Easter C Sermon (1998)

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 24:1-12;
Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 15:19-26

A SONRISE STORY

I’d like to tell you a sort of prehistoric sunrise story. The Easter story we hear again this morning took place not only literally at dawn, but also at the dawn of a new creation. God was beginning something totally new. This is such an important part of our Easter faith: that Jesus rising from the grave wasn’t just a resurrection, a resuscitation from the dead, but it was also God the Creator doing something completely new. Now, to begin to understand what that was, I think you have to go back to the dawn of the first creation, the original creation. You have to go back to the sun rising on our first human ancestors. The essential Easter question, then, is this: What went wrong at that first dawning of creation, that God had to bring about the dawning of a new creation on that first Easter morn?

Two things went wrong, which we can actually see in the Genesis stories. The first thing that went wrong begins with the fact that we are created in God’s image. In other words, we are created with abilities to image or imitate God. We have the ability to share God’s desires for Creation and for ourselves. This wasn’t wrong, of course, but something happened. The story of the first man and woman in the garden shows us that instead of following God’s desires we started following each other’s desires. The woman imitated the serpent’s desire, and the man imitated the woman’s, going against God’s desire. This is the first thing that went wrong at that first sunrise: we were created to imitate God’s desires, but instead we imitate each other’s.

Now, there’s a very basic problem which arises when we imitate each other’s desires. Sooner or later — and it’s usually sooner rather than later — we end up going for the same object of desire. The problem is: who gets it? If we imitate each other’s desire for the same object, who’s entitled to it. We both want it, so who gets it? It’s pretty clear that this first thing that went wrong leads to a second thing: we fight over it. Instead of following God’s desire, we followed each other’s desires, and so we descend into rivalry, envy, and conflict. Eventually, it leads even to murder. It’s all right there in the Genesis stories. We were created in God’s image. But instead the serpent tricked the first man and woman into imaging each other’s desires. Before you know it, their first two sons are trapped in rivalry, and the writer of Genesis tells us this:

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? …Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. (Genesis 4:6-8)

And the tragic thing is that we are all descendants of Cain, following in his footsteps. We can’t seem to get out of the rut of envy and violence. We still have a hard time turning our ability to imitate to God’s desires rather than to each other’s desires. Ever since that dawning of the first day, we’ve seemed stuck in imitating Cain, and we can’t seem to get away from it. Even in this century of mind-boggling technological and scientific advances, all that it seems to have bequeathed us are ways to kill each other in greater masses. This has been by far the bloodiest century ever. And with less than two years to go before the next millennium, do you see any signs of great decrease in the violence. Or does it seem to be getting even wilder, and ever more random, and bewilderingly more senseless. Like the thirteen year old girl killed by a stray bullet in her own house this week in Milwaukee. Or the two middle school boys opening fire on teachers and classmates in Arkansas a couple weeks ago.

Even when we do our best to stop the violence, we most often use violence to do it, don’t we? This is best symbolized by the prescribed ritual for the high day of atonement in the Jewish faith. Yom Kippur is still the highest festival day in the Jewish calendar. They don’t actually do the ritual anymore. They just read about it, and other readings and prayers for forgiveness has grown up around it. The original ritual, practiced right up until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, thirty years after the first Easter, called for two goats. One goat was ritually sacrificed; the other goat had all the sins of the community symbolically heaped on its back, and then it was chased out into the desert to die. Yes, it’s where we get the word “scapegoat” from. All those sins heaped on its back? Obviously, it was the sins of envy and violence, focused on the back of these poor animals.

Before we scoff at it, though, we need to realize that, in its day, it worked! In modern psychological lingo, it provided an effective catharsis, a venting of strong emotions that would otherwise be vented at someone closer to us, perhaps even a loved one. What are our tools for catharsis now? How do we release the feelings of envy and violence? Nintendo? Schwartzenegger movies? Football? $100/hour therapy? Good ol’ time religion with its updated, symbolic forms of sacrifice? And are they working well enough to release all those pent-up feelings of anger and resentment that has become dry tinder for all the violence?

Well, that’s the first sunrise story, the dawn of humanity, where two things went wrong: first, we took to imitating each other instead of the Creator in whose image we are made. Second, we descended into rivalry and violence in such a way that the only way we’ve been able to figure out to stop the violence is to use more of it, and so the violence never goes away.

Ah, but then there’s the Sonrise that we celebrate today, the dawn of a new creation with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God had to intervene decisively, in order to give us the possibility of a new start. Now, this wasn’t the same God who had asked anyone to do a sacrifice for him. This wasn’t the same God who had ever asked anyone to do violence of any kind to stop the violence. That’s our solution, remember? And, when we had made the first mistake of not following in the image of the true God our Creator, when we made the mistake of imaging after ourselves — well, then, we have always been forced to turn God’s original intentions around, by making gods in our image — in other words, violent gods who call us to do violent things, even if it’s in the name of trying to stop violence. When the politicians of Jesus’ day, who also happened to be the religious leaders, when they had gotten together, Caiaphas put it well: “It’s better for one person to die than for the whole nation.” It’s the correct arithmetic, really. When it comes to violence, one victim is better than a whole bunch. A goat is better than your next door neighbor. But the problem is that it is still violence. And so the violence never goes away.

No, God had to intervene with the dawning of a whole new day. God first of all needed a Son who would actually imitate the heavenly Father’s desire, and imitate it all the way to dying on the cross, because that’s what it was going to take in order to show how wrong we went with the first dawning of creation. The cross? That’s exactly the kind of thing we do! We had to see this! But it was going to take even more than just the cross, because there were plenty of human scapegoats before Jesus, and tragically, there’s been plenty since. No, God was going to have to raise him up from the dead to start this new creation. We just weren’t going to be able to see this about ourselves — after all, we had created gods in our own image who told us to do these things, and you can’t go against gods, right? — no, we weren’t going to be able to see this on our own. The only way that would we be able to admit these terrible things to ourselves is if we were forgiven first. Yes, forgiven first! If there’s something too terrible to even admit to ourselves because the guilt and shame would be crushing, then we must be forgiven for it first, so that the guilt and shame won’t crush us. And that’s what the true God did! God raised the one whom we had crucified so that he might forgive us. And being forgiven, we might then repent and begin to live the new life that this perfectly obedient Son, who was not only made in God’s image, but who acted and lived in God’s image. With help from the Holy Spirit, we can at least imitate him now and be his disciples. We can become true sons and daughters of God with him. And it brings us into the dawn of a brand new day.

One last thing. If God started a whole new creation on that first Easter almost two thousand years ago, then how come this world around us still looks so much like the first creation? Good question! But there’s a rather simple answer. When Jesus brings us back to the original intention of creation, namely, that we would imitate our Creator’s desires, it’s then that we meet a whole new God. Believe me, folks, this is truly a whole new God! Not new in the sense of having just sprung into being. No, the true God is, of course, eternal, has always been here. But this God is new to us because we had created so very many gods in our own image, and we still do. But when we get to know this true God through Jesus Christ, we find out that this God is love. Not just that this God desires love, but that this God is love. And love never forces itself on others. Let me repeat: love never forces itself on others. And so God still does not force us to imitate his desire. The choice is ours each and every day: we can begin with forgiveness and repentance to start a brand new day, or we can go on with the same day as all our yesterdays.

The power of that new day is real. It’s here. It’s Easter. And our Risen Lord is here even now to offer us the breakfast of champions, namely, the breakfast of forgiven sinners. Come and eat! It’s the best way to start a new day! Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 12, 1998

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