Here is my sermon for Easter Sunday. The text was Matthew 28:1-10.
Have you ever had a resurrection take place in your life? Maybe it was that houseplant that you thought you had killed, but somehow it came back stronger and greener, or maybe it was an appliance you thought for sure was a goner, but somehow it was able to be fixed and kept running. Maybe it was a relationship or a job that you thought was over, but was somehow renewed and given new life and vitality. Or maybe, like author and commentator David Sedaris, you’ve seen a more dramatic resurrection in your life. He recounts the time when the family dog Duchess gave birth to a litter of puppies. After all the puppies were born, one of them appeared to have died but Sedaris’ mother took the puppy arranged it in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven. When Sedaris and his sisters reacted with horror, their mother responded “Oh, keep your shirts on. It’s only set on two hundred. I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.” “The heat revived the sick puppy,” Sedaris said, “and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.”
What these stories of resurrection remind us is that resurrection is only needed; indeed resurrection is only possible when things appear to be at an end. You cannot resurrect something that is going well. Only relationships on the rocks can be resurrected. Only careers and jobs that are lapsing can be resurrected. Only failing health can be resurrected. Only when the Red Sox are losing can they resurrect their season. Only lives that have ended can be resurrected. I say all this because while it might be obvious that death and resurrection go together, I think that sometimes we forget it especially in the midst of our celebration. We come today and sing some of the greatest songs to be found in the hymnal, we hunt our Easter eggs and eat our chocolate bunnies and even though we remember the cross and we know it’s there we sometimes forget the bleakness and mourning at the tomb. Death and resurrection are inherently linked. Resurrections don’t occur when everything is already bright and cheerful, they occur when things appear their darkest and bleakest.
I also think sometimes we forget this link because often resurrections are hard to explain, even for houseplants or puppies. What was it that really made the difference that changed everything around? Was it something we did or was it totally out of our hands? In an age of reason, it is this last question that haunts us the most because dealing with mysteries is not something we often want to talk about, and so it is with Easter Sunday. I know that many of you struggle with what actually took place on the first Easter all so long ago and I have struggled myself, and I’ll be honest, if you ask me to tell you exactly what happened, I won’t be able to because I simply don’t know. But here’s what I do know, something did happen. Something happened which dramatically changed the lives of Jesus’ disciples and followers on that Easter morning and it continues to change lives today. There was a resurrection that morning and it was more than just Jesus’ not being in the tomb. The disciples themselves were resurrected into followers of the Christ, not just followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But to understand those resurrections we have to understand the darkness and the desertion which precedes the women arriving at the tomb.
Judas has turned Jesus over to the authorities, Peter has denied that he knows Jesus not just once, or twice, but three times and then, along with the rest of the disciples, he has fled in order to save his life. When Jesus is beaten and tormented and crucified none of the disciples are there they have all abandoned him. And according to Matthew’s account, the only friends of Jesus present when he is hanging on the cross are many women including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples. But they are not standing at the foot of the cross, instead, we are told, that they are looking on from a distance. And then Matthew records that Jesus’ final words from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
No one at the time ever imagined that this was how the Messiah would die, that’s why they all expect him, and taunt him, to save himself, to call down his angels to release him from this punishment. Everything the disciples and other followers had imagined that Jesus was and what he would do for the Jewish people lay in shatters and tears, everything they had believed was broken, and the community was left in disarray, if you could even say that there was a community left. And then they had the Sabbath during which they could do nothing but sit and wait, terrified and mourning. And then, Mary and the other Mary go to the tomb.
Unlike other gospels which give them a reason for going, Matthew instead says they go simply to see the tomb probably to remind themselves that Jesus is really dead, to give a reality check to their shock, disbelief and confusion over the events of the past few days. Can he really be dead? Did we really see what we saw? They must be asking themselves, and so they go to the tomb to be reminded and to give themselves a place where they can grieve and still be close to Jesus’ body. In that they are not much different than many of us following the death of a loved one, as we spend time surrounding us with their belongings or going to the cemetery in order to be close.
But it is at this moment that something remarkable occurs. The Maries are met by an angel and are told that Jesus is not there that he has been raised. Now this resurrection story is a little different from the one told by author and preacher Max Lucado about a man in Arkansas whose wife was mistakenly declared dead by her surgeon. When the nurse discovered that the woman was in fact still alive, she told the doctor that he needed to inform the family right away. Unable to find the family in the hospital the doctor called the husband and said “I need to talk with you about the condition of your wife.” “My wife’s condition,” the man said, “I don’t understand, she’s dead.” “Well,” the surgeon said, “she has seen a slight improvement.” That’s not what we’re talking about here.
We are told that as the women approach the tomb, there is an earthquake as an angel rolls aside the stone which covers the entrance. As you might imagine, this causes fear to run through the witnesses. The soldiers sent to protect the tomb quake and then they become like dead men. Just at the time that the announcement that Jesus, who was dead, is now alive, the guards who were alive suddenly become like dead men, and then the women are told not to fear. Most of us probably remember the Christmas story as told by Luke, in which angels are continually telling people “do not be afraid,” but that is not a phrase that Matthew uses until the resurrection story and then it’s used twice, once by the angel and once by Jesus himself. The world has dramatically changed, nothing will ever be the same, and so the women are told do not be afraid, go tell the disciples what you have seen and heard. And so they leave the tomb with fear and great joy.
That phrase always strikes me as incongruent, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” How can you be both fearful and greatly joyful at the same time? On their face, those things don’t seem to match, but I believe if we think about it we can probably think of a time in which we have been joyful but also fearful. Maybe it was in beginning a new job, or moving to a new city, starting a new school, buying a house, or at the birth of a child, these are significant times in our lives when we might hold both fear and joy in our hearts and minds simultaneously, and we realize the incongruities that resurrection holds in tension, death and life, fear and joy.
When Jesus says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, he is quoting from the first line of the 22nd psalm. The psalm begins with that question and continues with a plea to God to notice the psalmist’s afflictions, but then there is a change, and the writer concludes the psalm this way: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” And then concluding a few verses later, “Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.”
The Psalm begins “why have you forsaken me,” and ends proclaiming that the good news of deliverance will be passed on to a people yet unborn, because God has done it. In that, it perfectly mirrors the crucifixion and the resurrection, it is the fear and the joy rolled into one. After the crucifixion the women and the disciples had to be fearing the worst as everything they had believed in in Jesus was gone, but then something miraculous happened and when the women go to the tomb, an angel tells them that Jesus is not here, that he has been raised, just as Jesus had predicted, and so they run to tell the disciples, filled with fear and joy, when they encounter the risen Christ, and they kneel at his feet and worship him before again running off to say that Christ is risen.
It is this event that has us here this morning, not just to celebrate that the tomb was empty, but more importantly to understand that without Easter, Jesus is just one more person with messianic claims whose disciples scatter to the four winds after his death, like the disciples of John the Baptist. But instead, Easter gives us something more; it reveals to us who Jesus is. Something happened on that Easter morning nearly two thousand years ago and the disciples did not scatter, instead they came back together after having scattered and went on to proclaim the good news to the world, and we are here today, as disciples of Christ, because of that news. God has done it. We are an Easter people. It is the resurrection of Christ that makes all the difference in the world. It is that light which brings hope into the darkness of our lives.
Now as I already said, I can’t tell you exactly what happened that morning or how the resurrection worked, and maybe some of you think I should. But to me, all the arguments of exactly how Jesus was raised and what his body looked like or how his body operated physically in the world after his death miss the point of what Easter is about. Those explanations work hard to try and eliminate some of the mystery some of the miracle in order to make the event more understandable for us, but as a result we lose some of the mystery and the importance of the Easter moment. Dick Hayhurst recounts once watching children play in a fountain in Springfield, Missouri. The fountain was built flush with the ground and the spray of water came out seemingly at random through small holes in the pavement.
“If you walked on the path and stepped on the fountain at the wrong time,” he said, “it might squirt you, a scenario the kids thrived on.” As he watched them play, the children ran, some anticipating where the water might come next, others just running around with complete joy, as only children can do, just being present in the moment. “The jets seemed to play with the children,” Hayhurst writes, “ staying just out of reach or biting them from behind with playful nips. The children kicked and swatted them, sometimes standing on them, sometimes shouting at them for escaping. Around and around they danced, until the jets built to a crescendo and erupted in a steady fountain of water, drenching the children completely before coming to a stop…. When they fountain stopped,” Hayhurst said he wondered, “What would the children do if they caught the water? Of course they never would. They could never hold on to it,” he said. The water would never come home as a trophy or a pet. Catching the water was never the idea. Experiencing it was.”
And so it is with Easter. It is the combination of fear and joy, death and life, denial and discipleship, violence overcome by love, it is the birth of hope, the fulfillment of God’s promises, the assurance of eternal life, it is in fact the foundational event of our faith, and when we try and grasp unto it, to try and nail it down to say exactly how things happened, that is when we lose the meaning and experience of Easter. Just like the children with the water, we cannot grasp the ungraspable.
Easter is not something that can be caught or explained, tamed or boxed in, it can only be experienced, and in experiencing it we can be overcome and let it flow over us so that we always remember that we can never be separated from God’s love, that no matter what is going on in our life, that no matter how dark things appear, that no matter if we cry out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” that Easter is always with us, that we are an Easter people, that death is not the end, that hate does not win, that darkness cannot envelope us, instead we are shown that God will always triumph in the end, that God is always with us, that love is always with us, and the light of Christ is always with us, and light shines brightest in the darkness because God has done it. Let the word go forth: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.