Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Expressing the Inexpressible

Message preached April 20, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon

Order of Worship

  Listen to this message (mp3)

The grown son of some long-ago friends of mine died quite unexpectedly this week, and I struggled to find words to express in a note what was on my heart. Have you ever had that trouble? Words feel so inadequate in the face of such a loss. It seems more appropriate just to sit quietly with those who mourn, as in the Jewish practice of sitting “Shiva,” or grieving together for seven days. This young man’s now-retired father had faithfully proclaimed the gospel for many years as the pastor of several churches. How many Easter sermons had he preached? How many have I? No matter how much wisdom or talent we bring to the task, it always seems less than adequate to convey the message. How do you express the inexpressible, after all?


The story behind this day begins with women faithfully doing what needs to be done. In the face of death, love propels us to action. What’s the first thing that usually happens when there is a death in the family? Dishes of food start appearing. Or chores get done by other folks. The hands of friends and loved ones get busy when words are hard to come by. It was so on that first Easter. According to scripture, Jesus died before the sun set on Friday. He was buried too quickly for adequate preparation, so that the Sabbath would not be violated. With darkness came the beginning of the second day of his death, and until the sun set 24 hours later, no hands were allowed to work. What a terrifying day of rest that must have been?


Once the Sabbath was over with the setting of the sun, work could begin again on the third day. Thus the women came to the tomb while it was still dark. Of course, our varied Gospel accounts differ on who and how many hands were involved. Following John’s gospel, as we did this morning, only the hands of Mary Magdalene are mentioned, though when she brings the startling news of an empty tomb to the disciples, Mary speaks for more than just herself, saying “we don’t know where they have laid him (John 20:2b).


Women’s hands were at work on that first day of the week long ago, their feet taking them to do what must be done, as women had done for generations before them. In the face of death, after all, love propels us to action. No doubt it was hard enough to express in words what they were heading to the cemetery to do on the first Easter morning. Were they prepared for the task of preparing his body for proper burial? No, but you do what you have to do. Love demands no less.


And then, the unthinkable happens. The body of Jesus was gone, perhaps stolen. Can you imagine the titanic shifting of emotions that brought about? Some of you probably can, for you have faced your own heartache. But how do you express something so inexpressible? Mary tried. “They’ve taken his body … I … we don’t know where …?” It doesn’t make sense. Of course, that was the general theme of the day: so much just plain didn’t add up. Racing to the grave, what were those disciples supposed to make of a bunch of sheets without a body wrapped up in them? That was how the first Easter began – with a huge question mark.


And then it became personal. In the account we heard earlier from John’s gospel, Mary has returned to the tomb, following Peter and the beloved disciple, and remains after they left. Amid her tears and fears, she peers into the darkness of that cave of a tomb. Angels are inside. I recall a sister among us recently talking about seeing angels during her husband’s hospitalization, and I thought she meant the human variety. I was corrected. How do you express something like that? Did Mary know what she saw at that moment on ground zero resurrection day? The questions remained.


“They’ve taken him, I don’t know where,” she replied when asked why she is weeping. As she spoke, she turned from the angels and the empty tomb – both of which she did not understand  – and saw Jesus, only she didn’t really see him. “Why are you weeping?” he repeats the angels’ question. “For whom are you looking?” Thinking he is the cemetery caretaker, she cries out, “did you take his body? If so, tell me where so that I can get go and get him.” She was still locked into her original task, preparing his body for burial.


“Mary,” Jesus then said, calling her by name. That was the moment Easter began for this woman. Did she understand? Did everything suddenly add up? If anything, I’m guessing that all sorts of new questions started popping up in her head. She had witnessed his death. She had helped with his burial. She was there to finish the job of preparing his broken and decaying body for the final journey. But here he was standing right in front of her, calling her name. All she could do was reply, “Rabbi,” and want to reach out and hug him.


How do you express the inexpressible? That was Mary’s task when she left that cemetery as the first witness of the risen Christ, according to John’s gospel. That has been the preacher’s question ever since. Easter is not something we can explain, as much as we may try. We may make it sound all nice and tidy by speaking of God rolling away the stone and raising Jesus from the tomb, and that in Christ the dead shall be raised, but in that mouthful we have more than we could ever fully comprehend. Even the apostle Paul, in trying to explain the resurrection of the dead at length to the folks in Corinth, ended up referring to it as a “mystery” (1 Corinthians 15:51), a change that happens in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the blast of a trumpet.


How do you express the inexpressible? You simply tell what you’ve seen, blinking away the tears as you go, like Mary. You say what you’ve heard, blowing away as much of the confusion as you can, like Mary. You step into this new day God gives with eyes wide open, looking up, again - like Mary. That’s how she did it on that first Easter. How about you?


Let me close with the words of the apostle Paul to the folks in Colossae: “You have been raised to new life with Christ (whether or not you fully understand it all). Commit yourself to the things that belong to such a life. Look to Christ — God’s right hand man — and take your cues from him. Concentrate on the things that matter to Christ, and don’t let yourselves get hooked into the agendas that preoccupy the world around you. Your old life is behind you — dead and buried — and your new life (no matter how much or little of it you grasp) is intimately bound up with Christ, and lived in God. The full reality of this new life is not visible to the general public yet (maybe not even fully visible to you, either), but it will be. Because your life is now bound to Christ, when Christ makes his triumphant return to the public stage, you will be there with him, in all your glory, for all to see (Colossians 3:1-4, Laughing Bird version).


©2014 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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