1 Cor 15:19-26/Luke 24:1-12

Easter Sunday

March 27, 2016


A priest found a branch of a thorn tree twisted around so that it resembled a crown of thorns. Thinking it a symbol of the crucifixion, he placed it on the altar in his chapel on Good Friday. Early on Easter morning he remembered what he had done. Feeling it was not appropriate for Easter Sunday, he hurried into the church to clear it away before the congregation came. But when he went into the church, he found the thorn branches blossoming with beautiful roses.

Welcome to this celebration of Easter day. The thorns of Good Friday have blossomed into the roses of resurrection. Christ the Lord is risen.

Pastor Cameron Smith tells a wonderful story. It is about the only white person in the state of Georgia buried in a cemetery reserved exclusively for African-Americans. This man had lost his mother when he was just a baby. His father, who never married again, hired a black woman named Mandy to help raise his son. She was a Christian woman who took her task seriously. Seldom has a motherless boy received such warmhearted attention. One of his earliest memories was of Mandy bending tenderly over him in his upstairs bedroom at the beginning of each day and softly saying, “Wake up–God’s morning is come.”

As the years passed, this devoted woman continued to serve as his surrogate mother. The young man went away to college, but when he would come home on holidays and in the summer, she would still climb the stairs and call him in the same loving way. One day, after he had become a successful statesman, the sad message came: “Mandy has died. Can you attend her funeral?” As he stood by her grave in the cemetery, he turned to his friends and said, “If I die before Jesus comes, I want to be buried right here beside Mandy. I like to think that on Resurrection Day she’ll speak to me again and say, ‘Wake up, my boy, God’s morning is come!’”

It’s my joyful privilege to say to you this day that God’s morning has come.

A father was explaining to his five-year-old son how Jesus died and then arose from the dead. “That’s how we know Jesus is the Son of God,” the father said, “because he came back from the dead just as he said he would.”

“Do you mean like Elvis?” asked the boy.

Well, not exactly. As someone has said, “There’s something wrong with a society in which God is dead and Elvis is alive.”

You know the story well. On Friday Jesus was flogged and crucified until he was dead. They took his lifeless body from the cross and laid him in a borrowed tomb. Soldiers were ordered to stand guard outside that tomb. But on Sunday morning the women who were closest to him came to the tomb to anoint his body with spices, but the stone was rolled away and the body was no longer there. And an angel told them that he had risen as he said. Then the risen Christ began making a series of appearances to his followers, beginning with Mary Magdalene. Listen as Simon Peter gives his first-person testimony to these extraordinary events:

“You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached–how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of evil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen–by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

This is the event we celebrate this day–none other than the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

There will always be those who doubt his resurrection. That’s not surprising. It is an amazing story. Some will contend it is a hoax.

A fuzzy black and white photograph appeared in London’s Sunday Telegraph in 1934 that caused enormous excitement. The picture showed a long neck and head rising from the murky waters off Loch Ness. Photographed by a physician, Robert Wilson, it appeared to be an extinct dinosaur. Some claimed the photo pictured “the Loch Ness monster.” But many people remained skeptical.

The truth is that Nessie did prove to be a harmless hoax. A man named Christian Spurling confessed his role in the fake photography just before he died in November 1994. The “monster” had been fabricated from a 14 inch toy submarine upon which Marmaduke Witherell, Spurling’s stepfather, attached a long neck and a small head fashioned from plastic wood. The two floated the model out into the shallows and made the photograph. Wilson became the front man for the deception. To this day there are people who travel to Loch Ness to try to capture a look at the Loch Ness monster.

Some people have tried to label the resurrection of Jesus as such a hoax. I have to tell you, they are up against overwhelming evidence. There were more than 500 eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection. Were they making it up? Was there some kind of conspiracy afoot?

Former Watergate conspirator and now a respected Christian writer, Chuck Colson, says that it is preposterous. He says that all you have to do is look at the Watergate conspiracy in which he was involved.

He notes that Watergate was a conspiracy perpetuated by the closest aides to the president of the United States–the most powerful man in America, who were intensely loyal to their president. But one of them, John Dean, turned state’s evidence, that is testified against Richard Nixon, as he put it, “to save his own skin.” And he did so only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on–two weeks!

The cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks, and then everybody else jumped ship in order to save themselves. Colson goes on to note “that the disciples, 12 powerless men, peasants really, we’re facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, execution. Even political zealots at the pinnacle of power will, in the crunch, save their own necks, even at the expense of the ones they profess to serve so loyally. But the apostles could not deny Jesus, because they had seen him face-to-face, and they knew he had risen from the dead …

Colson says, “You can take it from an expert in cover-ups, nothing less than a resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and is Lord.”

And that is why we are here this day. Christ is risen from the dead!

What does that mean to you and me? It means more than anything else that we no longer have to fear death.

A Christian woman was confined to a bed in a nursing home. She was ill, and there were times when she became overwrought. In order to keep this dear woman from falling out of the bed she was kept strapped in. Above the bed was a sign that read, “This patient must be restrained at all times.”

Her daughter said this broke her heart. And every time the daughter went to see her mother she cried as her mother asked her to be released so that she might be free from the bondage of the bed. The mother died. The daughter said the first thing she did when her mother died was to walk into that room, take that sign off the wall, tear it up, throw it away, and say, “Thank God, she is free at last.”

There are people in this room who will tell you that they have lost a loved one to death and they miss that loved one very much. There is a void in their hearts that nothing will ever fill. But still, they also acknowledge that death came as liberation to the person they love. Even though they miss them with every part of their being, they know just as surely, that the person they love is better off now than if they had lingered. We always want to hold on to those we love, but Easter says to us that we can entrust those we love to God. They are not gone from us forever. They await us on the other side.

Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic basketball franchise, tells a story he heard of a minister named Walter. Walter was married to his childhood sweetheart, Murtis, for 64 years. The two had met in school, and Walter immediately took a liking to Murtis. He took bold action, sending her a note asking for permission to walk her home after school. First, he had to clean the teacher’s erasers. Would she wait for him? Murtis wrote back that she needed to get home, but that she would walk slowly. Obviously, she didn’t mind if Walter caught up with her. This was the start of a lifelong romance.

Murtis was the first one to go. As she lay dying, she told Walter, “I’m going home to heaven to be with Jesus.” And then she added, But I’ll walk slow.”

Some of us have loved ones on the other side who await us. They are walking slowly so that we can catch up.

Alfred Krupp, a famous munitions maker, lived in constant fear of death. Everyone throughout his entire company was strictly forbidden to refer to the subject of death in conversation. He ran from his own house because a relative of his wife’s suddenly died there. And when Mrs. Krupp objected, Alfred became so enraged that he initiated what was to be a lifelong separation. During his last sickness, he offered his doctor $1 million to prolong his life. But, of course, that was impossible.

How sad. With all his millions, he died a miserable man because he feared death so much. Above all, Easter says we don’t need to fear death.

Rev. Rosemary Brown tells about taking Latin in high school. Her guidance counselor assured her that Latin is the root language for all other languages, and if she mastered that ancient tongue, all other languages, including English, would fall into place. She conjugated verbs, read short stories in the classics, and tried to speak like a famous Roman orator. “Many years have passed since high school, and for the life of me, all I can remember from those classes is Veni, Vidi, Vici — I came, I saw, I conquered.”

What we can say about Christ is that he came, he suffered, but he conquered. He conquered it all — sin, suffering and death. Give thanks this Easter day. God’s morning has come.

Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School, wrote a book about his life as a freshly ordained Lutheran pastor in a little southern Illinois town. One of the stories he tells is that of Buster Toland’s funeral.

Buster was a mechanic at the local garage. His wife, Beulah, drank too much and was high on drugs most of the time. They argued loudly and profanely and bitterly.

One day they were in the middle of a huge shouting match when Buster dropped dead. “Dead before he hit the floor,” Beulah said, at least 100 times to anyone who would listen.

Now, Buster was a rascal, and his death made the whole community feel apprehensive and worried about his utterly dysfunctional family. Pastor Lischer helped Beulah through the funeral plans.

Finally the day before the funeral arrived, complete with open casket in the narthex of the church. The service was a disaster. Beulah wailed at the top of her lungs through the service and the pastor’s attempt at a sermon. He concluded quickly by reminding the congregation that Buster had been a good Marine and father.

And then the congregation moved to the little cemetery on the hill behind the church. The casket was lowered into the grave. Pastor Lischer said the words of committal and it was over.

Then the military phase of the service began. Four uniformed veterans from the local VFW formed an honor guard and fired their rifles three times.

There was even a bugler for the occasion. 12-year-old Mariah Seamanns. Mariah didn’t play “Taps,” as you might expect. Instead, she played four stanzas of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” arcing each note across the ravine toward the mourners on the hill.

It was, Lischer says, “as if her music were a time-delayed message coming to us from a saner and more beautiful world.” Standing in the lumpy mud of the cemetery, Lischer remarked he “could see Easter.”

I know that my Redeemer liveth. It’s not a hoax but the most important truth on Earth. Can you see Easter? We need not fear death ever again. God’s morning has come. Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.