Easter A, April 16, 2017

April 18, 2017

The God Plot

John 20:1-18


1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.


One of the things I cherish about the Christian religion is that it’s shaped around a story. Of course there are many stories that make up the story of our faith, but our understanding of God is shaped by this collection of stories that we have in our Bible, and you might say that this collection of stories fit together to provide us with one story. It’s the story of our relationship with God. It’s not always a pretty story. We humans have not always responded to the gracious initiatives of God with faithful love, but God has never given up on us. In fact God has often responded to our failures with new initiatives. God knows that we don’t always do the right things, but God also knows that we love a good story, and instead of giving up on us when we have shown ourselves to be less than as loving and forgiving as we aught to be – God does something that grabs our attention in a powerful new way.


Good stories are powerful things, and we modern Americans have access to some great stories. I know I’m a huge consumer of our modern forms of storytelling. In addition to the standard cable packages of programming on television I have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Audible, and a variety of podcasts. I’m not saying all the stories available to us are good for us to read or hear or watch, but we do have access to some great storytelling through a variety of forms of mass media. I mean it’s pretty amazing to me that you have pulled yourselves away from the television this morning to hear a story that you’ve already heard.


Actually it’s not so amazing to me. I guess this is the best story that we know – this story of the way in which God turned what appeared to be the worst moment in human history in to the most amazing moment ever. The resurrection of Jesus Christ – the story that changed everything. It’s not so surprising to me that you would turn off the tv and show up for worship today. You can count on hearing a good story today. You never know about the quality of the sermon, but the scripture lesson is going to be good.


Easter Sunday is actually an intimidating Sunday for a preacher. At least it is for this preacher. You can’t really top this story with another story. You can’t really build on this event that altered the course of the universe. I’ve pretty much made peace with the intimidation of the moment over the course of the last thirty years, but I have a very vivid memory of how it felt to prepare for my first Easter sermon. I honestly remember wishing God would somehow provide me with some form of actual speechlessness prior to my first Easter sermon.


But I had no hint of laryngitis or any other excuse to avoid preaching on that first Easter, and I think I got through it without destroying anyone’s faith. And over the years I’ve come to understand that a preacher can’t really get in the way of this story. I’ve heard some weak Easter sermons, and I’m sure I’ve preached some less than stellar Easter sermons, but the truth of this story has a form of resilience that defies the power of a preacher to mess it up.


This story reveals who it is that reigns over this world, and it’s good news for the world. There’s a good plot to this story – it’s not a painless story to recall, but it’s got the best ending ever. The man who perfectly embodied God’s love prevailed over the iron fists of evil, and that’s a story I want to hear over and over. What this story tells me is that God wills to redeem this difficult world in which we live, and that’s a story I need to hear every day. God doesn’t turn all of our devastating moments in to amazing victories, but I believe we’ve all experienced enough of the redeeming grace of God to know that this story is true.


God’s love isn’t a factor in this world. God’s love is the factor. Terrible things happen in this world, but God is the author of this story of life on Earth, and in time this story is going to play out well.


Things don’t always go as we want them to, and there are periods of time when things don’t seem to be going well at all, but it’s important for us to keep looking for answers and trusting that God’s good love can redeem any situation.


There’s one little detail in the way John tells the resurrection story that captures my attention in a good way. Of course it’s worth noting that Mary stuck around after the other disciples had come and gone. They seemed to think that they knew what was going on, and they declared that they believed, but the scripture says that they had yet to understand what had happened. Mary knew that she didn’t know what was going on, so she stuck around, and after the others had left it says she bent down and took another look in the tomb. And it was at that point that she saw the angels in the tomb and they asked her why she was weeping.


Mary was the first to understand what had happened, and she was first because she didn’t give up to soon on her pursuit of the truth. Sometimes it just takes a while for the fog to clear and the truth to be revealed. In this case it was only a matter of minutes, but I think the message is for us not to give up to quickly on any situation. The plot of this story didn’t unfold immediately, and Mary was well served by her patience and her desire to understand. It’s so good that she took one last look in to that tomb.


A couple of years ago on a beautiful spring afternoon I made plans to join a couple of friends for a round of golf at War Memorial Golf Course in Little Rock. It was one of those perfect Arkansas afternoons, and I was so excited about going out there to play. I had come from the church, so I needed to go in and change out of my going-to-work clothes in to my going-to-play-golf clothes. I was getting my stuff out of the back of my car and somehow I dropped a golf ball on the parking lot. It was on a slope and my ball was bouncing away from me so I started chasing after it and I tried to grab it right before it went in to a storm drain, but that was a terrible mistake. Not only did I fail to catch the ball – when I bent down to grab it my pocket calendar slid out of my shirt pocket and went in to the drain about the same time the ball did.


Now I didn’t see my entire life pass before my eyes at that moment, but I saw a full year of my life drop down in to the abyss, and it made me sick. I’ve been getting these little black pocket calendars from Cokesbury since I began working as a pastor, and it had become critical to my operation as a legitimate human being. I had begun to keep a few annually recurring things on my phone calendar, but my little pocket calendar is where I kept all of my more immediately scheduled events as well as every other little note I thought I should document.


That’s a round of golf I remember because I was absolutely miserable the entire time. Good shots felt meaningless. Bad shots reinforced my poor opinion of myself. I felt so lost. I really didn’t know how I was going to find my way in to the immediate future. It was as if my life had gone down that storm drain. I was devastated. I remember trying to comfort myself with the thought that I hadn’t done anything that would require me to hire a lawyer, but that was cold comfort. The sight of that calendar falling out of my pocket and sliding in that drain kept playing over and over in my mind. It was an unbearable 18 holes of golf.


When we finished I revisited the scene of the disaster, and it was only then that I noticed the man-hole cover that was set back about a foot from the curb and the storm drain. I had no idea how those things were constructed, but I pulled out my trusty Swiss-army knife and pried up the edge of that man-hole cover, and to my absolute delight I saw my pocket calendar down there. It was about 4 feet down, and it was sitting on a mound of dirt that was surrounded by some running water. I couldn’t believe it – I climbed down there and retrieved my life as I knew it to be.


Now what I know is that my life would have been ok if I hadn’t retrieved that little black book from the bowels of the Little Rock storm drain system. In time, I would have regained my footing. I might even have developed an aptitude for navigating life in the 21st Century and learned to keep all of my scheduling information on my phone. Finding my pocket calendar wasn’t on the level of an actual miracle, but I can tell you it put me in touch with the joy of resurrection.


This story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides me with assurance that things will be ok regardless of what kind of loss we may experience in life, and I’m always grateful for those little ways in which I’m reminded of this beautiful truth.


That experience at the golf course also reminds me of the value of revisiting perplexing situations. I like to think I acted a little bit like Mary in the way I continued to explore the situation. It’s never a good idea to give up on something important without fully exploring every possibility. Persistent pursuit of the truth is valuable whether you are dealing with a cosmic reality or a personal dilemma.


God is the author of the story that has pulled us together today, but it’s good to take note of the role Mary plays in this story. Mary wasn’t someone who played a prominent role as a follower of Jesus prior to his crucifixion, but she played the most significant role on the day of his resurrection. She was the last person remaining at the tomb, and she became the first person to fully experience the joy of the most monumental moment in world history. She also became the first person to tell this remarkable story.


This story has been passed on for a couple of thousand years and all over the earth. It’s a life-altering story. To trust in this story is to trust that we have hope regardless of what we face in life. Unfortunately, the world isn’t ruled by this story. Too many people still believe that there are forms of power that exceed the power of God. This is true of people in all walks of life and it moves people to behave in all kinds of terrible ways.


This world continues to be torn up by people who aren’t guided by the truth of this story, and it’s not unusual for any of us to fail to trust in the power of God when lesser powers make themselves available, but these things don’t change the truth of this story. The good news is that we don’t have the power to disrupt the intentions of God, and God’s intentions are clear. God wants us to know of the power of love, and God wants us to allow that power to guide our lives.


We Christians have a good story and we need to stick to it because it’s the most valuable thing we have ever been given. When you keep this story in your heart you know that God is on our side and that we can deal with whatever may come our way.


Life can get complicated, but the plot of this story is clear. God’s love will prevail on Earth and God’s truth will be revealed. Christ our Lord has risen indeed!


Thanks be to God.




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