TITLE: Detours on the Road to Easter SCRIPTURE: John 20:1-18
Two ladies, dressed to the hilt in their Easter finery, were making slow progress in the crowd headed for the entrance to the church. Finally one of them burst out impatiently, "Now wouldn't you think that these people who do nothing but go to church Sunday after Sunday would stay home on Easter and leave room for the rest of us."
Charles Wesley was John Wesley's younger brother. John, of course, is best known as the founder of the Methodist Church. Charles is best known for his hymns, including some of our favorites -- "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" -- "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." During his lifetime, Wesley wrote some forty-five hundred hymns, many of which we still sing today.
I am impressed by that number -- forty-five hundred. That amounts to two hymns a week for forty-five years. As a person who has to write one sermon a week, I have the profoundest respect for anyone who could write two hymns a week -- week after week -- month after month -- year after year. Wesley wrote hymns while riding in stagecoaches -- even while riding on horseback. He wrote hymns practically to the day that he died.
One of Wesley's hymns, "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," is a grand celebration of the resurrection. Some hymns perfectly capture the spirit of their season, and that's true of this hymn. The hymn tune has a strong, driving rhythm that makes us want to "raise the rafters" with joyful singing. The first line, "Christ the Lord is risen today," announces what we are celebrating. "Raise your joys and triumphs high," suggests how to celebrate. The Hallelujahs soar.
But the hymn that we have today is different from the one that Wesley wrote. That hymn was sung to a different tune. It had no Hallelujahs.
I believe that the hand of God directed what came next. Someone -- we know not who -- wrote the tune that we use today. Then someone else -- we know not who -- decided to sing Wesley's verse to that tune. But there was a problem -- the words didn't fit the tune-- so he added the Hallelujahs to make them fit. This perfect Easter hymn, then, came into being through the work of three different people -- people who probably never met -- people who had in common only their faith in God and their enthusiasm for the resurrection. It is unlikely that any of the three had any idea how much their work would add to our celebration of Easter.
When I read the story of this hymn, I wondered if Wesley ever heard his hymn sung like we sing it today -- to this tune -- with the Hallelujahs. I hope that he did. I hope that he heard it sung by a great congregation -- with organ and trumpets. I hope that he knew what a fine piece of work his hymn had become.
And when I thought about this hymn, I was struck by the fact that God inspired one person to write the poetry -- and another to write the music -- and another to put them together and to add the Hallelujahs. The journey from the first stroke of Wesley's pen to the hymn as we know it today was full of detours -- but the hymn that resulted from those detours has blessed Christians for two centuries.
That reminded me of Jesus. His life, too, seemed full of detours. It started more humbly than we might have wished. He was born to a just-married couple, a young woman and her older husband -- away from home -- in a stable -- hardly what you would expect for the birth of the King of Kings.
Then they had to flee to Egypt -- to flee Herod's wrath -- to flee Herod the madman -- Herod the baby killer. Joseph had to take his little family to Egypt, because Herod was afraid of a baby who was reputed to be a king. He killed all the baby boys born in Bethlehem that year. We could certainly think of Jesus' journey to Egypt as a detour in the grand plan of his life.
Then Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small town where not much happened -- far from Jerusalem -- far from the temple.
Then he traveled around Galilee, mostly by foot, teaching and healing. His work excited people, but it would be stretching things to think that he would have any impact beyond Israel's borders.
And then Jesus went to Jerusalem. We talk about Jerusalem as The Holy City -- and it was. It was the home of the temple. It's where the holy men lived -- the chief priests -- the scribes -- the Pharisees.
But for Jesus Jerusalem would be a place of death. If you read the Gospels carefully, things turn ominous as Jesus nears Jerusalem. The scribes and the Pharisees begin to challenge him -- to try to trip him up. Finally, they decide to kill him.
And they succeed. They get the crowd to support them -- they force Pilate to do their bidding. Before long Jesus is hanging on a cross. By the end of the day, he is dead and buried, and his enemies are rid of him forever.
But three days later, the tomb is empty and Jesus is back -- alive again -- appearing to Mary Magdalene -- and the disciples -- and Thomas. The detours of his life led Jesus exactly to the place where God wanted him to be.
If we had been there, we would have thought Jesus' life to be haphazard. We would have thought the detours to be leading nowhere. We would have smoothed his pathway. We would have made his life easier.
But God was present with Jesus through every detour. God had a plan for his life, and Jesus lived out that plan. That's the reason the world is celebrating today. God's plan for Jesus included the detours. It even included the cross -- but it didn't stop with the cross. It moved from the cross to the open tomb -- from death to resurrection. As a result, people in every nation under the sun are celebrating today -- celebrating Jesus -- celebrating his death and resurrection -- celebrating his victory over the grave -- celebrating that he conquered death, not only for himself, but also for us.
So God was with Wesley as his hymn moved through a series of detours to become the great Easter hymn that we know today.
And God was behind Jesus who moved through a series of detours that seemed to end with the cross but that really ended with the resurrection.
And God is behind your life and mine. We too experience detours. We too have successes and failures -- wins and losses -- ups and downs.
-- Sometimes those detours are in accord with God's plan. Sometimes he leads us over rough roads to get us where we need to go.
-- But sometimes we choose to go off on our own -- to ignore God. Sometimes we create our own pain. Each of us, at some time, is our own worst enemy.
-- And sometimes we have the misfortune to work with someone or to live next door to someone who makes life difficult. Life is not always easy, and that isn't always our fault.
But the Good News is that God is with us even when the pathway is rough. God is with us through good times and bad -- through win or lose -- through up and down. God is there, shepherding us -- nudging us toward the light -- illuminating the path that leads to life. God has a plan for our lives, just as he had a plan for Charles Wesley -- just as he had a plan for Jesus.
Easter is a wonderful day -- a day for celebration. It is a day to decorate the church with lilies -- to sing the grand Easter hymns. It is a day for children to hunt Easter eggs -- the egg being a symbol of life -- of resurrection. It is a day for families to eat a special meal together -- a day to be happy.
But it is also a day to remember that when faced with the detours of life, God is with us. God is working behind the scenes to redeem our lives. God is helping us. God is showing us the way to the road that leads to life.
I pray that this will be a wonderful Easter Day for you. Spring has come, and that is wonderful. (It's a sunny day, and that's wonderful.) Christ has risen, and that's wonderful. I hope that everything else in your life is wonderful right now too.
And I invite you to walk with God during the coming days. Let him guide you always toward Easter, and let him bring a bit of Easter to every day of your life.