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Sermon: Earth-Shaking Events

April 24, 2011

Matthew 28:1-10

We have heard a lot about earthquakes lately—maybe too much.  Six weeks ago, there was the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.  A little over a year ago, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti.  About six years ago, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean spawned a tsunami that killed more than a quarter of a million people.

These three quakes in particular have left untold stories of human misery in their wakes.  In addition to the deaths in the affected areas, about two-thirds of coastal infrastructure and fishing fleets were destroyed by the Indonesian tsunami (Wikipedia: “2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.”)  Haiti still suffers a humanitarian crisis from disease, violence and lack of basic resources after its quake.  Japan, of course, is only beginning to recover, and the serious condition of the nuclear reactor is still a major concern.

Earthquakes are normally accompanied by just such disastrous news as these were, so it is a little odd that we discover an earthquake this morning that does not signify tragedy, but instead symbolizes hope.

That story began just as the day was dawning.  Two women had come to visit the grave of their friend Jesus.  Jesus had died a horrible death, and was hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.  The authorities ordered the tomb sealed shut, as secure as possible, so that no one would disturb the body.  Suddenly, there was an earthquake, not caused by the tectonic plates shifting and grinding against one another, but by an angel rolling back the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb.  And the angel sat on the rock.

The earthquake and the brilliant presence of the heavenly visitor caused the Roman guards standing watch to do some shaking of their own.  They “shook and became like dead men.”  But the angel spoke to the women: “Do not be afraid.  I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”  He is not here.  This earthquake early on the day after the Sabbath did not symbolize death and destruction, but something unusual.

Our gospel reading this morning is from the author we call Matthew.  Matthew has quite an interest in earthquakes and shaking.  You may recall his version of the crucifixion.  The moment Jesus breathed his last, the earth shook; rocks were split; the curtain in the holiest part of the Temple was torn in two.  The people who witnessed this were terrified.  They shook just like the guards at the tomb.

And think back further, to the birth of Jesus.  Men from the East came to Jerusalem, and when Herod and the people of Jerusalem heard the news of the birth of a new king, they were in an uproar.  Something had happened that shook up the entire city and their Roman-appointed king.  Clearly, Matthew has a thing for earthquakes, and though in his story, they shake things up, they create fear, but they are not sources of destruction.  These earthquakes mean something else.

*     *     *     *     *

          We human beings have been able to harness power in some awesome ways.  Steam power has driven iron machines from coast to coast.  The internal combustion engine has enabled us to drive vehicles and powerful machinery.  Our ability to split the atom has given us electricity and the ability to destroy on a massive scale.  But nothing that we have done comes close to the force we find in the natural world.  The power in a single earthquake dwarfs that in our atomic weaponry.  The intensity of the energy in our sun—or in any other star—is truly impossible for us to comprehend.  Matthew understood the humbling, uncontrollable forces of nature, and saw in them the hand of God at work in the world.  A star led the wise men.  Earthquakes accompanied Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The earthquakes in the gospel—like natural earthquakes—shake things up.  The guards, the people of Jerusalem, the powers of the world that had tried to secure the tomb, were shaken by their proximity to the divine power.  The only thing that God’s earthquakes destroyed was the neat order that human arrogance had attempted to set up for itself.  For the rest of Creation, God’s earthquake meant hope.  God shook the world, and nothing could be the same again.  Jesus had been raised from the dead.  He was dead; he was buried; we was sealed in the tomb.  But God had an earthquake in mind, and when the earth shook, it was revealed that the power of sin and death had no power.  They were a sham.  The grace and mercy of God far outstripped them.  God shook the world to see that there is real hope for us, that our failures and fears do not have the last word.  Death, violence and destruction are not the end of the story.  “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”  And the whole world shook.  If the power of God can raise Christ from the grave, and in so doing destroy the power of sin and death and change the world forever, do you wonder what that same power of God might be able to do for your small life?

Yesterday, the Daily Breeze ran a story about a student at San Pedro High School named Adrienne.  Knowing San Pedro, there are probably some of you who know this young woman.  Adrienne was a fairly normal middle schooler.  She was active and a good student.  But prior to her freshman year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Despite successful surgery to remove a tumor, Adrienne’s mother died.  A few months later, Adrienne’s only surviving grandparent also died.  These deaths, the loss of people so important to her, caused Adrienne to spiral.  Her grades slipped.  The future seemed dim, but things were to get even worse.  She fractured a vertebra in her spine due to a previously unknown birth defect, and that prevented her from competing in cross country and track.  Her world was collapsing.  As Adrienne said, “I just kind of stopped trying.  It seemed like everything was going wrong.”  The tomb, if not sealed securely, was closing.

And then, something earth-shaking happened, something amazing that would leave her forever changed.  She went to Catalina.

That’s right.  She went to Catalina on a trip sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.  She discovered the beauty and wonder of God’s Creation in the animals of the ocean.  That simple encounter inspired in her a drive to learn more.  Suddenly, her life had meaning.  She was at the aquarium every day.  As a high school student, she did experimental work that was winning her awards and recognition.  The staff said the quality of her work was on par with that of graduate students.  And, in the fall, Adrienne’s future will continue to unfold as she begins to study aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Washington.  (Daily Breeze: “Focus helped girl turn the tide.”)

Now a little trip to Catalina might not sound like an earthquake to you.  It may not seem like the awesome power of God thundering down from heaven to roll back the stone and reveal that Jesus had been raised.  But Adrienne’s life had been falling apart.  Her reasons to succeed and excel were literally dying around her.  Her own body was betraying her.  Then she had a seemingly random encounter with some spiny lobsters off Catalina, and suddenly her life was different.  She felt passion and inspiration again.  Her life was forever changed.  That sure seems like an earthquake to me.  That looks a lot like an empty tomb.

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