"GO" - Easter, 2017 - Matthew 28:1-10

  In the 12th chapter of Genesis, as we heard this morning, God called Abraham to leave his homeland and GO – go to a land that he did not know. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation and have many descendants, descendants as numerous as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the sky.

            Abraham, along with his wife, Sarah, indeed decided to GO – go with God, go along with God’s plans. And Abraham becomes one of the most central figures in our tradition. In a very important sense, he is our foremost ancestor. He is the first historical figure mentioned in the Bible – a real person from a real place. He is the father of the Jewish people, and thus the father of three great Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We are all children and heirs of Abraham; and the promise has been fulfilled. Abraham’s descendants are as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore.  (see M. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder, p.18)

            What was it that touched the heart and life of Abraham and Sarah – these first historical figures in the Bible – and moved them to GO – go with God, go along with God’s plans?

            It certainly was NOT a set of beliefs – like the Apostles’ Creed. Abraham did NOT say “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth,” and went on his way. There was no such creed to affirm.

            It certainly was NOT other people stepping up and convincing them that this was the way they needed to GO. Apparently, Abraham and Sarah were on their own in responding.

            Here is what I think: somewhere, somehow, Abraham and Sarah had an experience that inspired them, empowered them with a vision, a hope, and a way. That is what moved them, motivated them to GO – go with God, go with God’s plans. They had an experience that gave them a vision to go with God, a hope in God, and a way that included God’s way.

            And if you know a bit about the Bible and the story of Abraham and Sarah, the going was NOT easy. All along the way they doubted, they fumbled with God’s plans; they often tried their own plans instead of God’s plans. They even laughed at what God told them; they were unfaithful to God and to each other; they ran into so many obstacles along the way. But by God’s amazing grace and care, and by their faith, Abraham and Sarah become central figures in our tradition. Faith is what shaped and sustained their GOING.

            So let’s talk about FAITH today – Easter day. Can we GO, and keeping going, with God’s grace and care, by FAITH?

            Have you heard about the two guys talking? One guy says to the other, “my wife says that she treats me like God; that I remind her of God.” The other guy says, “Wow, what does that mean? Does she worship you?”

            “Oh, NO!” he says. “It just means she totally ignores me . . . until she really needs something from me.”

That is NOT the kind of faith that moves us to GO with God, and keeping going with God. That is NOT the kind of faith that shapes our lives – gives us a vision, and a hope, and a way.

I learned something this week about the word FAITH. The Hebrew word for “faith” in the Old Testament is emunah. What makes this word interesting is that it’s the sound that a baby donkey makes when it is calling for its mother. To appreciate this, you have to say emunah so it sounds like that. If you want to hear the meaning of emunah you need to say it like soft braying. The point is that faith in the Hebrew Bible is like a baby donkey calling or crying for its mother. There’s something kind of wonderful about that – faith is crying out and faith knows instinctively that the cry will be heard. (see M. Borg, Days of Awe, p.22)

            This, for me, gets at the sense that FAITH is a vision, a hope, a way, that allows us to GO – go with God, go with God’s plans. We do not always know where to go, but we keep trusting, crying out, that God is with us, and God knows our needs. We do not always do the right thing – we doubt and fumble and make our own plans – but God stays with us, keeps nurturing us, and pointing us to GO the way of God, the way of trusting and serving God. We might even laugh at God, or run away from God, but fundamentally and finally, God keeps faith with us, keeps guiding us, encouraging us, keeps pointing us to the Kingdom of God.  

            This is what the whole story of the Bible is about – starting with Abraham and Sarah and then through all the pages. God keeps faith with God’s people; they keep going with God toward God’s purposes and plans, and God sustains and blesses them all the way. It is very much an up and down journey with many setbacks and successes. But God prevails; God never leaves us; God keeps offering a vision, a hope, and a way no matter what happens.

            Then 2000 years after Abraham and Sarah, a man named Jesus appeared on the scene. He looked a lot like we look: face, hands, and feet, bones and blood, a brain and five senses. He grew up as we did – a child among children, with scrapes and aches along the way. There was nothing to report about his life until he was about 30 years old. And THEN Jesus came preaching and teaching and pointing to God’s promised reign. If you were ill, Jesus healed you. If you were hungry, he multiplied bread for you. If you were down, he lifted you up. If you were a sinner, he would come to your house and sit at your table. If you were cripple, he helped you walk. Jesus was an amazing man.

            But everyone was NOT taken with Jesus. The authorities were threatened and the religious people were worried, . . .  and all this oppositional energy came together and they arrested him, and put him on trial. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responded: “You say so.” But when they turned and asked the chief priests and elders, they did not answer. When Pilate, the governor, turned and asked the crowds “what should we do with this Jesus, who is called the Messiah,” the crowds yelled back: “Crucify him!” What? They repeated it: “Let him be crucified!”

            So the soldiers took Jesus and hung him on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. They mocked him. He cried out. He died. It was on the Friday afternoon. They took him down and placed him in a tomb.

Now, listen to this, from Matthew 28:

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.”

            This is the Word of the Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD.

            What was it that led those women to GO to the tomb?

It was NOT some words they had learned, or information they had gained: like Jesus was “very God of very God,” . . . “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” It was not some doctrine that they had been practicing or hoping for.

They decided to GO to the tomb out of love and affection, devotion and care, based on their experience with Jesus. And what the women found on that Easter morning was ANOTHER experience that gave them more of what they had experienced with Jesus - a vision, a hope, and a way.

The Easter scene starts early in the morning, with darkness giving way to light, at the tomb. Matthew’s telling of Easter mentions an earthquake. Earthquakes can be frightening. So fear is growing on this scene. Then Matthew mentions an angel coming and rolling away the stone, . . . and then lightning. This generates, as we can imagine, MORE FEAR.

But think about this – the angel rolled the stone away NOT to let Jesus out of the tomb, but to let the women in. The angel says, “do not fear; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.”

How do we know this happened?

We are tuned in these days to a new phrase. Have you heard the term, “fake news?” I am not talking about that first thought we might have when we step on the scales in the morning and DO NOT WANT to believe it. We look down at the scales and say – “fake news.”

No. We have other experiences of “fake news” – crazy stuff that gets written and promoted as if it is real, to distract us, to corrupt the truth, to generate doubts and increase polarization.

Just this week, Facebook released 10 tips on how to spot and stop “fake news.” Be skeptical of headlines, investigate the source, consider the photos, watch for unusual formatting, inspect the dates, check the evidence, look at other reports, etc.

How do we know Easter happened?

We can indeed apply some of these suggestions: we can be skeptical; we can investigate the sources and other reports – and there are at least four (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John); and we check the evidence. But there are no photos, no URL’s to verify, and lots of centuries have passed since the event.

So, . . . we mostly know it happened by knowing the effects, the results that followed that Easter morning. Did you notice what happened with the women – who were so fearful and uncertain as the dawn was giving way to light? The angel said: “he is not here, he has been raised. . . . GO! . . .  GO and tell the disciples. He is going ahead of you as he said. There you will see him.”

So what did they do – they decided again TO GO – Go and find Jesus – and they did. Go and tell. Go and spread the news about Jesus. Go and do not be afraid. Go and – with a vision, and a hope, and a way – be about God’s work in the world.

We know best that Easter happened like Matthew and Mark and others describe it because we see the effects – the results. The God who called Abraham and Sarah to go – go with God, go and promote God’s plans in the world – keeps faith and keeps calling others. On Easter, it is two women named Mary who also GO and tell others. And the story keeps unfolding. God gives a vision, a hope, and a way. We want to link our lives to God’s plans and God’s purposes because GOD calls us TO GO and GOD is GOING to PREVAIL finally – the coming and promised reign of God. It is certainly NOT “fake news.” It is the most transforming news that we could hear. Christ is risen from the grave. That means that evil and death that seem to win, do not win. That means that heartache and loss, pain and suffering, as bad as it might get, do not rule the day. God rules the day through the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

            So there remains a lingering question for each of us. What will inspire US to GO – to live with faith – Easter faith, to trust the Easter news for all the things threatening and discouraging about our lives and world? What will inspire us to trust and tell and share the good news of God in a world of bad news?

            What about us? What about our lives? Will we GO?

            The wonderful poet, Mary Oliver, puts the question very directly in one of her poems: “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

            Are we going to remain in the dull and burdensome, the familiar and repetitive, the same ole, same ole – the feeling of measuring our life out in coffee spoons, in drudging through another day?

Or will be respond to the resurrection of Jesus like those who were there: “don’t be afraid, GO” – go and trust, . . . go and serve, . . . go and tell?

Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed!

            Let’s GO! Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Give us resurrection power, peace, and hope to GO, O God, to live and serve as disciples of our resurrected Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans