The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A " NO SURPRISES" EASTER

Delivered 4/8/07
Text: John 20:1-18 ; Lamentations 3:19-24
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Do you know the name Edmund Steimle? For years he was the Lutheran preacher on radio's The Protestant Hour. GOOD preacher. I am told that, late in his life, Pastor Steimle was preparing a sermon Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. His text was from Lamentations, Chapter 3. We read it just a bit ago: "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning..." As he explored the passage Steimle quipped, "At my age, this promise of newness every morning is at best a mixed blessing. I have come to the point in life when I really don't want anything new in the morning. I want my slippers right beneath my bed where I left them the night before. I want my orange juice and bran flakes for breakfast, as normal. In my advanced years, I can do without a lot of newness, especially in the morning." (1) Boy, can I say AMEN to that! You too?

I would not be surprised to hear that millions who gather for worship on Easter morning around the world are echoing at least PART of that sentiment. I suspect that the appeal of an Easter day is that the story is so consistent and has been from the beginning. The last thing we would expect as we listen to the gospel lesson for the day would be

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. With great fear and trembling she looked inside and there saw the body of Jesus as it had been prepared prior to the sabbath. Her eyes filled with tears, she took the spices she had brought for anointing, laid them about the body, then returned to the disciples to inform them and ask that the stone be rolled again in front of the tomb. With great sadness, they returned to the garden, replaced the stone, then each returned to his own home.

"The word of the Lord...Thanks be to God." HA! Are you kidding me? No, that is NOT what we have come to hear. NO SURPRISES! The old story of the resurrection with the women coming to the tomb, finding the stone rolled away and angels sitting inside beside where the body used to be, saying "SURPRISE"...THAT is what we want. Even for those who never show up except at Christmas or Easter, who think the only decorations the church has are poinsettias and Easter lilies, and think the only music the church knows are "Joy to the World" and "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today," THAT is the story they have come to hear as well.

Of course, depending upon to whom we listen, there is always the opportunity for surprise. For example, you have no doubt heard about the recent discovery of the Jesus Family Tomb. According to news reports,

New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world's foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah. The DNA findings, alongside statistical conclusions made about the artifacts -- originally excavated in 1980 -- open a potentially significant chapter in Biblical archaeological history." (2)

A documentary presenting the evidence, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," was presented on the Discovery Channel last month. What is giving the piece credibility is the fact that the Executive Producer is James Cameron, the same James Cameron who gave the world Leonardo DiCaprio and "Titanic" - "I'm king of the world." I am not sure how being a wealthy film maker establishes someone as an expert in Biblical archeology, so I will leave that to larger minds than mine. And I thought DNA evidence required something to which to compare results, so where did they come up with DNA from Jesus to arrive at their conclusions?

There are some tantalizing elements, including an ossuary (a bone box) marked "Jesus, son of Joseph" plus some others marked with familiar names from the family of Jesus. One wag has suggested that some other tell-tale clues have been found as well including several pairs of hardly worn women's dress shoes [that Cameron swears are "size 7½ - Mary Magdalene's shoe size!"]; a baseball cap labeled "World's Greatest Dad" with a handwritten note inscribed: "Yo, Pops - Happy Father's Day (signed) Jesus, Jr;" an unused bumper sticker that, translated from the original Aramaic, reads: "Our Boy Is An Honor Student At Jerusalem High;" and finally, a small woven bracelet with the letters sown in reading "W-W-I-D." WOW! Well, that settles it for me. How about you?

Not quite? True, scholars have some objections, the strongest of which is that names like Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not just common names in first-century Palestine, but the most common, according to experts, including the Israeli archeologist Amos Kloner, who supervised the first excavation of the site back in 1980. Stephen Pfann, who is a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land, even cast doubt that the name on the box was "Jesus," saying that ancient Aramaic is notoriously difficult to decipher, and in this particular case, is "clumsily carved and badly slashed." And then there is the question of location - if Jesus family had a plot, it would have been in Galilee, not Jerusalem. (3) Uh-huh.

Well, enough about that. There will be no surprises here. The truth is this is left to an issue of faith. Through the years there have been attempts to offer this or that proof either in favor of or in denial of the resurrection of Jesus. None of them are entirely convincing. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith - you either believe the biblical account or you do not. For me, after more years of hearing the old, old story than I care to admit, I choose to believe.

All the resurrection texts are reassuringly familiar. There are some differences in detail between them but that is to be expected. In fact, if all were exactly alike, we might suspect some collusion between the writers to "get the story straight."

All the gospels do agree that Mary Magdalene was among the first to visit the abandoned grave. Arriving at the tomb before dawn, her mind is fogged by her grief and despair. Seeing the great stone rolled away and the tomb empty further intensifies her anguish and sends her running for help from her friends. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"

We have heard this story often enough so that it truly does not surprise us, but try to put yourself in her place. Your friend has died. You watched it. The body was taken to the Funeral Home for preparation prior to the service. You return prior to the public viewing, are greeted by the Funeral Director who stammers, "Uh, I don't know how to say this, but we have a problem. Come with me." He takes you back to the embalming room, points to the casket and, instead of your friend lying there, all you see is the suit in which he was to be buried, lying limp like a glove that has just been removed, with the Bible that was to be placed in his hands sitting on top. The body is gone. What would you think?

Simon Peter and the unnamed "Beloved Disciple" (which tradition has presumed to be John) race to the tomb. There are the grave clothes and, off to the side, the linen head shroud, carefully folded up. What grave robbers would have bothered to do that? They are at a loss to explain anything but, as the lesson has it, "John" saw and believed. But the lesson adds, "They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead." So they went back home.

Mary stayed behind. She was crying. Through her tears she sees the angels. She hears them ask why the tears and responds, "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him." She turns around, encounters Jesus, but does not recognize him.

An aside here. Have you ever wondered what Jesus was wearing? I mean, after all, his grave clothes are there in the tomb. Did he find an extra pair of coveralls in the gardener's tool shed over by the rakes and the lawn tractor, or what? Don't worry about it now - you can ponder it over dinner.

Jesus asks the same question as had the angels: "Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Maybe it was those coveralls that made her mistake him for the gardener. She said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Then comes the moment of recognition. He simply says her name - "Mary." Surprise! And the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least the history of our faith.

That Mary wanted to hold on to him is not unusual. We always cling to the familiar, especially in upsetting circumstances. But Mary had work to do, a mission to pursue. She would become the world's first witness to the resurrection, that death, what the Apostle Paul would call "the last enemy," had been defeated. Good news indeed.

It is a story we have heard over and over and over again. It is not surprising anymore, but for me (and I suspect millions of others) there is great comfort in that. Several years ago, The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers. "Compliments of the Captain," the sailor said. "He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you'd still like to be rescued!" (4)

Sometimes life does scare us. Sometimes we feel that the world is out of joint, that those in charge have no clue how to fix things, that evil is winning. But then along comes Easter, the "no surprises" Easter, to remind us that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, our God is still in charge.

Several weeks ago, Lois Conrad (5) entrusted me with a treasured possession, a sermon notebook that had belonged to her late father, the Rev. Dr. Lee J. Beynon, who served with distinction in several congregations during a ministry that spanned 55 years. In a sermon entitled "Continuing the Christian Tradition" that he preached at the Delaware Ave. Baptist Church in Buffalo in April, 1942 - 65 years ago this week, the nation in the midst of a World War - he challenged the congregation to consider the question of the New Testament, "What think ye of Christ?" He went on:

All our hopes and programs of Christianizing the world, in remaking society in terms of justice, brotherhood, and the many carelessly flung ideals that fill the world today depend on our inward response to that question...The most insistent and important question for the Christians of today who are eager that the church shall take its full share of responsibility in this critical hour is not what so many are asking, "What shall we do?" but, WHAT SHALL WE BELIEVE AND ON WHAT SHALL WE INSIST?

Dr. Beynon went on to examine those questions and then concluded by quoting the lyrics to an old hymn that was still being sung in that day but has somehow been lost to ours. It was written by Daniel Whittle, (6) a man who reached the rank of major in the War Between the States, and for the rest of his life was known as "Major" Whittle. During the fighting, Whittle lost his right arm, and ended up in a prisoner of war camp. Recovering from his wounds in the hospital, he looked for something to read, and found a New Testament. It changed his life. After the war, Whittle became treasurer of the Elgin Watch Company in Chicago, but within 10 years, he felt called to a ministry of music and he began to write. His daughter May Moody wrote music for some of his lyrics. Some of his hymns are still sung today: "I Know Whom I Have Believed," "Moment by Moment," "There Shall Be Showers of Blessing," to name a few. The one that Dr. Beynon quoted gets its title from the very first line:

They tell me the story of Jesus is old,
And they ask that we preach something new.
They say that the babe and the man on the cross
For the wise of this world will not do.

Yes, the story IS old, as the sunlight is old;
Tho 'tis new every morn just the same,
As it floods all the world with its gladness and light
Kindling faraway stars into flame.

For what can we tell to the weary of heart
If we preach not salvation from sin?
And how can we comfort the souls that depart
If we tell not how Christ rose again?

So with sorrow we turn from the wise of this world,
To the wanderers far from the fold;
With hearts for the message they'll join in our song
That the story can never grow old.

It can never grow old, it can never grow old,
Though a million times over the story is told.
While sin lives unvanquished, and death rules the world,
The story of Jesus can never grow old. (7)


No surprises. In the early 1970s, a certain theological seminary held a conference on the future. Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock was all the rage, and an impressive group of scholars was assembled to "do futuring." They gave well-documented addresses, speculating about the sweeping changes moving toward us in education, economics, community life, and technology. They envisioned the future and described it in dazzling detail. The closing address was given by the president of the seminary, who said in essence, "I am only a theologian, and I have no idea what shape the future will take. The only thing I do know is that the future will belong to a merciful God." Years later when this seminary president retired, he was cleaning out his office and ran across the files from this conference. He re-read the papers, reviewing now with hindsight all of the brave predictions of the future. "You know," he said, "I was the only one who was right!" (8)

It can never grow old, it can never grow old,
Though a million times over the story is told.
While sin lives unvanquished, and death rules the world,
The story of Jesus can never grow old.


Have a Happy "no surprises" Easter.

Amen!

1. Quoted by Tom Long, "Growing Old and Wise on Easter," Journal for Preachers, Easter 2001, pp. 33-40

2. Jennifer Viegas, "Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found," April 1, 2007 "http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/02/25/tomb_arc.html?category=archaeology&guid=20070225073000

3. James Martin, "Does Jesus' "tomb" mean the end of faith?," The Presbyterian Outlook, March 19, 2007, p. 14

4. J. W. Moore, "Some Things Are Too Good Not To Be True," Dimensions, 1994, p. 80

5. A long-time member of First Presbyterian and still active in the choir with a wonderful voice after many, many years of service.

6. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/w/h/i/whittle_dw.htm

7. Daniel W. Whittle, 1900

8. Tom Long, ibid.

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