Power and Powerlessness (Easter sermon)
Resurrection of the Lord: Easter Day, March 23, 2008
Matthew 28:1-10; Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24 (Easter A)
Christ, the Lord Is Risen Today
Our God Reigns
The Wonderful Cross
Risen from the Dead
After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.
The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.
“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”
The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”
As darkness eases, two women pick their way to the grave-yard in utter defeat. The dark side, the power of Empire, had obliterated Jesus, jerking them out of hope as if they were dogs on chains. They know only that someone amazing whom they loved had come to a horrible end. Jesus had been hastily buried in a borrowed grave, and a guard posted by the Romans.
Roman soldiers had conquered much of the world. Maybe hard for us to imagine, but in the comparatively primitive society of Judea, these rugged men were towering high-tech weapons. Think of this fellow’s weapons: javelin, short sword, dagger. And remember that Judea probably had no steel – these weapons and armor would have been fabulously expensive; did any Jew have anything like it? The soldier himself was able to carry all his kit for days on end of 20-mile treks, and trained to conquer the most dangerous armies without mercy.
Further, this fellow despised you. He was dangerous.
Strong or weak? Obviously.
Back to the women. Heart-broken, probably exhausted, trudging with low shoulders and downcast eyes, having witnessed the crushing of one they loved by these Romans just days earlier. They come, in Matthew’s telling, not to finish caring for the body of Jesus, but just to be there, perhaps knowing nothing better to do. Here’s a detail from Duccio’s Women at the Sepulchre:
Strong or weak? Obviously. And as they come near, into the presence of the Roman guards, doubtless shrinking smaller and weaker still.
There’s this stone. You realize that from the tomb door, visitors would probably step down several times into the hewn chamber. So to close the tomb, a boulder was rolled against its opening. It was massive—perhaps so large that several men could not move it without levers. Some scholars estimate stone to weigh in the neighborhood of 5,000 lbs. My Windstar minivan weighs about 4,000; suppose I could wedge it up against the church door and get the wheels off, so it sat directly on the concrete. Could we get out?
Strong or weak? And how would it be regarded by the women? Surely, as utterly immovable.
An earthquake shakes the ground. I’ve not been in an earthquake (that I noticed), but I’d think it would leave one feeling pretty helpless. We shift our feet on solid ground to control our balance – what does one do when the ground itself rocks?
And then an angel turns up, so radiant that shafts of lightning burst away from him. Imagine! Enlarge this photo of lightning splitting a tree. Look at the startling brilliance in the middle, and how things around are lit by it. Does the angel appear like this in the dim of early morning?
The soldiers, sensible toughs, collapse as dead (a great way to put it, when you consider what’s about to happen). Here’s Cuyp’s version, from 1640 (click it for a better view):
So, now, Angel, strong or weak?
And soldiers, formerly so very strong?
But the angel says to the women, who were so powerless: “There is nothing to fear here.” Ah. I know that voice. Don’t you?
Women, in that day (as, regrettably, in most), are generally regarded as less intelligent than men. They don’t usually testify in trials. Men don’t really take them seriously. And yet:
“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.”
Jesus seems to think their story will do just fine, even though some may not find them credible. Maybe Jesus just doesn’t need things to look strong. Maybe he’s operating on a different power scale than we do.
And by the way – [here I made a cave with my notes, on a clipboard and held it up for all to see. I used something handy to represent the body of Jesus, and put it in the cave, then covered the end of the cave with my hand as the stone. Then I took my hand away and invited them to look inside] What’s wrong with this picture?
Jesus is still inside! In Matthew’s account, Jesus (assumed by all there to be no more than a decaying corpse at this point) had apparently come out of the tomb before the angel flipped back the stone! Strong or weak?
So, obviously powerful things are getting out-done, again and again, by things we (or they) assumed to be weak. Or, we might say, powerful things are becoming ineffective against things assumed to be powerless.
God As Suffering Servant
In any relationship, it is impossible to express love and power at the same time. Whoever is exercising the most power is expressing the least love, and whoever is expressing the most love is exercising the least power. In expressing love a person must give up power, hence loving makes a person vulnerable.
Consider a particular married couple. He loves her and will do anything to keep her in his life. She, on the other hand, does not love him very much, and is unconcerned as to whether he stays or leaves her. Who in this relationship has the most power? Who can dictate the terms of the relationship and call the shots in decision making? The answer seems clear. She can because she has all the power. But note that her power is the consequence of her lack of love.
Christians should have no difficulty in understanding this relationship between love and power, because their New Testament theology posits a God who, in order to express His love, chooses to give up His power. That is what we Christians believe the incarnation is all about. We believe that 2,000 years ago the almighty God set aside His power in order to express His love. We believe that this is why the Messiah entered history, not as a conquering emperor, but as a defenseless baby in a manger. The passage of scripture that speaks to this most clearly is Philippians 2:7-8, where we are told that in Christ, God “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant … and humbled Himself.”
The God described in this passage is a God who refuses to use His power as He seeks to save the world. In the temptation story recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus, who we believe to be the incarnation of God, refuses to establish His Kingdom here on earth through the use of power. Instead, His Kingdom will come, not in a triumphalistic imposition of His will on the nations, but through sacrificial love expressed in His death by dying on the cross. While He is hanging on Calvary’s tree, Jesus’ enemies taunt Him and shout, “Show us your power and come down from the cross, and then we will believe in you” (Matthew 27:39-42). But His way is not to use power and coerce humanity, but to draw humanity unto Himself through sacrificial love. (I wish the Christian Right would learn this.) He said that if He were “lifted up” (i.e. crucified) that this act of sacrifice would draw people to Him and to His Father (John 12:32).
When I say such things in sermons, those in the congregation say, either silently to themselves or out loud, “Amen!” Yet they seldom follow this thought to its logical conclusion, that they have a powerless God on their hands, and that what goes on in the world is not totally under His control. Instead, I hear them say such things as “whatever happens, regardless of how tragic, is part of God’s plan!” When something terrible happens, like a child being run over by a bus, they often respond with such offensive statements as: “We just have to accept this as God’s will!” At the funeral of Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s son, who had died in a climbing accident, the preacher conducting the service said just these words. Rev. Coffin impulsively shouted back, “The hell it is! When my son died, God was the first one who cried!” This, from one of our time’s most prominent Christian leaders….
If God is in control of everything that happens, then there would be no such thing as human freedom. Without freedom, none of us would be able to choose to love God-and loving Him is what God wants from us more than anything else. Love is, by its very nature, voluntaristic. It is never constrained. What I am saying is that God deliberately gives up power in order to express His love for us and to give us the freedom to choose to love Him in return.
It is surprising to me that most of my Jewish friends likewise believe that God is omnipotent. They do so even though the Hebrew Bible never declares Him as such. No wonder so many of them rejected their religious beliefs following the Holocaust. “How could an omnipotent, loving God let such a thing happen?” they ask. Does it not seem more likely that their loving and merciful God groaned in agony at Dachau and at Auschwitz? That He wanted to stop what went on in these places? It would be impossible to love God if it were otherwise.
If we are to accept the truths in the Adam and Eve story, must we not accept that God created humanity to act in freedom and thus to be capable of going against His will? And what do we do with that biblical God who, at one point sees that things have gone so contrary to His will that He even regrets that He made humanity in the first place (Genesis 6:6)?
The concept of an omnipotent God came from Greek philosophers. The Greeks are the ones who defined God with such words as omnipotent. This did not come from the Hebrew Bible. The prophets of old declared that their God was more powerful than all the other gods, but they did not say that He was in control of everything. They did not define Him as a puppeteer deity controlling all of our actions. Instead, they spoke of a God who mourns over much of what goes on in our world. …
Such a God is not the “unmoved mover” who is the creator force spoken of by Aristotle. Instead, He is the passionate God who is marked by deep emotions and loves … with intensive love.
The God we find in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament is a God who pleads with His people to do justice and to live out love. This is a God whom Christians call the Servant King and that Jews should acknowledge as a God who limits His power so that we might have the dignity that goes with willingly choosing to do what is right and good.
I am sure that there are times that God must wonder if the price for giving us the freedom to love or to disobey His will is too high, and there are times when all of us wish that He would take charge of human affairs. Nevertheless, it is this God who ordains freedom whom we worship. In trusting us to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) we find in Him a God who is infinitely worthy of our love.
The good news is that our God is at work in the world, driving back evil through those who acknowledge Him as Lord of their lives. We believe that the day will come when this God shall reign on earth as He does in Heaven. On that “Day of the Lord,” which is the eschaton of history, He will then be omnipotent, because on that day, we will love Him so much that we will ascribe all power and glory unto Him-forever and ever!
I know nothing of the ontological nature of God. I only know Him as a God who chooses to be limited in power, for our sakes. …
A closing Scripture:
He Is Your Life
1-2 So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ-that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.
3-4Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life-even though invisible to spectators-is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too-the real you, the glorious you. Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
Song for the Nations
Thanks for reading!
Tags: Easter+sermon, Lectionary+Easter+A, resurrection, Matthew+28, Acts+10, Colossians+3, power, weakness, Jesus+tomb, power+control, love+power, Monte Asbury
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