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Not Over the Hill

There’s so much – so very much – to praise and proclaim on this very special Sunday!! I want you to know how difficult it is to preach on Easter for that reason – for the reason that the task of “getting it all said” or “getting it all in” in the context of a 12 minute sermon seems simply overwhelming and impossible to one who is preparing it.

If, this morning, I accomplish nothing other than to entice you into participating in some of the same joy and excitement which strengthens me this morning – and sustains me – and makes me glad to be alive and in the pulpit – if I accomplish nothing more than that, then I will have fulfilled my goals. He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!)

They closed down the last religious book store out by the Dulles Mall a couple of years ago. I didn’t go there often. I don’t usually shop in religious book stores. I’m convinced it has something to do with theology. It’s really kind of hard to explain, but it might help if I were to give you an illustration. I found myself there picking up some supply I needed for the church and, as I was at the register waiting to pay for it, I noticed a display of small novelty items on the counter. Among other things like Bible chocolate bars and born-again teddy bears were musical buttons. These musical buttons had messages printed on the outside. Then, when you pressed the button it would play some tune related to the message. The one I looked at and pressed played the funeral dirge (ta, ta, ta-ta, ta, tadaddada, ta, ta). It was obviously meant to be a gag gift fome someone who was having his thirtieth or fortieth birthday (or whatever!) because on the front of the button it had a tomb stone with the “Rest In Peace” initials on front of it. Underneath the tombstone were these words: “Over the Hill and closer to Jesus.”

At first I thought it was just a little bit funny – that is until the humorous part wore off and the theology part hit me. Over the hill and closer to Jesus. It’s the old fashioned religion “hearer my God to thee” theology which, if you think about it (and that’s one of the traits of old fashioned religion – nobody thinks about it) … if you think about it, it denies the message we proclaim at Easter.

If Christ is out there in the future someplace – in the sky and we get to him bye-and-bye and all this business about God’s kingdom refers to some pearly-gate-angels-on-the-clouds next life – then we may just as well pack it up, sit on our suitcases and wait because there is no good news for this world.

Over the hill and closer to Jesus!? I want to give you a sermon this morning which proclaims loudly and clearly that Jesus is on this hill you’re heading over, was on the last hill you headed over, and will be with you on your journey as you head toward whatever hill you’re heading toward!

I want to give you a sermon like the one Peter gave as he stood in the home of Cornelius, a Roman army officer. Peter has just been turbo-charged by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and he is on fire to speak the good news, the gospel, especially to an “outsider” to the faith such as this Roman soldier. You heard his entire sermon this morning in our second lesson from the Acts of the Apostles: Peter begins by saying that God shows no partiality – that God is God of all people of all nations. Peter announced the saving work of Christ who came to heal the sick and free the oppressed. Peter recounted Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. And not only that, but Peter told them why these things happened … that all who believe in him would receive forgiveness and salvation.

Peter gave an entire Easter message in a little over 200 words! It was probably less than two minutes! (You should be so lucky to get a two-minute Easter sermon!!) But, you know what? More than just the words, Peter probably got his Easter message across by who he was and how he was. This was Peter after all … the disciple who didn’t always “get it” … the disciple who Jesus once called “Satan,” the disciple who denied Jesus three times. This is Peter standing up there in the house of the occupying forces. And he’s got the words! And he’s got the confidence! And he’s got the attitude! And, especially, he’s got the message. Christ is risen! Death has been conquered! God has made all things new!

Peter is not preaching an “over the hill and closer to Jesus” message. Peter is not saying that the kingdom of God will arrive as pie in the sky bye-and-bye. Peter is announcing that the kingdom of God rolled back the rock and came bursting out of the empty tomb to change the course of history forever. God came bringing to the whole world the gifts he give to you and me at our baptism: membership and commission in God’s evolving and eternal kingdom. Not at death. Not at the end of time. Now.

Peter told others the good news. They, in turn, told others. And soon the word spread throughout the world. Among the nations which received the gospel was what is now France. In the 12th century the Bishop of Paris decreed that a cathedral be built on land that once housed a Roman temple to the pagan god, Jupiter. Notre Dame has become known as one of the best examples of medieval sacred architecture in the world as well as the seat of the Archbishop of Paris and an active worshiping congregation. Just as the National Cathedral is thought of as our nation’s cathedral, so Notre Dame has been thought of not only as France’s cathedral, but belonging to the world as well.

As I watched it burn this past week I was remembering a fragment of a hymn about steeples falling. With Susan’s help we found the line to be in the famous hymn, “Built on a Rock” by the Danish Lutheran pastor and composer, Nikolai Grundvig. The first verse goes like this: “Built on a rock the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling; crumbled have spires in ev’ry land, bells still are chiming and calling – calling the young and old to rest, calling the souls of those distressed, longing for life everlasting.”

His hymn is a reminder that, as beautiful and historically significant are all the flying buttresses and gargoyles, statues of the saints, wood carvings, and stained glass windows – the one thing which survives fires and floods and bombs and rust is the word of God made flesh through his son, Jesus Christ. The bricks and mortar are not the gospel. They bear witness to the gospel. Sometimes, I’m afraid, they may even hinder the gospel when people come to believe that God is inside sacred space only, boxed up in fancy buildings, tied by tradition.

In Peter’s inspired sermon in the Roman officer’s house he proclaimed that it was a message of peace that Jesus came bringing into the world. I’m wondering if that can’t be the thing you and I bring into the world today. Wouldn’t we give a cathedral if only two nations would stop fighting with each other? Wouldn’t we give a cathedral if there would be no more school or synagogue shootings? Four black churches in our south were torched this past month. Might we not give one cathedral for these? I fear that the hatred which is now being perpetrated toward our Muslim brothers and sisters from our nation’s highest office may result in physical harm to one of them Is not that life more precious than a cathedral? Is not the elimination of hatred more precious than a cathedral?

Peter preached an Easter sermon of peace! This is my Easter message to us, today. Peace. The last verse of Grundvig’s hymn, “Built on a Rock,” proclaims Christ’s peace: “Through all the passing years, O Lord, grant that, when church bells are ringing, many may come to hear your Word, who here this promise is bringing; ‘I know my own, my own know me; you, not the world, my face shall see; my peace I leave with you. Amen,” sings the hymn. And now, “May the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Text: Luke 24:1-12

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