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April 11, 2004, Easter
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Let us talk about Jane Doe. That is not her real name of course, but you will see from her story why she does not want her real name used. Jane Doe was every parent’s worst nightmare. By her own account, Jane grew up in a good and loving home. There were family outings, birthday celebrations, softball, dance classes, and even church. But somewhere in high school, things went very wrong for Jane. She stayed out all night, she began to do drugs, she was caught shoplifting. She said that she would not do it again, then it happened all over again, and again. The family was increasingly in crisis, trying to reach out to Jane, trying to maintain some sort of family life. The father and mother went through a period of blaming each other for Jane. There was counseling, tough love, tears, and prayers. But the more her parents reached out to Jane, the more abusive and rebellious she became. Finally, she ran away. She lived on the streets, she became a prostitute, her drug habit literally consumed her. Several years passed.
Somehow, in her early twenties, by what can only be described as a miracle of God, Jane began her way back to a real life. She went through successful drug rehabilitation, she got off the streets, she got a regular job. It was a slow process. Eventually she became reconciled with her parents.
In reflecting on her relationship with her parents, Jane said, “When I was a teenager, I felt my parents’ love was unnecessary. It was smothering. And as things got worse for me, I began to feel unloveable.” She said, “At the time that was what I wanted, because if I was unlovable I could do what I wanted and it would not matter. But as long as I suspected I was loved, I was not free to do my thing. So I needed to destroy their love for me to be free.” But then she said, “I could never do that. I could never destroy their love. Even when I got arrested and they refused to bail me out of jail, I could see the pain of love in their eyes. Now I realize how much I needed their love. Now I realize that it was probably their love and prayers that kept me alive all those years. But when I look back on those years what amazes me most of all is that my worst could not destroy their love for me.”
That is what Easter is about for believers. Easter is about God’s undefeated love for us. Because of Easter we know that our worst cannot destroy the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday represents the worst that people can do. It represents our effort to destroy God’s offering of love. You know the verse, John 3: 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God gave his son. Good Friday represents our rebellion against that gift. Jesus told us what we ought to do. Matt. 22:37 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That is as hard to do today as it was in the first century. We are to use things and love God, but we tend to get tht backward. We love things and use God. We want God around to answer prayers when we are in trouble. We want to use God, but we do not want to love God. We see commitment to God as a trap. We see commitment to God as the death of our freedom. So we give our loyalties to the very things that rob us of our love and destroy us. Like Jane Doe’s rejection of he parents, Good Friday represents humankind saying no to God. Sometimes that “No” comes out of pain in our lives; sometimes ti comes out of a sense of unworthiness, or it may come out of anger that God has not bailed us out of the dilemmas of our lives or prevented tragedy in our lives. Therefore, we are angry at God, and we defy God.
Good Friday represents our worst for Jesus was crucified not simply for our sins but because of our sins. Now we do not all reject the love of God in the same way. We may choose different masters and different idols. The masters we choose in rejection of God’s love are not always nasty things like drugs and violence. The masters we choose may be good things like a hobby or a cause. Nevertheless, if these masters consume all our attention and affection, they become an idol that prevents us from loving God.
Perhaps one of the most subtle masters we choose instead of God is social correctness. We live neat, disciplined appropriate lives. We are nice people with traditional American values. We give to United Way, work hard at our professions, volunteer, carpool the neighborhood kids, socialize in the right circles, and pay our taxes. But our lives are so cluttered with appropriate behavior that we have no place for God. We are more concerned about our grammar than God.
This is the modern problem, whether intentional or not, most people are trying to live in such a way that God is unnecessary. Their lives may be traditional enough to occasionally include church, and in church they read the words of the Bible and sing the songs of the faith, but these words and songs have long ceased to have any impact on their lives. And so for them, Christ is not risen. He is entombed in the grave of their apathy. They have chained shut the door of his tomb with their politeness and social appropriateness.
But easter still represents the faithfulness of God, despite the worst people can do. Easter waits until, like Jane Doe, we come to the time in our lives when we realize we need God’s love. Easter waits until tht moment when we realize tht the weigtht of days is too dreadful without God, that the masters we have chosen cannot give us peace or redemption.
Let us think about these verses from John chapter 20. On Good Friday, Mary Magdalene had helped to wrap thelifeless body of Jesus in a clean linen cloth and had seen it placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. She had seen them pry loose the block that held back the stone, and she had watched as the huge stone disk rolled down its grooved channel and settled, with seeming finality, over the tomb’s door. It would take several strong men with levers to open it now.
Mary Magdalene and the other disciples spent that Saturday, which was Passover Sabbath, in much the same way any of us would spend the first hours following the death of a loved one. They spoke in hushed voices, they remembered, they wept, and they wondered what the future might hold. The Sabbath passed into night, but there was no sleep for them that night. As the new day dawned, Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb to continue her vigil of grief.
But another had also spent this time in grief, someone not mentioned in our gospel reading today. Jesus had called out to him at three o’clock on Friday afternoon, fearing abandonment, but the Father had not abandoned him. The Father had been there as God is always there. The Father had been there when the Son died. Since that time the Father had held the Son’s lifeless body as any anguished parent holds the body of a child who has just died. Whatever grief the disciples may have felt, the Father’s was the deepest grief of all. The Father had sent the Son as an act of love, to reveal the true nature of God. The Son had been sent as a servant , born in human flesh, to draw people back into relationship with God, but they had rejected him, mocked him, despised him, and finally conspired to destroy him. They hung him between two criminals, killed him, and sent the body back to God as their final answer to God’s love. They did not want a God who loves everyone. They did nto want a God who can embrace byth the civictim and victimizer, the tyrant and the tyrannized. They di d not want a god who can love both Saddam Hussein and those whom saddam murdered, who can love both Iraquis and and Americans, both Israelis and Palestinians, both Christians and Moslems. They wanted what we all want, a god who will love only those we love, and who will hate those whom we hate. We want a God who will fulfill our vision of how the world should be ordered, who will love those we think are good and hate those we think are bad. That is what we want, that is not what God wants.
The Father had watched the events of passion week unfold, without lifting a finger against those who were killing the Son, so that the very worst they could do would be done, and then absorbed into his love. God’s love for all people and God’s love for the Son urged the Father on to a new creation. In the beginning of time, God breathed life into a lifeless creation. On tht first easter, holding the lifeless body of Jesus, God lowered his head and breathed his spirit afresh into his Son, smashing death’s grip, calling Jesus back from the grave and raising him to life. All this took place behind the rock that sealed the door of the tomb.
And the story might have ended there. Had you or I been the Father, had we possessed the ability to reverse the power of death for our child, I suspect that is probably where the story would have ended. We would have rejoiced as warmth returned t limbs, as respiration resumed and our child stirred, and then we would have taken our child and left the world to destroy itself the way it had sought to destroy our child. Who could have blamed us? Who could have blamed God if he had only raised jesus from the dead?
That is the way it could have been. The resurrection could have taken place without so much as a word being spoken to anyone about it. The Son could have been installed again in his place of honor at the Father’s right hand, to live eternally in the community of the triune Godhead, without so much as a word to us about it. But God did not do that. For Easter is about more than something spectacular that happened to Jesus behind the rock that sealed the door of his tomb. This is an event that changes all history. This is about God’s love for the world, about a love coming into human history to transform that history from beginning to end, about a love that will not be defeated.
The gospel of Matthew tells us that the angel of the Lord dsdcended, and such was the power of this descent that it caused and earthquake that rolled the stone away. The soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the tomb shook as much as the ground and either fainted or ran away.
Now apparently Mary Magdalen came upon the scene after all this had happened. John only says that she came before dawn and saw that the stone had been rolled back. Apparently she did not look into the tomb. She was so astonished by this development that she ran to tell the disciples. Her first thought was that the authorities had taken the body out of the tomb.
Peter and John ran to the tomb to find out what was going on. John was much younger than Peter and outran him and reached to the tomb first. He bent down and looked in and saw the linen burial cloths lying on the ground, but he naturally was hesitant to enter the tomb. Simon Peter was more impulsive. As he came up to the tomb, he went right on inside. He also saw the burial cloths on the ground, and no sign of a body.
As an interesting note, we are told in v7 that “the cloth that had been on Jesus' head” was not with the linen wrappings but was “rolled up in a place by itself.” As if Jesus when he sat up had dropped the burial wrappings on the ground, but had taken off the head cloth and rolled it up.
Then, we are told that John also came into the tomb, “and he saw and believed.”
After this they went back home. What else could they do? They were probably totally baffled by what had happened.
In the meantime, Mary was standing outside weeping at whqat appeared to her to be the final blow, he desecration of the body of Jesus. Then Jesus appeared to her in his first resurrection appearance to give her that good news that he had reisen from the dead.
Now our first reaction to this may be that the resurrection is a beautiful story that transforms tragedy into victory, but it is more than that. The resurrection is about God’s undefeatable love that transforms our lives from tragedy into victory.
Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:8) God loves us with a love that lasts forever. So God gathers up not just his slain crucified Son, but all his children through the Son. We have been going through life almost dead ourselves, but through Jesus Christ, God gathers us up and breathes into us the divine life-giving Spirit. The resurrection was not just a moment long ago when a rock was rolled away from the door of a tomb. The resurrection is about God’s power to roll the stone away from those things that have buried our lives and killed our souls. The resurrection is about God’s power to breath his life-giving Spirit into each of us so that we might have life now and eternally. This is why we sing hallelujah. What God did for Jesus God will do for each of us. We were like Mary Magdalene on that first Easter. Our faith was buried in a tomb. God says to us, Why do you seek life among things that are dead? My love for you is alive.
Easter was not just an event that happened almost two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. We have a little Easter on that day we discover our need for the love of God. We have a little Easter on that day when we discover that all the Good Friday’s of our lives cannot destroy the love God has for us. Today can be your Easter. If you are sensing a need for God’s love, for renewed faith, for hope, for a sense of inner peace, know that the tomb in which you buried your faith is now empty, and your faith is made alive by the love of God which endures forever. To celebrate Easter then is to cease the struggle against the way of God and accept the love that we have so long resisted, yet so deeply needed.
As the Apostle Paul said, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). To which we say, Alleluia! Amen!
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/12/04