Sermon: The Joy of Unmet Expectations

Sunday, April 17, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 22:49; sermon starts around 29:02)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

This is the same joyful greeting that centuries of Christians have used to greet each other on Easter morning.  Because this is indeed a day of great joy!  For many of us, the joy of this day is pretty obvious – the joy of gathering with family, of seeing children and grandchildren, the joy of a time to rest and a time to celebrate with the people we care about.  And especially after these long years of wandering through the wilderness of a global pandemic, I know my own heart is full of joy at just being able to celebrate this day gathered here together.

But of course, the true joy of Easter goes much deeper than even these joys.  What we celebrate today is the fact that the fundamental order of the cosmos has been shifted.  There is now an empty tomb where a grave should have been.  There’s nothing but linens where a dead body should have been.  There is now life where death should have been.  Christ’s resurrection is the death of death itself.  And since we have been baptized into his death, we now live, filled with the hope that one day we – and all those we love – will also be raised with Christ to eternal life.  That’s more than enough to move us to cry out: Alleluia, alleluia!

Given the joyful nature of the day, though, it is a bit strange that this joy seems to be almost absent in our gospel reading for this morning.  This text from Luke is certainly full of many feelings, but joy isn’t really one of them.  Instead, the people in this reading move from grief to perplexity to outright terror to disbelief, and finally to amazement – which is really all the closer we get to actual joy in this text. 

And it kind of makes sense – I mean, it’s not like the people in this reading know that it’s the first Easter!  And just imagine the journey these women have been on.  Their journey had probably begun in disbelief and perplexity.  They had heard this man from Galilee preach and had seen him perform extraordinary acts of healing and compassion.  And gradually, they allowed themselves to hope, to believe, that this man really was the Messiah and the Son of God.  Like the other disciples, they too left everything behind to follow Jesus.  They followed him all the way from Galilee to the foot of the cross in Jerusalem.  And unlike the other disciples, they stuck around to the bitter end and stayed with Jesus as he died.  

So when these women showed up at the tomb on that first Easter morning, they knew what they would find.  They had followed Joseph of Arimathea and had seen exactly how he laid Jesus’ body in the tomb, and they planned accordingly.  They came in grief to the tomb that morning, ready to prepare the body of their dear friend for a proper burial – to say goodbye with this one final act of love.  But nothing could have prepared them for what they found instead.  The tomb was empty.  The massive stone across the entrance had somehow been rolled away, and only a few linen cloths were left behind as evidence that Jesus’ body had ever lain there.  From their grief, they were suddenly plunged back into confusion and disbelief.

And then those feelings were quickly replaced by terror as two complete strangers, dressed to the nines, appear beside them out of nowhere.  They ask the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Well, what kind of a question is that?  They had come to a graveyard afterall, looking for a grave – with a body in it!  But instead, their careful plans are divinely interrupted – and they receive the mind-blowing news: “He is not here.  He has risen.”

I think it’s kind of a shame that we don’t read more of the stories in Luke’s gospel of what happens next – we mostly stay in John’s gospel for the Easter season this year.  But Luke’s post-resurrection stories are some of my favorites.  They continue this theme of Jesus turning up missing and then showing up where he’s least expected – and his disciples being startled and even terrified in the process, before getting to the joy part.  And Jesus almost seems to take delight in blowing their minds and in turning everything they were so sure they knew completely upside down.

Right after our reading for today, this chapter continues with the story of the road to Emmaus.  You might remember the story: two of Jesus’ followers are walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, grieving together over all that has happened, when Jesus himself shows up and starts walking with them.  Their eyes – for whatever reason – are kept from recognizing him.  And rather than give the game away, Jesus chooses to play dumb and pretends that he has no idea what’s been happening in Jerusalem – and in so doing, he gets them to tell him the story.  It’s not until later in the evening, when they sit down for dinner together and he takes the bread and blesses it and breaks it that they recognize him – and in that instant, he vanishes from their sight!

I can just see those two disciples left sitting there in that room, completely gobsmacked with amazement, staring wide-eyed at each other like, “What just happened??”  But then they immediately run out and tear down the road back to Jerusalem in the middle of the night.  They find the other disciples hiding together in a locked room – and they get there just in time for Jesus to suddenly appear again, right in their midst.  And after another moment of pants-soiling terror, the truth of what has happened finally begins to truly sink in for the disciples.  And in that moment their grief and terror and amazement are transformed into unimaginable joy.

I love these stories because they are a reminder that Jesus doesn’t always show up in the ways or the places we expect.  He doesn’t always do the things we expect.  But that doesn’t mean that he is absent.  Instead it often means he’s waiting to show up and joyfully surprise us in ways that we don’t see coming – sometimes even in ways that we didn’t think possible.  These stories are a reminder that, with Christ, even our feelings of deep grief and lostness and fear can become the prelude to great joy.  

Today, we celebrate that some women went looking for Jesus – and didn’t find him.  We celebrate that the world doesn’t always work the way that we have resigned ourselves to think that it does.  We celebrate that there is an empty tomb where a grave should be – that there is life where death should be.  

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  
He is risen indeed, alleluia.

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