An Emotional Lent: Astonishment
April 4, 2010 Series: Lent 2010 - An Emotional Lent
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 24:1–24:12
The Resurrection of Our Lord
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“An Emotional Lent: Astonishment”
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
That call-and-response is one of the hallmarks of the Easter season. We speak it – shout it, even – each year as we come to the empty tomb. But unlike the women who came first to the tomb on that morning just before dawn, and unlike Peter, who ran there after hearing their report, we don’t expect to find Jesus there. Unlike the women, unlike Peter, we’re not astonished by the angels’ message of “He is not here, but has risen.” We have heard the Good News. Should we still be astonished?
When was the last time that you felt astonishment, when a wave of new news or emotion overpowered you and left you amazed or wondering? It might take you awhile to think back to a time when you’d really been astonished. Thanks to technology and the speed of communication today, we see and hear so much on a regular basis that it’s easy to become astonishment-resistant. You can go to the movie theater and see photo-realistic aliens and vast, wildly colorful jungles presented in immersive 3-D. You can witness crazy situations just by watching one of dozens of reality TV programs. You can access real-time updates from across the globe on your friend’s Twitter feed on a handheld device. What could really astonish you anymore?
Certainly, some events can overcome the kind of stoic attitude that comes along with having “seen it all.” And most of those are things that you couldn’t expect, things that are outside of your experience. You could be astonished in a negative way – probably not so hard to imagine that. How might you feel if the stock market tanked, or if you found out that your otherwise very healthy friend had been diagnosed with cancer? Astonishment can leave you dazed and confused, wondering about your place in the world, or why things are the way they are. On the flip side, you may be delightfully astonished, surprised and overwhelmed by something you’d never considered possible. What if the IRS called you up and said, “You know what? We thought that since you’re just such a nice person, you don’t have to go to the trouble of doing your taxes this year. In fact, we’re just going to refund all the withholdings and advance payments you’ve already made. Have a nice day.” Astonishing, right? The next thing you know, the government will come up with a plan for health care reform that will satisfy everyone!
What, then, of our faith? Is what Christianity teaches really that astonishing?
It’s not all that surprising to believe that sin is a problem. People in the world might call it by other names, but it’s out there, all the same. It’s a broken world in which we live. There’s war. There’s poverty. The effects of sin even reach into our relationships with our family members and friends, causing damage and distrust. People have a hard time communicating with one another and are left feeling alone. Just two days ago, on Good Friday, this struck close to home for me, literally. In the community where I live, a man who’d been receiving an eviction notice decided to barricade himself in his home with a gun. That led to an eleven-hour standoff with the police. The Alexandria and Fairfax County SWAT teams were even called in to the scene. Sadly, when the police finally entered his home late in the evening after many hours of negotiations, the man was found dead. Did he feel alone? Did he feel overwhelmed by the circumstances in which he found himself? I can’t say. But the effects of sin touch each human life, often leading to tragic results. This is the broken world for which Christ laid down his life on that first Good Friday.
But as Christians, we believe that sin doesn’t have the final say in the world. Our faith teaches us that God did something about sin: He loved the world and its people. He Himself came to be born as a human being. He lived among the people and taught them about their heavenly Father. He died on the cross to complete in full the payment of the debt that we ourselves could never cover. And He rose from the dead! – not undead, but in life that reflects the new life that awaits all those who He calls His own. We also believe that God gives this gift of new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit freely, and that He has sent Christians as His representatives to share that gift with every single soul. We believe that this gift of faith that saves from the power of sin changes us and gives us power to live as God’s loyal servants each day. This is no story or fairy tale; but it is so far outside of our experience, so far beyond what we could ever expect, that the Christian faith should be astonishing!
“He is not here, but has risen.” At the empty tomb on that first Easter morning, this truth astonished those who came looking for Jesus’ body because it was so far outside of their experience and expectation. But shouldn’t they have known what was going to happen? Didn’t they have some small anticipation of the resurrection that we celebrate today? Those women who came to the tomb probably did have confidence in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day: Lazarus’ sister Martha even said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That was the understanding of the old covenant, the covenant that they honored by keeping the Sabbath on Saturday before going to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They weren’t expecting resurrection now. It’s the angels’ Gospel message that brings the astonishing “Ah-ha!” moment: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” That’s when the women recall what Jesus had said and start to understand what it meant, so they go and share this good news with the other disciples. Though the women’s report seemed to be nonsense to the disciples, Peter goes running off to the tomb. And again, the empty tomb astonishes.
Peter’s reaction shouldn’t surprise us. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word that describes what’s going on in Peter’s head – which you may see translated here as “marveling” or “amazed” – is the word for “astonishment.” It’s funny how often that word turns up around Jesus in the Gospels. Mary and Joseph were “astonished” over what Simeon said about baby Jesus when they presented him in the Temple. The disciples were “astonished” when Jesus calmed the wind and waves that threatened to sink their boat. People were “astonished” when Jesus cast out demons, restored speech to the mute, made the lame walk, and gave sight to the blind. The Pharisees were “astonished” that Jesus did not undertake the ritual washing before dinner. That’s the effect that Jesus’ work has on people. What effect will his work have on you?
We do not seek the living one among the dead. We don’t go to the empty tomb looking for Jesus. Rather, we seek him here in the very place that he has promised to be with His Church: the Lord’s Supper. Here, we celebrate the astonishing victory that Jesus won over the grave. That victory isn’t just about life after death: it’s a victory that brings new life into a dying world, even now. And when you and I go to the Lord’s Table, we are participating in that victory. It might be hard for some to imagine people eagerly wanting to experience a new and astonishing thing, something that promises to change their lives, especially if those people have only heard about it and have never actually seen or touched it before. (When is the new Apple iPad coming out, by the way?) Easter is the announcement of that new thing, and Communion delivers it. There around the altar, something far beyond our experience or expectations takes place as God calls us together as His children in the Church and gives us the gifts of forgiveness and new life.
I’ll say this plainly: if you only come to worship in the Lord’s house a few times a year, that’s not healthy. It’s not good for you, because God did not make Christians to be solitary. He calls us to be together in the Church as the body of Christ on earth, as we heard again this past Maundy Thursday. We come together as God’s people to be fed in the Lord’s Supper, to be taught, to be prepared for living out our new life in Christ in the world out there. And by the same token, if you are here week after week but do not consider the Lord’s Supper as something that is astonishingly special, that’s not healthy, either. God gives amazing gifts here, but we can all-too-easily be distracted by our old and astonishment-resistant expectations. Thanks to God’s Spirit at work in us, though, that need not be. Every time we come to the altar is new glimpse of the great Easter celebration that awaits when our risen Lord comes again.
The tomb is empty. An emotional Lent has ended. New life is now yours in Christ.
This Easter, as we go out from the empty tomb, it’s okay: Be astonished at God’s love for you.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!