Hallelujah Hope!

Scripture: Matthew 28: 1- 10
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
March 27, 2016

There was a woman who wrote out her own funeral service.  She chose the hymns; she chose the scripture passages.  At the end of her notes, she had an asterisk and wrote, “I do not want any male pallbearers.”  Her minister went over the notes of her memorial service with her.  He said, “Why do you not want any male pallbearers?”  She said, “No man took me out when I was alive and no man will take me out when I am gone.”

In our scripture passage this morning, it is the women who went to the tomb early in the morning.  And scripture tells us that on that first day of the week while it was still dark — yes, dark with Peter’s denial, dark with Judas betrayal, dark with the disciples’ grief and anguish and heartache — yes, while it was still dark, the two Marys’, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to the tomb to keep vigil.  They are the last to leave Golgotha and the first to arrive at the grave.  They have come to place warm oils on a cold body and bid farewell to the one man who gave them reason to hope and dream.  But those hopes; those dreams are now sealed in the tomb. The Marys’ had a task before them — to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  Peter didn’t offer to do it.  Andrew didn’t volunteer.  The foreign lepers are nowhere to be seen.  So the Marys’ do it.  I wonder if halfway to the tomb, the two Marys’ sat down and reconsidered.  What if they had said, “What’s the use?”  What if they had thrown her arms up in frustration and had said, “We are tired of being the only ones who care.  Let Andrew do something for a change.  Let Nathaniel show some leadership.”  

Whether they were tempted to or not, I am glad they didn’t quit.  That would have been tragic.  For we know something they didn’t.  They thought they were alone.  But they weren’t.  They thought their journey went unnoticed.  But they were wrong.  God knew.  God was watching them walk up the mountain.  God was measuring their steps.  God was smiling at their hearts and thrilled at their devotion.  God had a surprise waiting for them!  (Max Lucado, God Still Moves Stones, pg. 41).

Suddenly, there was an earthquake.  The earth shook.  Matthew says Easter is an earthquake that rocks our world.  Suddenly, it changes everything.  Easter is about a God who makes a way when there seems to be no way.  I love the “suddenlys” of life!

“For an angel of The Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”  The angel sat on the stone with authority as if to say, “Well, so much for that!”

Yes, Matthew tells us, “That an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away from the entrance and sat on it.”  I don’t believe that the angel rolled the stone out of the way for Jesus, for if Jesus could triumph over death, he could certainly push a stone out of the way.  The stone, I believe, was moved not for Jesus but for Mary, not so Jesus could come out, but so the Marys’ could see in.  

And what did they see?  An empty tomb.  An angel who declared that “Jesus is risen from the dead.”  And then…and then, they see the resurrected Christ himself!

Some have called the resurrection an “idle tale”.  Too incredible to believe.  Too incomprehensible for our post-enlightenment minds.  Too good to be true.

Over the years, people have asked me whether I really believe in the resurrection?  After all, there is no logical, scientific proof of the resurrection.  We don’t have a videotape of the empty tomb.  We have no seismograph of the Easter earthquake.  For those of us who consider ourselves to be progressive, we want a faith that is tangible, practical and most of all rational. People have asked me to explain, clarify, demystify the resurrection.

But the truth of the matter is I can’t explain it.  Quite honestly, Easter leaves me scratching my head in wonder and so I merely stand in awe and joy before it.

Do I believe in the resurrection?  I believe that it took a resurrection to turn cowardly Peter into a courageous preacher, to transform Saul into the great missionary Paul.  It took a resurrection to turn ordinary women and men into saints and martyrs, preachers and prophets, activists and organizers.  I think of one Zimbabwean pastor who said this in his fight for independence, “I have stepped over the line.  The decision has been made.  I am your disciple.I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. I’m finished with low living, sight walking, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, and dwarfed goals. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, deluded, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of despair, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, preached up for the cause of Christ. I am your disciple.”

Do I believe in the resurrection?  I, too, have stepped over the line.  Yes, I do.  As Tom Long quotes, “A Christ whose resurrection occurs only in our minds has no right to call us to put our bodies on the line for justice.”  

The world is full of resurrection light and if we open the eyes of faith and open our hearts to receive him, we will see signs everywhere of Christ’s victory over death.

At the conclusion of our service this morning, we will be singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” along with thousands of churches around the world.  The story of the “Hallelujah Chorus” is a resurrection story, indeed.  

George Frederic Handel was a child prodigy.  At age 20, he was the best paid composer on earth with people fighting for his seats.  Over time, however, his fame became fleeting and people began to lose interest in his work.  Handel’s compositions began to fail.  Bankruptcy and depression followed.  Handel had a stroke and developed a palsy that crippled his fingers.

Many believed Handel’s career was over, including Handel himself.  Frederick the Great wrote that “Handel’s great days are over, his inspiration is exhausted.”  One night Handel walked the streets of London until the wee hours, while it was dark.  He made the decision that night to throw in the towel, to give up on his musical career.  He must have felt similar to the Marys’ on that first Easter morning –filled with despair and deep grief.  He lost his one and only love, that which gave him hope and life.  But when he returned home, early in the morning, he saw scripture laying on his desk.  (God does some of God’s best work early in the morning.)

A former colleague, Charles Jennens, was a scriptwriter and an angelic messenger.  Jennens had left the music on Handel’s desk with a note asking Handel to write music to the words.  Jennens skillfully blended Old and New Testament scriptures to tell the story of Jesus Christ from earliest prophecies of his birth to his triumphant resurrection and return.  He called it The Messiah.

Handel looked at the scripture passages and then crawled into bed.  The words “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” from Isaiah 40 began to play over and over in his head.  He needed comfort during this moment of despair.  He immediately got out of bed, went to the piano and began to put music to the words.  The popular legend says that he shut himself up in his room for three weeks, forgetting about food and sleep.  Later when Jennens walked in, he found him with tears streaming down his face, totally wrapped in inspiration.  When he finished the “Hallelujah Chorus” the story goes, Handel was reported to have said, “I did think I did see all of heaven before me and the great God Himself!”

The tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus began during a performance on March 23, 1743.  When the Hallelujah Chorus began King George II rose to his feet.  It is unclear why he stood up, he may have been stretching his legs, or he may have mistook the opening notes for the national anthem since he was partially deaf or he may have been tremendously moved by this outstanding music.  No one knows why King George stood but we do know that people around the world still rise to their feet whenever they hear the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus.

There are times in my life, like Handel, when I want to give up, throw in the towel, crawl into bed and put the covers over my head, but in the midst of such discouragement I remember that the story is not over until it is over.  Hallelujah!,

God still moves stones.  It may feel like Good Friday, but a resurrection is on the way.  It is death that is running out of time, not life.  It is despair running out of time, not hope.  It is panic running out of time, not peace.  It is fear running out of time, not faith.   

Do I believe in the resurrection?  I not only believe in the resurrection, I am counting on it.  I cannot verify by science that the resurrection of Christ occurred — the History channel tries to do that every year.  I believe in the resurrection because there are signs everywhere of Christ’s victory over death.  We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song! He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!