Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

Easter Sunday -- The Fullness of Empty

April 7, 2018

It is no longer so true for [this/the Coolidge] congregation as it once was, but “Snow Birds” have been a major and integral part of the congregations I am privileged to serve. Some come from Canada, and not just from one province; in fact, I like to joke that Florence is the one place where people from Ontario and people from Alberta or British Columbia can come together in peace. And just as I enjoy teasing people from Iowa and Wisconsin, I have some fun with our Canadian cousins, at least the easterners, no matter what the subject is “aboot.”

Last week, I was talking with one Ontarian — I am not sure that is the right name — about my past occupation and his; and I cannot claim to have been involved in engineering without its sounding like I am bragging, especially in comparison with my other pre-minister occupations. But the topic we were discussing dealt with that — with engineering. He had worked on sonar, which for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is best compared with radar, except that rather than bouncing radio waves off of objects, in sonar, sound waves are bounced, and the echos of those sound waves are used to find objects that are submerged or afloat in water. Some of you may fish, though obviously not here, and use sonar to locate fish. But more to the point of his and my discussion last Sunday, sonar helps to find objects like submarines, which, when their propellers are off to avoid detection from the vibrations —sound — the propellers cause in the water, are “silent” and not otherwise detectable.

So sonar is a key part of anti-submarine warfare. But because there is so much other “noise,” so many other “sounds” below the ocean surface from all of the sea life, and from water vibrations off of rocks and such, detecting the echo of a sonar signal off the hull of a submarine amidst these other sounds is a real challenge.

So, what would be a solution as to where a submarine — which is not a small thing — might be lurking? Why, to look for a place from which no sound is coming! To look for a sound-empty spot, a sound-void, a hole in the sounds instead of trying to generate and detect the echo of another sound. And that is what they did, and, I am told, it was phenomenally successful over a range of a good number of miles — I’ll keep silent on that.

A “hole in the sounds.” Forgive me for that term, but as he and I were discussing this approach to finding submarines by “holes” in the sound pattern of the oceans, and I was mentioning one of my physics professors, I could not avoid reflecting on the invention that got him the first of his two Nobel prizes: the transistor, billions of which are in your cell phones (something like 4.3 billion in mine). Transistors originally were about the size of my fat thumb’s nail, and they replaced vacuum tubes, which most of you will remember, a small version of which was about the size of that fat thumb.

A mix of vacuum tubes and discrete transistors were what I used in my very first electronics course, but they required different concepts to understand them. Specifically, in vacuum tubes one thought in terms of voltage and electrons, while in transistors one thought in terms of current and electrons and . . . holes.

Holes? Yes, holes, because corresponding to a hole in one place was an extra electron somewhere else, and movement of holes had as much meaning as movement of electrons — both of which were a way of thinking of an electric current.

What? A hole in a semiconductor — three pieces of the kind of material we call “semiconductor,” one unlike the other two, are what are used to build a transistor — a hole is not just some useless, empty void? We can actually tell something from that hole?

“Yes.” We can tell something from that hole in a semiconductor, can tell substantially more from billions of such “holes” in a cell phone, just as we could tell that a submarine is lurking from a “hole” in the subsurface ocean noise.

But neither of those “holes” can tell us as much as a different “hole”: That empty cave the women came upon expecting to find a dead Jesus. A hole much larger than a cell phone, and smaller than but even more quiet than the hole in ocean sound that hides a submarine, yet a hole that spoke a message that no cell phone, no sonar system, could possibly out shout: He is not here! Christ is risen!

That hole, that empty cave, told the two women and tells us that death could not, earth could not, contain Him. The empty void He left behind in that cave speaks good news that eclipses anything Facebook or sonar could ever tells us: He lives!

And more than that — if there could be more than that, — the emptiness, the “hole” speaks the message that, because He lives, then we can believe the promise He made, that we, too, shall live. We may die earthly deaths — we shall die earthly deaths, — but after that death there shall be a “hole” left behind where once our souls dwelt, for just as the young man in our Gospel reading said to the women, “He has been raised; He is not here,” so shall it be said of us.

Thank goodness for my purposes that Saturday’s, yesterday’s, “The Wall Street Journal” was accessible to me online at noon Friday as I had just finished my second draft of these remarks. I noticed a remarkable piece, “The Easter Effect and How It Changed the Word,” by George Weigel of The Ethics and Public Policy Center. After discussing how Christianity had emerged and spread and grown throughout the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine, almost 300 years after the discovery of that empty tomb, he traced that emergence back to what he called with affection and admiration, “a ragtag band of nobodies from the far edges of the Mediterranean world.” [my italics]

Weigel goes on:

“And one of the most striking things about the New Testament accounts of Easter, and what followed in the days immediately after Easter, is that the Gospel writers and editors carefully preserved the memory of the first Christians’ bafflement, skepticism and even fright about what had happened to their former teacher and what was happening to them.” [my italics]

After discussing two passages of which I have long tired of preaching each year, the “Road to Emmaus,” during which Jesus was not recognized, and the puzzling story of Thomas the doubter, Weigel states:

“At the very end of these post-Easter accounts, those whom we might expect to have been the first to grasp what was afoot are still skeptical. When that core group of Jesus’ followers goes back to Galilee, they see him, but some doubted.” [my italics]

The disciples, I suspect, may have doubted precisely because they did understand the magnitude of what had happened that first Easter, but let me insert a comment that I have often made, that if we have not doubted, perhaps we have not grasped the magnitude of what happened.

And Weigel goes on yet further: “This remarkable and deliberate recording of the first Christians’ incomprehension of what they insisted was the irreducible bottom line of their faith teaches us two things. First, it tells us that the early Christians were confident enough about what they called the Resurrection that (to borrow from Prof. Wright) they were prepared to say something like, ‘I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s what happened.’ And the second thing it tells us is that it took time for the first Christians to figure out what the events of Easter meant—not only for Jesus but for themselves. As they worked that out, their thinking about a lot of things changed profoundly.’”

Weigel talks about such things as a new understanding of to what Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures actually was pointing, of the meaning of resurrection, already accepted in some ways by the Pharisees, and ultimately of the equality of women with men and with the need to engage in mission if one is truly a Christian, much more than I can list here.

And it began with those two women finding a hole, an empty tomb.

Let us find meaning in that “hole,” that “Holy hole,” that empty tomb, and if anyone is willing, join with me in seeking to fill that young man’s charge we read in our opening lesson from the Gospel of Mark, not merely by telling those who are his disciples, but by ourselves becoming a “ragtag band of nobodies,” and urging others to become His disciples by taking to them the good news: He is not there, in a tomb, in an empty hole, he is not there, He is Risen.

That is the message of that empty hole: Christ is risen, indeed!

And we know, that so, too, shall we be.

In His name, Alleluia, Amen.

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