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Are You Getting Ready for Glory?

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Preaching through Mark. 8 April 2012, Mark 16, Easter
(updated to reflect the delivery – web links are mostly in the post below)

Recall the most frequently asked question by children on a long car trip: “Are we there yet?” Today I can answer that question “We’ve arrived.” “We’re here!” And as Christians have greeted each other for centuries, so too I greet you: Alleluia, Christ is risen! (The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia). Today, on the great feast of Easter, we’re finishing our walk through the Gospel of Mark with chapter 16 – the resurrection and the ascension, along with first appearances of the risen Lord and the Great Commission. We’ll talk more about that question “Are we there yet?” a bit later, as we discuss our journey of belief.

This focus arose out of an article about a Vancouver church that had changed the words to the great resurrection hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” to “Glorious Hope is Risen Today.” When a reporter asked the pastor why, her response was that her community had no time for miracles, just morality. The main focus of their community was on how they would, through their human efforts, transform the world into heaven on earth. This is heresy, if that slipped past you, and not the sort of think a Christian would proclaim. Our focus on belief today is to counter some of the danger that arises from a culture that is hostile to believers, and from other believers who are hostile to the faith once given and received.

What we will do today is walk through the reading to talk about some of the things that are said, and how they are said, for those details provide us rich earth to mine as we consider what exactly this resurrection means to us. After that I’ll step us back and talk about the real issue that comes before us as we are confronted with our Lord’s Easter spectacle – what is it that you believe? This may be challenging, but it cuts to the heart of who we are as the Body of Christ. As Paul was a witness to the truth (Acts 10:34-43), we too are called to be witnesses to the truth of Christ.

This is one of the places that anti-Christian voices attack the faith, by seeking to transform what we’ll talk about today into mystical, metaphysical and moral truths or quasi-scientific conclusions that can be disposed of, as someone like Richard Dawkins attempts to do. I’m thankful for Dawkin’s shrill voice at times, because he offers up in plain view an attitude that helps us look inward, to ask ourselves the central question for a follower of Christ – what is it that I believe? What do you believe? Do you believe that what you believe is really real? Or have you taken on a safe faith, that is based on Jesus the good teacher, an extraordinary man to be sure, but by no means the Son of the Living God? Do you respond to the Gospel, along with Bart Millard by singing, “Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?” or do you, along with many people of ‘faith’ consider the story of Jesus to be nothing more than “An Honest Account of a Memorable Life” but not the incarnation? (with apologies to Reynolds Price) Or do you, along with Eckhart Tolle and the “new age” spirituality, only extract only the parts that you find useful and discard the rest?

With those quite simple and non-threatening questions hanging in the air, let’s look into the text.

When we read through Mark chapter 16, one of the first things that strikes me is how it reads like a historic narrative. I’m a great fan of military history, and I could easily place chapter 16 alongside many narrative accounts of personal experience. Without even starting on textual analysis, the first 13 verses read like someone’s account of actual events, events that can be placed on the timeline of history – not abstractions, or metaphysical archetypes, or symbols, but an account written to document events.

Listen to the language used: when the Sabbath was past, three named woman (the two Marys and Salome) went out very early, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. This is not far off the standard we would expect in a police report. It continues: the woman’s first concern is not metaphysical, philosophical or abstract, but the very practical question – what are we going to do about that honking great stone blocking the entrance? Their goal that morning was equally practical, their leader and friend had been murdered, and the purity laws prohibited them from making the proper burial preparations. He had been buried with dispatch, but not with devotion. As their last physical act of love, they were going with a bunch of spices to finish the preparation of Jesus’ body. There is no talk about God, about the Messiah or about a coming age of glory for Israel, but about the harsh realities of this world, which we know to be at times a place of great sorrow, this ‘vale of sorrows or tears’ as the psalmist calls it. These brave women enter into the tomb, the place of death and loss, only to find that it contains nothing but life.

When they arrive at the tomb they are confronted with a series of unexpected events, which are reported in the same factual manner: the very large stone is rolled away, a young man is sitting in the tomb, on the right side, dressed in a white robe. There is no interpretation presented to help us understand the account, any suggestion that this might be an angel is left to our own minds. This again reads like a police report: when I attended at the tomb I noted a single young adult male, seated at the right side of a stone bench located on the adjacent wall. The young male was wearing a one-piece white garment of unusual brightness. That young man answers with facts: You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here. Look where his body was laid. Go. With each encounter, the end is a sending: go, tell.

This factual accounting can be a challenge if our faith is based on comfortable nonsense about the person of Jesus. It is difficult to permit that comfortable nonsense to rest unchallenged faced with such an account. Rather, this blunt, stark historic narrative pushes us into a place where we either have to accept the account, or we reject outright as a fiction or metaphor. I don’t see there being a safe middle ground here – either we accept that the two Marys and Salome encountered this young man clad in white, or push it into the realm of fiction. How we view this narrative, casts a bright light back on our own faith. If we are labouring under a faith that is syncretistic, a nice way of saying we’ve created our own faith by cobbling together bits that are satisfying to us, today’s reading should be a challenge. This honest account continues in a similar factual vein, offering us a listing of appearances of the risen Christ: first to Mary Magdalene, next to two of them, and finally to the eleven. How do I know this is true? Well, we’re told that many saw him after they knew he was dead. I’m not going to follow this with an apologetic as to the historical truth of Mark’s gospel – this has been well-done by many others. I have no problem, along with St Paul, accepting the truth of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-11).

After the encounter at the tomb, these three women flee in trembling and astonishment, and they tell their story to no one because of fear. A reasonable response – think about arriving at the graveside of a family member just buried, or looking for the urn of ash after a loved one’s cremation, and instead finding a young man dressed in white who says: why are you looking for the living among the dead? Our response would likely be trembling, astonishment and fear – and yet, that encounter is the one we should expect as Christians, for that is what we are travelling towards. Our Mike Chase captured this nicely in his song Mrs Smith when, much to the surprise of the congregation, one of their own is resurrected after three weeks in the crypt (you can find it on iTunes). That is what we are waiting for, and that is what we are about today.

After Jesus the Christ appears to one of the Marys, she tells the disciples what had happened as the three women had originally been commanded. The response of the disciples is the response of the world, “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” They mourned and wept, stuck on and grieving a past image of Jesus that was no longer true. They would not believe it. // What do you believe?

Next Jesus the Christ appears to two of the disciples, who go back and tell the rest what had happened, and receive the same response. They would not believe them. // What do you believe?

Finally Jesus appears to the whole group, the eleven, and rebukes them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had risen. // What do you believe?

Yet on the heels of that rebuke comes what we call the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Christ’s conclusion to the Great Commission is a simple summary of the entrance test to join the Body of Christ. As much as we try to complicate salvation, and to make the faith a thing of intricate complexity, it comes down to the simple truth of Christ’s words: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Our test of faith? Baptism and belief (and I’ll note that baptism does not always literally mean a pouring of water is necessary). The reading from Acts tells us that those who believe in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins through Christ’s name. Belief is the key. What do you believe?

What we’ve been reading is not metaphysics or metaphor, but about particular things that happened, in a particular place and in a particular time, whose impact we continue to feel to this day. It’s the reason we’re all here right now. The most important thing that happened was this incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh, to do the one thing we could never do ourselves: saving us from sin and death. That claim turns on one point, which is consistently attested throughout the New Testament and was accepted without question in the early church and by those who had been first-hand witnesses: God raised Jesus from the dead. That incredible truth, by reason of its existence, brings home another incredible truth for all of us: that same promise is made to each one of us.

Now, let’s talk about what we’re all about by building on this foundation of belief. Belief is ultimately a calling to preparation, and the answer to the question ‘Why are we here?’ is very much ‘to prepare’. This follows closely on Don’s message from Good Friday: the purpose of living a Christian life, a holy life, is ultimately to prepare us for a holy death and the promise of the resurrection of the body that follows. Over the past few months we heard watchwords many times in Mark’s writing: Keep alert! Be aware! Do not sleep! Keep watch! For you do not know! The call is to preparedness, and the image Mark paints is of a believer poised in the starting gate of a downhill ski race, every muscle poised for the start. Get ready!

I started out by mentioning the one question associated with travel and children, “Are we there yet?” and I return to is as this question marks the core of our faith. My friend Joe Walker captured this beautifully in a piece he wrote for Holy Saturday last Easter, just before he began his own walk into glory, where he drew a powerful parallel between family trips, and the question repeatedly shouted to the Father, “Are we there yet?” His answer, ultimately, “I am here. Soon, I will come for you.” This is still up on Joe’s blog, and it is worth a read as it is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve encountered. This yearning for arrival is what defines us, and the reason we worship, sing praises, pray, read Scripture, listen to sometimes tedious preaching, and live in sometimes challenging communities of faith is because this is the journey, our journey of preparation for that arrival. The question on our lips to the Father is always, “Are we there yet?” and His answer, at least this side of our own glory, is “I am here. Soon, I will come for you.”

Singer Ingrid Michaelson captured this beautifully. I don’t know of her belief, but as I was writing the text about “Are we there yet?” I was shocked to hear the lyrics from her song, “Are we there yet?” playing on my computer. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives gentle suggestions, and other times it hits you in the middle of the chest. The chorus contains a refrain full of yearning and great expectation:

They say that home is where the heart is
I guess I haven’t found my home
And we keep driving round in circles
Afraid to call this place our own

And are we there yet?
And are we there yet?
Home, home, home

That refrain reflects the refrain of the believer’s heart, our constant petition to the Father, “Are we there yet?” and our sense of longing for the home promised to us, that house of many rooms where Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us. What we are to be about in the meantime, I found captured in a different song, by Carolyn Arends, and sung by Steve Bell, “Getting ready for glory.” The song was based on a story told by Steve Bell about his grandmother. After thinking how she must be lonely all day, Steve Bell asked her a question. He asked, “Gee, Nanny, what are you doing with your time these days?” She replied that she was actually quite busy, learning as many Psalms and great old hymns as possible, preparing for Glory. Carolyn Arends wrote that into a song:

She’s getting ready for glory

She knows all of the verses to How Great Thou Art
And her soul, it doth magnify often
And she’s gonna keep learning the Scriptures by heart
Till the day she is laid in her coffin
She wants to be sure when the angels come take her
That she’s got some greetings for meeting her Maker

She will tell us if we’ll only listen
It’s not about dying, it’s all about living
And whether you’re young or the end’s getting near
There’s just one reason why God has us here

We’re getting ready for glory

There is no better focus for us this day, on our high feast of Easter, than to consider our own belief, and to ask how are we getting ready for glory?

The urgency we’ve heard in Mark’s gospel over these past months, the terse images, the challenges and miracles, the watchword to “Keep watch” have all been driving to one point – the fulfilment of Christ’s earthly ministry with his death, resurrection and ascension. This message also tells us that we are to be all about the preparations for glory.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21)

———————————————————————– 
Snips that did not make it into the final version:
More on this in a moment, as we need a quick side trip here.
What follows is a list of some of the things that mark those who believe: casting out demons, new languages, poison drunk, healings, and the handling of poisonous snakes without fear. I just wanted to comment on this text, as this has led to some prescriptive interpretations…for example, it is common in some faith traditions to require some specific signs to confirm belief like speaking in tongues. This is an area that demands some caution – spiritual gifting is what we’re talking about, and these are given to members of the body of Christ to fulfill the needs of that body. To expect a particular gift to be held by all as proof of belief is not consistent with Paul’s teaching in the epistles – that’s not how spiritual gifts work. Some of us may have the ability to drink poison, not suggesting you test that out today, but it is not to be expected that those gifts are displayed by every member of the body…rather, those gifts ‘accompany’ those who believe for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ.
We do know this, in Paul’s words in Galatians, that Christ’s crucifixion was about us. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

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Written by sameo416

April 8, 2012 at 4:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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