an idle tale?

- Luke 24:1-12; Psalm 118 (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

“Perplexed. Terrified. Disbelieving. Amazed.” 
These are the words that Luke uses to describe the church’s response to the resurrection. We expect words like “praised God” or “filled with rejoicing.” There must surely be a “Hallelujah” or at least an “Amen.” After all, these are the words that fill the Easter section of our hymn books. We know that Easter Sunday is a day for rejoicing. And it is. But, first, says Luke there is perplexity. The resurrection is not simply the rebirth of the earth in the springtime. Don’t get me wrong, I am as grateful for a glorious spring day like today as you are. It is just that the resurrection confounds nature. It is the reason that Easter is perhaps best celebrated in the southern hemisphere, where the days are growing shorter and the leaves are dying, not budding. Then the songs of rejoicing might sound, well, a bit more perplexing. Even in its rejoicing over the news of the resurrection the church remains perplexed by the mystery. Are you perplexed by the resurrection? Join the crowd!

Along with perplexity comes terror. The women find the tomb empty and are greeted by “two men in dazzling clothes.” The women are terrified. This is no Easter egg hunt. It is not a stroll in a daffodil garden. It is an awesome moment, full of danger and power. To draw near to the resurrection is to get close to the raw, high voltage energy of God. It is something like staring into the mouth of a volcano or like being at the mercy of a powerful earthquake. If the resurrection is simply a symbol for new life then it is hardly terrifying. But if the resurrection is a window into a whole new world, a new reality, a new “real world” in which God is moving with power to breathe life where there is death ... well, then, getting close to the source of that holy energy will bring terror to puny earthlings like us.

The angelic messengers tell the women “He is not here, but has risen.” They are the first Easter Sunday preachers. The women report this news “to the eleven and to all the rest.” Perhaps now we will finally hear an “Alleluia.” But no. There is no rejoicing at the news. There is disbelief: “these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.” An idle tale. The Bible is nothing if not brutally honest. Disbelief - not belief - is the first response of these believers. Can we be surprised that it is also the first response of a world of disbelief? The resurrection is obviously difficult to believe. But belief is not impossible. The life of the church, of the saints, of our life together witnesses to the truth that in the resurrection God has stepped into time to begun a new time, a new world, a new creation. And that God intends our broken lives - all broken lives - to be caught up in the new thing called resurrected life.

The struggle to believe, to understand, to receive this new world on the other side of the resurrection leads the church to Psalm 118. Have you noticed? On Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday - year after year - there is one reading that never changes. Psalm 118. It is the Psalm that the disciples remember as they confront the new reality we call Easter. They remember it because it is a song of God’s triumph in the face of impossible odds. It is a song of belief when disbelief fill the air. Notice how it begins. Four times in the first four verses the same line is repeated, each time by different voices in the congregation: “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” This phrase is not repeated because it is self-evident. It is repeated because it is hard to believe in a world of too much hunger, too much greed, too much heartbreak. It is like a chant that has to be sung deep into the heart of the community to replace the old tapes that loop over and over again. Tapes of shame and guilt, of anger and revenge, of despair and depression. Tapes of disbelief in the goodness of God. It is the reason that we will keep on celebrating Easter for the next fifty days. The world around us will be on to something new. Here in British Columbia many will wonder why Monday is an Easter holiday. For us the great festival of Easter is just beginning. We will be singing the news of the resurrection into our minds and bodies, hearts and souls for seven Sundays.

Psalm 118 provides the church with a cruciform template for telling the news. It notices that God’s right hand (apparently God’s strong arm - much to the chagrin of those of us who are left-handed) has acted with strength: “The right hand of God does mighty things.” But notice the mighty thing God has done: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This is a crucial verse for the church. It is quoted not once, not twice but four times in the New Testament (Matt. 21:42-43; Mk. 12:10-11; Acts 4:11 & I Peter 2:7). The verse portrays a construction site with stone masons selecting square, uniform stones as they build walls that are square and true. A pile of rejected, flawed stones collects on the site. Then, at a crucial moment in the construction, the stone masons send their apprentices to the pile of rejects searching for just the right stone to tie the whole building together. It is, I suspect, the reason that in Greek the word that is used can also mean “keystone” or “capstone” which is the small stone that locks an arch into place. However, Hebrew stone masons do not know about arches with keystones. But “cornerstone”? It is the first stone put in place. How can a rejected stone become the cornerstone? I asked Gerald about it and this sent him off to explore the Hebrew word that is used here. Sure enough, the word means something like “top-stone” or “head-stone.” We don’t know enough about Hebrew building techniques to know exactly how this stone fits structurally into the building. It sounds like a crucial stone added at the top. For the church it describes a God who takes the very one we have rejected - Jesus Christ - and makes of him the crucial building block in the future God is creating. Paul says that preaching Christ crucified - Christ rejected - is a scandalous stumbling block to religious people and utter foolishness to non-religious people (I Cor. 1:22-23). Yet, to those who find themselves believing in spite of - or, perhaps, through - their perplexity, terror and disbelief “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:24). For if God can birth a new world through a stone that the builders reject then God can also raise rejected lives and forgotten souls and marginalized peoples here and now.
It is this day, this impossibly new day when the rejected becomes the source of a new future, that Psalm 118 refers to when it teaches us to sing: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It is not referring to just any day. It is referring to God’s utterly new day. The perplexing, terrifying, incredible day that the early church names “the eighth day of Creation.” Easter Sunday. Every Sunday. God’s new creation day. This is the day that has broken open the status quo of your life - and of the world's life - and made everything new. It is the day on the other side of death, on the other side of the diagnosis, on the other side of what should have marked the end but, instead, turns out to mark the beginning - the beginning of life under the reign of Christ who brings life to the lost and the least. No wonder Peter goes home “amazed at what had happened.” It is amazing - stunning - to discover that, in a world and in lives so submerged in pain and trouble, “God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Christ is risen. Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed."

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