Life out of death; beauty out of brokenness

There are some days when one passage of scripture just isn’t enough. This Easter Sunday seems like one of them. Today we are going to look at the story of the resurrection and the walk to Emmaus. And my hope is to show you just how easy it can be to miss something beautiful that is right before our eyes.

Each of the Gospels tell the story of the resurrection a little differently. Just who all was there and just who did they encounter, anyway? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m not entirely sure that it matters. But here is what we do know.

The disciples were hiding out of fear. They were afraid that they too would be taken, put on trial, and crucified, just as their leader had been. But it was the custom of the Jewish people to anoint a body with various oils and spices, and because Jesus had been buried just before the start of the Sabbath, sundown on Friday, nobody had performed this task.

So here it was, Sunday morning, and a group of women go to the tomb to do what was customary. But when they get there, they are met by two men in dazzling clothes. And these two men deliver one of the best lines in the Bible, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (5b-6a).

Do you know why they were looking for Jesus among the dead? Because they thought he was dead!

This is no criticism against the women in particular, because they aren’t the only ones who thought Jesus was dead. The high priest, King Herod, and Pilate? They all thought he was dead as well. How about the disciples? Surely they knew something was up, right? Because several times throughout his ministry Jesus drops some clues about dying and coming back to life. In Matthew’s Gospel, we even read this: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (16:21).

The women expected Jesus to be dead. The officials and people in positions of power expected Jesus to be dead. And even his disciples, who had spent three years with him, listening to him predict his own death and resurrection, expected Jesus to be dead.

They almost missed something beautiful. And I want to give you three reasons why.

The first reason that these people almost missed something beautiful is because they already thought that they knew how everything was supposed to go. They had it figured out, and any change in plan was surely a sign of failure.

We can’t say for sure what every woman present or every disciple was expecting of Jesus, but it is likely that they expected him to lead an army of Jewish soldiers against the Romans and take over as an earthly king. Surely this is what the Zealots wanted and expected of Jesus. And if this is the case for the woman and the rest of the disciples, they were so focused on how they thought something was supposed to happen that they almost missed the way God was bringing it about.

We can miss something as beautiful as the resurrection of Christ himself when we think we have it all figured out already.

Let’s look further at this story for point number 2. After the men in dazzling clothes/angels ask the women why they are looking for the living among the dead, they invite the women to do something quite simple: remember. Remember the things that Jesus said? Things start to make sense, so they go back to where the apostles were staying, and they tell these men what has happened.

So the women have found the empty tomb, heard the message from the angels, remembered what Jesus had taught them, and delivered this good news to the disciples. And what is the response of the disciples? Verse 11 tells us quite clearly: “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

Evidently, these women—at least five all together—can’t be trusted. They are just a bunch of hysterical females. Yes, that is more than a little sexist on the part of the disciples.

But in the 1st century, the testimony of women was not considered reliable. Even though there are at least five corroborating witnesses claiming that the tomb was empty and that they were met by two angels who explained what was going on, the disciples almost missed the beauty of the resurrection because this news came from someone they didn’t expect to be delivering good news. The almost missed the beauty because the message came from the wrong person.

Let’s consider one final reason why we miss the beauty around us: overfamiliarity. In Luke 24, verses 13-35 we are told the story of Cleopas and his traveling companion–many assume this to be his wife, Mary, who is named in the book of Acts. Cleopas and Mary are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby city of Emmaus, and as they walk they are talking about the events of the past weekend. They are followers of Jesus, and they are disappointed that things didn’t go as they had planned. A fellow traveler shows up and they begin talking about the death of Jesus and the empty tomb found by the women. And this traveling companion, who we know to be Jesus, walks them through the story that they have heard every day of their lives since they were wee little ones. Luke says in verse 27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

They continue to discuss the scriptures, but it isn’t until they sit down for a shared meal that their eyes are opened, and they see their visitor for who he really is. I love the response of Cleopas and Mary in verse 32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They knew the scriptures. Mary and Cleopas were very familiar with the text, perhaps overly familiar. They were so familiar with it that they almost missed what was right in front of them. Jesus just opened the scriptures to Mary and Cleopas in a new way.

Sometimes I think that Jesus is present, and we don’t even realize it. James 1:17 tells us that every good and perfect gift is from above, and I believe that to be true. So even when Jesus isn’t specifically named or seen, if there is something good, it is from God. Sometimes, we just need to have our eyes opened to see it.

For instance, it is easy to see nothing but bad things in this world. Even as I watch NCAA basketball, I am reminded of death, as it is obvious to basketball fans that Craig Sager is not reporting from the sidelines because his cancer has returned and he only has a few months to live.

My daughter had a birthday this week, and Sonya stayed up late making cupcakes one day because our little girl wanted lady bug cupcakes to take to share at preschool. And as I picked her up from school the next day, I heard one mother complaining because they gave her daughter an unhealthy snack. You’re welcome.

And then there are terrorist attacks in Belgium, human beings are treating each other like animals. If you want bad news, it is available to you at the flick of a switch or the click of a mouse.

With so much ugliness in the world, it is not surprising that we as a nation seem to be getting less happy, maybe even clinically depressed in some cases. Even in the church, one of our most prominent symbols is actually a method of death and torture.

Think about that for a second. We have made the cross into something very commonplace. We wear them around our necks, tattoo them upon our arms, and display them at the front of our sanctuaries. Think about the modern-day equivalent of a cross. The cross was used to punish people who committed crimes in a public fashion as a warning to others. This was punishment to the point of death. Perhaps the closest thing that we have today to the cross is the electric chair, the hangman’s noose, the firing squad, or the lethal injection.

I’ve never seen anyone with a symbol of an electric chair around their neck. It is ugly, it is a symbol of suffering and punishment. So why do we wear crosses and decorate our houses, bodies, and churches with them?

Because Jesus redeemed the ugliness of the cross and made it into something beautiful.

Likewise, Jesus can redeem the ugliness of this world and make something beautiful out of it, out of us.

This week I saw a video of a young man driving his car. Maybe “driving” isn’t the right word, because often he was stuck in traffic, or slowed down because of the congestion. I don’t like traffic, and I despise sitting still on the freeway. I’ve been stuck on 81 between Lexington and Staunton when all three lanes pointing north look like a parking lot. It…is…frustrating!

So what did this guy do as he was sitting in traffic, or plodding along, weaving around other vehicles? He rolled down the windows, and he sang to the people. And not just anything, he sang, “Build me up, buttercup” at the top of his lungs.

Some people responded poorly, which is why I won’t be showing the video in church. Others gestured for him to sing louder, cupping their ears. Many people sang along. And one gentleman really got into, singing a duet with the original singer, going back and forth, “build me up/build me up, buttercup, don’t break my heart.”

There is beauty all around us, even in a traffic jam. But like the disciples, we can easily miss it if it doesn’t fit our expectations, if it comes from a strange source, or if we are just so overly familiar with it all.

But that wasn’t my favorite story of the week. Not by far.

Lindsey Knox and her husband, Mark, of Tallahassee, Florida were at the hospital awaiting the birth of their first child. Mark, obviously excited about the entire event, decided to send out a text message to some friends and family members. So he sent a group text out, saying, “We are at the hospital. Having a baby today! … She has dilated to between 5-6.””

That’s exciting, and I’m sure that friends and family members appreciated getting that text. But they also sent it to a complete stranger. Dennis Williams was with his brother, Deorick, when he received the text message about some strange woman giving birth at the local hospital. Dennis was kind enough to reply, “Congrats lol but I think someone got the wrong number.”

But things must have been a little crazy, as you can imagine, because Mark didn’t see that text reply from Dennis before their son came into the world. And soon enough, you guessed it, Mark and Lindsey sent out another text message, this time with a picture of their brand-new baby boy, Carson.

Just what is the correct response when some stranger has sent you a description of their wife’s cervix and a picture of their new-born baby boy? Dennis replied, “Well I don’t know y’all but me and the boys will be thru to take picture with the baby.”

And they did just that. Dennis and Deorick showed up, with gifts for the parents and the baby, and snapped a couple of pictures with their new friends.

All good things are from above. We can easily miss the beauty of this world for many reasons, just as the disciples almost missed the beauty of the resurrection. Are we so locked in on what we expect that we will miss the good news? Are we so focused on who should be delivering the message that we miss the beauty of new stories with new friends? Are we so familiar with the status quo that we miss when God is about to do something new? I pray that we keep our eyes open, or better yet, that Jesus opens our eyes like he did for Cleopas and Mary. Because there is beauty and good news all around us. Sometimes, we just need someone to show us.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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