March 23, 2008
"A Crib, A Cross, And A Cave"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
True story. A United Methodist pastor was asked to conduct a a graveside service for a member of his church. The only problem was, the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church. The pastor wasn't feeling well so he decided to ride with the Funeral Director in the Coach.
By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the flu had invaded completely and he said he felt like the Chinese Army was having a pogo stick Derby on his head and stomach. Feverish and sick, he made it through the service, but he was starting to look like most flu victims, like death warmed over.
As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the coach. It had curtains and nobody would see him. The pastor thought it was a good idea and promptly fell asleep.
He awoke when the vehicle stopped. Taking a few minutes to fully awaken, he slowly sat up and drew the side curtain to see where he was. He was face to face with a gas station attendant, who was surprised and shocked to see a body in the back of the hearse staring back at him.
With all the color drained out of him and his eyes as wide as saucers, the gas pump flew into the air, and the attendant ran on shaky legs back into the gas station, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain the whole situation.
I'm pretty sure that's how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning must have felt. They had to have run on shaky legs back to the Disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement. Let's look at the Resurrection story from Matthew. Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)
 After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."
 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
It wasn't a funeral director who shared the Good News with the women, it was an angel. And not just any angel but the Angel of the Lord. But, it still startled them almost as much as that preacher waking up in the funeral coach startled and scared the gas station attendant.
The news on that First Easter WAS startling. Nothing like it had ever happened before and yet its significance has changed the world. This Empty Cave coupled with the Empty Crib and the Empty Cross have changed how we look at life and who we look at the world.
Some of you may be thinking, I know why the Empty Cross is remembered at Easter but what does the Empty Crib have to do with Easter? Charles Wesley knew that we can never separate the Cross from the Crib. That's why he wrote the words to the classic Christmas Hymn:
"Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new born King,
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinner reconciled."
How is it that all of humankind could be reconciled to God through a child? That's not an idea that could originate with us. It had to be God's idea. Martin Luther said, "Christ became what he was not -"Sin" in order that we might become what we were not -"the Righteousness of God."
It all began in the Crib. Because without the Crib there would have been no Cross. It began in the Crib but was Perfected on the Cross and made a Reality through the Empty Cave.
What we need to remember is that Jesus didn't die on the Cross for the perfect. Jesus didn't die for the Godly. Jesus didn't die for the good. If so, none of us would have had a chance. Jesus died for the imperfect, ungodly, sinners like us. The Crib, The Cross and The Cave are empty which means there is hope for all of us.
A. I want you to do me a favor. If everybody does it, then no one will look foolish. I want you to take your hand and reach out and grab the secret of this day. Go ahead, just reach out and grab the secret of this day.
Once you've got it firmly in your grasp, I want you to open your hand. What do you see? Nothing, right? Your hand is empty, right? That's the secret of this day. The Crib, The Cross, and The Cave are all empty. And that's what makes this day, above all other days, so special.
The crib is empty because in Jesus hope was born into the world. But in order for that hope to reach the entire world, the baby Jesus of Christmas had to grow to become a man. And he did. The Crib is empty because he did. He became a man who challenged the world with faith and hope. He grew to become a man who owned nothing and lived on borrowed time.
He was born in a borrowed stable and laid in a borrowed manger for a crib. He preached from a borrowed boat. He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He fed the 5,000 from the lunch he borrowed from a small boy. He borrowed an Upper Room for the Last Supper with the Disciples. He was laid in a tomb that was borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Everything of significance in his life and ministry was borrowed.
B. Except one thing, the Cross. The Cross was his and his alone. While the cross was thrust on others, Jesus willingly took up the Cross of our Redemption. He willingly and knowingly bore the weight of our sin and disobedience at Calvary so we would no longer have to bear it ourselves. Jesus carried His Cross out of His deep, unconditional love for us. (1)
That Cross, that instrument of suffering and death became our symbol of forgiveness and redemption. The Cross is empty because for the seed of hope, which was Jesus, to grow and bear fruit it had to be buried and planted so that hope could take root. The Cross is empty because Jesus was the final sacrifice, the final Paschal Lamb. There would no longer need to be bloody sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. This act and the empty cross echo Jesus' last words, "It is finished."
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Jesus' body down from the cross and lovingly laid it in the tomb moments before the Sabbath began. And on the third day, the women went to the tomb to make those funeral preparations for Jesus' body which they hadn't had time to perform on Friday evening.
But to their surprise, the stone had been rolled aside and the Tomb was Empty. The stone was rolled away, not so Jesus could get out, but so that we could get in and see that the Tomb is empty. The Tomb is empty because nothing can hold the Son of God, not even death. The tomb is empty to remind us that the fear of death is an empty fear. The Tomb is empty because the seed of hope, Christ Jesus, bore the fruit God had planned and designed. Jesus conquered even death and offers us resurrection and eternal life with Him.
That's what the Crib, The Cross and The Cave all have in common. They are empty so that the promises of the Savior would be fulfilled and fill us with faith and hope and new life.
A. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a great G rated movie about a magical toy store and the magical man who has owned and run it for over 200 years. Mr. Magorium has a manager and assistant, Molly Mahoney, who was a young piano prodigy with great promise. Only, somehow along the way to writing her great concerto, she got stuck. And in the process she lost confidence in herself.
Mr. Magorium decides it's time for him to depart. Neither the magical store nor Molly Maloney take it very well, even though Mr. Magorium is leaving the store to Molly. The store throws a temper tantrum. And on the day that Mr. Magorium leaves, all the color drains out of both the toys and the store. The store has lost it's magic and it has become so ashen and lifeless that balls won't even bounce in the store.
Throughout all of this, Mr. Magorium has hired an accountant, who he calls his "counting mutant." Mutant doesn't believe in magic at first but three days after Mr. Magoriums departure, he comes to see that the magic resides in Molly. And when Molly realizes it, she begins to sparkle and the music of her soul begins to play all around her and through her. As Molly conducts this glorious piece which she's held inside for so long, the magical store casts off the death that gripped it and is resurrected to new life under the able hands of Molly Maloney.
I think that's a great resurrection story. Molly had sunk into the pit of despair and the sight of the store drove her even deeper. What she needed was a good dose of faith. Like Peter, she had no faith in herself, but then one who had never believed suddenly came to belief and his faith in Molly was enough to spark her faith in herself once again.
I believe that the world is a magical place filled with the wonder of God's creation and unconditional love. But somehow, like Molly Mahoney, we've gotten stuck. We've become stuck not only in sin but in the weight of the guilt of our sin that mires our souls in despair. We've become stuck in the "now" aspect of the world because of our fear of death in the future.
As a result, we seem to think that we've got to get as much stuff as we can and stuff as many experiences as we can into our lives before our expiration date arrives.
We've forgotten the Promises of God. We've forgotten what a glorious present and future God has planned for us.
B. But the Empty Crib, The Empty Cross and the Empty Cave all remind us of the fullness of God's Promise and the fullness of life that comes when we believe and hold onto that Promise and make that Promise, embodied and lived out in Jesus, the central part of our lives.
When that Promise and the Person of the Promise, Jesus, are central in our lives, then, in a sense, we become like Molly Mahoney. But it's not the song of our heart that we play that brings the life and color back to the world, it's the Resurrection Song of a New Creation born of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, which brings the color and music and life back to the world.
We're not even the conductor of the Concerto. Jesus is the conductor. We're simply instruments in the hands of the Master Virtuoso, the Holy Spirit. But through us, through our willingness, the magic of God's Kingdom, known as Grace, can be seen and heard and felt. And when we allow God's music of Grace to be played through us for others to hear and see, the whole world begins to sparkle and that which was ashen and lifeless bounces back to life.
There's an old folk legend that says, scattered throughout the earth, there are twenty-eight people on whom the future of the world depends. These twenty-eight people don't know who they are. You could be one of them. But their actions determine whether the world will continue or not. (2)
What if that were true. What if you WERE one of the 28? What if the future of the world did depend on your actions. Luckily, the future of the world is firmly in God's hands and the only one it ever depended upon was Jesus. But the future of the Mission of God's Kingdom that does depend upon us.
Jesus came into this world to seek and to save that which was lost. Then He returned to God. But before he did, Jesus gathered around him a select group of men and women to carry on his work. There was nothing special about these men and women. In fact, they were quite ordinary.
There was only one thing that distinguished them, they had been touched and chose by Jesus. And when Christ left them, he gave them a mission. They were to reach out to others with Christ's unconditional love until the day comes when every person on this earth knows and is able to wake to the person God created them to be, a child of God.
And that knowledge comes through the three things we've talked about today An Empty Crib, An Empty Cross and An Empty Cave. They tell the story of our Risen Savior who brings Hope through Wholeness and Forgiveness. They remind us that every person can experience the Resurrection in their lives through Jesus, the Son of God, who takes the emptiness of our lives fills us with New Life and Hope. Our challenge is let Him fill the emptiness in us with His unconditional Love, so we can share it with others.
1. Adapted from something I read somewhere but could not find the source.
2. Wear Clean Underwear by Rhonda Abrams, Villard, New York, 1999, p. 169.
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