He Goes Ahead of You

The church preschoolers had been learning about the new life Christ’s resurrection initiated, and they were about to make their Easter presentation to the entire congregation. At the right moment, the teacher shepherded her fidgeting charges to the top of the chancel steps, explaining that she had asked each child to bring in a plastic Easter egg containing something that exemplified this wonderful new life. Each of the five-year-olds held a large plastic egg across the chest. Parents and grandparents held cameras at the ready. The “presentation” was about to begin.

The first little girl popped open her egg to reveal a wilted daffodil: “’cause there weren’t any flowers anywhere last week, but now flowers are everywhere,” she explained. Another child’s egg held a handful of grass. “All winter, the grass was brown,” he said, “but now it’s all turned green again.” One by one, each egg revealed some encapsulated treasure representing Easter’s new life. Yet, with each opening, the last little boy seemed increasingly anxious. Billy’s grandfather had recently died, and his grief standing before them was all too apparent. By the time it was his turn, he was rocking side to side, studying his feet.

"Billy, show us what’s in your egg,” the teacher said. The boy’s face turned bright red: “I… I… I made a mistake. I didn’t understand” his voice trailed off. “I’m sure whatever’s inside your egg is just beautiful,” said his teacher, gently touching his cheek. And with that she opened Billy’s Easter egg.

There was a collective gasp through the congregation; eyes grew large with confusion. For a long, still moment, no one made a sound.

Billy’s egg was completely empty.

“I… I… My egg is empty because the tomb is empty!” he blurted. “It’s not what I could put in, but what God took away! My Papa’s alive with Jesus because Jesus took away death! Don’t you understand? Death is gone! The tomb …is … empty!”

You could have heard a pin drop. There it was … the vital power of the entire Gospel … spilling out from a preschooler’s empty Easter egg! “My Papa’s alive because Jesus took away death! Death is gone! The tomb …is … empty!”

…We are so familiar with the Easter narrative that it’s easy to forget its shocking original gut-punch. Christians have told, lived by and died for this story for more than 2,100 years! Yet, especially in our current culture, many yawningly demand: “Tell us something new already!”

We’ll perhaps get to that in a minute, but for now, we must deal with Mark, whose version of the resurrection is the earliest  - and the strangest - of all the Easter accounts. Apparently, even the first Christians found Mark’s version so unsatisfying that a final few additional verses were soon added to what we just read, to close the book.

Mark offers no encounter with Christ; these women never see or speak to Jesus. All they (or we!) know for sure is that the giant stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. As the climax of Mark’s gospel, this original ending is awkwardly unsatisfying and unfinished!

What’s more, Mark’s explanation for the empty tomb comes in the words of an equally strange, unnamed young-man-in-white, waiting for the women inside the tomb. In the midst of this bizarre moment, however, the angel’s words are as simple and clear as those of a child… and the essence of the entire NT pops open like a preschooler’s empty Easter egg: “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified… has been raised; he is not here.”

And that is the totality of Mark’s mention of the resurrection. The world must wait for later reports to discover the resurrected Jesus set loose in the world. Mark’s account uniquely bears all the unsettled vagaries and mystery of … the immediate; of the yet-to-be understood; of the first-sightings of this day’s reality-cracking event. We are brought alongside these women into the very moment of discovery. And we, like them, feel the confusion and shock - of the empty tomb… and we too wonder what to make of it all.

Even more confounding, Mark concludes his Gospel with a seemingly tragic, dead end. These few women had been the last – the only – souls not to abandon Jesus at his crucifixion. And now, they too have “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone...” This Easter account – Mark’s entire Gospel! – appears to end in utter failure. Everyone has deserted Jesus … everyone has disobeyed even this directive … after His resurrection! Perhaps this explains why Easter preachers struggle with having to preach on Mark whenever required to do so by our three-year liturgical rotation.

Despite this apparently dismal first account of the resurrection, soon enough Matthew, Luke and John will fill in later post-resurrection details… with Jesus’s joyful reunions, and extended visits, his lengthy teachings and multiple conversations over dinners. We will soon enough have literally hundreds of human witnesses to the fully-alive, resurrected Christ. No human failings or fears could contain the risen Lord; Jesus was on the move. And it is clear that today… Jesus is still on the move!

 For this is exactly where Mark’s strange resurrection account is perhaps not just unusual, but brand new and unique for our moment ... as if written precisely for Good Shepherd Church for this very morning. I am thunderstruck by the angel’s words written so long ago – for today, here at Good Shepherd: “Do not be alarmed,” he says. … “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that (Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

What a message for us – on this day! Four months ago, Fr. Tom, who was the beloved Rector of this parish for more than two decades, retired; next Sunday, I too am retiring after more than a decade as your associate priest. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Good Shepherd has been without a rector, and some anxiety and uncertainty is not only to be expected, but is healthy. Yet, amazingly, on this particular Easter morning, 2,100 years after Christ’s actual resurrection, we are given Mark’s odd account with words that must surely peak our ears anew: “Do not be alarmed … (Jesus) is going ahead of you… there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Only God can unfold history and scripture in such a perfectly timed, for-this-moment way! This is the living wonder of God’s “true and lively Word”: sometimes it pops open before us with vibrant, shockingly-specific hope and guidance, as if the Lord Himself were speaking to us directly! From Jesus’ empty tomb … directly to this overflowing church … across history, time, and distance … this is your word in your time, from the God of all resurrected Glory and Wonder! “Do not be alarmed … (Jesus) is going ahead of you… just as he told you.”

Jesus is going ahead of you… to Galilee… to your Galilee. For the first disciples, Galilee was home; it was where they first came to know and experience Jesus… to see his miracles, his healings, his deliverances … his God-manifesting power. It was where they sat at his feet, and were amazed and tested … and often had failed.

The angel specifically gives even betraying Peter (the most obviously- failed of the remaining disciples) his own message to return to Galilee, out of which comes a new, deeply personal call… a new voice … a new authority and clarity of proclamation that (as he says in his sermon from today’s Acts reading): “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Like the shock of a child’s empty Easter egg, even empty, betraying Peter, is stunningly re-shaped, remade, refilled into Christ’s unlikely vessel - through his own direct encounter with the risen Lord… back in Galilee!

This is the Christ we worship in wonder today! This is the risen Jesus who always goes ahead of us, no matter where our journey leads. He could not be contained in the tomb, he cannot be contained by human failings; he cannot be contained by our fears or confusion or uncertainty. He is always ahead of us … always waiting for us to rejoin him in Galilee.

Whether you are a lifelong member of this parish, or a first-time visitor only mildly curious to explore faith in Christ, I believe you are witnessing a remarkable moment this morning. We are all like Peter in one way or another. And yet, here, confirmed to us in real time this morning, is God’s miracle message: Christ is awaiting each of us in Galilee… with His new, unique and timely call. The “co-incidence” of today’s Gospel is but the first glimpse into the empty tomb! The Easter egg is empty… for the fullness of God has gone ahead of you!

This is the resurrection message – from 21 centuries ago – yet writ large and for this moment – for you to hear and claim – across all time and history - as your very own love letter from God. As you turn anew – or for the first time - to meet Jesus afresh in your Galilee, trust that the temporary tomb-of-waiting “emptiness” you might feel personally, or as a church in search for your next rector… trust that your emptiness will be filled afresh – leaving you slack-jawed in wonder – to see the tomb-of-waiting opened wide … revealing the work of God’s resurrected Christ … afresh and even more usefully renewed as your own Living Lord and Savior, right here in this dear family of God in Lake Wales Florida.

So, be of good cheer, disciples, and prepare to be amazed at the promises about to be fulfilled in your midst.  “(Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

“This is (indeed) the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this (Easter) day, the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it!”