"No Final Buzzer!"
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:13-18
In a book entitled Just As Long As I’m Riding Up Front, Baptist minister Ray McIver tells of belonging to the San Marcos, Texas chapter of Kiwanis. It was a very lively group, says McIver; all except old Roger Shelton. Roger came to meetings late, always sat off by himself, and hardly ever spoke a word.
At their meetings, the Kiwanians would have some sort of entertainment before they got down to business. At one particular meeting, the entertainment was a barbershop quartet composed of local school teachers. They were a popular bunch in the small town of San Marcos, singing for weddings, parties, and community events. But their claim to fame was singing at services in local funeral homes, earning them the nickname “The Funeral Four.” For the morning Kiwani’s meeting, the quartet decided to sing “Morning Has Broken,” sure to be a crowd-pleaser. But somehow, the lead singer started them off on the wrong note. And if you know anything about barbershop, starting off in the wrong key is fatal. What came out was one of the most discordant, ear-offending renditions of “Morning Has Broken” that had ever been sung. People all over the room squirmed in their seats and looked down at the floor. When it was over, the quartet sat down. And no one in the room – not even the chapter president – could think of anything to say. You could hear a pin drop. But the silence was broken when old Roger Shelton drawled, “Did you hear that funeral quartet? Now that’s what I dread most about dying.”
How true that most people dread dying, not necessarily for the reason Roger Shelton does. None of us wants to face the most inevitable thing in life. We can spend our entire lives escaping work, sidestepping conflict, shunning relationships, avoiding church. But no one escapes, side- steps, shuns, or avoids physical death. In the film Forrest Gump, the lead character is called home to Greenbow, Alabama when he gets word that his mother is seriously ill. He finds her bedridden, but lucid. He asks her, “What’s wrong, Mama?” Ms. Gump replies, “Oh, I’m just dyin’ Forrest. But not to worry. Dyin’ is just a part of livin’.” Like the film, so simple, yet so profound. Death is an inevitable, inescapable part of livin’. Yet we go to extraordinary lengths to escape it, sidestep it, shun it, avoid it; to delay its coming, and to deny its reality. But in the end, everyone in this room, everyone in this city, everyone in this nation, everyone on this earth shares in common what we dread the most. Even Jesus Himself was not exempt as Matthew, Mark, and Luke all attest to Jesus pleading with God the Father in the garden to let the cup of bodily death pass from Him.
Well, that common dread of death we all share is precisely what makes Easter for all of us a day of highest rejoicing. The fact that Jesus was resurrected from the grave means that death doesn’t mark the end. Rather, it marks a life transition, a passage of life – albeit a frightening and unwelcome one – if not a glorious new beginning. Death which is life’s greatest intimidator, humanity’s greatest concern, joy’s greatest thief, is God’s greatest victory, and by extension ours. Theologian Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics writes that “The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse of death, are beaten. Ultimately, they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought and won; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally, we must cease to fear them any more.”
On that first day of the week, Matthew records that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (who was probably Jesus’ mother) came to Jesus’ tomb to do final preparations for burial. To their alarm, they found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. A messenger of God appeared to them and told them there was no need to fear; no reason to despair; nothing to dread. For this Jesus you seek, who was indeed crucified, is not here, for He is risen. Come and see the place of death where He once lay, but where he lies no longer. And in awe and joy, the women departed from the empty grave and ran to tell the disciples the good news. But in route, they encountered the resurrected Jesus Himself, who again assured them they had nothing to fear. They had good news for sure! Not only have we been told! We have seen with our own eyes! And the witness to that good news continues in this 2017th year of our Lord!
Yet how many in our society, in our culture, in our churches really, truly believe – with as they say “every fiber of their being” – the witness which has come down to us through the ages? How many really, truly believe there is resurrection of the entirety of us, even to the extent that we know and relate to one another in the afterlife? How many like Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of Jesus, Simon Peter and the other disciples have staked their very lives on the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection, and as Paul so eloquently states: “a resurrection like His which we shall all attain?” Do we need proof of a shroud? Do we need a hotline to a psychic, or a Ouija board so we might know where our loved ones are? What would convince us that Easter is not just a one- time historical myth having nothing to do with our reality, but rather a cosmic reality of our Creator’s plan for each and every one of us, even here, even now?
In Philip Yancey’s book I Was Just Wondering, he tries to imagine a culture in which most people didn’t really, truly believe in resurrection and afterlife. He asks, “What would a world look like if no one believed that there was a new life following earthly life?” Yancey gave his fictitious land of belief the name “Acirema.” These are just a few of the characteristics his imaginary Aciremans would exhibit.
They would first and foremost put great emphasis on youth. The idea of growing old and eventually dying would be so dread and so traumatic that they could have no hope in the future. Therefore, preserving youth at virtually any expense would become an all-consuming societal obsession. Old age and anything associated with aging would be shunned and devalued. In this way, the rest of society could continue the charade of denying the facts of aging. Every kind of cosmetic and chemical and surgical treatment that could possibly slow down the aging process would be employed.
Appearances would become all that mattered. Inner-beauty, characterized by such things as integrity, honesty, faithfulness, compassion, generosity, forbearance, and decency would no longer matter much, even among that nation’s leaders. People who did not look attractive, young and healthy would face subtle yet significant discrimination. Scientists would try to figure out how to eliminate death and prolong life; even if it meant prolonging life of miserable quality. Religion for Aciremans would consist of philosophies and worldviews to help them make the most of here and now, living only for the day. Eternal rewards wouldn’t exist in their belief system, so Acireman religion would teach that one must be fully gratified and rewarded in this lifetime. Highest values would be wealth, self-satisfaction, and longevity………. If you’ve not already figured it out Acirema is America spelled backwards, so it’s clear what Yancey was getting at.
Does Easter have anything to say to our lives here and now? How does Easter fit into a culture where death is life’s greatest dread? For we who believe the ancient witness, because Christ lives, we can face life and its inevitabilities without fear. Because Christ rose from the grave, we can face death -- frightening as it is – as a part of the process of life. Because Christ spoke the name of Mary, and appeared to His disciples over the course of forty days, we can live confident, committed, courageous, consecrated lives here and now; while the time clock runs. Because Christ has risen, we have a hope that never fails; a buzzer that never sounds.
Some years ago, David Moss played basketball for the University of Tennessee. David was a player with remarkable potential, earning a starting spot as a freshman on a team of experienced upperclassmen. When the season was over though, it was discovered that the nagging pain in his hip and thigh was cancer. His life would be saved, but his leg would have to be amputated. His promising basketball career ended, just like that. When the press interviewed him a few months after his surgery, a reporter asked, “David, if there is anything in life that you could do over, what would it be?” The young man simply replied, “Well, if I had known that my last game was going to be my last game, nobody would have been able to stop me.”
The effect of Easter on Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Jesus, Simon Peter, and the other disciples, was the divine demonstration that the time clock on their spiritual lives would never run down; that life would go into eternal overtime. The resurrection of Jesus assured them that the final buzzer would not sound. In response, they lived their lives which were confident, com- mitted, courageous, and consecrated. And you know what? Nobody has been able to stop them, or the witness of what they had heard and seen on that first Easter morning; not because the game had drawn to a victorious close, but because the game was just getting under way.
Yes, most of us do dread dying. I’ll have to confess that I dread dying way more than I ought. But friends, we don’t have to! We can live our lives confident, committed, courageous, consecrated, for we have this hope. Death is defeated! Christ is alive! And because He lives, we too live.