One Step Ahead of Us
April 21, 2019
Last June when a group of twelve from our church went to Fairbanks, Alaska on a mission trip, I went with some apprehension. My worries were not about the group we were taken from First Baptist but rather about what we would find when we got to Fairbanks. I had met the missionaries we were going to work with once before when they were visiting family in Charlotte. But, I had never been to Fairbanks. I had never been to their house where we were staying. I had never seen the worksite in person where we would spend the week. And, I had never worked with them before.
Almost all of us in this sanctuary today know what it is like to walk into a situation like this full of unknowns and questions marks. For many of us it sends our minds racing and leaves our stomach churning, or, at least it leaves me feeling this way. So, for a decent amount of the plane ride, I wondered and I worried quite a bit about exactly how the week would unfold.
What I vividly remember is that as soon as the plane landed in Fairbanks and I turned on my cell phone, I had a message waiting on me from our host missionaries. I don’t remember the exact wording but in essence it said this, “we are already here, we are sitting out front, waiting on you…” I really can’t explain it, but, it was such a reassuring word and it truly set the tone for the week. Our new friends were already at the airport, waiting. It was as if that statement that said affirmed that they had already arrived was a way of saying to me don’t worry, we were in good hands.
According to my count, at three different junctures in ten verses of scripture, Matthew 28 makes a similar claim about Jesus. At three different points, Jesus’ earliest followers, with some degree of fear and with a certain amount of anxiety, anticipated arriving at a destination or being on a journey alone but in each place they find Jesus himself or one of Christ’s representatives already there waiting on them.
The first such occurrence happens at the very start of Easter morning as the two Marys arrive at the tomb. They are there to finishing preparing Jesus’ body ensuring that he has a proper burial. Yet, instead of doing one more act of love and devotion for their friend they find that Jesus is not there and further that the Angel of the Lord is waiting on them. They are not alone and beyond that there is good news to hear. They may have gotten up early, even before the sun, in order to get to the tomb before anyone else but they still couldn’t get up early enough to get there ahead of Jesus’ messenger.
The second occurrence happens as the two Mary’s travel back from that unexpected encounter to share with Jesus’ disciples what they have heard, experienced and seen. My hunch is that they didn’t necessarily expect to see anyone as they traveled which was likely a good thing. Again it was very early in the morning, just beyond sun up. Further, this time alone on the road gave precious moments to reflect, gather their thoughts and process what had just happened. Yet, according to the text, no sooner had they left the tomb than Jesus meets them on the road, alive and in person. There is that idea again, they were not walking a road by themselves – Jesus was already there waiting on them.
The third occurrence is really a promise. Jesus reiterates what the angel at the tomb had already told the two Marys. Like the angel, Jesus instructs the Marys to go and tell the disciples two things. They are to tell the disciples the unbelievable news that Jesus is alive, that he has been raised, that the tomb is empty. And, they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where – and here it is a third time, Jesus will be waiting on them.
This morning, there are two things I want to invite you to join me in celebrating.
The first is the obvious – we are here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate the truth that we worship a Risen Lord. Of all of Jesus’ miracles, none of them compare to his conquering of death. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. Through that act, Jesus conquered not only death for himself but also death for each of us. In turn, those who believe in him though we die, yet shall we live. We too will live beyond this life as will all of those that we love who have already died and who also had faith in and gave their lives to Christ. This is the whole point of Easter.
Yet, there is something else here to celebrate this morning that I want us to see, to hear and to lean into. We come here this morning to celebrate a Risen Lord not only because of what Christ wants to do for us and those we love in the future when this life is over but also because of what Christ wants to do for us in the here and now. Right now, as his followers, Christ wants us to experience a life in his living presence and with his living companionship and one of the most beautiful images of this is this three times repeated promise of a Savior who is always ahead of us – waiting to meet us wherever we go.
I will meet you there. You will never arrive anywhere and be alone again, I will already be there waiting on you. Think about that promise and the profound goodness of that statement for a moment and ask yourself this question. Is there any gift in this life that could be any better, any more helpful, any more valuable than that? Of course, sometimes God’s presence is hard to feel. Yes, the truth is that we do sometimes feel alone. But the promise of the resurrection is of a God always one step ahead of us. There is no longer a question of where God will show up in life’s happy and hard places. No, the promise is that God will already be there through the Holy Spirit wherever we go. He will already be there – waiting on us.
When you walk through a hard day at work – God will meet you there.
When you go through illness, depression, death – Christ will meet you there.
When you fail in your marriage, get cut from the baseball team or don’t get the job – the Holy Spirit will meet you there.
When you travel into the unknown, are forced to make a critical decision, and are required to do something you will love to avoid – the Lord will meet you there.
In the midst of cancer, substance abuse, the loss of a child and tremendous moral failure – your Savior will still meet your there.
In December of 1941, citizens from around the region of North Platte, Nebraska gathered at the local train station. They were their because the word was that troops from their area would pass through on their way to an unknown destination in those early days of World War II and they wanted to be there to see them and share a few tokens of their love – some goodies to eat, magazines and other small tokens and gifts. Eventually when the train arrived instead of soldiers from Nebraska it was filled with soldiers from Kansas. Undeterred, the locals simply showered these strangers with their gifts, love and well wishes.
That day, one of the most profound acts of hospitality ever exhibited in the US was born as is remembered until this day as the miracle of the North Platte Canteen. You see, it was obvious how much those gifts, words of encouragement and love meant to the strangers from Kansas and that day an idea was born. North Platte was a regular spot for trains to pass through during the war and the decision was made that no train and thus no group of soldiers should arrive there without some waiting to greet them. And so it was that from Christmas Day 1941 until April 1946, every train carrying troops that stopped in North Platte had folks waiting on them. They waited with fried chicken and sandwiches, pies and fruit, magazines and stationary with which to send a letter home. And they waited with birthday cakes to celebrate any soldier who happened to pass through on their special day. Sometimes as many as 50 Birthday cakes a day were offered.
Over the 5 years people from over 100 communities in the North Platte community were there waiting to greet troops. And, it is estimated that over two million dollars in today’s money was donated all so that no soldier arrived to an empty station.
As so it is that as God’s children, we will never arrive anywhere in this life alone either. God will already be there, waiting for us. Because of Easter this is now who Christ is and wants to be in each of our lives as the Risen Lord. Amen.