Returning With The Unexpected"
Message preached March 31,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Luke 24:1-12
When was the last time you managed to pull off a good surprise for someone else? To be honest I'm not the best in that department. But one time I succeeded. It was before Karen and I were married, and before her sister was to have a baby. The plan was to surprise them both with a combination wedding/baby shower. With instructions firmly in mind, my brother-in-law and I drove off one Sunday after church with our spouses in tow. Each spouse was given just enough information to get by. Each was told we were stalling for time; time for guests to arrive - guests for the other sister's shower.
All during lunch and the ensuing miniature golf game, knowing glances were exchanged between Karen and me and my brother-in-law, and between her sister and her husband and myself. When we finally arrived and saw that all the guests’ cars were not even hidden a bit, knowing glances changed to question marks as each whispered what a sloppy job this "surprise" shower was. My brother-in-law and I bit our tongues. No attempt was made to hide a thing. It was so obvious that when both sisters approached the room they pushed each other in. "Surprise!" They were prepared for the inevitable (that a surprise was intended for the other). But they returned with the unexpected, (that they themselves were a part of the surprise).
Preparing for the inevitable, returning with the unexpected. Isn't that what Easter is all about? As a holiday - Easter Sunday is a special day. Coming, as it so often does, at the juncture between winter and spring, it is a day that stands for change, a day of newness, a day of promise. The seasons change ... this is inevitable. The great drama of nature swings from hibernation to growth, as inevitable as the sun which rises in the morning.
Though we prepare for the inevitable, the changes often take our breath away. We'd almost forgotten what the warm sun felt like, or what the flowers smelled like, or the sound of the birds, or what the difference between brown and green was, or what a blade of grass tasted like when you try to make it sing. Though we prepare for the inevitable, we return with the unexpected. Easter Sunday is like that.
Of course we know it's much more than the recognition of nature's changing beauty; and it's more than the beauty of new clothes, specially prepared for this occasion. The unexpected we find in the Easter of our Christian faith also takes our breath away ... if we let it. The unexpectedness, the "surprise" of Easter hits us right in the midst of what we consider inevitable, unavoidable - that which we cannot change, that for which we merely prepare.
The religious season of Lent is a time of reflection, of self-examination. During these seven weeks, that which we cannot change, the inevitable, stares us straight in the face. Lent is a time for confession, confessing our sin, that no matter how hard we try, our goodness has its limits. It is a time to confess that we are not all-powerful. We recognize our limitations. Ashes to ashes dust to dust. We, too, must die. The catholic practice of placing ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (when Lent begins) is a visual way of making this confession. But such a confession involves more than admitting our own physical death. "When Jesus bids a man," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "He bids him come and die." Lent is a time, to die to our own self-centeredness. Each of us, like Jesus, approaches Calvary. The way of the cross is inevitable for those who presume to be disciples of Christ. Such is preparing the way for the Lord.
No doubt the cross was a devastating reality to those who followed Jesus. It was not unexpected. Rather, the inevitable result of all his words and actions was a trip to the executioner. When one challenges the powers that be, one does not escape the consequences, whether it be the power of the temple, or Herod, or Caesar or the power of hell itself. And so Jesus died a wretched death upon a cross, and was buried. The Sabbath approached, a day when no labor could be done. Consequently, the burial of Jesus was a quick affair. There was no time to properly prepare the body.
After Sabbath was over, the women came to cleanse his body with oil, that he might have a respectable burial. Such was the duty of women, not one to be envied. Of course the body would've begun to decay. One needed to be prepared for the stench. But this body was much loved. This Jesus was one who had given dignity to these women. He had also given hope. However, he now was dead. The women needed to prepare for the inevitable sorrow of touching his cold and still body. Death to dignity? Death to hope? Death to love? A part of them would die inside as they properly buried this dead man. Upon their approach to the tomb, they were fully prepared for the inevitable. What they received was the unexpected.
Who knows what they thought when they saw the grave open. Perhaps a greater loss: a confiscated body. They were perplexed, puzzled, not knowing what to think. They stood utterly at a loss. And when these two rather strange men approached, the emptiness of any explanation made way for fear, a natural response. And so, in their fear, they did as women of that day were supposed to do when confronted by a man: they looked at the ground rather than into the eyes of these men, an attitude of subjection.
"Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen." Surprise! The unexpected had happened. Of course it was not totally unexpected. The clues were there all along, if only they could've been heard, and seen for what they were. Nevertheless, the unexpected had happened. A return of dignity and worth, of hope and love. "Remember," said the two strange men, and they remembered.
Of course the eleven disciples and all the rest didn't believe a word of it when the women told their story. Such was the plight of women, not to be believed. But there was enough to their tale, and to the respect Jesus had shown them, that Peter ran off to the tomb to see for himself. It was as the women had said, and Peter, prepared for the inevitable also returned with the unexpected.
In the midst of the inevitable and the unavoidable, the unexpectedness, the "surprise" of Easter hits us. Yes, Jesus bids us come and die. But, surprise of surprises, in the midst of death is an empty tomb. We prepare for the inevitable and return with the unexpected. In the midst of our confession of sin, of our unworthiness to be a part of God's activity in this world, comes the unexpected affirmation of the resurrected Christ, that we are worthy, in spite of ourselves. In the midst of our confession that we are limited, and in so many ways powerless, comes the unexpected gift of a resurrection power which helps us step out in faith into the work God intends us to do.
John is a friend of mine. He is also a perpetual pessimist. "If anything can go wrong, it will," is his motto. For years he has worried about his job at the tool company, where he is a mechanic. It's not that he didn't have good reason to fret. The company seemed to be slowly disintegrating around him. A lay off here, an early retirement there. Ever the pessimist, John has been preparing for the inevitable for a long, long time. Only problem is, the inevitable seems to take its own sweet time in coming.
In the meantime, God has been surprising John with good things. A way opened for him to re-start the barber shop he abandoned years ago. And business has been good. His somewhat wayward son has begun the process of edging toward responsibility. Twenty five years of marriage to the same woman is nothing to sneeze at in this day and age. A paid off mortgage, the support of family/friends, relatively good health. There was more to his story than the inevitability of being laid off, which hasn't yet happened.
One of my great frustrations, as a friend and a pastor, was the struggle amidst his insecurity of getting John to see past the inevitable to what lay beyond. He was spending so much of his energy preparing for the worst to happen, that he could not imagine the possibility of something different. But then, is John that much different from you or me. Like Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women with them; like Peter and the other disciples, we really don't expect Easter to follow "Good Friday." But it does. The signs have been all around us, but we generally tend to be too blind to see them, or too deaf to hear them. Surprise! Christ is risen! Here! Now! Today! He is alive! And in him, so are we. Alleluia!
Preparing for the inevitable, returning with the unexpected. Isn't that what today is all about? May God bless you this day with the surprise of Easter. And all the people of God's resurrection said: "Amen!"
©1991 Peter L. Haynes
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