Easter B Sermon (2009)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: Mark 16:1-8;
Isa. 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43

A SURPRISE BEGINNING

When the topic of surprise endings or cliffhangers comes up, what do you think of? I didn’t watched the prime-time soap opera in the 80’s Dallas, but I sure remember the buzz all one summer when one of the show’s season-ending cliffhangers left everyone asking, “Who shot J.R.?”

I am a Trekkie. So when I think of cliffhanger or surprise endings, I think of the season cliffhanger at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third season, which was said to have saved the show from cancellation. The writers came up with one of the scariest alien races ever, the Borg, who capture their humanoid enemies and turn them into half-machines by implanting loads of cybernetic parts, including hook-ups to the brain so that you become tied into a hive-like mind and lose all freedom and sense of individuality. The Borg don’t kill and destroy; they assimilate you. They arrive in huge space ships and broadcast, “We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. We will assimilate you.” At the end of the Third Season, the Borg arrive in our part of the galaxy, they cripple the starship Enterprise, capture and assimilate Captain Picard, and then move on toward earth to assimilate the entire planet. The next fall brought parties — one of which Ellen and I attended — to watch and see how this cliffhanger would be resolved.

Perhaps the most famous and compelling of surprise endings from Hollywood came ten years ago in the movie Sixth Sense. Haley Joel Osment played a young boy who saw and talked to dead people; Bruce Willis played a child psychiatrist who treated him. But the ending brought a shocker that had you suddenly sitting on the edge of your seat, “What! That can’t be!” Here’s a spoiler warning. Since the movie’s ten years old, I hope I won’t ruin it for anyone who’s never seen it and still wants to someday. Cover your ears, if that’s the case. We find out at the end of the movie that Bruce Willis is dead and hasn’t realized it. And neither have you, the movie patron, realized it. It pulls you in makes you want to watch it again right away. And I think some people did. They went out and paid to watch again so that they could spot some clues about why about why they hadn’t realized it.

Well, did you know that the Bible has a surprise, shock ending in one of its books? We just read it a few minutes ago. You might not have realized that this is the end of Mark’s Gospel. You might have assumed it went on, as the other Gospels do, to tell of the Risen Jesus appearing to people, like Mary Magdalene. But this is how Mark’s Gospel ends: “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s how it ends! Some people that Mark designed his Gospel like the Sixth Sense, to pull you in and want to hear it again. You’re on the edge of your seat: “What! That’s how it ends? Did I miss something? Why are they afraid? Why don’t they tell anyone?”

In a way, Mark didn’t have to manufacture a shock with his abrupt ending, because the real-life apparent end to Jesus’ life had been such a shocker. Messiah? God’s king to turn the table on our enemies tortured and executed by our enemies? That makes no sense at all! But Mark’s abrupt ending compels the reader to go back and read it again. What didn’t I realize? What clues along the way did Jesus’ life give us that leads to a crucified Messiah? Mark’s Jesus did leave plenty of clues to try to help his followers understand why God’s chosen king had to sacrifice himself to the powers that be in order to show forth an even greater power in the world: the Creator God’s power of love, which is the power that gives life itself. God’s kingdom of life and grace is breaking into the world through this crucified king. It shocked Jesus’ own people that a kingdom could be built on love and forgiveness instead of military might and vengeance.

But what about us? Does it shock us anymore? Or have two thousand years of hearing, and perhaps reshaping the story to fit our comfort level, removed the shock value to us? Here’s what I mean. Did it surprise you a bit to hear me speak a moment ago about a real kingdom of love and life breaking into this world? What have our expectations of God’s Messiah, God’s Christ, become? Haven’t they become largely expectations for going to another world called heaven when we die? Isn’t that the usual telling of the Good News these days? “It’s Easter. Jesus is risen! We’re all going to heaven!”

Well, if that’s what we’re celebrating today, then here’s a shock: we’re in need of an ending just as jolting as Mark’s Gospel was to its first listeners. We need to hear again the gist of the Good News that Mark’s Gospel proclaims. From the very beginning, Jesus comes proclaiming that God’s kingdom, God’s way of doing things is coming near. It’s coming into our midst, as a matter of fact. This isn’t about going to heaven someday when we die, though we will be held in God’s power of life somehow when our earthly bodies die. But just as surely as Jesus went ahead of the disciples to their home in Galilee, he comes to our homes today. He comes to call us to live by God’s way of sacrificial love right here this morning. God’s power of life has proved itself to be the reigning power of the universe, the power which gives life in the first place. And we can begin living by that power of life right here and now. Come alive! Really alive!

In the movie the Sixth Sense, the first time Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole Sear, meets Bruce Willis’ character of the child psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, they have this conversation:

Cole Sear: I see dead people.

Malcolm Crowe: In your dreams?

[Cole shakes his head no]

Malcolm Crowe: While you’re awake?

[Cole nods]

Malcolm Crowe: Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?

Cole Sear: Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.

Malcolm Crowe: How often do you see them?

Cole Sear: All the time. They’re everywhere.

I think there is much that is good and even brought about by the Holy Spirit in the huge changes we’re undergoing in our current culture. But when the faith that the church has been touting for some time now has payoff mostly for a life-to-come in some other place than this creation, this universe, then what prevents us from becoming the walking dead, going through the motions of this life, with the only true payoff in some life to come? So we bide our time with entertainments to thrill us for a few moments, addicted to cliffhangers and surprise endings that only leave us wanting to take in the next thrilling surprise ending. The next victory for our favorite team. Do we even know that that’s like already being dead? “I see dead people. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead. They’re everywhere.”

No! In our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, God’s way of really living, by sacrificial love and forgiveness and grace, has already broken into this world. Come Alive! Start living by that new way today!

Or perhaps our lives do have a definite shape to them, but they are more like the Borg. We are plugged into the matrix of consuming wealth without an abiding awareness of what that does to those who are left out, unplugged. We aren’t aware of what our consumption does this planet home, this universe that a Creator God lovingly fashioned. Are we even aware that in being plugged into this constant consuming we lose our freedom, our sense of individuality? How much of our recent Western imperialism has been like, “We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. We will assimilate you.”?

No, In our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, get unplugged from thoughtless consumerism and get plugged into a real life of freedom, a life in which you and I are precious and absolutely unique individuals, given gifts and talents to join the Creator in caring for this earth and for each other. God’s way of doing things in love and grace has broken into this world and has begun to refashion it, to recreate it, to fulfill and complete it. Even after two thousand years – but a blinking of the eye in evolutionary time – the work has only just begun. Get unplugged to consumption and plugged into earthkeeping, to mission and ministry in Christ’s name! Come alive! Really alive! The story of sin and death hasn’t left us with an unresolvable cliffhanger, a shocking ending. No! That first Easter is actually a surprise beginning. Christ is Risen! Alleluia! The true story of life has barely begun! Let’s celebrate today!

And then tomorrow? Back to work. Christ is Risen! We have a job to do, serving our Risen Lord with purpose and with real freedom and love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 12, 2009

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