Easter Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on April 4, 2021.
Well, this is the big day – a day for trumpets and timpani, beautiful dresses and colorful hats, and flowers galore. This is the day when even those who love to play golf or read the newspaper on Sunday morning come to church. For clergy, it’s like the Super Bowl – a full church, a great big choir, and a sea of smiling faces. Unless, of course, there’s a pandemic and then we’re just thrilled to gather on this day, because this is the day where we lift up Christianity’s biggest claim, its deepest truth, and its greatest mystery.
It’s more important than ever to share this message of hope after such a challenging year. Today, we lift up the Easter truth that God broke through the barrier of death to offer us eternal life. Heaven is a reality for those who follow Jesus, not universal salvation, the idea that everyone goes to heaven just for being born, but the belief that those who have accepted Jesus into their hearts and follow his way of love and respect the dignity of every human being will pass through death into a realm of unending love and joy that we call heaven.
Years ago, a man exiting church on this day turned and said to me, “You’ve got to love everything about Easter, even if it’s just a fairytale.” Well, I suspect that some folks will forever think of Easter as fake news. They may think of Jesus as a great philosopher or the founder of a new religion, but resurrection to eternal life, well that’s just wishful thinking. They find it easier to accept a Good Friday world, where marriages break up, addictions are rampant and folks die from horrible diseases.
I can empathize with them. There is, after all, so much bad news – stories about violent crime, deep political divisions, widespread racism, and millions of people dying from COVID. So, we wonder, “Where is the God of Easter when tsunamis, tornados, or acts of terrorism occur? Sometimes it’s hard to believe in Easter when it feels like a Good Friday world.
But the Bible speaks of something different. It notes that what happened on that first Easter was utterly shocking. There was disorientation, darkness, confusion, and fear. Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, whom they loved. As they approached the tomb, they looked up and saw that the huge, round stone, which must have weighed a thousand pounds and was set like a coin on its side, had been rolled back.
On the way to the tomb, they must have asked themselves, “How will we roll away the stone?” Only Mark mentions this worry. Yet, it’s 2021, and we still share the women’s worry. I suspect that each of you is worried about some immovable stone in your life – a stone that blocks your way and keeps you from living the kind of life you feel called to lead. The stone prevents you from reaching your goal.
For some of us it’s a weakness. We’re not taking care of our body the way that we should. We’re not exercising, and we’re eating all the wrong things, and we knows that we shouldn’t, but we’re weak, and we give in. For some, the stone is a moral matter. We’re doing something wrong, and we know deep down that we shouldn’t be doing it. Our conscience stings. We feel it, think about it, worry about it, but we haven’t stopped doing it.
For others, the stone is something that has already occurred in our life. An irreversible, physical and permanent stone has been rolled across our path. We have had a heart attack or received a bad diagnosis, or our stamina or memory are greatly reduced. It reminds us of our mortality and shapes our outlook on everything. That stone blocks our way. It prevents us from leading the kind of life that we want to live.
Well, you may not have a stone like that, and I hope that you don’t, but every one of us has something that we can’t seem to get rid of or roll away in our life. It’s like a tombstone. It blocks us from the kind of life that we dream of living. If you pay attention to the stones in your life, and every one of us has at least one, then you can sympathize with the women who went to visit Jesus’ tomb, feeling weak and helpless, and wondering, “Who will roll away the stone?”
Mark says that when they looked up, “They saw that the stone… had already been rolled back. And as they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.’” You see the tomb was empty. There in the half-light of that early morning, something incredible and completely unexpected had taken place. Jesus was resurrected, and that’s the power of Easter, which gives us goosebumps and make the hair stand up on the back of our necks.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth said that the Good News of God has one little word written on every page – the word “Nevertheless.” In a world where evil and suffering occur, God says, “Nevertheless,” because God can bring forth something good from everything evil, broken, or bad.
Pharaoh horribly abused his Hebrew slaves. Nevertheless, God raised up Moses to set them free. Mary was still a virgin, but God said, “Nevertheless, you shall bear my son and his name shall be called Emmanuel – God with us.” A crippled man sat for 20 years beside a pool famous for its healing waters, but he was never cured. Nevertheless, Jesus said, “Get up and walk,” and he was instantly healed. A crowd of five thousand gathered to hear Jesus preach. They were hungry, but Jesus only had five loaves and two fish. Nevertheless, he prayed to God, gave thanks for what he had and multiplied what was given to him, and everyone had enough to eat.
A woman suffered from a blood flow for three decades. Nevertheless, she dared to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, and her health was restored immediately. Lazarus lay in a tomb for three days. His body decomposed. Nevertheless, Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out,” and the dead man walked forth from the tomb. Peter denied Jesus three times before our Lord was crucified. Nevertheless, Jesus forgave him and made him head of the Church. Paul persecuted, tortured and killed Christians. Nevertheless, God transformed him into one of the Church’s greatest leaders and theologians.
It’s happened all through history. Our grandparents thought that polio and the measles would last forever. Nevertheless, vaccines were developed, and polio all but disappeared. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union seemed solid as stone. Nevertheless, they both crumbled in a quick span of time. A teacher wrote that the certain student wasn’t very smart. He never applied himself, and he had no future. Nevertheless, Winston Churchill went on to change the course of history.
Perhaps, you’ve had a few “nevertheless moments” in your own life. You had a stone blocking you from having the kind of life that you longed to lead. Then, the stone was rolled away. You thought that your only choice was to get a divorce or put up with a lifeless marriage, but then your relationship took a U turn and began to flourish. Your twelve-year-old son was diagnosed with a tumor. The doctors told you that he would die. But something inexplicable occurred. Now, your son is 42, practicing law and raising a family. You were infertile for a decade, and there was a stone blocking you from the joy of being a parent. Then the stone was rolled away. You got pregnant and had twins. You see, God writes “nevertheless” across the dead end chapters of countless lives.
Climate change now threatens life on our planet, nevertheless God’s ambassadors are working to turn things around. Gun violence proliferates across our country, nevertheless God’s servants are striving to ensure that our streets become safer. George Floyd was killed in broad daylight, nevertheless God’s companions are striving to bring about justice and equality for all. The gap between the rich and the poor has perhaps never been greater. Nevertheless, God’s followers are working to bridge the gap. As Christians, we are called to help roll away the stones and to bring God’s great “nevertheless” into the lives of those around us.
The Resurrection is an outrageous assault on our limited worldviews. Easter is a full frontal attack on every Good Friday forecast when God longs for us to have a Resurrection mindset and future. If God raised Jesus from dead, if the tomb was empty, if the angel said, “He is not here,” and if over 500 witnesses saw the resurrected Jesus, then surely God can roll away whatever seems immovable in your life. And that means that no loss, no illness, no failure or terrible mistake will block your life forever, for God can turn the nothingness of death into a victory of eternal life.
God longs to roll away the stone and write “nevertheless” over the Good Friday chapters of our lives when we invite Jesus into our hearts. Easter reminds us the worst things are never the final things. The best is yet to be. No matter what dead-ends we face, we have reason to hope, because Christ is risen. He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.