March 23, 2008

God Exceeds Our Expectations - Mar 23, 2008

This homily has been arranged on the basis of the resurrection accounts found in the following Scriptures: Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-10.

Grace and Peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Risen, Living and Powerful Savior, Jesus Christ.

On the first Easter Sunday, two disciples of Jesus decided to make the seven mile trip from Jerusalem to a little town named Emmaus. Along the way a stranger joined them. At first they were prevented from recognizing Him, but the Bible tells us that the stranger was actually Jesus risen from the dead.

As they walked, they talked about the terrible events that had just taken place in Jerusalem. The stranger surprised them when He asked them what they were talking about. They were astonished that this guy didn’t know what had happened. After all, it had shaken up the whole city!

In Luke 24 it says,

18One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:18-21 NIV).

These disciples were sad because they had had such great expectations. They had seen Jesus perform miracles of healing, even raising a man named Lazarus from the dead! They had expected that soon Israel would be free from Caesar’s rule for good. They thought that Jesus had been sent from God to redeem the Jewish people from the rule of Rome.

But the Savior sent from God had not failed. He had come to set the people free alright, but not from the temporary rule of an earthly government. He had come to set them free from their sins, and to give the gift of eternal communion with God to all who believe.

As human beings, our attention is often drawn to the earthly and temporary. What we ask God to do, or expect Him to do is frequently insignificant next to what He actually does. In His great wisdom and power, God exceeds our expectations.

This is seen over and over in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So, lets turn our thoughts to the events that took place in the early morning on the first Easter Sunday. May the Holy Spirit help our minds to see the greatness of God’s wisdom and power as we see Him exceed the expectations of everyone.

It was early in the morning. Still dark in fact. But Mary Magdalene had gotten up anyway. She and a group of women had made plans to visit the tomb of Jesus. Mary had seen Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the Master’s body from the cross. She had followed them to the little garden that was near the hill of crucifixion. She had seen them bearing the linens and the spices that they would use to wrap His body for burial. She had watched as they exited the tomb and rolled that massive stone in place that served as the tomb’s door.

No doubt they had done as good a job as they could in the short time before Sundown and the beginning of the day of rest. But Mary and the other women would make sure that nothing had been done too hastily. They had bought burial spices and made plans. They would ensure that their beloved Master’s body was honored properly with one last act of devotion.

They had spent so much time with Jesus. They had served Him, providing for His needs in any way they could while He was doing the work of His ministry. Mary Magdalene remembered all to well why she had followed Jesus from place to place. He had cast out seven demons that had possessed her. Such loving concern He had. Such power.

But He had not used that power at the end. And His end had come oh, so quickly. Betrayed. Imprisoned. Tried, condemned and crucified. All in less than twenty-four hours.

Grieving for a loved one was hard enough. It was made harder by how swiftly He had been taken from them. In a way, the women were going to the tomb for themselves. As hard as this last task might prove, it would help them to say goodbye.

They had expected a dead Jesus. But God smiled and gave them a resurrected Lord.

They had expected one last goodbye. But God smiled and showed them this was only the beginning.

As they approached the tomb in the early morning darkness, they had been talking quietly. But then one of the women had stopped and looked startled. How could they have forgotten! The door. Who would roll away the massive stone door from the mouth of the tomb?

At the entrance to the tomb there was a channel carved in the rock. In that channel was set a large flat stone that had been carved into a circle. With enough force applied, the stone would roll up the slight incline in the channel and allow entrance to the tomb. It wasn’t locked, but it was heavy. To heavy. Perhaps one of them would have to return to Jerusalem to fetch someone who could help. Mary Magdalene could make the trip if it came to that. She seemed to have enough energy this morning. The rest could wait if necessary.

The women didn’t know that the chief Priests and the Pharisees had spoken to Pilate the previous day. They had requested that guards be posted at the tomb. They thought the disciples might come steal His body away and claim that He had risen from the dead. Pilate had given them a guard of soldiers and had commanded them to seal the tomb with his own seal, so that any who broke that seal would know they would face the wrath of Rome. If the women had known about the guard, perhaps they would not have come.

But they would not see any soldiers at the tomb that day. For earlier that morning the soldiers had been startled. Below them the ground had begun to shake. Above them the sky had lit up as an angel in brilliant white descended from the sky. The angel hadn’t spoke a word to them, but setting his feet down on the earth, he had strode up to the door of the tomb and had calmly flicked the massive stone out of the track and flat onto its side. That done he had turned toward the path to Jerusalem and had sat down on the stone like he was waiting for someone.

When the soldiers had recovered enough of their senses to move again, they had moved on out of that place. Rome didn’t pay them enough to fight with angels. And it was clear that this angel wasn’t waiting to speak with them.

The soldiers had expected a rag-tag band of disciples to attempt an opening of this tomb. But God smiled, and sent a single mighty angel to show the world that Jesus needed no disciples to open His tomb. The risen Christ had left already.

Up the path the women had come in the hazy morning darkness. The sun was warming the horizon, but in the leafy garden it was still dim. But even in the early morning gloom the women noticed that something was not right up ahead. Where the tomb should have stood all white and solid, there loomed the dark, black hole of a doorway. And the stone was not neatly rolled up the channel and locked in place with a wedge – No! That massive stone was cast haphazardly on the ground in front of the tomb! Had Jesus’ enemies come here to desecrate His grave? Hadn’t His murder been enough?!

Running footsteps startled the women, and they turned to see Mary Magdalene striding back down the trail toward Jerusalem. Going for help no doubt. But the other women did not follow her. But nor would they merely stand and wait. Fear of what they might find could not keep them back from the door of the tomb. It beckoned to them. Their love for the Master pushed them forward. They must see what had been done.

But what they found inside the tomb did not horrify them, it puzzled them! The grave clothes were here, but Jesus’ body was gone. And as they stood there wondering what had happened, two men appeared in the tomb. Or at least they looked like men, sort of. They wore dazzling white robes. So dazzling was their appearance that the women were filled with fear! They melted to the ground in front of these two visitors, and as they did the visitors spoke:

“…Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5 NIV).

“…Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:5-6 NIV).

6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’” (Luke 24:6-7 NIV)

7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7 NIV).

When angels give you a message to deliver, you move quickly. And the women did. Exiting the crowded tomb, they hurried toward Jerusalem with both fear and great joy. Jesus was alive. Raised from the dead. The message had come from angels. The tomb was all open and empty. And the angels had said that they would see Jesus in Galilee like He had told them before! Oh, what else had He said that they had forgotten so quickly. The minds of the women raced along with their feet.

But around a corner their feet came to a halt. And no doubt every mouth opened in awe and every set of eyes widened, and their lips all curled into huge smiles. There in their path stood Jesus Himself. He greeted them as they fell at His feet in worship.

The women had expected the worst when they approached the broken open tomb. But God smiled and sent them two gentle angels to explain the mystery before them.

The women had then expected to see Jesus in Galilee, some 75 miles to the north. But Jesus smiled and met them before they even reached Jerusalem.

By this time, Mary Magdalene had reached Peter and John and told them what she had seen. The tomb was broken into, and no doubt some enemy had stolen Jesus’ body away. Winded and in fright she had said,

“…They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!” (John 20:2 NIV).

Peter and John wasted no time. Leaving Mary to catch her breath, they left together, bound for the garden tomb. As they ran John’s stride outdistanced Peter’s putting John at the door to the tomb first. But stepping up to the shadowy door, John stopped. Looking into the tomb he saw the grave clothes lying there. Empty. Even though Jesus had told them of His coming death AND His resurrection to follow, John stood puzzled at door of the tomb. Perhaps Jesus’ words were finally coming back to Him,

“…We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again” (Luke 18:31-33 NIV).

As Peter reached the entrance to the tomb he barged right past John. And there apart from the grave clothes Peter found the cloth that had been used to wrap Jesus’ head. But it was not cast aside in haste. It had been neatly folded like a person might fold a hand towel. It had been set aside like something that had served its short lived purpose and was now of little use.

Finally John entered the tomb and stood there with Peter.

No grave desecrators would have left things like this. They either would have fled with everything, or they would have left a mess. They certainly wouldn’t have folded the head cloth into a neat little square! Why they blew the door away and then carefully folded this little cloth was beyond explanation. Unless…

And there standing in the tomb, John new that it was true. The Master had risen, just as He had said He would.

Whatever John had expected to find, it was not this. A tomb was not the usual place to find life. Not the usual place to find a beginning. But God smiled when His Son finished suffering the punishment for the sins of the world. In the empty tomb of our Risen Savior, we find that God greatly exceeds our expectations.

For our daily sins of word, thought and deed with might well expect God’s judgment. But by God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts we are led to repent of these sins. And in Christ we find complete forgiveness. God greatly exceeds our expectations, and because He does we praise His holy and merciful name.

United to Christ Jesus through the powerful waters of baptism, and held together to Christ by faith, we are not only guaranteed newness of life after our earthly death, we are also given newness of life now.

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:4-7 NIV).

By Christ’s suffering and death your sins have been atoned for. By faith you are raised from spiritual death, to life. Expect that God will raise you on the Last Day, and will place your gently by His side. But also expect that even in this, God will exceed your every expectation.

In Christ Jesus our Risen Savior, AMEN.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

-Pastor Caleb Schaller

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