This is the second in our three-part series called Living the Resurrection. The Big Idea of this series is that the resurrection of Jesus is not only good news for us when we think about what happens after we die. It is also good news for us right now. As we engage in the formation practices of the early church that were centered around Jesus’ resurrection, in other words, as Jesus impresses his resurrected life upon ours, he will help us to grow in living the resurrection.
Have you ever noticed how amazed someone can be when they are seeing something for the first time in their life? As part of my training to become a pastor, I served a one-year internship at two churches in Alberta in the communities of Vegreville and Bruce. One Sunday, after worship in the little town of Bruce, some people from church took me, Susan and our family out for lunch at the only restaurant in town. There was regular seating in the front part of the restaurant. But this particular restaurant also had a little hall in the back and to give us more room and privacy, our large group was seated in that hall. This hall had a stage and on the stage was a jukebox. While we were waiting for our food to come, after we had ordered, my oldest son, Brandon, who was 13 at the time, went up on the stage and began gazing at the jukebox with fascination and wonder. I thought to myself, “Why is he so interested in that jukebox?” And then it dawned on me. Brandon had never seen a jukebox before in his life. Something which was common in pizza joints and lounges when I was a young adult had disappeared from view, and now Brandon was surprised to see, for the first time, such a relic from the past. So he investigated it like an archeologist would when they find a T Rex skull in a cow pasture.
There is something special about watching children encounter things for the first time. They have a sense of awe and wonder the first time that they feel grass between their toes, see snow or eat ice cream, and they are amazed by what they are experiencing.
Sadly, after we get a few years older, we begin to think that you have seen it all, and we lose our ability to be amazed. And the problem with going through life with a posture of not expecting to be amazed is that we miss seeing and being amazed at the wonderful things that God is doing all around us. And I think that this numbness to what God is doing has gotten even worse in recent years because our smart phones and streaming services have discipled us into going to our screens to look for things to amaze us. And when they get us hooked on the hits of dopamine that are triggered by the things we see in the artificial worlds that are there, we can become totally oblivious to what God is doing in our relationship with him. It’s like we are sleepwalking, going through the motions, but missing the most important parts of life.
How do we wake up? How do we live in a new way, a way in which we are fully awake to God? To answer these questions, we are going to look at Matthew 28:1-10. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Wonder Helps Us to See Things as They Really Are
The passage that we are looking at describes events that happen on the first Easter morning. The Friday before, Jesus was falsely condemned, brutally flogged, stripped naked, adorned with a crown of thorns, and nailed to a cross to suffer and die while people who passed by hurled insults at him. As sundown approached, Jesus’ dead body was hurriedly laid in a nearby tomb. The Sabbath was coming within minutes and no work could be done then. So the Jewish process of embalming Jesus’ body could not be completed. Everyone had to rest until Sunday morning.
After the Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday, some women who followed Jesus bought fragrant perfumes and spices to complete the embalming process that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had started on Friday. Then very early Sunday morning, this group of brave women, headed out on their sad journey toward the garden near Golgotha. Included among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and other women as well.
But this band of women, who intended to do the most loving thing that they could for Jesus at that point, were not the only witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection that epic morning. Jewish leaders had asked Pilate to secure Jesus’ tomb so that no one could steal his body and claim that he had risen from the dead. Pilate gave orders for Jesus’ tomb to be sealed and for a group of soldiers to be posted at the tomb to guard it. Matthew describes for us what happened: There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:2-4) What emotions were the guards feeling in reaction to what they saw? Fear. We could even say terror. What was their response? They passed out in fear.
Now let’s see what the women felt and how they responded. Turning to our text, we read, The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. (Matthew 28:5-8) The women witnessed exactly the same event as the guards. What emotions did the women feel? Fear mixed with joy. What was their response? They ran to tell Jesus’ disciples the Good News of his resurrection.
Here we have two groups of people witnessing exactly the same event, both filled with fear over what they saw, yet two entirely different responses. One group passes out in fear, and the other group runs to tell others some Good News. Based on their responses, which of these two groups do you think is actually seeing things as they really are? The women. Going in haste to tell others is exactly the right response when seeing evidence that Jesus has risen from the dead. Why were the women able to see that event for what it really was, and the guards didn’t? It is because the women were open and alert to what God would do, and the guards were not.
Important Characteristics of Spiritual Formation by Resurrection
In the book Living the Resurrection, Eugene Peterson notes five things that happen when people in the Bible are spiritually formed by Jesus’ resurrection. First, regardless of how many hints about resurrection may have been given, the transformation people experienced because of Jesus’ resurrection caught them totally unawares. Spiritual formation-by-resurrection is not something that we can plan, manage or control. We cannot make it happen. We don’t know how it “works.”
Second, no one did anything to prepare for what actually happened. The two groups in Jesus’ day who were the most prepared for a resurrection were the Pharisees and the Essenes, and they totally missed Jesus’ resurrection because they were looking the other way. There are no experts. Everyone is a beginner in the process of spiritual formation-by-resurrection.
Third, marginalized people–in this case, women–play a lead role in perceiving what is happening and responding. Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons, was perhaps the most marginalized of the women present at Jesus’ tomb that morning, and yet she is the chief resurrection witness and the only one mentioned in all four Gospel accounts. This tells us that the people who will be the most valuable to us as we seek to be spiritually formed by Jesus’ resurrection are those on the margins of our society: the poor, the poets, the rejected, the suffering, minorities, and children. Old white guys like me are not going to be the first ones to see, understand and respond to what God is doing. But dinosaurs like me can play an important role in creating an environment where those voices from the margins are heard, honored and followed. If we don’t listen to those voices, I think that we are much more likely to be frozen in fear like the guards than running off to tell others like the women.
Fourth, the resurrection was a quiet event in a quiet place without publicity or public view. Other than the guards, outsiders did not see or notice the event at all. In a world where everyone has access to social media, we are used to people making a big deal about anything and everything. Almost every time I fire up my smoker to cook some meat, I feel compelled to tell the world about it. But, in spite of how very, very, very, important Jesus’ resurrection is, and it is the most important event in all of human history, that is not what God does. God works in the quiet places out of public view, and we need to get used to that if we are going to be open to spiritual formation-by-resurrection.
Fifth, and finally, the most common reaction to Jesus’ resurrection is fear. The word “fear” is mentioned six times in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. And fear is a natural response when we witness a shocking event for which we have not prepared. Fear is normal when we are shown realities that are vastly different from anything we have ever experienced before. Fear is what we should feel when we see things that are–and these are Peterson’s words–“more and other.” With other words, we might say that fear is what we should feel when our minds are totally blown by realities that are beyond this world.
But, in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, there are two different types of fear. Peterson tells us, “There is a fear that incapacitates us for dealing with God, and there is a fear that pulls us out of our preoccupation with ourselves, our feelings, or our circumstances into a world of wonder. It pulls us out of ourselves into the very action of God.” This second fear is what the Bible calls the fear-of-the-Lord. Fear of the Lord happens when we feel all the emotional impact of fear because we are being confronted by something “more and other,” but that something “more and other” is God. It is the gut-feeling of fear, accompanied by the words from Jesus, “Do not be afraid.” We are still in an unworldly situation, we are still not in control. The words, “Do not be afraid” from God help us to realize that we are not in danger, we are deep in mystery. And the key ingredient that transforms fear into fear-of-the-Lord is wonder. Developing a posture where we are open to being amazed by God is something that needs to be cultivated. That posture is developed in quiet places in our time with God. And there are no shortcuts. It takes an abstention from the ways of the world so we can be more open to the ways of God.
One shortcut that often tempts us, even in churches, is for us humans to try to manufacture wonder. It is far too easy for us to fall in love with hype and hustle, and ignore what God wants to do in quiet, private places. When that happens, we are creating a counterfeit form of wonder and the results are invariably disastrous.
Before going into pastoral ministry, I never dreamt that I would witness the fall of people who I considered to be heroes in growing God’s kingdom. During my time in seminary, I considered Bill Hybels to be a personal role model for me to emulate because he was fully committed to using the best tools of the time to grow God’s kingdom. In March 2018, the Chicago Tribune published allegations of sexual misconduct by Hybels, who resigned the next month. A later investigation found those allegations to be credible. Last month, Brian Houston, who co-founded Hillsong Church with his wife, Bobbie, resigned from his position of Global Senior Pastor as allegations surfaced that he behaved inappropriately toward two women on two separate occasions. These two men are only part of a long list of Christian leaders who have fallen from grace in recent years.
Please know that I am not trying to shame these two men and somehow imply that I am better than they are, because I am not. The same sinfulness that is in them is also in me, and it is also in each and every one of you. The point that I am trying to make is that we can be tempted to not let God deal with our own sinfulness because we want to skip that step and focus on the amazing things that result from our efforts. Why spend time addressing the dark and discouraging things inside us when there are bright lights and fireworks on the outside? Because it is in our soul that God lays the foundations for the amazing things that he will do in the future. The moment that the spotlight shifts away from focusing on what God is doing to focusing on what humans are doing, whether it is ourselves or others, church becomes a dangerous business, both for the people we put on pedestals, and for those of us who look up to them. It is far better for us to quietly enjoy the hearty steak that God gives us instead of being drawn toward the sizzle we might see somewhere else, even if that sizzle is being manufactured in God’s name.
Cultivating a Sense of Wonder Through Observing the Sabbath
God does work in surprising and life-giving ways to transform us, but it takes the fear-of-the-Lord, a mixture of fear and wonder, to see what he is really doing. The fear is not something we need to try and stir up within ourselves. We will naturally be afraid whenever he is at work in or around us. Instead, we should keep reminding ourselves of those words that keep getting repeated over and over again in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” On what basis can we say those words to ourselves? Because Jesus told us those words after he rose from the dead.
Wonder is something that we do need to cultivate, and the way that we do that is by taking a weekly Sabbath. What is a Sabbath? It is a 24 hour period of rest. Rest from work certainly. However, to get the rest that our body, mind and soul needs, they may also include a rest from our devices. The idea behind a Sabbath is that we unplug from the world so that we can plug into God. Unceasing stimulation can desensitize us to what God is doing in and around us and lull us into thinking that we have tamed God and he follows us around blessing whatever we decide to do.
It takes great faith to believe that the world doesn’t need us for 24 hours and we can take that time to rest and renew for whatever God has for us next. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that many of Jesus’ resurrection appearances occur on Sundays. That is the day when people would be the most alert to God’s activity after observing the Sabbath the day before.
The Symbolism of the Sabbath Candles
In Jesus’ time, through to today, Jews mark the beginning of Sabbath by lighting two candles at least 18 minutes before sundown on Friday evening. One of those candles represents the Hebrew word zakhor, which translates to our English “remember”, a prominent word in the first of two Bible verses that talk about the Sabbath: Exodus 20:8. As we see in the following verses, the Sabbath command in Exodus is rooted in creation. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-10a, 11)
The second candle represents the Hebrew word shamor, which translates to “observe” or “keep” in English, a key word in the second of two Bible verses that talk about the Sabbath: Deuteronomy 5:12. The verses that follow this Sabbath command show that it is rooted in the Exodus. “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 5:12-14a, 15a)
Dear friends, we live under the grace of our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We are not compelled to abstain from work entirely on a certain day of the week. But our knowledge and awareness of God’s love and saving work in the world is far, far greater than that of the Old Testament saints. With technology like the James Webb Space Telescope and powerful electron microscopes, we know more about the vastness of the universe and the intricacies of the microverse. That God could speak all of these things into existence with his words is mind-blowing.
And as amazing as the Exodus was, Jesus has saved a far greater number of people from a far worse fate. By living a perfect human life for us, suffering and dying on the cross for us and rising again, Jesus has brought us out of bondage to sin and death, freed us from our guilt and shame and welcomed us into the Promised Land of a new, forever life with him as a beloved, forgiven child of God.
Knowing as much as we do about the extent of God’s infinite, unconditional love for us, perhaps we could spend one day a week resting with God, reflecting on what it means to be created and redeemed by him. As we do that, he will help us to better see the amazing things that he is doing in and around us. When we see God at work, transforming through scary times to become more like Jesus, our resurrection wonder and our clarity of sight will grow. Amen.
(This sermon is based on the book Living the Resurrection by Eugene Peterson. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church at Langley BC on April 24, 2022. For more information, please go to wglc.org.)