Easter Sermon on John 20 (1999)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: John 20:1-18;
Col. 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43

UNBOUND FROM DEATH

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. — Rev. 11:15

Hallelujah! Our choir sang this for us a few moments ago, and I was delighted to join them. Nothing signals Easter for me better than Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” In my home church, we sang it every single Easter as the grand finale. And not just the choir. Everyone who loves singing it was invited to come up to the choir loft after communion and join the choir, accompanied by trumpeting brass and booming tympanies. It was glorious — as it was glorious to sing it again this morning. Right to this very Easter Day, even if we aren’t going to sing it in church, I always wake up in the wee hours of the morning, before coming to church, and play the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Last year, Ellen surprised me by having the tape all cued up and ready to go the night before. Ooh, it really gets my juices going. It announces Easter for me. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

Everybody recognizes the “Hallelujah Chorus,” I think. What you might not recall is where Handel got his text from. The words, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever,” are taken directly from the Book of Revelation 11:15. I’d like to take just a few minutes to reflect on these words.

Has the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ? If so, where? Notice that this sentence from Revelation is in past tense: “has become.” John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, writes this at the end of the first century. He proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom as something already come already then. But where do we see the evidence of this even today? It’s similar to the question we raised on Good Friday, when we noted that Christians believe the Cross to have changed everything. Today, we add the Resurrection and can say that the Cross and Resurrection have changed everything. John of Patmos puts the matter by saying the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord. The Cross and Resurrection change everything by beginning to usher in God’s kingdom. But the question remains, “Where?” Where is this kingdom? How have the Cross and Resurrection changed everything?

John of Patmos was already responding to such questions at the end of the first century when he wrote these bold words, that Handel subsequently turned into the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Yes, we might call it the “Y1C,” or the Year 1 Century, problem. If you think folks are making a big deal out of this Third Millennium coming up, it was no less of a big deal to move into the second century. There were just as many wacky doomsday preachers coming out of the woodwork at the time of John of Patmos.

Many Christians were simply running out of patience. They’d had a very profound experience: that the Cross and Resurrection had changed everything, so they were waiting for the second shoe to drop. They looked around at their world, and it didn’t look like it was changing all that much, outside of their own community. Yet they were convinced that the Cross and Resurrection had changed everything. They’d had that experience. They knew it by faith, and it was solid knowledge. They were right. But they expected that it was going to happen now. When was Christ going to come again and finish the job? It must be soon. The apostles were all dying out, so apocalyptic expectations sprouted up: ‘It’s going to happen tomorrow.’ Apocalyptic expectations are basically those times when we human beings are running out of patience, so we think that God must be, too. Many Christians at the end of the first century began to think: ‘God’s running out of patience, and before long, the day after tomorrow, he’s going to come down and straighten out the situation once and for all, right now!’ That’s apocalyptic thinking.

Running out of patience. As we approach the Third Millennium there will be plenty of religious fanatics who have run out of patience and turn to apocalyptic thinking. And they will quote to us from their gods who are even angrier and more impatient than they. A big part of our Y2K problem will be to put up with these folks! So maybe it would be good for us on this Easter Sunday 1999 to take just a moment to consider the Christian virtue of patience as it applies to these questions we’ve raised.

Think of a time when you’ve taken on a special project with a child. Like building a tree fort, or decorating Easter eggs. Talk about patience, right? You could have done it twice as fast, if you had done it without them, right? But that’s not what it’s all about, is it? You don’t invite a child to share a project with you to get it done faster. No, you don’t invite them unless you have the patience to do it less efficiently. But loving children means spending time with them. That’s what it’s all about. So you put up with all the delays and mistakes, and the sidetracks and the mess. Love means you are willing to take the extra time, to summon up the patience it takes, to do things with them. The first thing that St. Paul tells us about love in 1 Corinthians 13 is that “Love is patient and kind.”

It seems to me that that’s how God is. When Jesus speaks of God as his Father, it seems to me he’s speaking of something like that. Of course, God’s special project is much bigger than building a tree fort or decorating Easter eggs. God’s project is nothing less than lovingly bringing Creation from the cold emptiness of the Big Bang to the warm fullness of God’s love shining through all of the Creation. But God is like that loving parent, in that he doesn’t want to do it by himself. God wants to do it with us. Right from the beginning of the Bible, we read that God made us in the divine image, so that we could share with him the task of bringing Creation to its fulfillment.

Heaven knows that that’s a terribly inefficient way to do it. It will take a lot longer. As a matter of fact, it will take all of time. And it will take all of time, precisely because it will happen with our participation and our contribution, and so with all the delays and mistakes, and the sidetracks and the mess. So God has a tremendous patience, to try to do something this way. And God calls us to have tremendous patience, too. Together, we have time, we have history. It doesn’t happen in an instant.

The problem is that we humans lose our patience. We would like to have it be done right now, on our terms. We lose faith. Patience, it seems to me, is the supreme Christian virtue. It’s almost a synonym for faith. But we do become impatient. And we decide to grasp at what God is giving us as a gift — but giving it to us as a gift in time, over history, in a long process, in a constant giving and receiving. And we are tempted to grasp after it.

Why are we tempted to grasp after it? In a word, Death. We grasp after things because of death. There’s a title to a country music song which is incredibly superficial, but it helps to make the point here. The title of the song is “The Girls Get Prettier at Closing Time.” Do you see what I’m trying to say? Knowing that there’s a deadline, that time is running out, is what makes us lose our patience, our God-centeredness, our grounding, our faith. Death appears to us like closing time, and so we grasp after things. It’s the source of the old motto ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die.’ Do you notice where this old saying ends? Death: ‘for tomorrow you may die.’ When we lose our patience with God’s loving way of doing things, we start letting death dictate our lives. Our living becomes a living toward death, whether we want to recognize that or not. Our lives are bound up in death.

Two weeks ago in our gospel lesson St. John told us a story about being bound up in death. The story of the raising of Lazarus climaxes with Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb and telling the others to unbind him. Lazarus is unbound from his death clothes. In John’s gospel, these signs, these miracles, are signs of the greater things Jesus came to do for everyone. Calling Lazarus out from his tomb and having him unbound from his death clothes was small potatoes compared to unbinding all of us from death’s grip on us. We lose our patience with God’s loving way of bringing life to Creation and we begin living toward death. Our lives become as superficial as that country/western song title. They are superficial forms of ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die.’ We reach out in impatience to grasp for what we can get now, and death ends up getting us in its grasp, getting us to live in its binds.

But we’ve heard again this morning the story of how Mary Magdalene and Peter and John went running to Jesus’ tomb, expecting to find him bound in death’s clothes, but instead found those binds of death neatly folded away. Instead, they were confronted by a Risen Lord who had as surely come to unbind their lives from death as he had done for Lazarus. And he comes here again this morning to call us out from our tombs and unbind our lives from death. Paul … Mary … Joyce, come out! Be unbound!

Come out of the tombs of this world’s kingdom, says Jesus, and begin to live in my kingdom of New Life. It’s here, and it’s now. The kingdom of this world which binds us in death has become the kingdom of our Risen Lord, who frees us. He shows us that death cannot ultimately hold us. It’s a done deal. We are truly free to live our lives according to God’s loving, slow, patient unfolding of Creation for us and with us. Our Lord is forever calling us out to live in his kingdom. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 4, 1999

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