April 21, 2019
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
It was empty. There isn’t much more that I can say than that. I know you came here this morning for an Easter message, and I shall do my best to honor that….My job as a preacher is to make the Bible real to you for the “here and now”….but just know that there isn’t much more that I can say. The empty tomb preaches itself. None of us will ever offer anything more profound than an empty chamber and a scattering of discarded linen. My job is to make this all real, and yet what illustration could possibly be even a trifle as moving as the very Incarnation. No, the empty tomb already said it all.
Are you ok with that? Do you believe it? Does the resurrection make sense to you? ….. Because honestly, it sure doesn’t make much sense to me. And it clearly didn’t make much sense to any of the disciples either. Jesus predicted it all—and told them about it—-many, many times….and yet the women still came to the tomb with spices for the dead. Peter still ran there in his own disbelief, and couldn’t be convinced until much farther down, on the road to Emmaus.
This story was working out fine. Well, not fine, but believable, wasn’t it? We could HEAR the crowd crying out “Crucify him!” We could TASTE the bread and cup of the last hours. We could SEE him in Gethsemane and then again up on that terrible hill. We could TOUCH the crown of thorns and feel the wood of the cross beneath our fingers. We could SMELL the cloying defeat of death. It was awful and heartbreaking and sad….but it was real. We could see and hear and touch and smell and know this thing had happened. Death had come, and for all of its wicked gifts, we could understand. Everything we’ve ever known has told us that death wins.
And I think, sometimes, as Christians, we think we’re not supposed to question this story. We take it as part of our experience and our faith and even as we secretly question what it all means, we outwardly avoid those who tut at us in their unbelief. We get nervous when others challenge. We get skittish when others bring up questions that we feel we should know the answers to. That we feel we should be able to explain. That we feel we should be confident in.
We think we need to KNOW. And know FOR SURE. And we don’t. We are no different from these disciples there at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. Jesus told them time and time again about what was going to happen, and they still didn’t know what to expect! The women are there with their spices ready to see Jesus there dead. Peter himself runs back to the empty tomb in his disbelief! There is confusion. There is doubt. There are questions. Maybe these elements aren’t the opposite of faith at all—maybe they’re exactly what faith needs. Remember, “faith isn’t knowledge. Rather, faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
We spend so much of our lives providing proof, and requiring it from others. We keep receipts and emails and licenses and documents. We confirm things in writing and ask for others to give us the same. Our secular lives are a tangle of evidence. Confirmation. Validation. Verification. If our secular life could be explained in one sentence, it would be, “I would never have believed it, if I had not seen it.”
But our lives of faith collide with that in a terrific burst of bewilderment. All that we have ever believed and ever known and ever been able to count on is shattered in a pre-dawn visit to a pile of sacred rocks. And all that we have known—that steadfast, reliable truth that we have to see with our own eyes to believe dissipates like so much dust in the rolling of that stone. Our whole existence based in “I would never have believed it, if I had not seen it” gets turned on its end as the empty tomb makes people of faith realize, that “we never would have seen it, had we not believed it.” Faith is not science. And it is proud of that. Maybe Easter Sunday is a good time to truly recognize this. To accept that we can not and do not understand the mystery of the resurrection, but that we are still inspired to hope and believe that it is true.
Our Lenten journey has brought us through the Valley of Shadow to this very morning. Were you expecting something different? Here at the end of that journey’s path? Here at the end of the beginning that we’ve been talking about for so many weeks? Did you expect the journey to enlightenment and clarity…to lead you to a place where you can’t believe what you are seeing?
You knew it would end here. With a tomb and a stone and a gaggle of perplexity, played out in the faces of so many who you’ve trusted along this journey to point you in the right direction. But even as you knew that you would wind up here, at this empty tomb, did you expect to be left with more questions than answers? Has the stone truly been rolled away from your own heart? Are you willing to live into the resurrection truth, with all of the dichotomy and confusion that accompanies it?
Although Luke does not mention this, in the Gospel of John we are privy to what Mary Magdalene breathlessly tells the other disciples. She had been standing beside the tomb after everyone had left, broken and sad and sobbing when Jesus appeared to her and spoke to her. After that, she ran back to the others, crying out ”I have seen the Lord!”
“I have seen the Lord”….we all have a choice, don’t we? We have the choice as to whether we are going to continue to live with the stone before us—with our mindset being one of “let me SEE so I can believe”, rather than, “let me BELIEVE so I can see”. We can let the stone of doubt and disbelief and fear keep us from seeing the empty tomb, or we can move it aside so that faith and hope and questions can strengthen us in our faith.
I could not offer you a word from history if I did not see it living still in the present. I could not tell you to rely on the ancient wisdom of the scriptures if I did not think they were just as reliable today. Along with all of you, I watched in both disbelief and sadness as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned this past week. Along with millions upon millions, I remember being there. Watching the flames, it did not feel as though so many years had passed since I stood within those walls and gazed in amazement at the beauty and history all around me. But it had been more than that….more than just beauty. It stood as a symbol for hope and peace. As a symbol to motivate us to acts of justice, grace, and mercy. And as I watched the embers spin and the spire fall, I felt grief for all that had been lost in just a few hours of destruction. Yet, at the same time, I prayed that something redemptive would come from the loss. That the focus of the world on this one place, might motivate people to action in their own communities—might make people remember that God has placed them where they are for the season that is ahead of them. Justice, grace, mercy, hope, peace….no church walls could hold or confine any of that. Godly work goes on in the rubble. Just days after the fire, I read this quote from Sara Uckelman, a professor at Britain’s Durham University. She said, “I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, the get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.”
Get yourself a faith that can’t be shaken—not by doubt or restlessness or calamity. Get yourself a faith that can weather all of the ways in which your life will build you, burn you, rebuild you, extend you, ransack you, collapse you, and rebuild you again. Your faith is that continuous presence. So that whether you’ve been to church every Sunday for 50 years or in your 50 years this is your first Sunday, let God build within you a faith that can stand to look at the ashes. That can stand to be overwhelmed by the stone before you and still have the hope and strength to push the boulder away. To peer into the empty tomb. To be filled with doubt and disbelief and struggle and joy and peace and to pronounce it all holy.
Let God build within you a faith that can at one and the same time allow you to be filled with confusion over the mystery of the resurrection, but in that same breath allow you to shout, “I have seen the Lord!” There is life after death. Those words continue to roll away the stones that block our path. The empty tomb preaches itself, over and over again, each and every morning. Amen.