A sermon by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Easter Sunday—April 20, 2003
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the risen Lord Jesus the Christ. Amen.
When I was in college, the Red River flooded.
It flooded big time. You remember that flood. Some folks call it the flood of the century. Some call it the flood of the millennium. Everyone I know calls it disaster. The insurance folks, though? They called it an act of God.
It was something, that’s for sure. I’ve never seen water like that, not before ’97 or since then either. I was a junior at Concordia that year, and was an old pro at getting around Fargo-Moorhead. Suddenly the geography was changed: Getting from point A to point B was a whole different ball game now that the Red had spilled over into the city streets. What had been an easy drive downtown became an exercise in spontaneous detours, if it was even possible to get around at all.
But we didn’t spend much time driving downtown that spring. There was too much else to do, trying to contain this flood, this disaster, this act of God, whatever it was.
The National Guard was called in, and the Red Cross was there to help. The Salvation Army brought in hundreds of volunteers. College students, local residents and out-of-towners converged on the points where the water was highest and the dikes the lowest, looking for a place to chip in and help. Whether we were the hoisters, the passers, or the builders, our mission in the sandbag line was one and the same: to contain the Red River, whatever it took.
Sometimes we succeeded—it was encouraging to build up a family’s dike, protecting their home from the rising brown water of the river. They’d offer us a beer or a Coke or some chips or crackers, anything to say thank you, and you could see the relief in their eyes. Disaster, at least for them, had been averted; this particular bullet had been dodged. Behind a six-foot wall of sandbags, they could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The sandbaggers, though, would move on.
Sometimes we were tricked. The forecasters did their best to predict how high the river would crest, and we struggled to build up every last dike to six inches above the predicted crest. But time and time again the forecasters would up their numbers, and we’d scramble to make up the difference. Sometimes three more inches. Sometimes six. Sometimes we just kept throwing bags on until we ran out.
And our efforts were not always enough, not by a long shot. Up and down the Red River valley, crews of volunteers found ourselves on the losing side of the battle to contain the river. The Red burst our dikes, overflowed our channels and devastated our towns. If much of Fargo-Moorhead was saved, Grand Forks bore the brunt of the water we managed to keep within the river. If our homes were dry at the end of the day, it was only because we had channeled the water off to some other town. What seemed like a victory in Fargo-Moorhead was hollow in light of the destruction downstream. If the dikes can’t hold the river, the game’s over. You lose.
We gather this morning to remember another act of God. You can bet that all the powers of darkness were fighting to contain it. Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth and his arrival was their undoing. From the moment of his humble birth, it was clear that something had to be done to contain him, because God had decided to save the world through Jesus. If he couldn’t be contained, it was all over for every dark thing that walks the face of the earth.
The battle was hard fought, much harder than the labors of a thousand sandbaggers. Perhaps, it was suggested, the powers might strike quick, merciless blow and destroy this God-child before he ever grew into the man they feared. And so it was put into a king’s heart a jealousy so great that he sought to murder Jesus simply for having been born. A good game plan, maybe, but it took little more than a few wise stargazers and an angelic messenger to foil this scheme.
And just as we sandbaggers kept building higher and higher, the evil that is in this world continued to work to contain the powerful act of God that was happening in Jesus.
“We’ll saddle him with dimwits and simpletons,” decided the powers. “The poor, worthless wretches won’t understand a word he says. That should stop God’s frightful mission.” And so it was. Jesus was surrounded by crowds at every town he visited, but his teaching seemed to go in one ear and out the other. He’d talk about the kingdom of God, and the crowds would demand a miracle. He’d perform a sign for them, and they’d misunderstand it. Even his closest followers didn’t seem to understand.
But something unexpected happened; the water rose higher—people started to respond to Jesus because of the love he showed them, even if they didn’t understand everything he was teaching. Simple men like the disciples came to love Jesus so intensely that they finally saw that God was doing something truly remarkable in him. Falling back to regroup, all the powers of darkness could now see that something drastic had to be done to contain this act of God that was coming in Christ Jesus.
And so the grand plan, the twisted masterpiece of evil and perversion was proposed: They would pull out all the stops. They would cash in all their chips. They would tweak every hateful impulse in every last person, turning them all against Jesus. From governor to follower, they would cause them all to hate him and betray him, and ultimately to destroy him. No wise men or angels could turn the tide. Jesus must be contained, and the grave was the only way to do it.
The miracle of Easter spelled the end of sin and death: Not even the grave could hold Jesus. This act of God was too mighty to be contained, and it burst forth from the tomb and spilled over the walls set against it. It poured through the world, devastating sin and death and their power over us. Even today it is flowing and churning, drowning your sins and mine.
We wept bitter tears when our bags could not contain the flood of the millennium. Today we weep tears of joy to know that not even death could contain the flood of God’s love and mercy in Christ Jesus. As mighty a thing as the flood of ’97 was, it is a pitiful, shameful little “act of God” compared to the power of the resurrection of our Lord.
And so we are Easter people. Easter is the act of God that defines us. It is the act of God that saves us. It is the act of God that causes us to cry, “He is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Alleluia indeed, for not even death could contain our Lord. Alleluia! Amen.