Second Sunday in Eastertide

Second Sunday in Eastertide

In 1974, a young scientist named Stephen Hawking made a dramatic presentation to a group of elite physicists at Oxford University. When he finished, the session moderator blurted out simply, “This is rubbish.”

Physicists attempt to prove the size, shape, and workings of the universe with mathematics. Just about everyone has heard of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which attempts to prove that light traveling through a field of gravitation is slightly distorted. Einstein believed that there had to be another force in the universe other than gravity that had to be identified before we could completely understand the wonders of the space in which we live. He spent the last 30 years of his life trying to combine his theory of relativity with this unknown force into a new theory, which he called the Unified Field Theory. But he was never successful. Then Stephen Hawking entered the picture.

Through a long and complicated series of equations, Hawking suggested that black holes, which are burned out remains of dead and collapsed stars, were the force that Einstein searched for. Hawking was only 32 years old when he gave his presentation at Oxford. It was a slide presentation, because Hawking’s speech was not understandable. An assistant had to stand beside the screen and direct the audience to key points in the presentation, because Hawking was confined to a wheelchair. Answers to questions from the audience had to be written by an interpreter because Hawking could not write.  At the time of his death last year in March of 2018 and for years leading up to that date, Hawking could not even turn the pages of a book. For most of his life, Stephen Hawking was rendered almost completely helpless by ALS, which is more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Yet, at the time of his death, Stephen Hawking was considered by many of his peers to be the most brilliant physicist since Einstein.

Throughout his life, Stephen Hawking could have chosen to quit because the going was too tough, but he didn’t. He could have left the months and years of mental drudgery to others, but he didn’t. He could have wallowed in self-pity, but he didn’t. Instead, today Stephen Hawking’s work can by hailed as one of the driving forces that lead to the amazing first-ever image of a black hole that was capture in April of 2017 and just released to the public about 2 weeks ago. Hawking’s brave presentation to a skeptical body of physicists almost 50 years ago was the beginning of a new understanding of our vast and majestic universe that lead to the capturing of that image.

Unable to stand or walk, Stephen Hawking couldn’t even speak except through a computerized translator. And yet, no one would doubt that he fully lived out the potential of the life he was given –  physically, intellectually, emotionally, and I believe spiritually. His life was a wonderful example of the human spirit’s desire to triumph in the face of devastating illness. Add the right attitude to the right aptitude and you have a winner. But where do you get the right attitude? Well, from a Christian perspective, John had a pretty good idea when he wrote in the last verse of the 20th chapter of his gospel: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

For a Christian, this is the secret of life: believing that Jesus is the Christ. Believing that He is Lord of this world and should be Lord of your life. Believing that He can give you life in the face of any circumstance. Maybe not physical life, but spiritual life.

Think of it this way. It’s sort of like an oyster, into whose shell one day there comes a tiny grain of sand. By some strange circumstance, this tiny piece of quartz enters into the shell of the oyster and there, like an alien thing, an intruder, it causes pain and distress and presents a very real problem for the oyster. What will the oyster do? There’s no point in trying to deny the reality of the pain the granule causes, so the oyster doesn’t try. Nothing can change the fact that the grain of sand is there. Nor would grumbling or rebelling do any good, since, after all the protests and complaints, the grain of sand would still be there. So, the oyster recognizes the intruder’s presence, and right away begins to do something about it. Slowly and patiently, with infinite care, the oyster builds upon the grain of sand.  Layer upon layer of a plastic, milky substance covers each sharp corner and coats every cutting edge. . . and gradually, slowly, a pearl is made. A thing of wondrous beauty wrapped around trouble. The oyster has learned, by God’s will, to turn grains of sand into pearls, painful misfortune into beauty and blessing. Jesus can help us do the same in our lives. But even more, he can turn our problems into possibilities.

Do you remember in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites finally made it to the Promised Land? God delivered them from slavery, destroyed the armies of Pharaoh and parted the Red Sea so they could escape. God then brought them across the wilderness and made sure they were fed and had plenty to drink. God led them to the edge of the Promised Land and then said, “There. Go. Take it for yourselves. It is yours!”

But before occupying the land God had given them, the Israelites sent some spies in to check it out. Ten of them came back and said, “The people in there are giants compared to us! We are so small! We’re like grasshoppers compared to them.” This caused the people to become fearful. And because of their fear, they went back and stayed in the wilderness for 38 more years. The Israelites had to wander there until every last one of the original group died before returning to claim the Promised Land.

Far too often we see only the problems and not the great sustainer who can support us through the problems right there with us! Nothing is too great for us to handle with God’s help, and yet we tend to focus on the problem rather than the help we are given to face the problem. We focus on the giants and allow our fears to take over. We forget about this great God who has led us through the desert; this God who stands with us; this God who tells us that we can do anything. We need to remember that God will give us the strength we need! And that is what Jesus tried to get across to us—both in what he said and how he lived his life on this earth.

Jesus can do all these things. He can help us turn our pain into a pearl. He can help us turn our problems into possibilities. And he can take our failures and turn them into stepping-stones for the future.

I have experienced these dynamics of our faith in my own life. Twice, now, in my life I have faced events in which I had to deal with the possibility that it was time for my life on this earth to come to an end. A bone cancer diagnosis in my mid-20’s and a heart attack in my early 50’s were challenging personal experiences indeed. But I have said many times since and I continue to assert that I am a better person because of those event – and I believe that God gave me that perspective. Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that God gave me victory over those medical challenges. To say so would be to suggest that people who do not survive those same challenges are somehow lacking in faith. I was fortunate to survive both of those challenges for many reasons. But what God DID was to a) give me the strength to endure them and b) the perspective to learn something from my triumph over them and place those experiences within the context of my whole life.

That is what the cross and the empty tomb are all about. The disciples knew that the resurrection took place not only in the garden that first Easter morning, it also happened in their own dejected and wounded hearts in the days that followed. We see it in Thomas with his doubts and Peter with his denial of Jesus. They knew they had failed. They knew they had been afraid. They knew they had forsaken Jesus when He needed them most. But God will not allow God’s people to be failures. Jesus came to them and began a reconstruction project in their minds and souls. And out of the ashes of their failures came the most impactful group of women and men the world has ever known. Because look how much changed because of their lives.  And what Jesus says to us today is that God can do that with your life as well. Sure, you’ve had challenges.  Sure you’ve had failures. Everybody who has ever accomplished anything knows what it is like to fail. But deep in our hearts it is absolutely possible for us to have the source of calm and joy and peace that the disciples had.  The faith that Thomas had. The loyalty that Peter had. All we need to do is what they did –  acknowledge and accept the love of God that Christ offers us.

Jesus can turn our pain into a pearl. He can turn our problems into possibilities. He can turn our failures into stepping-stones to a glorious future. Because “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Amen.