Sunday, March 27, 2016

A New Creation

A New Creation
An Easter sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 27, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Isaiah 65:17-25

Here is Audio Version: 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

It is one of the great truths of the world that many preachers would rather preach Good Friday than Easter, the cross is vivid with imagery, whereas the empty tomb is well. . .empty. The darkness is filled with color, they may be stifled certainly by the shadows, but there are contours that you can describe, whereas the light, the whiteness, it is blinding, and words all fall short of the reality, or maybe it is all somehow connected to some extent to why some preachers would rather, or feel more at home officiating funerals rather than weddings. That people have ears to hear on those sad days, and need comfort, so they are looking for hope, but on a day where hope and light and joy are already radiating how can you even begin to add to it with mere words.  I know that I always find it difficult to preach Easter, and difficult to preach heaven. It is difficult to preach the happy stuff, the promises, and it has nothing to do with whether they are  true or not, or whether you believe them, it is just that words fall short, and there nothing worse than describing less than God, shortchanging heaven, or limiting Easter.  I was looking back over most of my sermons, and most of them can be seen in some sense as being pretty bleak. There is strength in them and I own each word, but they usually look at the darkness that finds its way into our nature, the way that we fall short of the high distinction of God’s favor, or image, even the very depths of human deprivation, rather than on the promises of God, the Resurrection, the Empty Tomb, etc, and then bring out grace, forgiveness. We fall short, but there is grace. . . Grace, as hard of a concept as it is, it is much easier to preach than the Empty tomb. It seems there is more life in death for us,finite creatures, because we can grasp death, hold it, understand it, but Heaven, Resurrection, Easter: It’s even hard to tell the story because it is so well known, and in its known-ness, it can lose its magic and mystery.
The women head to the tomb, worrying about how they are going to roll the stone away, but when they get there, they find the stone has already been moved, and the tomb is open, and the tomb is empty. In all versions there is intense emotion, fear and dread, mixed with wonder and unmistakable joy, but then it moves on quickly and the Risen Savior, running wild in the world, comes into contact with people, on the road to Emmaus, Doubting Thomas, Feed my Lambs, Baptize all the nations, I will be with you to the end of the age. And then the New Testaments end. . . but my favorite of all the Easter texts is Mark because it has Jesus inviting the Disciples back to the beginning, back to Galilee, as if they are to relive it all again, but this time there is a new creation. And no matter how you want to describe the indescribable, like the gleaming white or what eternal life may indeed be like, there is one thing that is completely clear. The entire world has changed. This is indeed a new creation, and if you have encountered the Risen Christ, you may not be able to put it into words, but the world is different for you.
Let me take a step back. Last night, as is always the case, The Ten Commandments was on television, and if you could wade through the seemingly countless commercials, you could have seen some of my favorite cinematic scenes of all time. There are so many great ones, but my favorite was on, right when I turned on the TV after we had gotten the girls to bed. Moses has been condemned for killing the Master Builder Bacca. Everyone knows that he is a Hebrew and a slave, and he has been banished. . .which is another great scene, when he is getting banished and the Pharoah’s great voice, Sir Cedric Harwike, (who I actually have reading Wordsworth poetry, oh it’s amazing) but here he is saying, the name of Moses will be stricken from every pall and tablet, from every pyramid and obelisk. . . so great, but then it moves to the desert and Rameses gives Moses a robe and a staff to rule over serpents and scorpions, and Moses heads out into the desert, and the music starts. . . o the music starts. . . and then Cecil B. Demille’s voice comes on and says one of the most amazing descriptive poems ever about Moses crossing the desert. He says:
Into the blistering Wilderness of Shur, the man who walked with Kings, now walks alone, torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and Earthly wealth, a forsaken man, without a country, without a hope, his soul in turmoil, like the hot winds and raging sands, that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip. He is driven forward, always forward, toward a God unknown, toward a land unseen, into the molten wilderness of Sin, granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way. Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness, and in the mocking whisper of the wind he hears the echoing voices of the dark, Moses. . . Moses. . . His tortured mind, wondering if they call the memory of past triumphs, or wail foreboding of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, nor shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation. He can neither bless nor curse the power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose, and then at last at the end of human strength, beaten in the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the maker’s hand, and he found strength from a fruit laden palm tree and life giving water, flowing from the well of Midian.

Cecil B. Demille is proving my point. . . look at the ease and beauty he imparts in describing the desperation and destitution of the desert. It is as if words themselves roll off the tongue whenever you want to describe the bleakness of life. . . but then a palm tree and a well, represent for him redemption. But the coolness of the water, the sweetness of the fruit is not put into words. What can you say about the water more than that it is cool and wet. . . but that it gives life? How we don’t know it just does? Any description of the process cheapens its magic. The same is true with the fruit. . . can you describe its refreshing nourishment, the process of breaking down the calories into energy? No it either becomes too mundane and scientific, or it turns vulgar, decomposing, digesting, defecating. But in reality that water and that fruit is life itself, mysterious, magical, very much of God. . . but it can’t be described only experienced.
Later in the movie there is another hard to describe scene, connected in theme to this spiritual mystery. Moses, minding his business, tending his sheep, sees a bush burning on the side of the mountain, he finds it strange because when he looks closer he realizes that it is on fire but it doesn’t burn. There is light, but it does not consume its fuel. He approaches it and it speaks to him. He must cast his shoes off. He must go to Egypt. He will be given the words that he needs. He asks its name. . . he is told the name of God, and he is being sent to set his people free. . . way down and Egypt land, tell old, Pharaoh, to let my people go. And now Cecil B. Demille is faced with the same problem again. Moses has just seen God, talked to God, been sent on a mission from God, and so is very much a new person. The old has been swept away, and there is something new to him. . . how can you show this? Do you have another description from the voice over. . . “Now having seen God. . . “ But what would you say? He decides to take another route, and that is to physically change Moses’ appearance. Where up to this point Moses has been Ben Hur, now Moses will become Moses. . . fuller beard, longer hair, greyer hair, and with a strange light radiating from his face. . . and a looking into the beyond aura about him. His eyes colder as if they can look through you, as if they are constantly looking beyond you, to some world that is dying to be. In case it wasn’t enough you have his wife Sephora say there to Joshua. . . “He has seen God.” Oh I get it, that’s what happened.
It is hard to depict mystery and majesty on film without it appearing cheap and fake. That is why no movie about Jesus quite captures it fully. Actually I think Ben Hur does the best job, but its power is in that Jesus is never really shown, just the people’s reaction to Jesus. . . which suggests in a way the point I want to make. . . and that is the reality of Jesus, the truth of the Resurrection, the fullness of Easter can never be described, it has to instead be experienced. And this experience needs to change you, and no I don’t mean coming down from the mountain with your hair frosted and your beard a bit fuller, and not changing your voice into some kind of breathy God version of itself, “and now Beloved, let us pray,” no it needs to change you fully, and especially your perspective of the world, because the world has changed. Once you’ve experienced the Risen Christ, all of the rules have forever been changed. Death no longer has dominion. Where is thy sting? The World is a new Creation, made anew, again. Your eyes would change.  . . how you would see yourself, the world, and others, would change. People might think that you are strange.
We’ve been reading Hamlet this week in class, and there is a really appropriate line from towards the end of Act 1. Hamlet has seen the ghost of his father, the ghost has told him about the murder of him by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, and Hamlet has sworn to avenge the murder. . . and he is of course caught up in a frenzy, and Horatio says, how strange it all is how strange Hamlet has become, he says, “O Day and Night, but this is wondrous strange”, to which Hamlet says, “and therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They didn’t use to believe in ghosts, now they’ve seen one, and the ghost has changed their world forever. Of course it is strange. Hamlet’s life has been changed forever. He’d be crazy if he stayed the same. You don’t have a life changing encounter and then stay the same. . . such is the case with the Risen Christ.

So I will not describe the empty tomb, will not describe the new creation, (though I may try to do that for the rest of my career and life), instead I will ask you to look towards your experience with the Risen Christ. I will have you picture that encounter in your mind. I will ask you to try to put it in focus in  your mind, then have it direct your eyes to how  you will see the rest of creation, and let that authenticity of story guide your life.