Mark Twain wrote, “No sinner is ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” Today we’re here to put that theory to the test. No. Not really. If I hit the twenty-minute mark, you can tell me to shut up and sit down, but this is the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley cup and the Master’s Golf Tournament of sermons all rolled into one. It’s the one I’m supposed to knock out at the park and wow everybody with. No pressure. None whatsoever.
In fretting over that, I’ve also thought about all the pessimism and skepticism in the world today and wondered how a few words of mine could make a difference. What can I say to you that will change anything? Not just that, but in order to be heard above the clamor of everything else, I’m going to need something to grab your attention. What could it be?
Well, if I just wanted to get a lot of attention, then I could stand up here and tell you that as a priest and as a church we really don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That would get some attention. That would even get my bishop’s attention! The Facebook post would go off the charts and I’d probably even get a few “love letters” from people threatening to send me to meet Jesus. Yes. I could say that Jesus never rose from the dead and everyone would be up in arms, but if I say, “Jesus rose from the dead,” no one really gets excited. There are no angry posts on Facebook, the Bishop is not called, we can all go back home to our lives, and nothing and no one is actually changed. So the question is this: what would it take for this message—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the resurrection to eternal life—what would it take for this message to actually change your life? Today’s Gospel reading helps us in the right direction.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. The stone was rolled away, so she runs and tells Peter and John who then get into a foot race to the tomb (John wins). They look inside and see that the tomb is empty and the cloth that Jesus had been wrapped in was set to one side. They saw all this, but they didn’t know what it meant, so what did they do? Our Gospel reading tells us, “Then the disciples returned to their homes.” They were probably confused more so than they ever had been. They were probably wondering who stole the body. They were also wondering how they could continue after the death of Jesus and wondering where do we go now? He’s dead. He’s gone. We’re here and everybody either hates us or thinks we’re freaks. The best thing we can do is just to go home. Go back to what we’re doing before we even knew the tomb was empty or even before we ever met him. For the most part that’s you and I. We hear this message, we know it intellectually, we read it every year. I would wager that most everyone is very well aware of this basic Christian message: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” It’s a very simple proclamation but so many hear it and then they just go back home. The message hasn’t changed their lives, but then we have the second part of our Gospel reading today.
Mary Magdalene has experienced the exact same thing as the disciples. She had witnessed the miracles and the teachings. She had been there for the trial, the crucifixion, the death, and the burial, but the one difference between the disciples and Mary is that on that morning, Mary heard Jesus call her name. She had a very real and personal encounter with the Risen Lord. And now everyone says, “Oh, Father John, you’re just preaching like an evangelical minister this morning! Going to tell me I need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, you do. It’s true. But if that’s all I tell you then you’re just gonna go back home, not changed, so what is it you need to hear in order to believe this message of the Gospel so that you don’t just go back home unchanged?
If I was one of those really great passionate charismatic orators I might be able to tell you a story, give you an example, share my testimony about how God has changed my life or the life of so many others. I might even for a minute or for a day or season convince you to follow Jesus, but after doing this for almost twenty years I know that there isn’t anything I can preach that will ultimately turn a person’s heart. That was true even for Jesus. Judas heard every one of Jesus’ sermons and those sermons didn’t do him a lick of good. So what we do here on days like today is provide opportunities for souls to encounter God in hope that those souls won’t simply go home, but will instead stop and listen for God to speak their name just as he did with Mary.
When you decided to come to church this morning this is not what you were expecting to hear. You were probably expecting to hear Jesus Christ is risen today. Hallelujah. You would hear it then maybe go out to brunch, an Easter egg hunt, take a nap, but in the end, you would just go home. Would your life be changed? Would you stop everything to follow Jesus? I don’t know. But today, I don’t believe I can convince you, so instead of trying, I’m going to ask you to do something. I know, the preacher asking us to do something probably wants us to give money. Give Jesus $100 today and make a downpayment on that heavenly mansion. No. It’s nothing like that. Instead, I’m just asking that you go home and listen. Close yourself off in your room and sit quietly by yourself and say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And then, listen. Listen for the voice of God. At first, you’ll probably think you’re crazy, but then somewhere in that silence, you will hear God speak your name and you will know that on the third day Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that all who call on his name will be saved to eternal life. You will know and you will be changed eternally.
Let us pray:
For Your mercies’ sake, O Lord our God,
tell us what You are to us.
Say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
So speak that we may hear, O Lord;
our hearts are listening;
open our hearts that we may hear You,
and say to our soul: “I am your salvation.”
After hearing this word,
may we come in haste to take hold of you.