Sermon - Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011 - Easter is an Earthquake Print


(Preached on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011)


And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.                                                                        -Matthew 28:2


December 26, 2004 in Indonesia.      

October 8, 2005 in Pakistan.

August 15, 2007 in Peru.                   

May 12, 2008 in China.

January 12, 2010 in Haiti and February 27, 2010 in Chile.

And of course, March 11, 2011 in Japan.

On each of these dates, in each of these countries, the earth shook, and life changed dramatically.  The pictures from Japan are still fresh in our minds: the office buildings swaying, some toppling to the ground.  Roads were splitting and people dodging debris crashing onto the streets.  And then the tsunami washing boats inland and then sweeping whole parking lots of cars out to sea.  A tidal wave of mud and wreckage sluiced across fields, over airports, and erased entire villages.  Every major earthquake alters the equilibrium of the whole planet. 


When Matthew describes Easter beginning with an earthquake he is not talking about a little shake, rattle, and roll.  He wants us to understand that what has taken place is cosmic, earth and heaven shaking, not something private and personal with Jesus.  The resurrection of Jesus is a shaking of our known world by a great, cataclysmic act of God.  The whole world shook and the foundations of what is, of what can be, were rocked.  Matthew tells us an angel descended from heaven, the earth shook and the massive stone sealing Jesus in the tomb of death was rolled back and the angle took a seat on it in triumph.  The angel then told the women not to be afraid and turned to the soldiers guarding the tomb and told them to be very afraid.  For everything had changed for both the women and the soldiers.  All their old assumptions about how the world worked, who was on top and who was in charge and what was the ultimate result of life, all of it had changed.


The world is still grappling with this reality, trying to understand it and make sense of it.  And it is hard.  Because resurrection cannot be “explained” and because the world still looks like a Good Friday world, filled with torture and pain, tears and death.  We are being told that our nation can no longer sustain Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, especially for the poorest and the weakest among us.  We hear that the wars in which we have been engaged for more than 10 years are probably unwinnable, because the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq are so corrupt that peace and justice will never take hold.  We hear that thousands of jobs are gone, and they are never coming back.  We don’t know whether the health care reform act is going to finally take care of some of the least and the last in our society, or lead us into financial Armageddon.  Not only that but we have serious questions this morning as we gather whether God truly has any power over death.  The world suggests we are fools to hope so and has plenty of evidence to support their claim: Rwanda, Bergen-Belsen, Katrina, Haiti, the Gulags, Darfur, crack houses, pill mills, foreclosed houses, houses of abject pain and abuse, mothers killing children and foster parents doing the same.  The world is in the tight death-grip of the “facts.”  All that lives, dies. The good get it in the end.  Face facts.  It may be a rather somber world, but it is our world where things stay tied down and what dies stays that way.  And there are few surprises. 


That’s why Matthew shakes the ground!  Because as true as all that is, it does not capture the WHOLE truth.  The world around us believes that death and destruction have the final word.  As a result that world runs on cynicism, despair, and resignation: the Titanic is going down, its every man for himself, grab what you can, get yours and enjoy it, because it’s all going to end in oblivion!


But Easter brings God into the story – which brings hope and power and love and meaning.  Easter is not really about the resuscitation of a dead body or the immortality of the soul, some divine spark that endures after the end.  Easter is all about God!  That is why there is an earthquake, and an angel shining like lightning.  Easter is an earthquake with doors shaken off tombs and dead people walking the streets, the stone rolled away by the ruckus and an impudent angel sitting on it.  Now, a new world is offered to us, a new world shaken by the power of a God determined that death shall not be stronger than life.


On Good Friday, on the cross, the world did all it could to Jesus.  The powers of this earth put Jesus to death on that cross.  The powers of empire, the powers of domination and control, the powers of greed, the powers of fear and jealousy, the powers of falsehood and narrow-mindedness, the powers of manipulation and “how can we take advantage of the little guy and squeeze out more and more for us,” the powers of human sin; they all found a focus on the cross and they hung Jesus there to die.  And they thought they had won and taken care of one more threat to the status quo. 


They thought they had taken care of his radical social justice message.  This Jesus who had proclaimed: “Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the poor, the gentle, and the merciful.”  This Jesus who had stunned his listeners by asserting: “Love your enemies, pray for those who abuse you.”  This Jesus who had relaxed in the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, and went on to say that many of them would stand in the presence of God long before those self-righteous people on display at synagogue and temple.  This Jesus who told parables about a generous welcome home given to a prodigal son, and challenged us to a new way of loving others through his story about a Samaritan who helped a Jew mugged and left beaten by the side of the road.  This Jesus who insisted that we cannot worship both God and money, and who declared that the truly great people are those who put themselves last.  Crucifixion was the inevitable, predictable result of saying the things Jesus said, and doing the things Jesus did.  This is what the world always does to people who threaten the status quo of the world.


But at Easter God did all God could to the world.  And the earth shook.  On Easter God inserted a new fact.  God took the cruel cross and made it the means of triumph.  God took the worst the world could do – all our death-dealing doings – and led them out toward life.  And the earth shook.  A new world is thereby offered to us.  Jesus came back to forgive the very disciples who had forsaken him.  The world is about forgiveness, as it turns out, not vengeance.  And the earth shook.  Jesus greets the women on the way from the tomb and they grasp his feet and they can see the nail prints.  The world is about life, as it turns out, not death.  And the earth shook. 


On Easter God raised up Jesus of Nazareth – God did it.  Jesus did not raise himself, he was raised.  God said a momentous YES to Jesus, to this obscure Galilean prophet, and validated everything Jesus was and did in his life and ministry and death.  If he had just died on the cross, we could look at his life as a beautiful tragedy.  Because he has been raised, we can look at every aspect of his life as vindicated in a way no other life has ever been.  God is at work, death is defeated, and everything Jesus said and did is true.


Of course, none of this is easy.  To say God is at work, even when others don’t see it, even when you’re not sure you see it, is no easy matter.  But it does happen and it can be done.  Methodist preacher Will Willimon reported last year on two mission trips to Haiti with undergrad students following the earthquake.  He said that “there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing.  How dare they sing when their life expectancy is so horribly short?  Was their laughter an escapist respite from the unmitigated tragedy of their lives, or a smart rebuke to our assumption that their lives were trapped in tragedy?”  He went on to recount how after the earth heaved and darkness fell on Port-au-Prince that the people danced in the streets and sang hymns.  On CNN, Anderson Cooper was incredulous: “Don’t they know what they are saying about how bad it really is?”  Willimon concludes: “But what if the grieving women who came to the tomb on Easter morning are right?  What if Friday isn’t the end of the story?  What if Jesus told the truth – that he really is turning today’s tears into tomorrow’s laughter.  As far as I can tell, there’s only one thing we know that the world doesn’t: we know another story.  Listen … in Port-au-Prince they are singing ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!’”


You don’t have to see God at work in order for God to be at work.  You don’t have to leave a tomb convinced that Jesus is raised in order for Jesus to be raised.  You don’t even have to leave church on Easter Day feeling like a new person in order for God to be, right now, making you into someone new.  But the truth is: Jesus is risen!  God has won!  Death is defeated!  And Love, mercy, grace, acceptance, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword or a gun.  The world is different.  The Easter Earthquake has changed it all!