Sermon for Easter Sunday – 4th April

Easter Day Sunday 4th April 2020

Thine be the glory
Risen conquering Son
Endless is the victory
Thou o’er death hast won !!

What happened on the first Easter changed everything and is the heart of our gospel. If you are looking for proof as to whether it really happened or have questions around whether Jesus was really raised from the dead, there are many resources available, and I am sure I speak for all the leaders here when I say we would all be delighted to explore this with anyone who might want to find out more about this.

Preaching today is a huge privilege because the resurrection is the culmination of our faith. But I have to confess that I have been apprehensive about preaching today. For the sake of authenticity, I feel called to share that these last few months have been incredibly hard for me personally, and I know that is true for so many of us. It’s very difficult to compare pain, and quite frankly I find it unhelpful, so I will just share that I have deep compassion for those who are suffering in various ways. Nikki spoke last week about how many of us have experienced darkness during this time. My mental health has taken a battering, and while holding it together (mostly) on the outside, this has been entirely for the sake of those I am charged with looking after, and in no way a reflection of how I have felt inside.

Sometimes being a Christian means we are overjoyed. Last week was Palm Sunday, and ordinarily we would have been waving palms, celebrating, shouting and praising. It makes sense really, we are talking about the good news. But we are also called as complete humans, which means we are not always bursting into spontaneous praise from the mountain tops. This is hard for me, as someone who is generally a lively, enthusiastic lover of life. Actually there are dark seasons we have to face. We are comforted that we never face them alone. But face them we must.

Jesus’s suffering does not mean that we never suffer. In fact, Jesus very words to his disciples were, ‘take up your cross and follow me’. When we celebrate that death has been defeated, that does not mean we never suffer. But rather that Jesus has the final say. An we are right to celebrate, but we must not forget the cost of following him. As I sat at my desk to prepare, a resurrection didn’t feel very real to me yet. Not that I had lost faith, but I felt stuck on Good Friday, so to speak. It has practically been a year of Lent, and mourning and grief has unrelentingly enveloped parts of our lives, ripping us apart from those we love and things we had come to depend on.

And yet….

The first verse reads: ‘While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.’ When it says dark here, it means that it was early in the morning (perhaps we could say, the sun had not yet risen), but this struck me, in my preparations and personal grief – it instantly reminded me of the darkness many of us have found ourselves in. And inevitably arrive at Easter Sunday, still experiencing. I find it comforting that what is arguably one of the most significant encounters with God in the Bible, begins in a moment of darkness and indescribable grief. As Mary walked into that garden, she had been ripped apart from the one she loved and had come to depend on. The future she thought she had secured. The hopes and dreams she had dared herself to have.

‘While it was still dark’, Mary approached. She was planning to complete the anointing of his body. This is coming from her worshipful heart. In all her sadness and fear, she draws close and continues to serve. I find this utterly beautiful. She is doing what she knows to do, and I expect, like many of us, she was going through the motions and rituals in an attempt to hold herself together when she felt like she was falling apart on the inside. We have to remember that at that moment, Mary did not know that Jesus had resurrected, nor did she expect that he would. He was never like she expected, the whole journey with him had been FULL of surprises. Can we relate to that?

The tomb experience of Peter and John (the disciple who Jesus loved) is very different to that of Mary. Although they did not understand why, when they saw the grave clothes, they believed and they knew that Jesus had risen. Mary was at the same place, presumably seeing the exact same things, and yet she did not realise that Jesus had risen. Instead, she concluded that Jesus’ body had been taken, and this compounded her grief. She perceived this to be another blow to the heartbreak she was experiencing. I wonder if she thought that by taking care of his body, it would help soothe her. I know that feeling. Sometimes you just want to do something practical and get on with things to try and move through the pain.

The different reactions of Jesus’ friends is no different today. We go through collective experiences and all have such different reactions. The events of the last year have demonstrated this in abundance. We react to things differently. Sometimes because of our different circumstances but sometimes it is just who we are. On first look at this passage, you might think that Peter and John have more faith because they almost instantly believe. Their minds go straight to the correct conclusion that Jesus has risen. Are they smarter than Mary? Are they better Christians? Don’t dwell with those questions. Instead, look to Jesus. With these two different reactions from his closest friends, where does Jesus go? The very first moment of solid, physical, undeniable proof that Jesus has risen from the dead, and is indisputably God himself…He goes to Mary. Embodying the words of Psalm 34, ‘The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in Spirit.’

When you hear ‘Happy Easter!’ Today, does that mean something to you? Do you instantly believe and have a Holy Spirit given joy in your heart because you know that Jesus is risen and you know the hope that gives you? I know that feeling – when you can hardly stop smiling – it is such a blessing. But I can’t help but wonder if there are others of us that hear those words today and feel, almost unsure, and then a bit cross with yourself for doubting.
You don’t want to doubt, and you think you should be full of joy because that is what Easter is about, right? Maybe it has been so long since you have really thought about it all, that today just feels a bit numb, and another moment you need to pass through. You know this is not living your fullest life, but what else can you do right now? Maybe you aren’t in indescribable grief, but maybe you are stuck in a job or situation that does not satisfy but you keep going through the motions because you see no other way.

Jesus lets Mary approach and share what is on her heart. He does not rebuke her, or suggest that she should have already known. He does not compare her to the others. He listens. When she still does not realise who he is, he calls her by name. ‘Mary’
Names are so very powerful, and very personal. A person stops being a stranger when you know their name. Jesus knows your name. To hear Jesus calling your name, today – I don’t know if I can put words to how overwhelmingly powerful and wonderful that would be. Yet I know that as we read this Scripture today, Jesus is reminding us that He calls our names.

This is how he responds to us. God is not distant and illusive. God draws near to us. When we consider the evidence we have for our faith, there is usually a counter argument. I personally look at creation and am utterly convinced that there is a creator, whereas others are satisfied that it is random. I cannot fathom that the workings and beauty of this world are here by chance, but for some people that is not enough and the problem of evil is too difficult to overcome. And I appreciate that. But the thing that really secures my faith for me, the rock that I cling to when life feels like a storm swimming around me – is that humanity has been addressed by God.

God has spoken to me, in no uncertain terms. I have called to God and he has answered me. And I have been minding my own business and he has initiated communication with me. This has taken different forms: words; written, spoken, sung. Actions, animals, an overwhelming feeling that could only be God. It doesn’t happen all the time, or if I’m really honest, as often as I would like. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that the Creator has addressed me. And this is not because I am worthy, but because he chooses to. So when Jesus says, ‘Mary!’ I know that she instantly remembers. Mary declares – ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Because that means so so much.

Only God has the power to resurrect.
Only God has the power to forgive sins.
God does this and calls us by name.

He does this when we are broken hearted and we are looking for the wrong things. It is no coincidence to me that Jesus comes first to Mary, lost in her grief. He is compassion personified. It is this compassion, and love and mercy that led him to the cross, where he defeated death for our sake. We are free today, right here, right now. We can walk in freedom because of what Jesus has done and nothing can take that away. We do not need to fear death or the things of this world, when we choose to accept him. When we take up our crosses we are liberated through Christ. Jesus’ resurrection rejects the empire and allows the oppressed to rise up. There is power for the marginalised and paradise for the humble. The cross equals love and easter equals hope. Be encouraged if you are feeling full of joy today, the mountain top moments inspire us. But also be encouraged if you are feeling low today, because the valleys are where we mature our faith.

I’d like to invite you to reflect on where we might see Jesus today? Our God who might be confused with a gardener. And what Jesus might be saying to you today? Is he asking you
why are you weeping? If so, let him comfort you. The stone has rolled away. Demons have been crushed. Prisoners have been set free.

Death is defeated.

Grave Clothes by Steven McWhirther.

You show up, the power of death is broken
Just one touch and I am changed
From your lips my true name You’ve spoken
You’re calling out who I’ve always been
I’m taking off my grave clothes
I’m putting on righteousness
You step in crushing every stronghold
All my sin beneath Your feet
Just one word and You awaken my soul
I trade these rags for who You say I am

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