(Significant Scriptures: Matthew 28:1-10)
(Preached on Easter Sunday 2007)
Grace, mercy and peace are yours from God, our Father, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, and from the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was dark when the women set out that morning. Their hearts were heavy as they carried their precious spices to the resting place of the one they loved so much. There was no fear in their hearts, only grief. Grief because they had seen their teacher and friend die on a horrible, wooden cross. Grief because they saw Joseph of Arimathea gently wrap the dead body of Jesus with a mixture of myrrh and spices and then lay it in his own tomb. Grief because they had seen the giant stone rolled across the mouth of the tomb and the soldiers placed on guard at the entrance. Jesus was dead. There was no doubt in their minds about that. And so the women went home and prepared more spices and perfumes to anoint his body. It was the last loving thing that they could do for Jesus. They couldn’t come the next day, which was Saturday, the Sabbath. And so they came as soon as they could, the day after, Sunday.
Perhaps they remembered Jesus saying that he would be crucified and that on the third day he would be raised to life (cf. Mt. 20:19). But those words seemed hollow now. There was no hope. Soon they would touch his lifeless body as they anointed it with more sweet fragrances. And then the tomb would be closed again for a year or two to allow the flesh to decompose completely. After that time, Jesus’ bones would be gathered up and placed in an ossuary, that is, a bone box, and that would be his final resting place.
As they approach the garden tomb, the first rays of the sun peak over the eastern horizon. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Salome, wonder how they will roll the heavy stone away from the entrance of the tomb. Will the soldiers guarding the tomb let them enter it again?
Their concerns are soon forgotten. The soldiers are gone, the stone has been rolled away and an angel is sitting on the stone. Brilliant white light emanates from him. Afraid, the women shield their eyes, straining to see beyond the angel into the dark and open tomb. The angel speaks in a clear, calm voice, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Mt. 28:5-6 NIV) The two Mary’s peer inside the tomb. It is empty just as the angel says. They can see the grave clothes lying undisturbed on the rock ledge where Jesus’ body was laid. Their hearts leap up into their throats. Something miraculous has happened! The angel continues, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Mt. 28:7)
Mary and Mary rush off back to Jerusalem to tell the others. Their grief has been replaced by great joy. But there is also fear in their hearts. There is always fear when humans encounter the heavenly. There is always fear when there is great and unexpected change. Add to that all of their half-answered questions, and the anxiety levels of these two women must have been right through the roof. As they ran along the road, they see Jesus walking towards them. He greets them with a warm and gracious “Good Morning!” Jesus is alive! Jesus really is alive! They fall to their knees and worship him. Jesus was alive but some fear still remained. What would Jesus say? What would he do to the women? “Do not be afraid” were Jesus’ words of comfort. “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”(Mt. 28:10) With those words, all fear melts away, and overwhelmed with joy and love, the two Mary’s continue to race back to Jerusalem to tell the others. Jesus is alive!!!
Death was always a present reality in first century Palestine. You cannot avoid it when there are criminals hanging from crosses and people dying from disease and battle. Down through the ages, humanity has been constantly confronted with constant reminders of one’s own mortality. There were no antibiotics, childhood mortality was high, and wakes often took place in the family home with the deceased in the living room. Today with all our advances in public health and medical care, we expect people to live instead of die when they get sick. And when they do expire, we hire professionals to care for our dead behind closed doors. We are blessed to not always have death looking over our shoulders, but maybe we have lost our fear of death. And maybe the hope of resurrection has lost its power as a result.
Susan and I will celebrate our 24th anniversary next month. Imagine that someone asked me, “What do you appreciate about your marriage?” And I answered, “She has given me seven beautiful children.” “Is there anything else that you appreciate about your marriage to Susan?” “Umm, no, that’s it! Because of her, I have been blessed with seven wonderful kids.” What would you think if I were to say something like that? What I said was true. Susan has given birth to our seven beautiful children. And I could not have that family without her. But that is only one aspect to our marriage and I would be failing to appreciate all the other blessings I enjoy because I am married to her. I love Susan. And just living with her has enriched my life so much that without her my life would be just a shadow of what it is now.
It is the same with the resurrection of Jesus. To say that it is a free ticket into heaven is only one single solitary aspect of what it means to have resurrection life. Resurrection life means life with Jesus. He is alive! He loves you and he is always with you! Resurrection life is a rich, full life lived with a God who is actively working in your life to help you grow in faith and love. Resurrection life means life with a God who only wants what is best for you. Resurrection life means you have a God who able to take the evil of this world and bring something wholesome, good and true out of it. Resurrection life means there is always hope even when surrounded by hopelessness, there is always life even in the face of death, there is always peace even in the midst of a storm. Jesus has risen from the dead and that changes everything for you and for me!
Do not be afraid! Jesus is alive! And he gives you resurrection life right now! Your life with him is happening right now! And he calls you to trust him as he leads you and guides you throughout your life together.
Today is the last day that I lead worship among you as your pastor. Things will be different after today. There is going to be some time when there won’t be a resident pastor in this parish. And there are concerns about what might happen during that interim period: Will the mission of the church falter? Will we lose some people? There are also some concerns about what might happen when a new pastor comes. Will the workload be too much for him? The concerns are valid and real. But in Jesus, we have a God who has given us resurrection life. And if he can look after eternity for us, can he not also look after tomorrow for us, and next week and next month and next year?
Do not be afraid. Even as I leave this parish, Jesus is still with you. He has been caring for you and encouraging you all through the years, long before I arrived on the scene, and all throughout our years together. And he will continue to provide this congregation with all that you need to carry out the mission that Jesus has set before you. Jesus is faithful. He will not let you down. You can trust in him. Do not be afraid! Amen.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7) Amen.
(Preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Ponteix SK, Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Swift Current SK, and Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Maple Creek SK on 23 March 2008 )