Luke 24: 1-12
Amid times of intense sorrow due to tragic deaths, terrible destructions, or fierce storms, people continue to look for signs that tell them they can hope again. Some of the stories have made the news, some haven’t. This week, nearly everyone around the world stopped what they were doing to listen to the descriptions or watch the pictures of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning out of control. It seemed unbelievable. The scenes pulled at the souls of many to see the mighty spire become a torch, and then become a tumbling pile of embers. It broke people’s hearts to see the ceiling burning like a bonfire. Yet readers of Ken Follett’s magnificent novel The Pillars of the Earth would have learned why is character Tom Builder crafted a mighty cathedral to the glory of God, also using wood timbers in the towering ceiling to pull one’s eyes upward as the person entered. Other would-be builders tried to make a cathedral roof of stone with devasting collapses. The wood ceiling would hold, but the size was limited to the number of trees that were tall enough- generally 32 feet. Ken Follett wrote: “The nave [of the cathedral] was high, impossibly high. But a cathedral had to be a dramatic building, awe inspiring in its size, pulling the eye heavenward with its loftiness.” [Signet Books: New York 1989, p. 292] There is an Achilles heel to wood structures, and that is fire. Notre Dame, a classic cathedral, a seat of a bishop, crafted with flying buttresses for support, inspired people to think of God, but its structure was vulnerable to age, nature, sabotage, or accident. A fire ruined the cathedral in Ken Follett’s story, and the builder’s son set the fire. Fires burned down three predominately African American churches in Louisiana last month, and it is alleged that a deputy’s son set all three fires. Horrible. What is the link between a mighty cathedral and three smaller congregations with tragedies? What is the link between a city in Antioch, listed in the book of Acts, where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians?” The linchpin of all these stories, and churches and Christians, is the empty tomb of Easter! And the key word is hope. Hope appears through words, prayers, and sometimes signs. As evening turned to darkness in Paris as the fire continued to smolder, people wondered if the building was a total loss. Then as if by answer from heaven, the light from embers shone on the golden cathedral cross, still standing in place. People saw it, and it gave them hope. Do you remember a tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi on January 25th, 2017? Part of what the tornado hit was William Carey University. As staffers combed through the wreckage, they came upon a stunning scene: the college chapel was badly damaged, but in its center was a pulpit with an open Bible, apparently not disturbed. The Bible was open to a page where this could be read: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” [Psalm 46] Not every story of hope has a cross still standing or a Bible untouched. Some of you were here when this church structure was pounded by three hurricanes in 2004. The roofs leaked badly; ceiling tiles fell on pews near parishioners; Bibles and hymnals got ruined; repairs were made. But we had hope in part because of our Presbyterian connections: Disaster Assistance immediately sent us $10,000 toward repairs, and the Presbyterian Publishing House replaced our hymnals and our Bibles. And guess what we made our new ceiling out of? Yep not ceiling tiles; but wood! Wood like many other houses of worship great and small. Yes it calls for caution, but it also makes eyes rise upward to the glory of God: One organist who got two degrees from Notre Dame used to be the Associate Organist at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville, Florida. He posted this on Tuesday, words from a Concordia Seminary professor:
Build beautiful churches, attend them, cherish them.
Build beautiful churches not because God needs such a house,
But because their beauty reminds us of God’s presence, and of his love.
Build beautiful churches, not boxes … not auditoriums with stages and
Coffee houses. Build beautiful churches to express the beauty of our Lord.
And if they should burn down, rebuild them, and fill them with your presence, With your prayers and songs, with God’s Word, with baptismal waters, …for these are the things that make a church truly beautiful. (Prof. Peter J. Scaer)
Today there is one event that ties this congregation, and a congregation in Paris, and congregations in Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Antioch and many other places together: it is the celebration of this day: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! This was earth shattering news! People had not risen from the dead before. That news changed everything! People today all over the world are celebrating this one event that started Churches and Christianity; started Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life; started Christian camps and conferences and mission trips. That resurrection was the catalyst for those! That event changed darkness into light; and hopeless into hope. The tomb, depicted here in our sanctuary, was near the cross of Golgotha where the body of Jesus was hurriedly placed since it was nearly the sabbath day when no burials could be conducted. His body was laid on a stone slab and women returned to anoint his body after the sabbath was over. A large stone had been moved over the entrance of the tomb after his body was placed there. One gospel even says that guards were posted outside for fear that disciples would steal his body. But his body was not stolen; it was raised bodily from the dead! The women found the stone rolled away and Luke says they saw two men there, and one of them asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Indeed. That day changed the course of history. Our whole dating system is based on the birth, life, and death of Jesus. If you allow yourself in the midst of sorrow, to look for signs of hope, you may indeed begin to be filled with hope again.
Don’t be ashamed if you doubt this story! Plenty of people have over the years! But a torrent of people has also tested the evidence, and have come to believe. Famously Lee Strobel, an atheist and an attorney educated at Yale Law School, set out to determine if there was enough evidence to believe the truth of Easter. He assembled scholars schooled at the major universities. They reached their conclusions and Strobel put them in his book, The Case for Christ, where he ended up making the case for Christ instead of against him! His conclusion: “The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth. It was a stunning and radical outcome….” [Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 266]
Today I invite you to consider the findings of Lee Strobel and many others, and to acknowledge the uplifting power of hope and the withering weakness of hopelessness. Hope lifts our heads! Hope lifts our hearts! Hope says, “We can rebuild!” or “I can find a new job!” or “I can get through this.” In 2018 alone in Volusia and Flagler Counties, there were 112 fatal shooting. Of those 112 shootings, 89 were suicides! 89! People who saw no way out, who were despondent or hopeless. The gift of Easter was given so that we might have life, and have it abundantly! Let’s turn around the numbers of deaths, rebuild structures, and rebuild lives. We now serve a risen Savior! He lives! It is right to give our thanks and our praise.
Happy Easter! Now join me as we are transported to “the Holy City!”
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 21, 2019