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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on John 20: 1-18

On the evening before Jesus died, Jesus gathered his disciples together and made them a promise. He said, “In a little while, I am going to leave you, but I will not leave you desolate. I will not leave you orphaned. I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit to be with you in my name. So, don’t let your hearts be troubled. Don’t let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Though the centuries, in joy, in sorrow, in the midst of trouble, Jesus’ followers have counted on that promise. If I were to ask you, “What is the gospel? What is the faith that comforts you and sustains you and carries you when you suffer?”, I expect that many of you would answer, “God is with you. We do not journey alone. We do not suffer alone. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou are with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me’ (Psalm 23)”.

A New Creed of the United Church of Canada proclaims, ‘We are not alone. We live in God’s world. . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. Thanks be to God.” At Christmas, we heard Jesus named Emmanuel — God-with-us. As we headed into Holy Week, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you desolate.”

We count on it. We hold onto it. Time and time again people have told me that they have felt its truth in their lives.

And yet, there have also been times when counting on that promise has been more a matter of faith than of certainty. You can go through stretches — sometimes long stretches— when you do not experience God present with you. You can come to a place where you have to choose to trust that God is with you. You choose to trust the promise even thought there is so much evidence to the contrary. You lean into the promise rather than resting in it. There may be times when you cannot manage even that.

This morning’s gospel story tells us that that is where Easter begins. Did you catch it? “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” “While it was still dark”, because on Friday, Jesus, the Light of the World, had died on a Roman cross and his disciples’ hope had died with him. “While it was still dark” — in those times when nothing you can do will fix what has gone wrong and you cannot make it right no matter how hard you try. “While it was still dark” — in those times when the disciples of Jesus, the community of faith, is scattered, and fragmented and frightened and not at all sure what the future holds.

In that dark place, where hope cannot be found, and you are full of questions and doubts and uncertainties and you may not even be able to pray, God is at work. Even there the promise hold.

Very often, God’s resurrection work in your life is going to be hidden from your eyes. That does not mean that nothing is happening. By the time any of us gets to Easter morning, God has already entered into the depths of our lives, overcome the power of death and brought the dead to life and begun a new creation, a new world.

The chances are that you are going to see the evidence of God’s resurrection, God’s saving work in your life, only well after Easter has already begun. More than that, the chances are that it won’t look anything like you thought it would.

Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb, expecting to sit for a while in her grief and her pain and her loss. She sees that the stone that had been rolled in front of the tomb on Friday now had been removed from the tomb. She does not immediately thing, “Oh, look — resurrection! God has raised Jesus from the dead. Everything is okay now.” No. She sees the emptiness and the absence and says, “Someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” She thinks that the grave has been robbed. It wasn’t enough that the powers-that-be had killed Jesus. Now, they had added hurt upon hurt, sorrow upon sorrow and had stolen him away from her as well.

She runs to the church — to Peter and the beloved disciple. They are not too sure what to make of the empty tomb either. They both see signs of God’s resurrection power at work — the stone moved away, the missing body, the folded grave cloths —but only one of them ‘believed’ and they both just went back home. They went back to the way things already were, as if nothing had happened. Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. She turns around and sees someone standing there and she thinks it is the gardener.

The God who comes to us in Jesus is a God who creates new life where there is only death; a God who takes our dead ends and opens up new possibilities; a God who makes new and heals and saves. Yet, this new resurrection life does not come easily. None of us receives it easily.

You can get stuck in your expectations of what God is supposed to do, or what God’s work is supposed to look like, or what God’s promised presence is supposed to feel like. You are going to have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ in your life. Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, “A God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is . . . Being a person of faith doesn’t mean you get to be certain. It means you get to be surprised.”

Our God is a living God, a God of surprises. “I will not leave you desolate,” promises Jesus, but the only way to live into Jesus’ promise is to “live expectantly but without expectations”. All we know is this: God’s love is a firm, determined love that will not let you go. There is no situation so lost that God cannot find you in it and bring you home. There is no wreckage so total that God cannot redeem it and use it for good and holy purposes. God works way beyond your expectations. Resurrection is larger, deeper, more wondrous than any of us expects.

A Risen Saviour is on the loose. Nothing in all creation can stop him. And he knows your name. Thanks be to God.

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