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More than a Metaphorical Aside: The Good News We Dare Proclaim! ©

“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

tombHow simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel.  A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often.  I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.

He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic.  Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock.  Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor.  Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis.  He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.

I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.

As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship.  Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one.  Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level.  Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here.  In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”

A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant.  Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden, p. 159).

There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.”  The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross.  Death is real.  Tragedies happen.  Evil stalks the earth.  The cross brings us to the tomb.

We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places.  In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands.  Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did!  The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning!  The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death.  The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope.  This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.

Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly.  It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside.  It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny.  It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness).  Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ.  Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word.  It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark.  The dawn breaks on His rising.

The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9).  He is with us in triumphant glory.  In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle.  He meets us and is with us!

Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!

Approaching Jerusalem ©

A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land.  After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem.  As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains.  The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness.  As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus.  The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers.  And then … there it was!  The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us.  Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring.  An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe.  For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.

PikiWiki_Israel_15514_Jerusalem_landscape

from PikiWiki_Isreal_Jerusalem landscape

Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City.  The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City.  The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us.  And yet, we live in the present.  The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.

For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord.  Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown.  She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others.  Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.”  Grief was leavened with hope.  Sorrow was transformed by triumph.  I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.

I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs.  As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront.  There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior.  As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind.  As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left.  Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection.  We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.

Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.

You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001).  There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building.  In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down.  As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop.  He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor.  There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump.  He shouted at them, “Come with me!  I know a way out.”  (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.)  He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies.  Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.

The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs).  Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line.  It was the only way out.”

Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences.  First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing.  Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.