Sunrise Over The Horizon
Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church
Sunrise service — April 1, 2018
Every 24 hours, we experience a sunset — although sometimes it’s hidden by clouds. Every 24 hours, we experience a sunrise. Until the advent of supersonic travel or geosynchronous Earth orbit, there was no way to escape the daily routine.
In fact, our bodies have a natural rhythm, based on that 24-hour cycle. Now that we have the ability to cheat on it, with artificial lighting, and trans-oceanic commercial airliners, we’ve discovered some unpleasant consequences. If you travel across six or seven time zones, as I’ve done on some of my mission trips, you get jet lag. If you stare at the blue light of a computer or tablet screen for too many hours in the evening, you may find it hard to get to sleep because your body gets confused between daytime and nighttime.
The rhythm of sunset and sunrise is built into us. It should, perhaps, be God’s lesson to us, a symbol, a metaphor that we can use to explain other aspects of life. And yet, sometimes, we fail to learn that lesson, and we think that when it’s dark outside things will never ever become light again.
As with many Bible stories, we don’t have a lot of details about what happened to Jesus’ disciples — not just the Twelve but the others, including Jesus’ mother, James and John’s mother, Mary Magdalene, and others — in the hours between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Much of the Bible started as oral history, and it was first written down in an age when paper was scarce and sacred. So many Bible stories tell us only the details we really need to know. Our popular culture since that time, especially since the invention of the printing press and even more so since the invention of computers and the Internet, is geared towards detailed, behind-the-scenes descriptions of great events. But the Bible leaves many things unanswered that we, in our human curiosity, would like to ask.
We do know that the disciples, while they might have scattered at the time of Jesus’ arrest, were together on the day after the Sabbath. They had traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover, and by the time the crucifixion had ended it was almost sundown on Friday — and the Sabbath started at sundown.
Anyone raised a Jew in that day and age would never have traveled on the Sabbath — it was against the laws of Moses. And even though the disciples might have been afraid for their lives, at the hands of the Jewish religious authorities, no less, they themselves were still Jews, and had been taught the laws of Moses all their lives. Respect for the Sabbath was a part of their society, something that they’d been taught all their lives, something they didn’t even have to think about. It was better to hide on the Sabbath and, if necessary, travel the following day. The Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday, but in that day and time it was dangerous to travel in the dark of night. So the disciples remained together yet another night.
If Jesus had not arisen, the disciples might have gone their separate ways on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday. But if Jesus had not arisen, we wouldn’t be here this morning.
John 20:1–20 (CEB)
20 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in.6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
When Jesus was crucified, it must have seemed to the disciples that light had gone out all over the world. But they forgot to wait for the sunrise, and they were surprised when it came. At our darkest and seemingly most hopeless moments, we, too, can forget that the Son is on the way.
The disciples despaired because they did not understand God’s plan. They expected Jesus to conquer the world and defeat the Roman Empire the way that David or Samson had defeated the Philistines.They thought Jesus’ purpose was to bring about political change, military change, an earthly kingdom. And when the Roman governor put Jesus to death, all hope of that kingdom seemed to be lost.
Even when the sun rose in the sky on that Sunday morning, the disciples were still living in darkness. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, not to worship a risen savior, but to embalm the dead body of her friend. When she saw the open tomb, her first thought was that the body had been stolen.
When Jesus first appears to her, she doesn’t recognize him.
When she returns to the disciples with the glorious news of Jesus’ resurrection, they still didn’t understand. This passage in John states that John “saw and believed,” but then in the very next sentence it said that he and Peter and Mary still didn’t understand the scripture which stated that Jesus had to rise from the dead. On Easter night, even after what they’d heard from Mary and the other women, the disciples remained huddled in fear, thinking that they, too, were about to be arrested and crucified.
But the disciples did not understand the true power and force of Jesus’ kingdom. Earthly kingdoms rise and fall, and in the two thousand years since Jesus walked the Earth many different governments and empires and leaders have come and gone.
What Jesus established was not what the disciples were expecting, but it was ultimately much more powerful and enduring. It is the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. It is what John Wesley felt on Aldersgate Street when he said that his heart was “strangely warmed.” It is what gives us the hope to go on when we experience grief, or sickness, or poverty, or isolation. It is what Jesus calls on us to share with those around us. It is the joy of a personal relationship with the creator of the Universe, purchased on Good Friday and redeemed on Easter Sunday morning.
The disciples were still in the dark on that Sunday evening, just before Jesus appeared among them and said “Peace be with you.” That, to them, was the true sunrise, the true revelation that Jesus had returned to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in our hearts.
In the dark ages, people used to think that the sun revolved around the Earth. Now we know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Similarly, in our darkest moments we may think that God has abandoned us, when in fact it is we who have turned away from God.
The angels asked Mary, “Why are you crying?” A few moments later, Jesus asked her the same thing. It’s a good question. Why are we crying? Why do we fear that the night will last forever, and how do we forget what the sunrise feels like?
When we turn back to God, when we open ourselves to God’s love and grace and direction and protection, that is when we can see the sun beginning to rise, just over the horizon. Sometimes, we are waiting for earthly relief. Sometimes, earthy relief doesn’t happen exactly the way we think it will — just as the disciples didn’t understand the true nature of Jesus’s kingdom. In those cases, we are looking a little further into the future, looking at the eternity that we will spend with Jesus. Sometimes, the horizon seems farther away than other times. But the sunrise will always come, in one form or another. God has promised us this.
As we gather here, watching the daily miracle of the sunrise, let us remember God’s miraculous presence in our lives, every second of every day, in our good times and in our darkest moments. We may turn away from God, but God will never turn away from us. No matter what time of day it is, we can always look at the horizon and see the sunrise.