Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Empty Tomb

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Easter Sunday 
27 March 2016 11.00am

Mark 15.47-16.8a 
Daniel 7.9-14  

Listen to this sermon here:

There are some days
          when it can seem as if death has had the last word.

Just this week, yet another dark day dawned
          as news broke at breakfast of terrorist attacks in Brussels,
                    leaving many dead, many more injured,
                    and a city in mourning and fear for the future.

We live in a world where death, and terror, and oppression
          seem constantly to get the last word on life,
          and it is, truly, deeply depressing.

And after all, none of us are getting out of this alive,
          and for much of our time here
                   we are party to the desires of others
                   to make life far less than it could and should be.

People kill people, people terrorise people, people bully people.
          And it has always been so.

But what are we to do?
          How are we to respond to the darkness of our world?
Denial and business-as-usual can only get us so far,
          and yet reality is too hard to face for any sustained period of time.

So what is the path through the valley of death?
          How are we to negotiate these treacherous waters of chaos?

Well, it seems to me that for much of the time,
          both as individuals and as a society,
                    we just stare ever deeper and harder
                   into the murky depths of the tomb.

Our media holds the dark cavern of death before our eyes
          and invites us to look long upon the monsters
                   that inhabit the labyrinthine passages
                   of our darkest fears, and nightmarish dreamings.

The rolling news agenda of analysis and voyeurism
          keeps the darkness alive in our imaginations
          and the light of life dimmed to the point of being extinguished.

It’s the Easter story,
          re-visited in each of our lives, day by day, week by week.

We stare death in the face on Friday,
          and we sit in horror and shock on Saturday,
and then on Sunday
          we set out to revisit the grave of all our hopes and dreams.

Like a child who cannot leave alone the scab on their knee,
          we pick away at our pain,
          we subvert our capacity to heal,
          and we scar ourselves further.

We keep going back to the tomb.

This is why terrorism works, of course.
          This is why the Romans crucified their criminals,
          and it’s why there were bombs in Brussels this week.

The symbolic death of the representative few
          kills the life in the hearts and souls of the many.

Those who have stood and gazed upon the cross
          cannot rid themselves of the visions of horror that haunt their nights.
Those who have seen videos of beheadings in the desert,
          and read news reports of bombings in airports and subways,
          cannot rid themselves of the terror.

And so we keep going back to the tomb.

We construct a narrative of fear
          and then we step into that story
          and we live it into being in our lives and in our world.

We just keep on going back to the tomb.

But here’s a thought:
          What if the greatest force of evil in our world is not Isis,
                   what if it’s it is not fundamentalist Islam,
                   what it's not even homophobic evangelical Christianity?

What if the greatest force of evil in our world
          is the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves
                   into believing that truth is a lie
                   and that a lie has become truth?

What if the greatest force of evil in our world
          is how easily we exchange the truth of God for a lie,
          worshipping and serving the creature rather than the creator. (Rom. 1.25)

What I mean by this
          is that we idolize our fears,
                   and we allow them to control our actions,
          and in so doing we make ourselves subservient to our own creation.

We convince ourselves that the tomb contains terrors,
          and then we construct our lives around that lie.
We live the lie of fear into being,
          and we live out that fear in our thoughts and our actions.

I’m thinking of the Baptist pastor who said to me recently
          that he would love to welcome gay people into his church,
          but that he is afraid of being judged if he does so.

I’m thinking of the person who seeks to control and manipulate others to their will
          because they are deeply afraid of being wrong.

I’m thinking of the person who is afraid to speak out against injustice
          because they are afraid of the consequences
          for themselves and those they love.

I’m thinking of me, and I’m thinking of each of us;
          as we all, in our own ways, allow the terrors of the tomb
          to dictate our thoughts and our actions.

We keep going back to the tomb.

And then, in an attempt to live with ourselves, and our fears, and our guilt,
          we scapegoat those who do not fit our own construction of reality.
We put our fears onto the weak and the vulnerable,
          and then we put them out of our camp
          in a desperate attempt to sleep easier in our beds.

Whether it is the scapegoating of those with minority sexuality,
          or those of a different complexion,
                   or those of a different gender,
          or those of a different nationality,
                   or those of a different social standing,
          or those of a different religious belief,
                   or those of a different political opinion....

We take some of the fears and lies
          that inhabit the sephulcres of our minds
and we place these deceptions onto those who are not like us,
          in a vain attempt to rid ourselves of that which haunts our dreams.

And yet in all of this we miss the simple truth
          that was revealed to Mary, Mary, and Salome that first Easter morning:

The tomb is empty.
          The monsters are not real.
The decomposing corpse
          of our shattered dreams and nightmarish fears is not there.
The tomb, is empty.

The women hadn’t gone to the tomb of the crucified Jesus
          to encounter an empty tomb.
They had gone to pour oils on a dead and broken body,
          as one final act of love and devotion
          to their shattered dreams and crushed hopes.

They knew Jesus to be dead;
          they had seen him die.
They knew him to be in the tomb;
          they had seen him laid there.
They knew that the stone was firmly across the entrance
          and that they would not even have enough strength
          to roll it away to see once again the corpse that lay within.

Yet still they went to the tomb, in despair and fear and futility;
          as we all go, in our own ways, to gaze again upon the tomb of our own fears.

But at the tomb of Jesus,
          the women discovered that the tomb itself was a lie.

The stone was rolled away,
          and the body they feared to find wasn’t there.

The simple truth that confronted the women
          is the same truth that confronts us:

The tomb is empty.
          It’s power is void.
It’s deception is exposed,
          and it’s hold over us is broken.

This is the message of Easter.

But how are we to hear this message?
          How do we take deep within ourselves
                   the revelation of resurrection;
          that offers us a way through the valley of death,
                   and guides us through the waters of chaos?

Mark’s gospel tells us that when the women got to the tomb
          they looked up, they looked again (15.4).
It was on second sight
          they saw the tomb to be empty.

Like the blind men, earlier in Mark’s gospel (8.25, 10.51)
          it was a miracle of seeing that opened their eyes
          to the reality of the new world of the empty tomb.

And we, like the women, need to learn what it is to look again,
          we need to learn to see through the lies and deceptions of death,
          to the truth of new life that lies beyond our mortal expectations.

In our fears and our imaginations the tomb remains filled with horrors,
          and we are prevented from seeing reality
          by the stone of impediment that blocks our sight.

It is only when we are enabled to look again,
          that we can see the stone to have been rolled away,
          and experience the reality of the empty tomb.

But this is not something which we can do for ourselves.

Like the women at the tomb of Jesus,
          we do not have the strength in ourselves
                   to roll away the stone and let in the light
                   that will reveal the cupboard within to be devoid of terror.

The intervention we need in our lives
          is the same as that experienced by the women.
There is nothing we can do to move the stone;
          but by grace it has already been rolled away for us.
We need only have eyes to see it.[1]

We live our lives out of our narrative of fear and death,
          afraid of the darkness within ourselves,
and yet if only we could have the eyes to see it,
          the doorway to the darkness of our souls has already been opened,
          and the light is streaming in to banish the terrors of the night.

This is an invitation to a radically new way of being human.

It is an invitation to learn to live in an entirely new way,
          where our thoughts and actions are determined not by darkness but by light,
                   not by death but by life.

It is an invitation for us to step across a threshold
          and discover the true life that awaits us
          when we confront our fears and find them groundless.

Maybe we, like the women, need to hear the divine messenger
          telling us to not be afraid.

Maybe we need our own moment of divine encounter,
          to open our eyes to the reality of life reasserted in the face of death.

Maybe we need to meet the risen Christ for ourselves,
          present by his Spirit in the place of our deepest fear,
          speaking words of peace and new life to our troubled souls.

But see what happens to the women next…

Their fears are confounded, and they discover the empty tomb.
          They encounter the messenger who seeks to calm their troubled minds.

And then they are told to leave the tomb,
          and head back to the real world,
          back to Galilee, back to normality,
          to encounter the risen Christ in their homes, and families, and communities.

We are not called to sit and stare at the empty tomb,
          any more than we are called to linger our gaze forever on the cross.

Because new life is for living,
          and if we allow our fears to silence our witness
          to the good news of the empty tomb,
then we simply roll back the stone
          and fill the void once again with the terrors of our imagination.

‘Do not be afraid’, says the messenger,
          ‘Go to Galilee and meet the risen Christ’.

But Mark tells us that the women fled from the tomb, seized by terror,
          and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (15.8).

And there, in its original form, Mark’s gospel ends.
          The additional ending, we will come to next week.
But for now, the story stops where Mark intends it to stop,
          and the rhetorical force of the hanging ending is compelling.

Those of us who read Mark’s account of the empty tomb,
          are invited to identify ourselves with the women.
We are invited to see ourselves in their desire to revisit the tomb,
          and to gaze once more on the death of hope.
We are invited to share with them their futility
          in the face of the immovable stone.
And we are invited to look again with them
          and to realise that the tomb of terrors is thrown open
          and revealed to be empty.

But we are also invited to consider what we will do next.

Will we, like the women,
          go from here in silence, struck dumb by our encounter?

Or will we go seeking the risen Christ,
          and meeting him on the way.

New life does not come easy to the world,
          we do not leave our fears behind us without a struggle.

But there are days when life springs unexpectedly
          from the barren soil of existence,
and hope is reawakened in the souls of those who thought faith had long gone.

Death and resurrection,
          brokenness and healing,
marginalization and empowerment,
          sin and reconciliation,
          injustice and transformation:
All these shape the very pattern of the Christian life.[2]

And our experience of resurrection, healing, empowerment,
          reconciliation and transformation is a pure, unearned gift of God.
But it is also the ultimate test of,
          and the only hope for, a disciple’s faith.

What difference will the empty tomb make for us tomorrow, this week, this year?

Where will we face down our fears and find them to be groundless,
          where will we speak words of new life to those trapped in cycles of death,
what opportunities will we take to breathe new life into those we meet,
          knowing that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.

How, I wonder, will Mark’s story of the empty tomb
          find its completion in the narratives of our lives,
as we re-write our own stories
          based on life rather than death.

As Desmond Tutu puts it in his book, ‘An African Prayerbook’
Victory is Ours
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

[1] A quote from Ched Myers et al, Say to this Mountain, p. 206
[2] Say to this Mountain, 209

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Holy Saturday and The Millennium

The rhetorical strategy that John utilizes in Revelation is one that encourages readers of the Apocalypse to locate themselves within the text. 

Those reading the work are invited not only to identify themselves as various characters within the narrative,  but also to find their circumstances reflected in the imagery that John constructs. 

Thus John’s first audience could equate their own experiences of suffering and martyrdom with those of Jesus the slain Lamb, while finding their hope of resurrection expressed through the continued existence of the Lamb on the throne. 

Some of John’s audience may have found themselves suffering the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, or the fear of Good Friday morning, or they may have seen others join Jesus on the cross through a martyrs death. 

In its invitation to identify with Jesus, Revelation therefore encourages its audience to interpret their own lives according to the lived example of Jesus himself, with the events of the cross becoming real in their lives.

A way to understand John’s imagery of the millennium and the subsequent release of Satan is to read it in the light of the crucifixion story. The audience are invited to locate themselves in the space of Easter Saturday, awaiting resurrection and restoration, confidently hopeful, but still living with the present pain of Friday’s grief and horror. 

By this reading, the martyrs have departed the present life of suffering and gone to vindication (20.1–7), and Satan’s hold on the world has been broken through the sacrificial deaths of both Jesus and the martyrs. However, in the present experience of John’s audience, Satan is still loose in the world making war on the dwelling places of the saints. 

In this way, the Easter weekend can be seen as a paradigm for reading the story of the Church as presented in Revelation 20.1–10. The following table expresses these correspondences:

Crucifixion narrative                          Revelation Ch. 20
Death of Jesus                                  Martyrdom of believers
Victory over Satan on the cross          Binding of Satan in the pit
Easter Saturday                                  Release of Satan ‘for a little while’
Resurrection                                 Final judgement and new creation

For more, see Simon Woodman, The Book of Revelation, SCM, 2008.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Everlasting to everlasting

Everlasting to everlasting;
eternity to eternity;
moment by moment.
Life is a mystery of being,
a constant quest for meaning.
Tired old bones struggle onwards
while the spirit leaps to new heights.
Faith grows stronger even as it dies,
and hope will not quiet down.
And in all this, love persists,
hunting each second
and bringing home it's quarry.

Monday, 7 March 2016

A Blessing

May God the three-in-one, who binds us together in community as one body, fire us by the Spirit, inspire us to live the life of the Son, and indwell us with the love of the Father; this day and for evermore.

Prayers of Intercession – The Body of Christ

Great God of the whole earth, you call us to be your body. And so today, as your body gathered in this place, we offer our whole selves to your service. May we be knit together by your Spirit, so that our common life reflects your calling and your will.

Direct our thoughts, words, and deeds in ways that make real in this world the eternal truth of your coming kingdom.

Teach our eyes to see the world as you see it, rather than as the world wants to be seen. May we learn to see through the insidious propaganda that so readily dominates human relationships from the interpersonal to the international. May we learn that the ‘other’ is also a child of God, as deeply loved and valued as we are ourselves. From the abstract refugee, migrant, and asylum seeker, to the person we find most difficult in our day to day lives, may we discover you in those we fear. And so we pray for those who help us to see. We pray for journalists, for the opinion formers, for politicians, and for bloggers. We thank you for fearless truth telling, and we pray for integrity for all those who show others what to believe. We thank you for the freedom of speech that we enjoy in this country, and we ask for your wisdom as we discern where we should direct our own eyes. May we look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.

And as we have seen, so we must do. Teach us, living Lord, where we should take our stand. May we be released from the compulsion to aggressively defend our own territory, and instead may we learn what it means to stand on justice and righteousness and truth. As the firm ground of our certainties shifts beneath us, may we learn how to walk new paths of collaboration and cooperation. So we pray for our traditional enemies, for those who we instinctively stand against, and we ask that in the new world of your Spirit, enemies may become friends reaching out across borders previously uncrossed. And so we pray for Israel and Palestine, and for Syria and Iraq, and for the countries of Europe. May peace and justice and righteousness prevail. We pray also for those who take their stand on issues of moral or theological certainty, and in so doing exclude others from your love. Grand us again a vision of your universal kingdom which recognises no divisions and transcends all borders.

And as we negotiate the changing territory of the world, we pray that you will direct our actions. May the works of our hands be acceptable in your sight. May we build friendships and not enmities. May we reach out in love and acceptance to those whom others would push away. May we become your body, extending a welcome to all, in your name; bringing food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and healing to the sick. May our hands be generous in your service, releasing our time, talents and money to the service of your kingdom. So we pray for all those with whom we partner as we reach out to the vulnerable and hurting of this world. We commit to our care and guidance our relationships with BMS World Mission, Christian Aid, and the Amos Trust, who extend our reach around the glove, and also more locally the work of London Citizens, the Simon Community, the C4WS night shelter, and the Green Light team. Great God of us all, teach us to live in love, to stand in hope, and to act with justice.

For the sake of your kingdom. Amen.