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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter Celebration 2012

After the sorrow of the Good Friday service and the sadness at the Rwandan Remembrance, we were good and ready for a joyous celebration of the Resurrection.  What fun to decorate the church with bright flowers, sing songs that truly put a new song in one's heart, and gather with our church family to rejoice.  An added bonus was the dedication of a little baby girl at the one of the services.  Her dad is Swedish and her mom Nigerian and she was too cute for words.  I had the privilege of preaching and enjoyed bringing a word of hope and promise, that because the tomb is empty our lives are not.  What follows is my sermon text.  May the hope of Christ's victory over death be that which sustains us as we walk life's journey.  

Near the end of the musical rendition of Victor Hugo's epic masterpiece, Les Miserables, one of the young men sings a haunting song that reflects the incredible sense of loss he's feeling in light of the number of friends he's lost to death in the revolution. Here are some of the words: There's a grief that can't be spoken, There's a pain goes on and on, Empty chairs at empty tables, Now my friends are dead and gone. Phantom faces at the window, Phantom shadows on the floor, Empty chairs at empty tables, Where my friends will meet no more. Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me, What your sacrifice was for, Empty chairs at empty tables, Where my friends will sing no more. There's a pain goes on and on, empty chairs and empty tables.
Do you know a pain that goes on and on? Are you aware of the places in your life that feel loaded with empty chairs and empty tables? I think of those with the empty chair around the table that reminds them of the loved one who has passed and is no longer with them. Or the empty bank account that reveals the loss of a job. What about the empty crib that reminds some that they have no children or perhaps it is the empty cupboard that signifies a lack of nourishment or an inability to provide for loved ones. These symbols of emptiness point to the deep and lonely places in our lives where we feel stripped, barren, or devoid of meaning. I'm sure we can all name an empty place in our life, for the pain of loss and longing cuts deep into our lives and awakens that aching sense of emptiness that can haunt each one of us. Maybe even today you are struggling with the reality that your dreams can no longer be pursued, or feeling that the hopes you've carried are now dashed, or that what you thought would bring satisfaction has only driven you to a deeper longing and so at the end of the day, even after all your striving and seeking, you feel empty. The hollow places in our lives lead us to despair, and we wonder, what, if anything could fill our cup to satisfaction.
The irony in these emotions, however, as one author so eloquently expressed, is this, “God made us this way. He made us to yearn—to be hungry for something we can't get, to be missing something we can't find, to be disappointed with what we receive, to have an insatiable emptiness that no thing can fill, and an untamable restlessness that no discovery can still. Yearning itself is healthy—a kind of compass inside us pointing to True North. It's not the wanting that corrupts us. What corrupts us is the wanting that's misplaced, set on the wrong thing.” The seeking of fulfillment in that which will only create more longing rather than lasting satisfaction.
In so many ways everything God has done is embedded with unexpected twists so why should we be surprised that he wants to use our emptiness as a means for us to experience the greatest fulfillment that we could ever know? Think about how “backward” the ways of God seem to be: Scripture tells us that strength is made perfect in weakness, that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth, that the quickest way to being first is to be last, and that in losing your life, you gain it. And when we look at Jesus, we see not a mighty warrior, but instead a servant king. And as we have looked at the last 24 hours of Jesus' life during this Lenten season we see that while we fail, Jesus does not. While we grow weary, Jesus does not. We have discovered that there is nothing we can do or say that will ever cause Jesus to extend himself to us with anything but love, grace and forgiveness. So why should we be surprised that God decided that the best way to save the world would be through the death of his son? And why should we surprised that God decided that it would an empty tomb that would become the symbol of that which fills us up to overflowing, for it is in the empty tomb that we are able to overcome the sorrow of death and discover a future that if filled with infinite hope.
The genius in this plan is simply this: That on those days when we feel hollowed out and broken—half-dead, when our emptiness has reached the deepest place of longing and need we could ever experience, because of the empty tomb, even these moments are full of promise. Perhaps our greatest challenge lies in this profound question: Do you believe that if you leave your empty spaces, empty instead of filling them with the world's goods, that God will truly come and fill you up?
Because in the end it isn't really emptiness, per se, that is the problem because when seen from a totally different perspective, emptiness can actually become quite attractive. Think about how an empty page holds the promise of fresh ideas pouring forth from a pen, an empty in-box signifies a job well done, an empty suitcase cries out to be filled and an empty room bursts forth with decorating possibilities. Even an empty chair can signal that there is room for you at the table. The joy of emptiness is that it does hold the promise being filled with something fresh and unexpected, perhaps even something wonderful, if we can begin to see the ways in which God wants to fill us up instead of looking to the world to do the same. I think it is absolutely spot on to say that God made us this way. He made us to yearn—to always be hungry for something we can't get on our own for it is in this way that we learn to turn to God, with open, empty hands and ask him to fill us up with his love and grace. But, we must humbly come to a place where we allow our empty lives to be opened to the possibility of being filled with the fruit that come forth from the empty tomb.
One woman proclaimed that Life is full of empty promises but Easter offers emptiness that is full of promise. Why is that? Author Walter Wangerin explains it like this: “We have a faith that does not shrink from death. The fundamental concern of our faith is both to reveal with fearsome accuracy the nature of death, and to draw the sting from it by the victory of the resurrected Christ.”
The fruit that comes forth from the empty tomb points to the promise that that which we experience here on earth does not have the final word. Christ's death on the cross took our sin away and his victory over that death reveals that no earthly thing can ultimately defeat us. And we need that encouragement because many earthly things will try to bring us down. The challenge of what Christ offers us through his death and resurrection is again rooted in the reality that it is so counterintuitive to what the world has on offer. The promise of victory over death doesn't remove the sting of death from our lives. The promise of forgiveness of sin does not remove the sorrow of sin from our lives. The hope of a brand new day where weeping will be no more does not remove the horrible things in our world that bring us to tears. And yet, we do not believe in vain for Jesus Christ is indeed alive and well, working in and through all situations to ultimately turn the whole of creation towards him. Is it not through being filled with the holy spirit, Christ's enduring gift to us after he left this world in physical form, that allows us to go with God no matter where the world is heading?
As I think about life, I have considered the Easter weekend. Good Friday is a day to contemplate Christ's death but we do so with the backdrop that we know that Easter Sunday is coming and we often can't wait to get there. But what about Saturday, the day in between, the empty day, the day of no service, the day of the sealed tomb, the day of waiting.  We sit with the reality of Christ's death and wait with longing for the resurrection to renew and restore our sanctuary, our lives and our world.
And yet I can't help but think that maybe it is Saturday of Easter weekend that reveals the most important truths to us. Philip Yancey observes that “in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes genocide and war and inner-city ghettos and jammed prisons? Yes, it can be said that it is Saturday on planet earth. And in so many ways we do live out our days on Saturday, the empty, in-between day with no name. And yet, we are assured that we don't have to wonder if Sunday will ever come. Christ's resurrection offers us the promise of a new life not only beyond the grave but beyond the grave circumstances that often dot our live. Christ's resurrection does not offer us a free ticket away from life's disasters, however, it does provide the knowledge that Christ can and will transform all of our darkness into a shining light that will eventually be filled with a joy that no one or no thing can ever diminish.
I realize that for many of you, you want to believe that our Christ really can change our lives in that way but you wonder how to make it personal. You long for Jesus to touch the empty places of your life and fill it with his love and grace. Your deepest need is be transformed by a living savior and you wonder how to bring it home. Perhaps you wonder if your circumstances are beyond transformation. But consider those closet to Jesus, they had to live through a Saturday of wondering as well. Think about Mary Magdalene, who was devastated by Christ's death. The emptiness that Mary carried with her to the tomb is hard to imagine. And initially the emptiness of the tomb exacerbated her grief even further. But then, when Jesus called her by name she realized that the the empty tomb meant that she will never experience the empty places in her life in quite the same way. Because in the early light of Sunday morning, the resurrected Christ appeared to her first, assured her that he knew her and then commissioned her to go and tell. Imagine the change in her life...from being woman of the street, to becoming a first hand witness of the resurrected Christ, to being called to be an evangelist of all she has seen and heard. And we cannot overlook Peter. Saturday had to be the emptiest day of Peter's life. In the previous days, he had been zealous around the table, professing his faithfulness to the death, yet sleeping in the garden, then angrily choosing violence toward a soldier, and ultimately displaying his cowardice late at night when he could not admit to knowing Jesus. Finally, he was scared and absent when Jesus was crucified. But upon hearing of the empty tomb, he ran to it, perhaps understanding that its empty state, might mean that things are turning out better than he had ever thought they could. Days later, he has breakfast by the sea with the Lord he so deeply loved yet so bitterly disappointed, and yet, Jesud pours redeeming love into those empty places that has so overwhelmed Peter. On top of everything else, he is then commissioned to build Christ's church. Peter and Mary experienced first hand how Jesus transformed their emptiness into fullness beyond comprehension through the power of the empty tomb. And so can you.
I proclaim this with confidence because Jesus himself embodied transformative change. He predicted the betrayal of his closest friends, was failed by those he loved the most, and then took on the deepest sorrow one could ever know by emptying himself on a cross in order to be filled with sins of the world. And yet, what we celebrate today is that after experiencing the deep pain and anguish of being alone on that cross, he burst forth with the greatest transformation history has ever known...breaking free from the sin that brought him to his death and rising again proving that death and sorrow and sin will absolutely never have the last word. And that empty tomb promises that you can know the power of his transforming love today.
And so my friends, on this Easter Sunday, do you understand that what's happening today, what lies at the very center of our faith, is that God is ensuring that no amount of emptiness is too deep to be filled with his love? Do you believe that your life can indeed be transformed through the power of the resurrection because God's love for us through his Son Jesus Christ has conquered death? One of the great outcomes of the resurrection is that it took what seemed irreversible, that is death, and made it reversible. That gives us the assurance that nothing in our lives is irreversible. What feels interminable in your life will indeed end. What feels utterly hopeless will indeed one day become hopeful. What screams of hollow emptiness will indeed be filled and filled to overflowing. Jesus' impossible reversal of death on the cross makes it possible for him to reverse all things in our lives as well. What is empty will be filled if we have the faith to believe that God really can fill our lives with that which will retain lasting satisfaction...forgiveness from sin, freedom in Christ, the joy of being a child of God.
Friends, the final 24 hours of Christ's life should change us forever. We no longer need fear punishment, for we have found that no matter how deep or grave or heinous our behavior, Christ's love only grows stronger. We have seen that God responds to humanity's sin and torturous behavior by emptying his son's life in order to fill it with our sin. And we know that God emptied the tomb by raising Jesus from the dead in order to fill our world with the hope of eternal life. So on this blessed Easter Sunday, be filled with the love of God, who loves us even when we are unloveable. Be filled with the grace of God which pours forth forgiveness and healing into the deep holes in our lives. Be filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit who ensures us that we need never know the emptiness of isolation or loneliness for Christ is alive today and here in our midst. The tomb is empty and therefore our lives are not. Know beyond a shadow of doubt that Christ's unfailing love is the most wonderful thing you can experience.
Be filled with Christ's love and celebrate the beauty that is our through our resurrected Lord. Amen.