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Edward F. Markquart

Astonished and Astounded 

EASTER      John 20:1-18

(It would be helpful for the reader to watch the video of this sermon that is part of this website.  The video is not professional, nor is anything in our parish.  The children are squawking; the airplanes are flying over; the work of the cameraman is flawed.  But the video is a representative sampling of Sunday morning worship at our sanctuary in 1995.  The sermon is also a good illustration of preaching without notes, as I do every Sunday morning.  A professor once said that just like the orange is alive in the orange peel, so the sermon is alive inside the pastor.  I usually work for two hours just learning the sequence and movement of the sermon.  Then I am free to speak what is in me, so that the sermon has a chance to become alive within.) 

The word of the Lord this Sunday morning is from the Apostle Paul.  He says:  “No eye can see; no ear can hear; no mind can comprehend the good and beautiful things that God has prepared for those who love him.”  No ear can hear, no eye can see, no mind can comprehend the beauty of God’s future.

There are some times in life when the word, “surprise,” is not strong enough. You need to find stronger words than the word, surprised.  You need words like astounded, astonished, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded.There are many times in life when the word, surprise, is not strong enough.  You need a much stronger constellation of words.  I would like to illustrate this.

The first illustration is from November 26th, 1922.  It was in Egypt.  It was thirty miles up the Nile River.  It was at the Valley of the Kings, the glorious archeological ruins of Karnack.  It was the center of Egyptian civilization.  And there was an archeologist by the name of Howard Carter. For fifteen years, Carter had been looking for the tomb of King Tut, King Tutukkamen.  He had dug for fifteen years, and he had only two months left to find the treasures.  Carter was at the end of his rope; he was at the end of his time;  and he was getting ready to go home, having accomplished nothing.  There in those last two months, he was digging and found sixteen steps that went down, down, down.  He dug down those steps and found a long hallway, sixty feet long to a back door.  He approached that door which had not been opened for thirty two hundred years, yes, thirty two hundred years, and the door had the logo, the insignia, of King Tututkamen.  I mean, Carter was breathless.  Carter was nervously excited, and he thought to himself, “I am sure my benefactor, the man who sponsored this whole expedition, would want to be here for the opening of the door.”  So he waited.  Yes, he actually waited. About six weeks later, the benefactor arrived and the two of them walked down the sixteen steps and then the sixty feet hallway and came to the door. They pushed it open…for the first time in thirty two hundred years.  They entered the burial chambers of Tututkamen.  They were astonished.  They were astounded.  They were dazzled.  They were dumbfounded.  They were awestruck.  They were amazed. They saw the gold mask across the face, one of the most beautiful art pieces of the world.  They saw the gold sarcophagus.  They saw the winged jewels.  They had never seen such beauty in their whole life, and they were breathless.

A year ago, I had the privilege of going down those sixteen steps and I had the privilege of walking the sixty feet in the ancient hallway and then I crossed the threshold of the doorway into King Tut’s tomb.  I will never forget it.  … Yes, there are times in life when the word, surprise, is not big enough.  You need stronger words, a constellation of powerful words like astonished and astounded, dazzled and dumbfounded, awestruck and amazed. 

It was l971.  The Viet Nam war was back in the news again. It seemed like it never left. A shell came in and exploded a young man’s body. The only thing left were his dog tags.  They sent those nametags, those dog tags, back home to his mom and dad, where they held a service to grieve for their son.  Their only child had been killed.  They wanted to have more children but they couldn’t, and now their only child was gone, and they couldn’t come to terms with it, especially since there was no body.  Shortly thereafter the war ended, and the soldiers started to come home and the prisoners of war started to return.  One day, the telephone rang;  she picked it up, and the voice said:  “Mother, it’s your son.”  Her heart stopped.  She was breathless.  She was astonished and amazed, “Is this some kind of cruel joke?” she asked?  “Is this some kind of a hoax?”  “No. This is your son. I have been a prisoner of war, and have just been released. I am calling to tell you that I am alive.”  There are certain times in life when the word, surprised, is not enough.  You need bigger words.  You need words like astonished, astounded, awestruck, amazed. You need words like dazzled and dumbfounded. 

It was the lead article in TIME magazine a few years ago. The article was entitled “Miracles.” It was a story about a family from North Carolina.  It is a story of a mom and dad and a grandpa who has been a surgeon for thirty-nine years.  Their child was born some years ago, and the child had droopy eyelids, but no one said anything to the parents so as not to upset them.  Time went by; the family talked about the peculiar eyelids; so they made an appointment with the neurologist.  A scan was taken, and the pictures of the brain revealed a brain tumor.  The family was devastated about the little child.  The doctor performed the preliminary surgery and they discovered that this was a type of malignancy that no human being had ever survived.  There was to be future paralysis and then inevitable death.  The family went down.  Down, down, down, down, down.  The grandfather, the surgeon, prayed that the family would have good doctors.  The father, a young attorney, prayed that the will of God would be done.  The mother prayed that somehow she would be able to endure this tragedy.  It came to seven days from surgery, and a friend came to visit.  He was an Episcopalian priest who prayed for a miracle, a healing, and he anointed the child with oil.  It was now forty-eight hours before surgery, and so the surgeon went into the child’s brain and drew out this fluid and they decided to postpone the surgery for two more days.  The doctor went into her brain the next day to examine the fluid and…there was nothing. Nothing. There were no lesions, no cancer, no tumor. And the article says, “He was …baffled.  He was…bewildered.” And the mother? She was astonished and astounded. Amazed and awestruck. Dazzled and dumbfounded. And overwhelmed. The mother then said,  “If you ever see my thirteen year old Elizabeth running around, with the drooping left eye, do not feel sorry for her.  I am astounded that my child is alive!  I don’t understand it but my child has experienced a miracle.” TIME magazine. … There are times in life when the word, surprise, is not strong enough.  We need bigger words, stronger words such as astounded, words like awestruck and amazed, like dazzled and dumbfounded. 

Well, it is with this mood and these stories that we approach the Easter story.  Jesus was crucified on the cross at a place called “Golgotha” in Hebrew. The name means the “place of the skull.” We know about the place of the skull. That is, if you go to Jerusalem today, 250 yards north of the old wall of Jerusalem, there is a cliff with holes in that cliff. There is a hole in the cliff for each eye and a hole in that cliff for a mouth. If you look at that cliff, you can see the image of a skull.  Yes, we can still see the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified. 

On that Friday early afternoon, the Bible tells us what happens next. Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin, asked Pilate to bury the body. Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin, also helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  The Bible tells us, not the movie tells us; but the Bible tells us the story of these two men after the crucifixion. Joseph was rich, and owned a burial plot near the place of the skull. Today, two thousand years, later you can visit a garden burial garden immediately above Golgotha. There are burial crypts carved out of the limestone, and a track on the ground that a circular stone could be rolled. The two men took Jesus’ body to that grave, prepared his body for burial by covering him with more than a hundred pounds of spices, and sealed the tomb. It was now Friday, late afternoon. Jesus body remained in the grave Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning. Then the action started to take place.

Women came to the limestone graves to grieve Jesus’ death. They were Mary Magdalene, Mary and her sister Salome. The women approached the burial chamber and exclaimed, “O no, someone has rolled away the stone.” They went inside that vault and thee were two angels, two messengers there who said, “He is not here. He has been raised from the dead by the powers of God just like he told you it would happen.” And the women? I know their reaction. They were astounded and astonished, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded. They ran as fast as their little legs would carry them to report the news to Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved, John himself, the eyewitness of the four gospel authors. Only John’s gospel written by an eyewitness tells us so many juicy historical details. The women found Peter and John and told them about the empty tomb. Peter and John ran as fast as they could to the burial crypt. Young John arrived first and then older Peter. Peter walked into the crypt first and John followed. There was the linen shroud and the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face all neatly folded and sitting there. The disciples must have looked at each other and I know their reaction. They were astonished and astounded, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded. The two disciples left.

Mary Magdalene was there alone, weeping, crying, perplexed. She thought that she was speaking to the gardener and asked where he had put the body of Jesus. Jesus spoke one word, “Mary.” She knew the voice. She knew his voice. It was the voice of Jesus. She turned around and was the first person on earth to see the resurrected Christ. I know what was going on inside of her. She was astonished and astounded, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded at his presence. He said, “Do not touch me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Now, a short time later, the same thing happened all over.  I mean, the disciples had heard.  They had heard that in three days, he would rise from the dead. Jesus had told them that three times. They had heard the words, “today you will be with me in paradise,” and the saying, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.”  They had heard the story, but they weren’t ready.  They weren’t ready.  Suddenly Jesus appeared to them, and the disciples were astounded by what they saw. …The same thing happened a short later to Thomas. He said, “Unless I touch the wounds in his hands and the wound in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus said, “Touch my hands. Touch my side.” And what was Thomas’s reaction. I know. He was astonished and astounded, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded.

On Easter morning, you need bigger words than the word, surprise.  You need strong words to try to capture what happened that day.  You need words like astounded and astonished, like amazed and awestruck, like dazzled and dumbfounded. It was so incredible.

In many ways, we are like those first disciples, so it seems to me.  We are like the women coming to the grave that day.  They had heard the promise of Jesus that on the third day, the Son of Man would be raised from the dead by the Powers of God. They had heard his promise to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  They had heard Jesus teach, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will never die.”  Nevertheless, on that morning when they came to the grave, they came expecting death, did they not?  When they came that morning to the grave, in spite of all of Jesus’ promises, they came expecting death.  And I am suspicious that you and I are like those women.  Even though we have heard the promises of God.  Yes, we have heard the promises over and over again e.g. on the third day I will rise; today you will be with me in paradise; I am the resurrection and the life. We have heard these promises but we come to our graves, and like the women on that first Sunday morning, we are expecting death.  For deep down in everyone’s soul is a pessimism that believes that this is all there is. They put you in a box; they put you in that grave; and in time the box and the vault will decay, and your body will decay like all the others.

Why do we have this inner feeling, this inner pessimism?  Sigmund Freud calls it the “death instinct.”  Common to all human beings and all animals, and human beings are part of the animal kingdom, we have this instinct.  Deep down inside is this fear that this is all there is.  And so we come to the graves of life, the graves of our mothers and fathers, and grandmas and grandpas; we come to the deathbeds of life, and we finally come to our own deathbed and we quietly pray:  “I believe, help my unbelief.” And we die.

We sleep.  And then…then…we awake and say…”Hooooly cow!!! It is so incredibly beautiful!!! Stunned. Breathless.  And we are astonished and astounded, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded the beauty that God has prepared for you and me. The Apostle Paul was right when he said,  “No eye can see, no ear can hear, no mind can imagine the good and wonderful things that God has prepared for us.”

Do you remember the story of Dismas on the cross?  The story of the man, the thief, who was crucified with Jesus on the cross?  I can see the two of them hanging on their crosses by each other.  Jesus spoke to him, from one cross to another, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Do you think that Dismas really comprehended that?  Do you think he said, “Oh, yah, yah. OK Lord, I got it.  I understand. Of course.” Dismis died, not comprehending what Jesus had just said to him.  And suddenly, later in a moment, Dismas woke up.  And he was shocked. Stunned.  He was awestruck by the beauty of what he saw.  “Oh, that is what he was talking about.”

I am a parish pastor.  I have been a parish pastor for more than twenty-five years.  Do you know how many people I have helped die?  Do you know how many deathbeds I have been at?  How many car accidents?  One thing I am sure:  not one of them enjoyed dying.  I want you to know:  death is not nice, is not pleasant.  Most recently my good friend, Carl, died.  His goatee had become more pronounced as he slowly lost weight.  His family said that the more weight he lost, the more he looked like his mother.  I want you to know that his death was not easy for Carl or any of us.  It never is.  And he died.  So still in the deathbed.  So quiet.  And then…and then…my friend, Carl, like the thief on the cross, woke up… and …and…he was breathless at the beauty that was before him.  Astounded, astonished, amazed and awestruck, dazzled and dumbfounded by the beauty that was beyond his earthly imagination.

I will never forget my last conversation with my mom.  She died not that long ago, and it is tough.  She told me she didn’t want to die because she just purchased new blue carpet for the new apartment. She had the same beige carpet for twenty years in her old, low income apartment and the carpet was beige brown.  They put in brand new blue carpet in their new apartment.  And their new apartment had a view of the cornfields of Minnesota.  She said, “I don’t want to die.  I really like the new carpet.  I have a nice apartment and it has a view of the cornfields.”  And she died!!! Oh, poor mother.  Poor us.  And she woke up…and said, “This is better than blue carpets. This is better than cornfields in Minnesota. My mom was astonished and astounded, amazed and awestruck , dazzled and dumbfounded by the beauty that was beyond her imagination.   You see, there are certain things that happen for which the word, surprise, is not strong enough. 

It is Easter Sunday, and Easter Sunday takes strong words.  When your Easter comes, it will take strong words to describe the good and beautiful things that God has prepared for you.  Amen. 

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