The text for today’s sermon is taken from Mark 16:1-8.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the happiest day in the church year! Today, Christians throughout the western world wear new clothing and bright faces, proclaiming the joyful words, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” The tomb is empty. He is not here. Alleluia!
But our reaction to Easter is so much different from that of the first witnesses to the resurrection. We have the advantage of knowing the whole story of Jesus Christ. We know the ancient prophesies and how Jesus fulfilled them. We have the words of faith handed down through the generations. We experience the traditions of the church as we gather around the cross and table.
The first witness of the resurrection had none of these. Yes, Jesus had told them many things, even that he would die and rise again after three days. But the same people who heard him speak these words saw him suffer and die. Common sense told them that he was dead – not almost dead or nearly dead, but totally and completely dead, with body decaying in the tomb. For us, hope comes from the cross. For them, hope died on the cross. It died there as Jesus breathed his last. And all his words of resurrection hope and the power of God were buried with him.
In despair, three women dared to venture out to the cemetery on that first Easter Sunday…three and only three followers and there was not a male among them. It was still dark when they made their way through cold Jerusalem streets, quiet at last after a weekend orgy of violence and crucifixion. They risked much as the soldiers who had crucified Jesus, who had been ordered to guard his tomb, might arrest them and do the same to them as they did to Jesus. Yet, in spite of the threat, on this dark, forlorn early morning, three courageous women went to the cemetery to perform one final act of devotion for their departed master – to dress his decaying body with sweet-smelling spices.
The men, who had been closest to Jesus, were notably absent from the scene. They were consumed by disappointment and bitterness, and went into hiding like wounded animals. Their view of things had been completely shattered by the events of Good Friday. How could they have thought that this One was different from all of the rest? How could they have through that He alone was exempt from guilt, death and mortality? To be sure, there is nothing shameful or derogatory in death. We all must one day die. But when this One died, it was a catastrophe, for Jesus was not just a man who had brought a new teaching of God’s love to the forefront. He had advanced the claim that he could authoritatively close the gap between God and man; that he could restore the world which was sickened by unrighteousness and enmity against God; that he was more than a match for the power of the grave. If he could be overwhelmed by death, if the hands of men could destroy this divine life, this supposedly divine life, then this was truly a catastrophe of immense proportion.
So while the men skulked in the corner, the women went to the grave. They went because they wanted to offer their sorrowful remembrance to the dead. And when they got there, to the cemetery, the place of death, much to their horror, the stone before the door of the tomb had been rolled away and there was a young man sitting in the cavern. He gave them the news, the startling and unexpected news – “Jesus of Nazareth…He is risen, he is not here.”
Now the women were not psychologically prepared for this news. They had come seeking the dead among the dead. And when they learned that “He is risen,” they were not overwhelmed with joy. They were terrified. They were overcome by fear and trembling, and in panic-stricken flight, they run away and don’t share the news.
It is here – with Easter fear – that Mark ends his gospel. It is an abrupt and puzzling ending to such a spectacular story! And we are left wondering – where did the women go? Did they ever work up the nerve to tell what they saw? What happened on Monday?
If you want the resurrection explained to you, if you want Easter done in Technicolor, with all the bells and whistles, if you want sure and certain words of earnest conviction, argued scientifically or poetically, you’re not going to get it here! The three women have only to tell, if you can get them to tell it, of Easter fear, trembling and silence. For when they went to the tomb expecting the presence of a dead Lord what they found at the tomb was the one thing that they were unprepared to experience – the absence of Jesus.
It is simply easier to accept death than it is to accept resurrection joy. It is easier to be a disciple of Jesus with him dead. With him dead, you can count on him being in one place. A shrine can be built over his burial place and flowers can be brought and thoughts about what could have been can fill the minds of those who pay homage. With him dead and decaying, laying out there in the cemetery, disciples who can never quite keep up with Jesus, who always have trouble figuring out what he is up to, where he is headed next, can now know where he is and will be forever – out there, at the cemetery, in a tomb, sealed with an enormous stone. But Jesus is not there! He is up and out of the tomb. And this changes everything!
Now we like things to be “nailed down,” so to speak, especially when it comes to life and death. We like to reassure ourselves that even when life is not all that great, that this is the only life we have. So we get married. We grow old. We die. And though in moments we may dream of something beyond the known and the scientifically proven, we take comfort in knowing what to expect. We buy of cemetery plot. We preplan our funeral arrangements. We may even write our own obituary. For in the end, we know one thing for certain and that is that everything ends out there – at the cemetery.
BUT – on the first Easter Sunday, THE TOMB WAS EMPTY. The tomb was empty and the women trembled in fear. Yet in this fear, there is hope. Life will now have the final word – as Jesus, the Son of the living and eternal God, has triumphed over death. And with his victory, realities and expectations shall never be the same again, as the grave will not be the final resting place for those who place their trust and hope in the risen Lord.
The Lord has risen. He is risen indeed. The fear of the first Easter has become our Easter joy. Jesus is not there! He has risen. And we too shall share in his victory. Alleluia and Amen.
Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.