Hope among the Ruins (Easter Sunday Sermon)

This video remains one of the most powerful and heart-rending things I've ever seen:

Luke 24:1-12

Church fires have been in the news lately. We’ve had the 3 historically Black Baptist churches deliberately burned, not far from here, in Opelousas. Monday morning I got a text message that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Now, a few years back a prominent cathedral, St John the Divine in New York City, had a fire that didn’t amount to much; so I didn’t think much of it. Later in the day I got online and started watching the news. Then I watched in total shock as Notre Dame burned; the great spire – holding up the sign of the cross high over the city – fell down, breaking, collapsing into a roar of smoke and cinders. I saw videos of French Christians gathering to pray and sing in the streets as the fire roared through the night, and heard how the church bells all across the city of Paris began to ring and ring, as a call to prayer, or perhaps a sign of grief. As I watched, I thought, ‘We may lose the whole church. It has stood for nearly 900 years – survived the French Revolution and two World Wars – and this will be the generation that lost Notre Dame.’

Watching the great church burn stirred up so many mixed feelings in me. One was just that sense of futility. Maybe you’ve seen something like this in your life, your health, your relationships or your work. You work so hard to build something up, to preserve it, maybe even pass it on from one generation to another, for a thousand years even…and then in a single afternoon it can literally go up in smoke. What once was full of light and life is now a pale, gray ruin. Frailty and decay seem to have the last word.

Notre Dame, like the Twin Towers, is far more than just a building or unique work of architecture. It is a symbol. Perhaps as much as any building anywhere in the world Notre Dame is the Symbol of our Western, CHRISTIAN, Civilization. It is a symbol of Christian faith, the faith-motivated cultural and technical achievements of our ancestors, and of the yearning of human hearts for a transcendent beauty and harmony that can ultimately be found in God alone.

I’ve heard stories of people with no particular faith in God who visit some of these great Cathedrals as tourists, only to leave the place haunted by the sense of beauty and glory they’ve encountered, asking questions they’ve never asked before that send them searching, until they finally come to find that their longings are satisfied in the embrace of Jesus Christ. A gothic cathedral is not just an auditorium where one goes to hear a teacher…the building itself is a teacher of the depths and riches of our faith. Everything about it, from the cross-shaped floor plan, to the Bible stories depicted in stain glass windows, even the number of windows, the mathematical proportions of the building, everything about it is designed to express the truth and beauty our Christian faith.

It also struck me as very…interesting…that Notre Dame burned during Holy Week, during Passion Week: This week when we remember Jesus’ betrayal…his arrest…we remember how Peter denied Christ…we remember his suffering…his pain…his crucifixion…and finally his death upon the cross to take away our sins.

And during THIS week, one of the World’s most significant symbols of Christian faith, Christian civilization suffers a devastating fire.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means. Many countries with a strong Christian heritage – and France especially - have increasingly embraced an aggressive secularism that has no time for God, that denies Christ, and has no confidence in any unchangeable Truth. We don’t generally spend 200 years building gothic cathedrals anymore; we build shopping malls and sports arenas surrounded by acre upon acre of gray asphalt (temples to consumerism and entertainment).

I watched the glorious cathedral – built during the ‘Age of Faith’ – burn in the midst of a fiercely secular city, and I wondered, ‘Could it be a sign, even a warning?’ What good is it, asked our Lord, to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your SOUL? (Mt. 16:26; Lk. 9:25). I believe many people in our secular societies are desperately hungry for something that you cannot buy on Amazon or win in the playoffs, you cannot find it in a political cause or even in a romance; we are looking for truth, for justice, for beauty, for a Spiritual Harmony, for a Meaning and a Mission which we can without reservation or regret give ourselves to completely. We are hungering for God, the Living God (Ps. 42).

Could this somehow be a sign for our times of the spiritual desolation and emptiness that comes when faith is lost? Or could this event, in the midst of Passion Week, somehow spark a re-awakening?

In college I went with some friends to London and Paris one year for Spring Break. On EasterSunday, 2004 (15 years ago today) we went to worship in Notre Dame Cathedral. There we heard the old story again. You’ve heard the story: What once was full of light and life was a pale and gray ruin. The body of Jesus sealed in a cold tomb. He taught the way of holiness and love in a way that captivated the crowds; his words amazed humble fishermen and learned philosophers alike; he healed the broken, and touched the untouchable. His life was good and true and beautiful, and called for our total allegiance in a way that challenged everything in this sinful, broken world.

And so we killed him.

But today we hear the announcement of the angel. The women came to the tomb in grief, thinking at best to find a cold and dead body to anoint with burial spices. Instead they found an empty tomb. Instead they saw the glorious angels, and heard their words: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” (v.5)

Our injustice, our foolishness, our short-sightedness has simply been overwhelmed by God’s power, God’s love, God’s Truth.
This is Easter; this is Resurrection Day – there is Hope springing up in the ruins; there is Life bursting forth from the grave, and His Name is Jesus, and He is Lord. This is the Last Word!

Then the Angels said to the women, “Remember!” Remember Jesus! Remember his words! Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. (v.7).

‘Then,’ says verse 8, ‘they remembered his words!’ They remembered!

I pray that people all across this globe will remember Jesus, remember his words, will rediscover the faith that inspired our forefathers to build Notre Dame; will remember that there is a Solid Truth that has given hope to millions across the Centuries, even in the face of death and loss. There is a divine order to things, a solid rock you can build your life upon. There is a Heavenly Love, a glorious vision of God – this Lord who loves you enough to come and die to win your heart and save your soul – that vision has the power to transform and sustain your life, and even the life of a whole civilization. He Lives! And He offers his own Risen Life to you as a gift!

Do you remember? Was there ever a time when His Truth set your heart ablaze? When you gave your heart to Christ? And does that faith burn in you, or has it grown cold? Now is the time to remember, to consider, to ponder this old story, to believe and to find Life anew in Him!

Whether you’ve been a committed follower of Christ for decades, or are just here today as a seeker asking questions, we have Good News. Today we remember His promises of forgiveness and new life; we remember his Goodness and Love, and today remember his power to bring Hope even among the Ruins!

You can contribute to the rebuilding of Notre Dame HERE.
You can contribute to the rebuilding of the 3 Louisiana churches burned by arson HERE.  

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