Sermon: Lessons I Learned On The Jellybean Trail
Scripture: Matthew 28: 1-15
Date: April 21, 2019
When I was a kid, my brothers and I would always awaken on Easter morning to find a handful of Jelly Beans either at the end of our beds or in our slippers or sometimes just outside the door of our rooms. That pile of Jelly Beans was the beginning of a jelly bean trail that wound throughout the house, eventually leading us to our Easter baskets. And since there were three of us boys, that meant there were three jelly bean trails that wound all over. Up and down halls and stairways, across the living room and dining room where they would often intersect, often causing some momentary confusion (and sometimes arguments about which trail was whose), until it finally led to a chair or the couch or some other piece of furniture, or maybe a cabinet door, and stopped. And we knew then that our Easter basket was behind the chair or in the cabinet and we would claim it for ourselves and Easter could begin. Now I never knew whether my friends had the same Easter morning experience. I guess I just assumed that it was standard operating procedure for the Easter Bunny. And when I grew up and had a daughter of my own that tradition continued. And even though, looking back, the Jelly Bean trail seemed to be such a silly but fun part of our Easter celebration, I can now see that it was filled with some important lessons that have remained with me and even shaped my life in some pretty profound ways. So, realizing that this might be my last Easter message, I thought I would share some of those this morning.
The first lesson I learned was that Easter is not just a destination, but it is a journey. Now the Easter Bunny could have left the Easter Basket at the foot of the bed or just outside my door, so that the first thing that I saw when I woke up on Easter morning was those chocolate bunnies, and plastic eggs, and marshmallow peeps. But clearly the Bunny wanted me to go on a journey of discovery. And you know, as I have thought about that, I have come to the realization, that God also wants each one of us to go on a journey of discovery as we approach Easter. The Easter Story in the Gospels is all about the journey. It seems like everyone was on the move. The women go early to the tomb. By some accounts they went to anoint the body of Jesus and fretted over whether they would be able to move the stone enough from the tomb entrance in order to even get to the body. Matthew, however, says they just went to “look at the tomb.” But for whatever reason they made the journey to the tomb and then once they discovered it was empty the journey continued for them as they went back in town to tell the others. And then Peter and John (and can we assume that the other apostles also) ran to the tomb to see for themselves. And then Luke talks about the unnamed disciples who make the journey out of Jerusalem entirely and experience Easter on the road to Emmaus. The point is, I think, that everyone must make their own Easter journey in order to encounter the resurrected Jesus. That resurrection is not just something that is thrust upon us, but is the completion of a journey of discovery. You know Easter could have happened in several different ways. Jesus could have come to life immediately after they took him down from the cross. Imagine the immediate impact that would have had on all of those who had watched Him die. But of course that also would have given credence to one of the first heresies that arose in the early church that He had not really died on the Cross and so resurrection was more of a healing then it was a victory over death. But Matthew says the body was taken off the cross and rather than being dumped into a mass grave like most crucified bodies were, Jesus body was placed in a tomb, and covered with spices like Frankincense and Myrrh and then wrapped in cloth to cover the stench of decay and then after a period of time (several months, not three days) the seal would be removed and the remaining bones would be gathered and placed in a bone box which would then be reburied. The Gospel writers make two things very clear. First was that the tomb was borrowed from another family which legend says was the future family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, probably because Jesus’ family couldn’t afford a family crypt of their own. And I suspect that the Gospel writers who were, of course, writing after the fact, wanted to emphasize the temporary nature of the tomb. He only needed it for three days. So the tomb was important to the Gospel writers and certainly became the focal point of the journey that we all must make towards new life. Or instead of waiting for the others to come to Him, Jesus could have simply gone straight to the Upper Room after He emerged from the tomb rather than linger in the garden and so saved everyone the trip to the cemetery. But ultimately new life happens when we come to the Lord, not the other way around. I learned on the jelly bean trail that the fact of the journey is just as important as arriving. And to reach the prize at the end of the trail, we need to keep moving. Sometimes we forget that faith is a journey. That we don’t just wake up on Easter morning at the place of new life, but instead we get there one step at a time. Our journey in faith does not begin or end with the empty tomb. So much ground must be covered before we arrive in the garden, and so much of life happens after we encounter the risen Christ for ourselves. It was because God intends for the Christian faith to be a journey that he sent Jesus to show us what the journey is all about. And so the journey begins in a manger, raised in a small village, studied with the rabbis in the synagogue and Temple as all Jewish boys did, when He was older and graduated from Temple School He became a Rabbi and gathered students of His own. He traveled the countryside, ministering to those who were hurting and healing. Then He was betrayed by his own people, tried and convicted, killed on a cross, rose from the dead, appeared to many, commissioned His followers and then ascended back into heaven. It was an incredible journey of faith that without each marker along the way would not have been complete. Without the birth, there would not have been the early life of learning and growing. And each miracle, with each person that He touched and healed, He really took one step closer to the Cross because with every one, He took away their sins and took them on Himself in order to make them whole again and so ultimately He went to the cross to take away the sins of the whole world. To be the sacrifice. No sins, no cross. The journey of faith. If the cross had not been a part of His journey, then there would have been no empty tomb. Crucifixion was the step necessary to make resurrection the ultimate destination of his journey on earth. The death of the old life leads to the emergence of new life. And ultimately it was new life that made possible His ascension back into Heaven. He had to rid himself of the sinfulness of the world, before He could reclaim His place at the right hand of God. What a journey. And the glorious news we proclaim today is that it is intended to be our journey too. We are called to be people of the Way, which was what the Disciples were first known as. It’s the Way, the journey that defines us and ultimately brings us to our destination. The Apostle Paul says this about Easter in His first letter to the Corinthians. I want to remind you of what I have taught you, upon which you can stand tall in this world. For I have passed on to you what I received from God – that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried but rose from the tomb alive on the third day. And that after He received new life, he appeared to Peter and the other disciples. And then He appeared to hundreds at the same time, and then to James, and all the Disciples and finally He appeared to me, because of His great grace. And that is why I journey from place to place, preaching grace to all who will believe. As a child, I learned about the journey along the jellybean trail.
And the second thing I learned was that we all begin our faith journey from different places in life. There was a jellybean trail for each one of us as I was growing up. And each one started exactly where we were. Sometimes our rooms were quite spread out, and so it seemed there were Jellybean trails running everywhere in the house. When I was a kid, we moved quite frequently and I can remember a couple of nights before Easter laying in bed and wondering if the Easter Bunny would find me that year. But I would always wake up to the assurance that came with the Jellybean trail. I learned from the Jellybean trail that no matter where I was, God would find me and lead me to Easter and New Life. As I read the accounts of that first Easter Sunday in the Gospels, it becomes very clear that everyone involved comes to Easter morning from just a little different place, if not physically, then at least emotionally and spiritually. For instance Mary Magdalene comes out of a sense of devotion and duty. Her task was clear. After the Sabbath but before the fourth day (when decomposition would have already started) the body needed to be properly prepared for burial. That’s where she was coming from in her journey. On the other hand, Peter was coming from a sense of guilt and shame. He had denied even knowing Jesus – had done nothing to stand up for him, but rather chose to remain in the shadows. I suspect Peter felt responsible for Jesus’ death. In spite of his brave words, when the events started to unfold, just like Jesus had said they would, rather than keep Him safe, Peter was content to hide. For Peter, Easter was the chance for his life to be resurrected with Christ. Sometimes our journey to Jesus comes from that place of guilt and shame, doesn’t it? Our life has gotten about as low as it can go. We are desperate to experience new life at the empty tomb. And then there’s John. John comes from a place of discovery. What could the empty tomb possibly mean. And Mary the mother of Jesus, so overwhelmed by grief that she doesn’t even come to the tomb. None of the Gospel writers mention her at all in connection to the Easter story. Perhaps she spent that first Easter at Calvary, the place of the Cross. You see often grief takes us away from the journey of faith or stops us dead in our tracks. And Thomas – began from a place of doubt. I won’t believe until I see it for myself. A lot of us come from that place in our journey. Will Willimon, the long time chaplain of the Chapel at Duke University and retired Bishop writes:
We call Christianity a revealed religion. You can’t see it until it is revealed, given to you, until one has experienced the gift of the presence of the risen Christ, and then one’s eyes get in focus. Most of the time we “see in a mirror dimly” as Paul put it. Occasionally, by the grace of God, things come into focus and we see face to face. That’s Easter. It wasn’t just that Jesus was raised from the dead. It was that he was raised for us. He returned to His friends, revealed himself to them, and enabled them to see and to believe.
As a kid, the Jellybean trail was a journey of discovery. It said at the end of the journey there is a great treasure to find. Come from wherever you are and see for yourself. Easter beckons us to come and see for ourselves.
And then I learned that sometimes the journey is hard and the path becomes unclear and reaching the destination seems a nearly impossible task. You know most of the time the Jellybean trail was clear and easy to follow. And we each had different ways to approach it. But there were a few years when the journey was not so clear. Sometimes, for instance, the dog would get to the Jellybean trail first, and though she didn’t eat the Jellybeans, she would sometimes lick them trying to discover exactly what they were and so by the time we got to the trail, some of the jellybeans were out of place. And, occasionally the cat would use the jellybeans as toys to be batted around, and get them all mixed up. But one year, a major disaster occurred along the jellybean trail. My grandparents came to visit for Easter. Now my grandfather did not sleep well and would often get up in the middle of the night and wander around the house, and so, you can see where this is going, when we got up on Easter morning, our jellybean trails were a mess. Those jellybeans that he had not kicked and pushed aside as he wandered – he had stepped on and smashed. I learned that year that the trail can become very hard and confusing. Difficult to navigate all the way to the destination. And sometimes it becomes blocked completely. I learned that completing the journey requires a great deal of persistence. A willingness to meet the obstacles head on rather than allow them to turn us back. Think about it. The women went to the tomb that morning knowing that a huge stone that was too big for them to handle stood between them and the completion of their task, but believing that God would provide a way. Sometimes the journey requires that we take some leaps of faith in order to complete it.
And then the final lesson I learned on the Jellybean Trail is that ultimately it is in reaching the final destination that we define the nature of the journey. That where we come from, and the path we take are important, but ultimately it is where we end up that define who we are and who we will be. The Jellybean trail was an important part of the Easter celebration in our family because of where it ultimately led. It was defined by it’s destination. You see, if the Jellybean trail had just kind of wound through the house without any particular destination or end point or purpose, it would have never become the tradition that it was for my family. It was knowing that the Easter Basket was at the end of the trail that made the journey one of great expectation and excitement. Likewise the reason we remember two thousand years later that the women went to the tomb early on that first Easter morning, is because they did not find death as they anticipated, but rather they found life, resurrection. New life instead of the dead body they started out to prepare, not for life but for death. You see, if the women had simply completed their task and then rolled the rock back across the tomb, no one would have remembered their journey at all. It was the fact of the resurrection that made their journey one that we celebrate every year. Just as the fact that Jesus was resurrected gives the Cross meaning. If the tomb had not been empty, then no one would remember the Cross. The Romans killed thousands on the crosses that lined the road to Jerusalem. Jesus would have just been another tragic consequence of the Roman occupation of Israel. No one would have remembered what He said or did. There would have been no disciples. No Paul. No memories of Mary the mother of Jesus. No Bible. No Christmas. No Christian church. So many think the journey ends with the cross – and so the Christian faith is all about sin and judgement and death because that’s what the cross was all about. But for people of faith, the empty tomb is the destination that defines our journey and it is all about grace and forgiveness and life. I learned that the Jellybean trail has no meaning unless it leads past the cross to the empty tomb. To resurrection. To Easter. To new life. That’s where faith leads us.
During the Lenten season, some years ago, in Winston Salem, North Carolina, a local artist by the name of Joseph Wallace King painted a mural in the window of one of the downtown store fronts. By all accounts it was a graphic portrayal of Jesus on the Cross. It was such powerful depiction of the crucifixion that many broke out in tears when they saw it. And the word quickly spread about it and people started coming from all over to see it. He completed the mural just as Holy Week began. The newspaper in Winston Salem decided to do a story on the painting and early one morning a reporter was sent out to try and capture a picture of the painting that could be placed in the paper and to gauge people’s reactions as they saw the painting for the first time. And as the reporter watched a businessman, carrying a brief case, on his way to his office, stopped on the side walk in front of the store front and studied the painting for a few minutes. As he stood there a young boy, about 10 years old the reporter estimated, came and stood next to the businessman and joined him in studying the painting. Well, after a few minutes, the businessman, picked up his briefcase and made his way on up the sidewalk towards his office. And as he walked, he shook his head and said to himself, loud enough for the reporter and the boy to hear, “What a pity! What a shame.” Which caused the little boy to turn and watch him as he walked on. And then, as the reporter watched, the boy kept looking back and forth between the picture and the retreating businessman. And when the man was almost out of earshot, the boy cupped his hand to the side of his mouth, and yelled just as loud as he could: “Hey mister. That’s not the end of it. He’s alive again. Didn’t you know.” He’s alive again. Don’t you know. That’s what I learned along the jellybean trail.