Kay Spiritual Life Center
April 5, 2015—Easter Sunrise Service
Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-18
There is something about an Easter sunrise service that makes intuitive sense. As the sun rises, the earth warms, the grays of the pre-dawn transform into the rich colors of the day, and the birds begin to sing, we are reminded of new life, new hope, and renewed vision. The fact that, in English at least, the words “sun” – as in “Easter Sunrise Service” – and “son” – as in “Son of God” – are homophones helps along this instinctive feeling that Easter and sun rise just go together.
So it came as a surprise to me, a few years ago, to learn that the Easter Sunrise Service is a relatively new invention in the history of Christianity. Possibly traceable to a Moravian congregation in early 18th century Germany, and gaining traction in the United States in the late 1700s, the sunrise service is actually an alternative to the much more ancient tradition of the Easter Vigil, which some of us celebrated beginning at midnight last night. For the majority of Christian history, the church has marked the Resurrection of Jesus not with the rising of the sun but in the darkness between Holy Saturday and Easter morning.
I bring this up, not just to give you your fun church fact of the day, but because I think that sometimes we miss something important by associating the Risen One with the rising sun. If resurrection is something that happens with the dawn, then we will look for and expect to see God in places where there is a perceivable dawning of new hope and new possibilities. We will look for God in the times of our lives and the events of the world in which we can see something new taking place, in which we have an experience of warmth and of growth and of comfort.
That is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s a good and a natural thing to see God in new beginnings and noticeable change.The empty tomb at night
But as our reading from the gospel of John attests, the resurrection happened not with the dawn of the sun, but in the dark, with nobody there to see it.[i] Mary Magdalene is first to the tomb, early on that first day – and, given that the Jewish day begins at sundown, entirely in the dark – and finds that the stone has already been removed and that the tomb is already empty. Throughout the passage there is all sorts of activity centered on the tomb: Mary comes to the tomb, then leaves, then Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb, then leave, then Mary looks in the tomb again. Yep. Still empty. Just a few cloths laying around. When something finally does seem to happen in the tomb – when Mary looks in and sees two angels – their only function in the story is to refocus attention away from the tomb, to where Jesus is standing – looking, apparently, surprisingly like a gardener.
Let that sink in for a second. Jesus, looking like a gardener. Not white-robe-glowing-with-celestial-light-Jesus. More like, dirty-second-hand-charity-marathon-tshirt-and-grass-stained-jeans Jesus.[ii]
We show up, this beautiful Easter sunrise morning, to celebrate the resurrection, and we find, perhaps much to our surprise, that it has already happened. It happened, last night, in the darkness, while none of us – except for those brave few who stayed up all night in Kay – were looking. It happened, while the disciples were asleep, tossing and turning with the anxiety-wracked nightmares that follow a very, very bad day. It has happened, already, and when the resurrected Jesus shows up we are wont to overlook him because he’s not glowing like the rising sun but is really rather grubby, a working class sort of character with dirt under his fingernails, perhaps smelling faintly of mulch.
That’s the kind of oddball faith that we profess. A faith in, and a hope in, something that is prior to our experience of it, that happens before we have eyes to see it or ears to hear it or words to put on it. Resurrection happened, past tense, and the resurrection that happened is somehow reflective of a new creation that is happening and that is going to happen…but we might not notice it at first. In the words of pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson: “The gospel, while honoring our experience, doesn’t begin with our experience. We don’t begin a holy life by wanting a holy life, desiring to be good, fulfilled, complete or wanting to be included in the grand scheme of things. We have been anticipated, and the way we have been anticipated is by resurrection. [iii]
This morning, we proclaim again the resurrection hope that Christians have proclaimed for centuries: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Something is indeed different. And when the sun is warming the earth and the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming, it is easy to be reminded of new birth, new life, and new hope. It is easy, in times of light and beauty, to look around and see God. That is a good and a joyful thing.
But remember friends – the resurrection happened in the dark. It happened before anybody thought to show up at the tomb. It happened when nobody – nobody – thought that there was any hope, any possibility that something new and different would happen.
We are an Easter people – we’ve been an Easter people since before we even realized it. So when the sun doesn’t seem to be shining, when the sound of birds singing and the warmth of the earth seem very far away indeed, in all the places on this planet that look more like snuffed-out-hopes than like lily-decorated church buildings, the places that we have a hard time believing God is present:
Well, that’s where the Risen One shows up.
Before we even think to look.
And looking nothing like what we might expect.
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia. Amen.
[i] With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 128-129.
[ii] And, as always, thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber, Pastrix (Jericho Books, 2013), 173.
[iii] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 230.