Sermon from April 17: Look for the Living

Look for the Living
Resurrection; April 17, 2022
Luke 24:1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the men in the tomb asked the women. Where else would they look? This is where they expected to find him – well, his body – because anything else would be too unexpected. Yes, as the men reminded them, Jesus had told them he would be raised from the dead, but the women expected all faithful people of God to be raised from the dead… at the end of the age. But not yet. Not yet.

God’s surprising action in raising Jesus from the dead already suggests to me a partial answer to a question one of you posed to me: Why does God let bad things happen? You asked it early in the Russian offensive against Ukraine and that was probably what you had in mind. Why does God let that happen? Why did God let the Romans kill Jesus?

People have given a lot of answers to that question and I’ll be honest: none of them satisfy me. But that God did let the Romans execute Jesus and then did raise him from the dead tells me two important things.

It tells me that evil is real. All the positive thinking that you and I want to do, all the unicorns with rainbows streaming out of their backsides cannot cover up the reality of evil. Right now we’re happy to focus on the President of Russia as evil, but I have known evil much closer to home and you probably have too. Someone abused you or deliberately harmed you or deceived you. You have dealt with systemic racism or sexism or homophobia. Perhaps you have participated in it and been part of the problem. However it may be, you have known evil.

Mary, Joanna, and the other women had seen evil at work: the system grinding under its wheels the life of someone they loved. Jesus’ brand of goodness doesn’t stand up well in this world: telling the truth to people and about people; emphasizing the importance of relationships rather than power, generosity rather than acquisitiveness, forgiveness rather than revenge. That doesn’t go over well, and so the system killed him to get him out of the way. These women had seen evil at work and so they went to the tomb on Sunday morning to grieve in the proper way.

They discovered the surprise. Although it is a surprise, I have always enjoyed the matter-of-fact way the men say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It is difficult to accept that God allows such evil as the assault on Ukraine, White nationalism, the crucifixion of Jesus, but this morning’s celebration reminds us of what God does about it: we call it redemption. That’s the second important thing. Rather than preventing evil, God redeems evil, pulls its teeth, and from its worst acts makes something new.

Mary, Joanna, and the others could not see that on that long Saturday, that time before they came to the tomb and made their wonderful discovery. We cannot see it now in Ukraine. Much of our life is spent in the Holy Saturday of waiting and wondering and suffering: what will God do with this? We have had a very long Holy Saturday of a pandemic, as the world shut down and projects shriveled and relationships withered. The usual work of God is not to stop bad things from happening but to work quietly through the long Holy Saturday to bring new life out of them. I believe God will work through millions of us to redeem, somehow, the evil of the war in Ukraine. I believe God will work in our society, despite the opposition of many powers nearby and far away, to redeem, somehow, the evil of systemic racism, of sexism, of homophobia. That is because I believe that God worked through the brutal execution of Jesus to bring new life and new possibilities to the world. Look for the living, but look for the living among the dead, for that is where he is needed.

Speaking as your pastor, I find myself wondering if we should not have tried so hard to keep things going during the Holy Saturday of the pandemic. Perhaps we should have let more things die. I fear that your temptation will be to simply try to reestablish former things, to do again what you’ve done before, to continue to think in the same way you did before the pandemic. It’s probably a good thing that I am retiring in a few weeks; I am part of the way we did things before COVID. I know myself well enough to know that I could help nurture you along to the new life God offers now, but I suspect it will be more easily accomplished with a pastor who is not part of the way things used to be.

For God did not simply reanimate a corpse. When Christ was raised from the dead, he did not pick up where he left off, simply restart what he had been doing before. His life was a new life, a resurrected life, the first of many yet to come.

Look for the living. Look around and see where redemption is happening. Look at churches that have been radically remade as a result of the pandemic. Look at people whose lives have taken new meaning because of how they emerged from the evil they lived through. Look at societies that have suffered terribly and emerged with new and vibrant life. Examples abound: God redeems evil. As we live through a long Holy Saturday the earth continues to turn and the sun rises on Resurrection morning.

So take heart. Look for the living among the dead and put your focus on the Living One. What is the new thing God is doing? Look for the Living One in your life, in the life of our world, in the life of the Church. You and I can be part of God’s work of redemption, for our Lord is risen indeed.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska