. This story is swirling with doubt and fear and grief and amazement. And, quite frankly, who can blame Jesus’ followers? Something new had happened in the world. A new word of hope was being spoken. And it was shocking!

Preacher and author, Dr. David Lose, acknowledges this shocking new reality. He said, “I mean, resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was resuscitated; it’s the claim that God entered the stage of human history in order to create an entirely new reality all together. Which, quite frankly, can be frightening. As Anna Carter Florence says, ‘if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?’ Resurrection, seen this way, breaks all the rules, and while most of us will admit that the old rules aren’t perfect – and sometimes are downright awful – at least we know them. They are predictable, a known quantity, and in this sense comforting. And resurrection upsets all of that.”

Resurrection, in other words, throws us off balance and generally turns our neat and orderly lives totally upside down. Which is why if this whole resurrection thing doesn’t seem hard to believe, maybe you aren’t taking it seriously enough. And, truth be told, I suspect that’s where most of us are today – we’ve heard the story of resurrection so often that we aren’t surprised by God anymore. We aren’t changed by the life-giving words of a risen savior. And so, we doubt the powerful presence of Christ in the world and we say that it is merely an “idle tale,” words that don’t really matter. But the words of the women were not an idle tale. The words of the women who followed Jesus, the words of the angels at the tomb, call us not just to hear them, but their words call us to live them.

In the Gospel of John’s account of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene had a word of transformation. Although we didn’t read that particular scripture this morning, you know it well. Mary Magdalene, after seeing the resurrected Christ whom she thought was a gardener, ran home and told the rest of the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And I know we have heard many statements from Jesus during this Lenten Season as we studied and spoke and sung about the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross. We’ve heard an abundance of words this Lent. But, Mary Magdalene’s words were different. She had a new word of hope. She had a new word of beginning again. She had a word for the rest of the world: “I have seen the Lord!” Mary’s words of transformation reveal to us today that resurrection is not a third-person confession but a first-person testimony. Mary personally experienced the risen Christ. She saw Jesus as the gardener at the tomb and that changed her to see Jesus in every person. She chose to see resurrection – to see resurrection in the midst of ruin; new life in the presence of death; peace in the face of war; virtue and value when that which was vitriolic and vile and vicious seemed as if it had way more followers than Jesus. She saw hope! She saw the Lord!

New Testament Scholar, Karoline Lewis agrees. She notes that “‘I have seen the Lord’ insists that the ways of love will win over the ways of hate. ‘I have seen the Lord’ confirms that the truth of kindness can be heard over the din of ruthless, callous, and vindictive rhetoric. ‘I have seen the Lord’ gives witness to the fact that there is another way of being in the world – a way of being that is shaped by resurrection, that embodies anything and everything that is life-giving, a way of being that is so counter-cultural, so demonstrative of mercy, so exemplary of the truth of Easter that others will listen to you, watch you, wonder about you and say, ‘Wait a minute. Did I just see the Lord?’” And that’s true! Because when we see the Lord, when we experience and are transformed by the resurrected Christ, we reveal the true word of Easter. We give a new word of beginning!

Prominent DFW Methodist minister, Dr. Leighton Farrell knew that seeing Jesus is at the core of the good word of Easter. He said, “Easter proclaims that at the heart of the universe is not just something, but Someone. That Someone is God and God cares about us and God loves us. Easter proclaims good news about God. Easter proclaims that the world is not just a gigantic machine shop filled with machinery that rusts and wears out and is cast upon the scrap heap. Easter proclaims that the world is not just a whirling ball in space that is spinning around and going nowhere. Easter proclaims that the world is not just a stream of frustrating days and endless nights. No, Easter proclaims the good news of God’s love. Easter proclaims the good news that God’s love is the ultimate power in the universe and that God sent that love to us in Jesus Christ, crucified yet risen. He is here! He is risen, just as he said he would.”

And that’s the new word for us this Easter Sunday. Easter proclaims that the Word of God, the Word made flesh, the one who had the last word, is also a word of beginning. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” You see, word and beginning go together. New things are begun with a word. Life began at creation with a word from God. The words of God are meant to bring life and a thriving spirit. And if the words do not do that, then they are not God’s words.

Perhaps the French poet, Victor Hugo, said it best. Near the close of his life, when he had accomplished a great deal, he said: “For half a century I have been putting my thoughts in prose and in verse. History, philosophy, drama, romance, tradition, satire, ode, and song – I’ve tried them all. But, I feel I’ve not said yet a thousandth part of what is in me. When I go to the grave I can say like so many others, ‘I have finished my life,’ but I cannot say I have finished my work. My day’s work will begin anew the next morning. My tomb is not a blind alley, it is a thoroughfare. It closes in the twilight only to open to the dawn.”

Jesus said as much from the cross. We spent seven weeks living with Jesus’ words as he was dying on that cross. But all of those words of desperation and loneliness and despair were not all that Jesus experienced. Like Victor Hugo, the things Jesus said and did weren’t all the life and purpose that was left in him. He had not finished his work. Jesus’ tomb was not a blind alley but a thoroughfare open to the dawn of a new beginning, a new word of life continued through each of us, you and me. We might feel burdened by the heaviness of the night, by the enclosed tomb, by the pains of death. But a dawn of hope awaits us, just as it did Jesus. As resurrection people, we are reminded today that we are the vessels of the words of Jesus, we have the words of life.

But we are often like those early followers of Jesus. You see, the disciples forgot Jesus’ words. His followers were in shambles. They felt helpless and hopeless, discouraged and disillusioned. All they could remember were Jesus’ seven last words from the cross that caused them to feel that their leader, their friend, their savior was gone forever. They were a broken band of brothers and sisters. They believed that Jesus’ words of death were his final words. But the women who went to the tomb heard a new seven words from the messengers of God. Those words were not his words of agony from the cross. No, they heard another seven words, the words “He is not here, but has risen!” And that changed everything.

The broken disciples became strong and bold. They knew that the resurrection of Christ would bring a new hope to the world. Why? Because “he is not here, but has risen!” How did the words of death become words of life? Because “he is not here, but has risen!” How do we, as followers of the resurrected one, face tomorrow with strength and resolve? Because “he is not here, but has risen!” We have a new word of beginning this morning, a new word that will carry us out into the world. Because “he is not here, but has risen!” These are the words that will sustain us this year, when the medical bills come in, when the petty fights happen, when war and rumors of war whisper in the air, when life feels overwhelming and out of control, you can know you are a resurrected people, people given new life. Because “he is not here, but has risen!”

Friends, we need to hear and believe a new word from God today. We need to realize that after all of the pain, the isolation, the thirst, the resignation from the cross, that Jesus has a new word for each and every one of us. Jesus wants us to know that when grief is at its worst and fear is at its greatest, when the only thing we can think of doing is falling down on our knees in fatigue and in fright and in foreboding, we must lift up our heads and see that the tomb is empty. We need to remember that Jesus took upon himself all of humanity, all human hurts and all human sufferings, so that we could live into a new word from Christ, we could live into a new word of beginning. A word that said the empty tomb wasn’t the end. Hear me say that again. The empty tomb wasn’t the end! It was a new word of beginning! And we need that new word today.

When words are used to attack people, to sling spiteful shots across social media, to make groups of people appear as if they are animals, to build walls between one another, and to maintain cruel power, we must remember that Jesus took those words upon himself. All of those times when you have felt alone and that you have nobody in your life, Jesus took those words upon himself. All those times when your friend betrayed your trust and gossiped about you, Jesus took those words upon himself. All those times when you looked in the mirror and the only word you could think of was “ugly,” Jesus took those words upon himself. All those times when the doctor said that there was nothing else he could do for your loved one who was dying, Jesus took those words upon himself. All of the negativity and pain and hate and fear and failure, Jesus took those words. Jesus took those words, nailed them to the cross, wrapped them in burial linens, and sealed them in the tomb. Those words no longer have power over you. Those words are dead. And in the place of those words, Jesus resurrected a new word of beginning. We must lean into a new vocabulary that uplifts and revives us, that uplifts and revives and resurrects the world. Because we are indeed a resurrection people.

And that is why Easter is important. Easter reminds us every year that the old and hurtful and negative words have died and the new words of hope and the new words of love can rise again. And it isn’t an “idle tale.” The resurrected hope of Jesus isn’t a nice story. No, it is a transformational word for us today that we can all begin again, that we can bring a positive word of hope to our hurting world. So, get up off of your tired knees, Church! Know that Jesus has taken all of the bad words of this world and sealed them in the tomb. Know that we must bring a new word of beginning for all people, a word of renewed hope and renewed love. It is time for a new word, friends. Go, and be that new word of beginning in the world. Go! He is not here, but has risen.