A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 8th April 2007, Easter Day, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Mark 16:1-8.
Praise the Lord, Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed!
This was a typical greeting for the early Christians centuries ago. Yes, for them this was the most important faith response. For without the Risen Christ, there would not be any Christian Church; and our faith in God would become meaningless.
Let us go back to the Gospel lesson we just heard. It was probably the earliest written record about the story of the Empty Tomb, which signified the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
First, it was recorded that when the Sabbath was over, three women, Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of Jesus; and Salome brought spices to go to anoint the body of Jesus who was crucified and laid to rest in that tomb. The only worry they had as they walked towards the tomb was that: who would roll back the big stone so that they could enter the tomb to minister Jesus’ body? But alas, when they arrived at the tomb, the stone was already rolled back. So with a sense of awe, they went into the tomb. They were even more alarmed once they were inside because they were told by “a young man sitting on the right wearing a white robe” (presumably where the body was supposed to be laid), that Jesus has been raised!
First, the stone blocking the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid was, “a very large stone” (it was specially added in the Gospel of Mark). It was rolled away. A rolled away stone is a tremendous symbol. Only when that stone was rolled away, would Jesus’ resurrection become real. Without the rolling away of the stone, there would not be an empty tomb and the women could not go in to witness that the crucified Jesus has been risen.
I served in a parish church in Shek Kip Mei resettlement area in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The new church building was under construction when I arrived in 1966. It was built on a big rock (Shek in Chinese means rock – that was why the area was named Shek Kip Mei, the edge or the end of a big rock). While that Church was built, a new road was also cut from that rock so that there was an approach road to the Church from both Shek Kip Mei and Tai Hang Tung resettlement areas. Ten years later, the big rock was dug or drilled again. This time it was for the construction of the Mass Transit Railway and the Shek Kip Mei MTR station. A stone was cut back so that a new linking road, new buildings; a church and a high school adjacent to it, as well as the MTR could be built.
There was such a report. Soon after the Second World War, a famous British botanist found many small plants and flowers from the rubbles on both sides of the River Thames. By one count, there were about 500 different kinds of plants and flowers which have never been found in those areas before. The theory was that over the past three centuries, both banks of River Thames were so heavily built that the fertile soil along the River was covered totally by concrete, bricks and stones that it became impossible for any small plants and flowers to grow.
Stone rolled away is a tremendous symbol of giving birth to new life. Would it be true that oftentimes our life is blocked by “stones” of many different types that our kindness, smile and generosity are covered up. We need to have the audacity to remove or roll away these stones which are our selfishness, self-righteousness and self-deceit. Indeed our fear and insecurity often hinder us from living a life of happiness and fulfillment.
The Easter story was also about how the women, the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection reacted: they were “alarmed” (Vs. 5), “distressed” and “terrified” as well as “afraid” (Vs. 8). Mary Madalene; Mary, the mother of Jesus and Salome were alarmed, distressed, terrified and afraid because they were not prepared to face new situations. They expected the crucified Jesus to be laid to rest; but Jesus was not there. Furthermore, they were told that Jesus has been risen. This was shocking to them because this radical change, from a dead person to a risen Christ, had taken place. This was far more than they even expected or dreamt of.
We too are afraid of changes. We would rather have things we are accustomed to, though they may be far from ideal.
My father lived a long life, four months short of 96 years. He did not like overnight travels. He had never been on an airplane all his life. He told me the reason why he did not like to leave home was because he could not sleep in another bed other than his own at home. He firmly believed a Chinese saying that “the emperor’s bed is not as comfortable as the dog’s pan.”
“Newsweek” once labelled me a social critic in Hong Kong. In reality I criticized the established Church in Hong Kong much more than the Hong Kong government or the big business tycoons. To me, the biggest problem of the Church in Hong Kong is that it followed an extra commandment, i.e. “Don’t rock the boat, play it safe.” Indeed Christians and Church leaders in Hong Kong are too afraid to change and facing changes. Invariably they always try their best to maintain the status quo, despite deep down in their hearts, they know Hong Kong is far from being a just, participatory and sustainable society and that there is a Christian moral responsibility for them to do something about it.
New possibilities, new perspectives and new life can only come about when we dare to face change. I have seen how a chicken struggled to break through an egg shell and come to life.
Which leads me to the centre of my sermon this morning. The Easter Story is finally about our Lord Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead. Can you imagine two days ago Jesus was mocked, beaten and nailed on a cross. Moreover, he did not die instantly on the cross. According to the Scriptures he was left there for a good three to six hours before he breathed his last (Mt. 27:45-50; Mk 15:33-37; Lk 23:44-46). We can imagine the pain Jesus had to bear. After he died, his body was placed on a rich person’s burial ground. He was finally laid to rest in peace or R.I.P. His body could then enjoy some peace after so much suffering and pain. It must not be easy for Jesus to decide to carry his disfigured body, full of bruises and pain to get up and walk out of the tomb. It required a great deal of courage. But Jesus did. Moreover, I am sure Jesus did not do it for himself. Rather he did it so that he could fulfill God’s plan of bringing ultimate salvation for all people.
In the summer of 1965, I did field education in several camps around Denver and Salt Lake City. Naturally, my host minister drove me to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It was a stunning view as we looked towards the North side of the Canyon. I asked my host how we could see the Canyon from the North side as well. He told me that the only way to cross the Canyon was to ride a donkey down to the bottom of the Canyon and then went up on the other side. It would take hours. As I had no intention of going through that long, hot and tough donkey ride, I missed seeing the full picture of the Grand Canyon.
Jesus’ crucifixion and his determination to follow God’s will has led to his resurrection. The empty tomb was possible only when there was the cross and sheer determination.
Of all the Christian doctrines, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is probably the most difficult for Christians to understand. It is because we have only myopic or tunnel vision. Spiritual and eternal things have little meaning for us.
Ostriches cannot run very fast. When they were being chased is a dessert or the wilderness, they would bury their heads inside the sand or the dirt, thinking that since they cannot see anything, the poachers cannot see them as well. So they are safe.
Praise the Lord, Christ is risen. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, our life too, can be transferred. This is what Apostle Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new being (or a new creation); the old has passed away; behold the new has come”. (II Cor. 5:18). To be “in Christ” means more than to understand Christ – his crucifixion and resurrection and his determination to follow God’s will. The word understand is composed with two words “under” and “stand”. When we reverse these two words, they become “to stand under”. We need to remind ourselves constantly that we need to stand under Jesus, i.e. to practice and preach what we believe in or to vouchsafe what we believe in with our whole life, so to speak.
The original form of the Gospel of Mark ended with verse 8 in chapter 16. However, later the Gospel composers considered the resurrection story could not end with the women perplexed and afraid. So verses 9-20 were added. This later interpolation was in line with the other gospels. The women and later the disciples who had heard about Jesus’ resurrection from the women did not believe in the beginning (repeated 4 times in verses 11, 13 and twice in 14). But in the end, all their lives were also transformed by Jesus. This is how the Gospel of Mark as we have to-day ends “The disciples went and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and proved that their preaching was true by the miracles they performed.” (Mk 16:20) The lives of Jesus’ disciples were radically transformed : from unfaith to faithfulness.
Just as a cocoon is being changed or metamorphosed into a colourful butterfly, Christ has risen from the dead and changed the course of human history. Because of this, all our lives have the possibility to be transformed into a life full of meaning and purpose as well.
Praise the Lord, Christ is Risen.