Easter, 2009, April 12, 2009
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Isaiah 25:6-10a, Luke 24:1-12
If you have ever gone to a college basketball game, when the officials made a close call that went against the home team, you have heard the Greek word "ληρος." When that happens you can count on the partisan fans to start chanting, "Laros! Laros!," at least that's what we yelled at Northwestern.
And I will never forget that one, sweet moment when Northwestern defeated Indiana. It was 1984 and I was playing in the band. At the time the Hoosiers were ranked 17th in the nation, their coach was the legendary Bobby Knight. Mr. Knight was quite upset that his squad was losing, and the fans were really egging him on. He spotted me in the band and said, "Young man, I disagree with your assessment of my institution's student athletes, and I do not care for your insolent tone!" And he was a very articulate man-he said all this with just one, single finger!
You know what I'm talking about. You know the kinds of words and gestures that I mean, even though I will not say them in a service of Christian worship does not mean you have not heard them. No one yells at the opposing basketball coach "Idle tale! Idle tale!" No one says to the referees "We beg to differ! We beg to differ!"
The Greek word "ληρος" appears in the Bible only once, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and a group of unnamed women go to tell the disciples what they saw at the tomb, "But these words seemed to them "ληρος" which is translated as "an idle tale" as Suzanne read it in the New Revised Standard Version or "pure nonsense" or "a fairy tale" in other translations. The disciples' response to the women was not that what they said was make believe. It was crap, or as author Anna Carter Florence renders it, "tilde, at symbol, dollar sign, question mark, percentage sign, ampersand, exclamation point, asterisk!" There. Sometimes profanity just really helps to release a lot of pent up energy. If this word were a gesture, it would be the one Bobby Knight made to me at the basketball game 25 years ago.
Here are the women, who had followed Jesus every bit as closely as the disciples. The women who went to the tomb at first light, the day after the Sabbath to tend to the dead body of their friend. The women were perplexed that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb, and terrified when two dazzling men stood by them and spoke to them, reminding them of what Jesus had said. These dazzling men told them about Jesus' promised resurrection and they did not shout it in the streets. They went to the ones who were closest to Jesus. In their confusion and perplexed state, they remembered and went to their brothers in faith, who said they were full of it.
This is not a word friends use with friends, especially when everyone is grieving the same loss. This is not a word that people use when they disagree with what the pastor preaches in church, this is a crude, locker room word. A word that the disciples used to keep themselves from hearing and experiencing the greatest news of all time.
Have you ever described Easter to someone who has no knowledge of the Christian faith? Suppose your co-worker asks what you're going to do on Easter Sunday morning. "Well, at my church we have a big celebration, we have a breakfast, then afterwards we have a worship service at 9:30."
Your co-worker might ask, "what happens during worship?"
We sing hymns that say that Christ is risen! We have a brass quartet. We have balloons. We confess our sin, and celebrate that Christ's death makes our sin go away. We believe that Jesus is the son of God, fully human and fully God, that he was crucified and dead, but was resurrected, and his resurrection changes everything, our very relationship with God is changed by the resurrection!
If you've never heard the story before, it probably sounds like "ληρος." So what could you say to your co-worker when he looks at you like you're nuts.
You might turn to the Old Testament lesson this morning, a bit of prophesy from Isaiah, that on the promised day of the Lord, our disgrace will be removed, death will be swallowed up, our tears will be wiped away, the hand of the Lord will rest on us and we will know salvation and be filled with gladness and rejoice. We see all of that coming together in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. All that makes Easter the absolute holiest day for Christians. And even I acknowledge it's more important than the start of the baseball season.
But let's be honest, our story sounds pretty nutty when you hear it for the first time. We don't think of it that way anymore because each Sunday we're here celebrating the resurrection. At least once a month we celebrate communion and tell the story of the Last Supper. We hear Bible readings and sermons and sing hymns about what God has done in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. The story is so familiar and we rehearse it so often and well that we sometimes forget that it sounds like "ληρος." And get this, it sounded like "ληρος" to the ones who were eye and ear witnesses to the very events that we claim in our faith!
Three times Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed and would rise on the third day. Once he said to his disciples, "Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands." I imagine Jesus using "The Dad Voice" as he said that. He told them and prepared them, and still when the women came and shared what the dazzling men had told them, they thought it was "ληρος". Wouldn't you think one of them might have said, "Hey, remember what Jesus said that one time? He said something about rising from death on the third day!" Nope. The closest, most trusted followers called what the women had seen "ληρος" "and they did not believe them."
It was crazy. Impossible. Couldn't be. Incredible. Unbelievable. Ληρος. The story should end there, with that word of rejection: ληρος. It was so crazy, so nutty, that Peter had to see for himself. He went to the tomb. The dazzling men weren't there anymore. "He saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened." Here's what Peter didn't see-at least not a first, the body of the risen Christ, an angel, the dazzling men who had spoken to the women. He'd only seen an empty tomb and linen...and he went home, amazed at what had happened.
The important thing is that Peter went to see for himself. When Jesus first began calling disciples, when people were skeptical that anything good could come out of Nazareth, the disciples said, "come and see!" They did not say, "We'll prove to you that Jesus is the Christ," they said, "Come and see!" Faith in Christ cannot be proven, but it can be experienced. I've heard Easter sermons that attempt to prove the historical reality, the factualness of the Resurrection. They always strengthen the certainty of people who come to church on Easter, making everyone a little more smug, and everyone's faith a little more unassailable. This morning I want everyone to see the other side, to see how nutty faith in Christ is. Yes, we're here on the holiest of days to sing the praises of our Lord whose most important achievement was declared by those closest and most trusted followers to be ληρος. Our faith is nutty, impossible, crazy. But it's real. It's true. It's true to people who insist on seeing for themselves. It's true for people who are honest enough to say they don't understand everything, and yet they have felt and known and experienced the powerful love of God that cannot be described or explained or proven.
Last year, the day before Easter I looked at my younger son, David, who was six at the time and I asked, "David, why do I love you so much?"
"Because you do!" he answered. Now technically it wasn't an answer to my question, it was something much better. It was a description of a reality that no one can put into words anyway. Why does God love us enough to send Christ as our savior? Because God does! Let the world call that crazy. Let the world call it ληρος. We know it's true. And thanks be to God, that's good enough.