John 20: 1-18 and Isaiah 65:17-25
Let us pray. Open our hearts and still our minds, O Holy One, that we may encounter you this day. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Can there be two more beautiful passages in all of Scripture?
Can there be words more moving?
The Prophet Isaiah speaks a great hope. He speaks what is about to be. He speaks of what God is about to do. Not in some distant age, but just beyond now. In the next heartbeat, reconciliation, plentitude, harmony and peace, sweet, sweet shalom, it is all about to be!
The passage from the Gospel of John is equally as stunning. Sun dawns in a dark garden as it dawns for Mary, that though Jesus’ body is broken and buried, the light of the world is not extinguished. Jesus staked his life on the hope that God’s love was more powerful than hate and that love’s presence will always be with us always. And the disorienting and disarming Good News that meets Mary in that dawning light is that Jesus was right. There is nothing that can separate from us the love of God which is not only the ground of Jesus being but ours as well.
What beautiful passages! What moving words!
But as beautiful as these passages are, what makes them powerful is that they are messages of hope that are spoken to a hopeless people. Easter’s light dawns not on a world that is full of light and lilies. Easter’s light downs on a forsaken, desolate the fear filled land.
You see, both passages were first spoken to people who were in a terrible place. These texts that speak of life giving encounters with God were first spoken to people who feared that God had given up on them. They were spoken to people who were scared, lost and alone. These texts were first spoken to a people who looked out over the world and saw very little sign of any new creation, any dawning hope, any enduring presence of the love of God.
The words of Isaiah were spoken to a people in exile in Babylon. They were spoken to a people far from their homes and far from the Temple which was the home of God. Isaiah spoke to a people who were forsaken. The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem. The Great city was in ruin and a great swath of the people had been marched off in exile.
And the words of the Gospel of John were spoken to a community of Jesus followers at the turn of the first century who were trying to sort out who they were in the wake of the Roman Empire’s genocide of Jewish community in Jerusalem and how they were to live with the continued fear for their own survival.
Both of these passages speak hope to communities on the edge, and in that lies the power of these scriptures to speak to us today.
Let us make no mistake about it. We may have on our Easter best and our Easter feast may be waiting for us at home, but dig a little below the surface of things and I would bet that many of us here know what those of old felt. Many of us here may feel like we too are in a place of exile, trapped in work or illness or relationships that keep us from being who we truly want to be. Many of us here may feel like we too are under siege with anxiety a constant companion as we worry for our future, our children’s future and the future of the world.
Please do not think that the zip code in which we live makes us immune to hardship. And we are residents not just of this zip code, right? We are residents of the world, and as such the suffering of our brothers and sisters around this planet and of the planet itself is our suffering too.
So what that means is that these beautiful words that we hear today are words spoken not just to people long ago. They are words spoken to us too. The promise that God is about to make all things new are words intended to give us hope, words for us to grasp onto and to carry us forward.
So Hear and Believe the Good News that Scripture speaks to us this day. God is about to make all things new. Death has not won. Love lives! Or to borrow words from Graham Long who ministers to broken and hurting people in streets of Kings Cross, a rather rough and tumble area of Sydney, Australia, he says that the good news is that “there is no God-forsaken place where God isn’t. ”
This Good News is for us, but the tricky part is that while we are to hear it we also may find that it is Good News that is rather hard to hold onto. It is good news that is hard to make our own. Good news that is hard to be believed.
We can hear Mary’s story and the words of Isaiah and we can hear the proclamation that Christ is risen, that love is and that there is no God – forsaken place where God isn’t. But, resurrection can be hard to hold onto in the midst of the hardship. After the service we will head back out these doors and back into the world having really enjoyed the beauty of these moments together, but will the glow soon begin to fade as the stress, worry and fear once again descends? And it isn’t it in this gap between what is proclaimed and our lived reality that makes us wonder at the truth of it all?
So a call to hear and believe the good news may be a starting place but it tends not to be a staying place.
Jesus knew this of course. That is why his ministry and the truth he came to share was more about incarnation than it was about proclamation. Jesus invited the disciples to not just listen to what he had to say, but to get up on their feet and follow him. To walk with him and to experience life together with him. The Good News Jesus was to reveal was not just something to be believed in, it was something to be lived.
That is why of course we too gather here together not just on High Holy day but every day. Not just in our time of rejoicing but also in hard times when the way is uncertain and the path unclear. That is why we live every day here as a gathered community constituted by love and forgiveness, animated by God’s grace. The whole purpose of church is not to preserve a belief system. The whole purpose of church is to create a lived experience of that which Jesus lived so that the truth of his living presence may come alive in our life together and be lived more and more expansively out into the world.
The call to hear and believe may be the starting place, but life lived together sharing in the life of Jesus is the staying place.
But there more, one thing more that the Gospel passage reveals to us so tenderly this morning.
And that one thing more is encounter. The Gospel passage this morning is really interesting. It starts out with Mary coming to the tomb only to see that the stone had been removed from the tomb. This sets her off running for the disciples who come running back to the tomb. They share together this amazing experience of seeing that the tomb indeed is empty. And not only that but that the cloth that had been on Jesus had was rolled up and in a place by itself. Surely not something a grave robber would have done. Something more, something miraculous must have happened here. They had this experience together they saw and believed the text says.
Simon Peter and the other then return to their home, but Mary stays. She is looking for something more. And more is indeed what is given. First two angels and then Jesus himself come to her. The life of faith is about a call to hear and believe and it is about a shared life together, but the gift of faith comes in unexpected encounters with divine presence. The gift of faith is to have even if it is just for a moment the veil that between the world around us and the life of God dissolve and to see reality as it truly is to see that everything is infused with divine presence and being. To know if even for a fleeting moment that there is no place where God is not.
Rabbi Kushner, Jewish teacher and mystic, calls these moments of divine encounter “every day, garden variety moments. That if you were not looking for it you may have missed it.” Mary almost did. They are not reserved for the super spiritual or the saintly. Kushner insists they are for us all and that our every day lives are seeded with such encounters. Something may catch our eye. We may hear something that stirs a moment of wonder. For no apparent reason, great clam and peace and joy may rise up in us. Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden on that first Easter morning was tender, beautiful and life giving but I suspect it was not unique. If Rabbi Krushner is correct, and I suspect he is, every moment may very well have the touch of God within it.
So wherever you may be this morning, whether you are struggling or soaring, whether you want to weep or shout out with joy, Hear and believe the Good News, “The tomb is empty, Love lives!”
Come share in the lived experience of a gathered community constituted by love and forgiveness and animated by God’s grace.
And dare to seek the divine encounter that even now is seeking us all.
 Rev. Graham Long AM, Pastor and CEO of “The Wayside Chapel” Kings Cross. Australia. As written in his blog “Inner Circle” released Wednesday 3/23 7:38 pm.