Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006
PETER, JOHN & THE GREAT EASTER RACE
I want you to do some “Let’s pretend” with me this morning. I want you to use your imagination and, for just a few minutes, close your eyes and travel back in time one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-six years.
You are a street merchant in the crowded, dusty and holy city of Jerusalem. It is early morning on the first day of the week. As a Jew you have kept the previous day as the Sabbath day of rest; at least until sunset when the Sabbath and the day came to a close.
By coincidence, that same sunset had marked the end of the Feast of Passover. Tens of thousands of Jews had come from all around the Roman Empire to perform the rituals of sacrifice in the Temple and the eating of the Passover meal.
Today, however, the Passover and the Sabbath were over. Today was just another day of work.
You had wakened, dressed and eaten a light breakfast in the light of dawn. Now, the fresh-risen sun was sending long cool shadows across the streets and byways of the ancient city.
Along with other early risers you step quietly out of your small, one-story stone house and turn the corner onto one of the larger streets in your area of the cit.. You are on your way to the nearby bazaar where you will be selling the exquisitely-woven baskets that you, along with the help of your three children, spend most of your waking hours weaving from the dried fronds of date palms gathered from the Kidron Valley.
You have already sent your children off to gather more fronds. Fronds will be easy to find today, you think, since so many had been broken off to celebrate the many pilgrim-processions that had crossed that valley during the previous week. One group after another had started their procession at Bethany on the tall ridge opposite and a bit south of the Holy Temple. The processions had then dropped low into the valley only to begin climbing again as they approached the gates leading to the vast Temple area on Mt. Zion.
Local people would wave the palm branches in praise of God and as a sign of welcome to those who had traveled so far to worship. Children had especially enjoyed the processions, tirelessly waving their palm branches and chanting “Hosanna!” meaning, “Praise the Lord!” over and over again.
The biggest crowds had gathered for the arrival of the rich and famous. Who knows? Perhaps the rich would toss a few coins into the crowd! As for the famous, it was not everyday that one could see in person and up close the noted rabbis and other religious scholars from places like Alexandria, Damascus, Antioch and Babylon.
Jesus of Nazareth had drawn a fairly good-sized crowd himself when he had arrived one week ago today.
As with the others, the children had waved their palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” as he entered Jerusalem sitting on a donkey.
But there were other, older men and women in the crowd, who had welcomed him as the new King of Israel, a descendent of the great King David himself. There was great excitement surrounding this Jesus. The news had spread everywhere that he had recently raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Some in the crowd seemed to hope that a man with such power from God might be the Christ himself—the long-awaited Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory.
But there were also rumors that the religious leaders of Jerusalem had put a price on his head and were determined not only to arrest him but, if possible, put him to death as well.
As it turned out, these rumors had sadly turned out to be true. After teaching publicly in the Temple day after day, Jesus had finally been arrested late Thursday evening while gathered in prayer with his disciples in an olive grove called Gethsemane.
After a brief, secret trial by the Jewish leaders, Jesus was condemned to die. Permission to execute him was then sought from the Roman-appointed Jewish King Herod and, later on Friday morning, from the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate himself.
In the end, permission had been granted and Jesus, along with two thieves, was publicly crucified at Noon on Friday. He died just three hours later. Because the Passover Sabbath began at sunset the two other men were killed outright and all three bodies removed by the Roman soldiers who had executed them.
Jesus’ body had been taken and placed in a tomb owned by one of the few Jewish leaders who had spoken in Jesus’ defense during his late-night trial.
“Dead and buried.” That was Jesus. One more failed hope. The excitement was over. The children would be collecting the dead and drying remains of broken palm branches to be woven into more baskets. Life was back to normal.
The holiday was over but there is still money to be made from shrewd bargaining with the many pilgrims who remained.
As you turn the corner, a young man, his robes girded up around his waist, brushes past you. He is clearly a man in a hurry, running as if for his very life. His lean body and beardless face have hardly registered in your mind when a second man, bearded, stocky and gasping for breath, rushes past, as if in pursuit of the first.
“Strange,” you think to yourself, wondering if the first man was a thief being chased by his victim.
“No matter,” you decide. There’s work to be done.
You have barely taken another stop before a woman, also breathing heavily, trots past you, headed in the same direction as the men. Her “trot” is little more than a fast walk and you see her stop twice to catch her breath. After a moment’s hesitation you call out to see if she needs any help.
“No thank you,” she says. “But come…come with me as I…I will show you a wonder…he’s gone…he’s not there…the stone…it’s…the tomb…empty.”
Mystified, you follow along behind her…but at a discrete distance. You follow her out of both concern and curiosity.
It is but a short distance to the edge of the city. You follow the woman through the city gate and down a ways to a small garden.
There you see the young man who had rushed past you just a few minutes before. He is standing alone, as if deep in thought. The woman approaches him and stands quietly, searching his face without speaking a word.
You hear a sound like a muffled roar coming from inside what is obviously a rich man’s tomb. The sealing stone has been pushed to the side and from the darkness of the tomb a bearded man appears, the other man who had hurried past you in such haste. He is still breathing heavily, his face covered in sweat.
Suddenly, you feel somehow exposed, as if you were the first man, Adam, who had suddenly discovered that he was naked in his own garden.
Like Adam, you step back into the shadows, surprised to suddenly feel the burden of your sins weighing very heavily on your spirit.
The bearded man gasps out, “She’s…Oh, there you are…You were right. He’s gone! But how? Who took him? . . . John, go in and see for yourself and tell me what you think.”
Still without speaking a word, the young man, apparently named John, disappears into the tomb. He is there for only a few moments before reappearing. His face has changed from one of questioning to that of someone who has found an answer; or someone who has just thought of something important or, perhaps, someone who has remembered something that they had forgotten.
Still not saying a single word, this man called John breaks into a small trot of his own, heading back to the city. With a soft groan, the second man follows, his face creased with puzzlement, tinged with wonder.
The woman, now left alone, is weeping. You suppress the urge to step forward and comfort her, wondering if, perhaps, this was the tomb that had been “loaned” to Jesus for his burial on Friday. The men were clearly Galileans, Rough, solid men with broken nails and weathered faces. Fishermen, perhaps. Perhaps two of Jesus’ own disciples.
You had only seen Jesus once during the previous week. You had been on your way to the Temple for mid-day prayer when you entered a crowd of people gathered around a rabbi, or teacher of some sort. The man was saying, “Now is the time for judgment on this world, the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
You had heard some in the crowd snort and mutter, “Blasphemy,” under their breath. Others had stepped forward to ask questions. But you had little time to waste and moved on to offer your prayers to God.
Although you had hurriedly left, the words of the teacher, Jesus, had stayed with you. You had found yourself offering a different prayer than usual that day.
“Almighty and merciful God,” you had begun. As you prayed you were on your knees with your head touching the stone pavement in total submission to the power and majesty of the Lord.
“If today is the day of judgment as this Jesus has said,” you continued, “then I ask you to have mercy on me, a poor sinner. I beg you to cast out Satan from the earth and restore your Kingdom—not just the Kingdom of Israel but the Kingdom of Paradise for all who love you with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.”
Your prayer had stopped abruptly as you recalled Jesus’ prophecy that he would be “lifted up” and that “all men” would come before him.
In that quiet moment in the Temple you had, for a brief moment, wondered if Jesus might actually be the Christ, the Messiah, come at last to restore God’s Kingdom and to prepare the world for the Day of the Lord, the great and terrible day of the Last Judgment.
But, four days later when you had heard that Jesus had been crucified, you had let that idea drop like a hot stone.
Now, however, as you stand in the garden on this first day of the new week, you find yourself wondering…”What if…? Could Jesus be alive? What would that mean?”
While you were lost in thought the woman had slowly walked over to the tomb and is now leaning inside, as if afraid to take even one step over some invisible line drawn across the entrance.
Once again you hear muffled words from the tomb, as if a conversation is being carried on.
Behind the woman, just outside the cave, you see what you can only later describe as a “bright shadow,” shimmering with an increasing intensity and brightness that forces you to turn your eyes away.
After blinking away the discomfort, you look again and see a man standing next to the woman. She turns towards him, still weeping and sobbing. The man’s lips move slightly and the woman suddenly stiffens, dropping to her knees like a gazelle stopped dead in its tracks by a well-placed arrow.
Her face is buried in his feet; her arms in a tight embrace around his legs.
With a gentle gesture that you can only describe as “love” the man raises the woman to her feet, speaks a few words to her and, with a sudden shimmer, is gone.
Without hesitation the woman runs across and out of the garden. As she disappears out of sight you hear what you assume to be her voice, high-pitched and shrill, “He’s alive! I have seen the Lord!”
It is clear that she is no longer weeping!
But what about that man in the garden? Surely it had been Jesus . . . it must have been Jesus . . . looking like a living spirit or an angel of God shining with the glory of heaven! Jesus . . . risen from the dead? Is such a thing possible?
The Pharisees teach that the resurrection of the dead would not come until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment at the end of history.
Could it be that Jesus’ prophecy about himself had come true? He had been lifted up from the earth as he predicted—on a cross. And, if he had risen from the dead, then the Day of Judgment had arrived, just as he said. Could it be possible then, that Satan, the prince of this world, has been driven out at last?
As if to answer your own questions you find yourself filling with a hope, a joy that you have never felt before. The burden of your sins, so heavy on your soul only a few minutes before, seem lighter now—or are they gone completely? What does it matter? All you want to do is to be with Jesus; to hear his voice.
You feel as if you are being drawn to him by some invisible power, at work deep within your most innermost being.
No longer do you feel the need to hide in the shadows, embarrassed and ashamed. You feel refreshed, renewed, even reborn! You are stunned to discover that you would be so bold as to stand in the very presence of God himself, as if you yourself were suddenly holy and acceptable to God; worthy of his love . . . because of Jesus!
You rush to the tomb and, after hesitating only long enough to take a deep breath, you step inside.
When you come out a few moments later, all doubt is gone.
“He is risen!” you say to yourself. “He is alive! He is the Christ! He is the Messiah!”
All thought of baskets have left your mind. Your only thought, the only desire of your heart, is to search for Jesus until you find him. Even if it should take a thousand lifetimes!
Suddenly, your mind clears enough to think, “The woman! I must follow the woman! And those men, the one called ‘John’ and that other one! I’ve got to find them!”
Now it is your turn to run from the garden and through the streets of Jerusalem. You have no idea where your running will take you but, somehow, you know that you will see that woman again. You will greet the men with joy and, together with them, you will find Jesus!
And what was true for you then, is true for you today. Amen.
“Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!”
--by Jim Tweedie, Pastor
Mililani Presbyterian Church