This is not a “normal” Easter sermon. First, I gave it on Saturday night at Drew UMC (Carmel, NY); second, I used the reading from the Psalms for Good Friday (Psalm 22) as the basis for part of the message. I present to you today as the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew, a disciple and friend of Jesus Christ. I have created a four-person play based on the reading from the Psalm and this manuscript (contact me if you would like to see a copy).
This is a night of questions, questions that often do not have any answers. In the darkness, we feel lost and afraid, more afraid than anything else that there is no hope, no promise. It is a night in which God has counted the people and we feel as if we have been missed in the counting. Hear now a story about that first missing day.
We hear the thoughts of Nathaniel Bartholomew as he sits alone.
The Sabbath has ended and though it is dark outside, people are making plans to return home. They have come to Jerusalem and celebrated Passover. Now it is time to return home, rejoicing in the celebration of God’s redemption of His people, of His delivering the people from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance to the Promised Land.
But in other, darkened corners of the city, there are some for whom there is no celebration. Followers of Jesus, they are fearful that they too will be hunted down and executed in the manner in which their Master, their Teacher, and their Friend had been.
Jesus had spoken of the cost that following Him would take and it was becoming apparent that it was a deadly cost. The disciple Judas Iscariot, angry over Jesus’ refusal to sell the ointment the woman had used to anoint Him, was now dead. Having realized what His betrayal of Jesus really meant and that the religious and political authorities had been him played for a fool, he killed himself.
There is a rumor that Peter was also dead. Peter, known for his strong will and impulsive character, had denied Jesus three times during the night that Jesus was arrested. No one could predict what the leader of the disciples, the man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah but then just as quickly and meekly denied he had ever known Jesus.
And so the disciples hid in fear. Twelve hours after Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! What have you forsaken me!” they too wonder where God may be and if He had forsaken them. Has God abandoned them as He appears to have abandoned Jesus?
Where are you, God! Why did you let this happen? What is to become of us? Why have you left us in our time of need and despair? Where is the hope, the promise that we were told would be coming when we left our homes, our families and our livelihoods to follow Jesus? Did we not enter Jerusalem six days ago amidst shouts of acclamation and celebration? Why did the people turn against Jesus so quickly? Where are you, God? Am I among the missing now?
We believed He was the Messiah but now He is dead, buried in a tomb somewhere.
I feel like a fool for ever thinking that Jesus was the Messiah. I should have known there was some sort of trick involved when He told me He had seen me sitting under the tree studying the Scriptures that day three years ago.
What do I do know? Where do I go? Surely, I can’t go home. My family and friends will all laugh at me. ‘Nathaniel, how is that this Jesus could save others but he couldn’t save Himself?’ they will ask me. Surely a king would have an army to fight for him; where was Jesus’ army?
And you and those others you have been with, why you didn’t even try to stop the soldiers from arresting Jesus! You were asleep and then, when you awoke, you ran away! This Jesus of yours was no better than some of the magicians who travel through this town using their magic tricks like changing water into wine to amuse the people. I bet all those people who you say Jesus healed were fakes. We’ve seen them before, faking illness to extract money from the passers-by. Your Jesus was a fake but you are afraid to say it.
But He did heal the sick. I saw Him give sight to the blind and I saw how He helped the lame to walk; I was there with the crowds and I helped Him feed the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and some fish. I saw Him change the lives of so many people; people whom were scorned and cast-out, people barred from entering the Temple because there was something wrong with them.
And He taught me how to do the same. He sent us out into the world and we did all the things that He did. But now He is dead, consider a rebel and radical, a threat to society. Can I even think that I can do all those things without Him by my side?
And I suppose that I will be barred from the Temple now because I chose to follow Jesus. Perhaps it is just as well; if Jesus was truly God’s Son and God left Him to die on that Cross, then why should I even think that I could go into God’s House, the Temple again? I wonder if God is even in the Temple anymore. Could it be that God let Jesus die because we kicked God out of the house?
Wasn’t that what it was all about? Didn’t Jesus cleanse the temple a few days ago because it was no longer God’s House? Maybe God isn’t in the Temple? If He isn’t in the Temple, then where is He?
How many times did Jesus speak of His Father and being with Him and He with Jesus? Did not God speak to the people when Jesus’ cousin baptized Him and say that this was my Son in whom I am well pleased? Were we as blind as all the others? What clues did we miss?
What was He said last week when He rescued Lazarus from that tomb? What were those words that He said the other night when we were gathered for the Passover meal? Could it be that Jesus is the Messiah as we have always believed? Could it be that Jesus is the Christ and we have not been forgotten?
But how do I find out? My friend, Thomas, would probably want proof that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead. And the only way that can be is if we see the empty tomb and we perhaps see Jesus, just as we saw Lazarus walk from his tomb. But with soldiers guarding the tomb, that won’t be easy.
Suddenly the cock crows and the sun rises on the third day. And a voice cries out, “Nathaniel, have you heard the news!”
It was my friend and fellow disciple, Peter. He was alright. It was obvious that his denial of Jesus two days ago and the death of Jesus had really shaken him but he was still the confident leader of our band. But I saw that he had changed, perhaps in ways that only time would be able to show. And then He gave me the good news; Jesus was not in the tomb! He had risen! He told me that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women in our group had gone to the tomb to see if they could properly prepare the body, since it was taken down in haste before the beginning of the Sabbath.
They had no idea what they were going to say to the soldiers or how they were going to roll away the stone that closed the tomb. But when they got there, the stone had been rolled away and the soldiers looked as if they had seen death itself.
Mary said that an angel was sitting on the stone and told her to not be afraid, that she wouldn’t find Jesus in the tomb because He was not there. As He had said, He had been raised from the dead and if she looked into the tomb, she would only see the where he had been laid. She and the others with her were to go and tell us, the disciples, what she had seen and what she had been told and that He would be with us in a few days. And as she ran to tell us, Jesus met her and confirmed all that the angel had said.
We would meet Jesus a few days later. In fact, we would meet Him several times in the coming days. And slowly, each of us, the disciples, our friends, our families, all who had been with him these three years would begin to understand just what it was we have been a part of and what we were being asked to do.
There is a day in my life that I wish were missing – it is that day that began when Jesus cried out in pain and agony and gave up His life; it ended on the third day when He arose from the dead and conquered sin and death so that we might live. It was a day of private pain and anguish; it was a day of loss and grief. It was more than the loss of a friend; it was a feeling that I had lost every thing.
Perhaps there has been a day like that in your life, a day in your life, a day when you think that God has forgotten you and thrown you to the world. It may be that you have felt this loss and you have come here tonight thinking perhaps you can find what you are missing. Understand what tomorrow, Easter Sunday, means.
It means a new beginning for all, not just a few. It means that God cares about each person, no matter where they are in life, how old they are, or even who they are. It means that no one need live a life with missing days, where there is no purpose or form to life.
With the rising of the sun to mark the new day and to illuminate the empty tomb, the Risen Son can say to all that there is a new hope, a new promise to one’s life. The call is made to all to rejoice in this new day, to see the Risen Christ.
The call will be made to others, like Nathaniel Bartholomew, Peter, James, John, Thomas and even Mary Magdalene, Mary and her sister Martha, to seek those who are missing, to go out into the world and tell the story. It is a call to let everyone know that no one should be missing in God’s world.
And though the world may be dark as we leave this place tonight, we know that the sun will shine tomorrow and the Son will rise. We rejoice in the day that tells us we no longer must endure missing days.