Some months ago, the Biblical Recorder added a new feature I wish I’d thought of … on the home page, there’s a running list of “Today’s Most Read” stories. I noticed back in December that a Christmas monologue I had put in the Recorder several years ago had popped up as the most-accessed story. Last week, I noticed that a Palm Sunday sermon I had published in 2003 was also showing up in the top spot.
I say that not to brag, but to observe that there must be a lot of pastors out there who are doing more of their research and hunting for sermon ideas on the web rather than in old standbys like Hershel Ford and Charles Spurgeon.
And, I remember how stressful it could be at times to find a new angle on very familiar stories such as those proclaimed at Christmas and Easter. Finding a new approach to a story most parishioners have memorized is not unlike finding a particularly well-hidden Easter egg.
So, for those who might be looking for an idea this year, I offer the following Easter sermon, which is based on this year’s text from the liturgical calendar. I don’t claim it’s a model sermon or even an excellent one, but it may include a useful story or idea for a busy preacher. I included the opening illustration in an editorial for the Recorder a few years back, but not the remainder. Folks not looking for a sermon may want to hit the next button on your “favorites” list, but if there’s someone out there in need of an idea (or two) for Sunday, read on.
The Rest of the Story
The Eostre Story …
It happened every spring. Long, long ago, on the day of the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring, the Celts who inhabited the British Isles would call upon the goddess of the dawn to bring an end to the cold and forbidding winter. Led by their priests, who were called Druids, the Anglo Saxon men and women would gather for a festival of feasting and prayer. Together they would erect public representations of the nature goddess’ symbol, and they would teach their children to honor the goddess who restored life to the earth each spring. It was a joyous and happy time, and it happened every spring.
When Christian missionaries moved into the British Isles in the second century, A.D., they quickly noticed that the Celtic festival to the dawn-goddess occurred very close to the time they traditionally celebrated the resurrection of Christ. Since these early missionaries were no fools, and didn’t go out looking for persecution, they clothed their Christian holidays in the robes of local custom, and thus their celebration of Christ’s resurrection included some elements from the Saxons’ worship of the dawn goddess.
In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea, by authority of the Roman Emporer Constantine, declared that Christ’s resurrection should be celebrated each year on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox, which occurs on March 21. That is why the date can range from as early as March 21 to as late as April 25. By that time, the number of Christians in Britain had grown so much that the Celtic celebration of spring was largely forgotten, though certain of its customs continued in the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
The name of that celebrated dawn-goddess derives from the word aus, meaning “East,” because that is where the sun rises. The goddess’ name was Eostre, and her personal icon, so I have read, was a very fertile and lively, spring-like animal … yes, the rabbit. A favorite symbol of new life then, as in other cultures, was the egg. So, when your children ask you what bunny rabbits and eggs and the name “Easter” have to do with the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, you can give them at least a partial answer, because now, you know something about the rest of the story …
… or do you? As fascinating as it is to learn something about the origins of our Western Easter traditions, the truth is that they have little to do with the origin or the significance of this special day that bears the name of a Celtic goddess, but carries the weight of eternity.
The Easter Story …
Today we look at this day of all days through the lens of Matthew’s gospel. You will notice if you read them carefully that none of the gospels agree in every point about the events of that blessed morning when Jesus rose from the dead. They do not agree about the number of women who were present, for instance, or what they saw, or where they went and what they said afterwards. Details such as this will vary from gospel to gospel.
There is one thing, however, on which all three gospels agree: when those devoted women came to the tomb, Jesus was gone. He wasn’t there. No cold body stretched out in the niche so carefully cut into the limestone. No smell of death or decay. No sign of the one they had so carefully laid in the tomb just thirty-six hours before.
The gospels agree that the tomb was empty, and they also agree on one other amazing fact: everybody was surprised. The women almost passed out when they saw the tomb empty. Mary had a crying fit when she thought someone had stolen his body. When they told their story to the male disciples, not one of them believed it was true. Despite the fact that Jesus’ entire ministry had been about life and not death, despite the gospel witness that Jesus had clearly predicted not only his death but also his resurrection, despite the many ways Jesus had already demonstrated his power over death and evil, nobody expected him to walk out of that tomb.
If you read the gospels with care and with faith, then you know that the tomb cannot be anything but empty, but if you had been there living the gospels, it would have been a different story altogether. We would have been just as lost, just as frightened, just as overwhelmed as the others. We would have been just as skeptical and just as surprised when the women came running back with the news that Jesus was no longer dead.
But, the important thing is not whether we would have believed them–the important thing is that that they did come running back talking gibberish, because Jesus did arise from the dead. This central truth is the heart and soul of our Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus is the convincing proof of the truth that God in Christ has conquered death, and that we can, too.
Look again at the story: After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you”
8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (NRSV).
Such a familiar story this is … and such a powerful one. And yet, every time we read it and let it take hold of us, it tells us something new. You may have noticed something interesting here: twice in this short story, Jesus sends word to his disciples that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee, and that they sh
ould follow him there if they expect to see him.
The Galilee Story …
Why is this comment so important that Matthew spells it out two different times to keep us from missing it? Why didn’t Jesus just go and drop in on the disciples’ pity party in Jerusalem? Why go to Galilee, and why call the disciples there?
One could argue that Galilee was the closest thing Jesus had to an earthly home. Though born in Bethlehem, he was raised in Nazareth, a small town in northern Galilee. Though he sometimes visited Jerusalem, the bulk of his ministry was spent in the rugged hills and lakeside towns of Galilee. The scriptures say that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Jesus had no home as others do. After calling his disciples, Jesus appears to have spent time in Capernaum, where Simon Peter lived, hard by the north shore of the sea of Galilee.
The Galilee of Jesus’ day was an international community. There were Jewish towns and villages such as Nazareth and Capernaum. There were Hellenistic cities such as Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, and Sepphoris in the central hill country, and Ceasarea Maritima by the Mediterranean Sea. There was the entire region of Samaria, where a large population of Samaritans lived in towns like Sychar and Sebaste.
Jesus’ ministry stretched far beyond the narrow confines of Judaism, and so he did not stay around Jerusalem, but symbolically, he went into Galilee, for Galilee was a symbol of the larger world he had come to save.
But Jesus was not content to go there alone, for he had business yet to accomplish with his disciples. That is why he said to the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” This was, in a way, a test of the disciples’ faith–and an opportunity for greater learning.
The disciples needed to see Jesus at home, and to know that the larger world was also their home for as long as they walked on the earth, and to know that he would always be with them through the presence and the power of his Spirit.
If you look for Jesus, don’t look in any tomb in Jerusalem. He won’t be there. He hasn’t been there since that first Easter morning. If you want to see Jesus, you can find him in any corner of the world, for wherever you find people in need, you will find the Savior who loves them and died for them and rose to give them victory over the grave. “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Jesus wanted his disciples to know from the beginning that he lived and he died for a purpose, and that purpose would be lived out in his disciples’ willingness to follow him into the world. It was when his disciples went into Galilee, Matthew says, as Jesus had directed them, that Jesus met them on a mountain and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV).
Jesus wanted his followers to know that they had a mission, that they had a friend, and that they had a home. “The end of the age” goes beyond the finite lives we live in this world, but Jesus has promised to be with us even to the end of the age.
One of the best pictures of resurrection I know is not a Christian picture, but a Jewish one. Outside of Jerusalem, on a high hill called Mt. Hertzel, is the Yad VeShem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum and Memorial. When you go there, the first thing you notice is a long walkway lined by a row of trees. The walkway is called the “Street of Righteous Gentiles,” and each tree was planted by a Gentile person who assisted the victims of the holocaust in some way.
Just a little way up the Street of Righteous Gentiles, you come to the Children’s Memorial. It seems to be largely underground. The entrance is designed to look like the long, narrow entry to the gas chambers through which one and a half million Jewish children passed on their way to death at the hands of the Nazis. Over the entrance, there are large stone candles of varying lengths, each one snuffed out prematurely.
Visitors go through a tunnel into a darkened room where pictures of the innocent victims flash upon the walls, then move into another room that is totally dark except for six candles that burn at all times. The room is filled with mirrors, however, so that the candles are reflected from walls and ceilings like so many stars. A quiet voice in the background recites the names of those who died: “Janina Kuzma, age 14, Warsaw; Madia Novak, age 3 …” As the narrator calls out the names, the reflected light of the candles reminds the visitor that the light of these children’s lives has not gone out of the universe.
As one leaves the Children’s Memorial, he or she finds the exit to be just as broad and wide as the entrance is straight and narrow. The exit opens onto a vista filled with hundreds of new high rise apartments where thousands of Jewish children live and play with their families. “This is our revenge,” the guide will tell you. “The Nazis thought they could exterminate us, but here you see where many thousands of Jewish children run and play. This is our resurrection.”
But Jesus taught us of another resurrection …
There is another home he has for us. We read about it in John 14, where Jesus said:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (NIV).
If we want to see Jesus, we go where he is. In this world, to see Jesus, we go into our own Galilee and find where people are hurting, and there we will certainly find him. We generally don’t have to look far to find people who are hurting. We can find them in our own church, but that is not the only place.
If we want to see Jesus, we go where he is – not just in this world, but in the next one, as well. The scripture declares that he has gone ahead to prepare a place for us, even as he went ahead of the disciples into Galilee – and into eternity.
The questions we ask on Easter – the questions that this text demands we ask – are these: Do we believe that Jesus lives, as the disciples did? Are we willing to obey him by going out into the world to meet him there? Do we have assurance that, when this world’s journey is done, we will know the way to find his eternal home?
You may remember that Thomas asked “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
“I am the way!” Jesus doesn’t just show us the way – he is the way. And he has gone ahead of us, into Galilee. And he bids us to follow after him – if we want to see him – if we want to see that he lives – if we want to share his life.
Now that, my friends, is not only the rest of the story, but it can be the story of the rest of our lives. He bids us follow him into Galilee – into eternity – so may it be!