SCRIPTURE – Matthew 27:57 – 28:10
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “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. 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.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Where Did He Go?
April 24, 2011
After years of giving sermons on this special day, I’ve decided that Easter Sunday is both the easiest and hardest day on which to preach. It’s easy to preach on Easter because, well, it’s Easter! Frankly, it’s hard to mess this one up. And even if I do mess it up, it’s Easter! It’s a day of forgiveness and new life and resurrection.
This is also a hard day to preach. I understand the purpose of preaching to be education and inspiration. But this is Easter, and there’s nothing I have to say that can educate you about the mystery of the Resurrection, and no words I offer that can even come close to the inspiration of “He is risen!” What do you say on Easter that can top that?
For Christians, this is the greatest day of the year, because this day, more than any other, defines who we are and what we believe. This is the day that makes all the other days make sense. Christmas wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why celebrate the birth of someone who is going to die like everyone else? Maundy Thursday and Good Friday wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why commemorate his last meal and his death on the cross if that’s where the story ends? But that’s not where it ends. There’s more to this story.
Not that I can tell you much about it. Sure, we have the gospel accounts of what happened on Easter morning, but they raise more questions than answers. In fact, even the people who experienced it couldn’t explain it. Where did he go? The women are scared out of their wits. The disciples are flabbergasted. And the religious leaders are so stunned they concoct a half-cooked cover-up to try and make sense of a rolled-away stone and an empty tomb. They give the soldiers some hush money and tell them to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” A stolen body is rational, it’s manageable, it makes sense. A person risen from the dead is not rational, it’s not manageable, it makes no sense. See how this works? The disciples are responsible for this hoax, the resurrection didn’t really happen, and Jesus stays dead, where it’s a lot easier to keep him under control. But is that scheme any less ridiculous than the truth, that Jesus actually rose from the dead?
What a contrast between the chief priests and the women at the tomb. When the women see the empty tomb and encounter the resurrected Jesus, they don’t pull out their reporter’s notepad and start asking questions. “So, Jesus, how do you feel? Was it cold in there? Did you see a bright light?” No, they fall at his feet in worship. Yet when the priests hear what’s happened, they try to make sense of it, and that desire for an explanation becomes a stumbling block to their belief.
Wanting an explanation is human nature. We want answers, we expect them, and mystery is finding less and less of a place in our lives. A few years ago I was showing a four-year-old the old “Remove Your Thumb” trick. Do you know that one? I showed it to him, expecting him to be wowed by this supernatural display of biological transcendence. You know what this four-year-old did? He looked at my hand for a second and then said “Big deal.” Big deal. He was not impressed by mystery.
Few of us are. We want the mystery in our lives confined to Patricia Cornwell books and TV crime dramas. At all other times, we want answers, and we want them now. And in this age of information, we can get them. We’re so used to using the Internet to find answers that it’s becoming a part of our everyday vocabulary. Our search engines have become action verbs. Want to know the weather in Fiji? Just Google it. Did UFOs really land in Roswell, New Mexico? Google it. The answers to all our questions are just a few clicks away.
Well, not all the answers. The resurrection? There’s no app for that. We believe that if we can explain the resurrection, then maybe we can explain other mysteries about life, like why kids get sick and why good people endure hardships. But life doesn’t make sense. I don’t see how anyone could read the Bible or the Easter story and come away thinking it paints a picture of a world that makes sense. Nothing about Jesus’ life makes sense. The virgin birth, the healing stories, multiplying the loaves and fish, his patience and forgiveness, his willingness to die on the cross. None of that makes sense. It’s not supposed to. If we can’t explain his life and his death, then we certainly can’t explain his resurrection.
I know it would be so much easier to believe if we had concrete evidence to explain what happened on Easter. But the reality is that if we need tangible proof of the Resurrection in order for our faith to be meaningful, we don’t have much to work with. None of the four gospels describe the resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – none of them tell us what happened when Jesus was resurrected. None of them say, “Then Jesus woke up, blinked a few times, stretched his legs, and walked out of the tomb.” All we are told is the after-effects: the empty tomb, the angel, the frightened women, the appearances of a risen Christ. It’s like a Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny is staring down the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s gun. One moment Bugs is there, and the next moment he’s gone, with only a few puffs of smoke and squiggly lines where he used to be. We didn’t see him actually leave; we only see the after-effects.
In fact, the only evidence that we DO have is the empty tomb, the ultimate after-effect. Some would say that’s the basis for some faulty logic. We are trying to prove the existence of something by saying what’s not there. We believe if the tomb is empty, then the only explanation is that Christ must be risen. And yet for 2000 years, starting with the chief priests, people have been trying to draw some other conclusion that makes sense, that doesn’t require them to let go of logic and reason and just believe. But we can’t escape the fact that the tomb is empty. Where did he go? We may not know for sure, but we do know he’s not in there.
Sitting here this Easter morning, we are again confronted with the after-effects of resurrection and like the chief priests, we are given a choice. To believe or not to believe. To accept or to try and explain it away. I believe that to embrace and worship a living Christ, like the women did when he appeared to them, we have to live in light of the resurrection’s real impact on our lives and our faith. If Christ is still dead in this story 2000 years ago, then Christ is still dead today.
But I believe the resurrection not only was real back then, but it is real today, and that reality compels us to live our lives with a resurrection perspective. Nothing in our lives can help us make sense of the resurrection; instead, it is the resurrection that can help us make sense of our lives. Sometime life is so brutal, so unfair, that it ONLY makes sense when seen through the resurrection. Whether it’s dealing with our aging parents, the loss of our job, or a battle with illness, the empty tomb puts all our sorrow into perspective when we know that because Jesus lives, we are not alone, that there is hope beyond our circumstances. The promises of the resurrection are real and they belong to us when we give up our attempts to understand and simply move forward in faith.
Author John Purdy said, “God is not in the past, shut up in the tomb of our sins, our youthful indiscretions, our wasted opportunities, our shattered hopes and dreams. God is ahead of us – in our future, out there freeing us from our past, easing the pain, feeding the hungry, making for peace, washing the feet, raising the dead. God is gone ahead of us and he is out there waiting for us to get moving.”
We can stay rooted in the past, fretting over the historical validity of the resurrection. We can stay rooted in our own past, fretting over things we’ve done, beating ourselves or others up for past sins. But Matthew’s account makes one thing very clear without a doubt: Jesus is not back there. Where did he go? He’s in front of us, ahead of us, calling us forward into a future where, resurrection can’t be explained; it can only be experienced.
When I was in college, I was struggle with an advanced French class, so I wrote my high school French teacher about my frustration. Her postcard reply contained only one sentence: “Before you can understand, you have to admit you don’t understand.” That’s the paradox of how resurrection works. The more we admit we don’t understand it, the more we see of it. The more I admit I don’t understand how God hears everyone’s prayers, the more answered prayers I hear. The more I admit to not knowing how God can love everybody, the more evidence I see of God’s love around me. The more I confess I don’t understand how God works, the more I see God working in and through this church. The more I surrender myself to a faith in what’s not there, the more I see and experience the One who is there. I can’t explain the resurrection, but I’ve experienced the power and love of the resurrected Savior over and over in my life.
So that’s where we are today. The empty tomb still stands before us. Rationally, we look inside and see nothing. The world is still as it seems. Thumbs cannot be pulled off and put back on. Yet what we can’t see is positively radiant with the glory of the resurrection. There will always be more power – and more hope – in what we can’t know than in what we know for sure. The chief priests tried to explain it and missed it. The women at the tomb move forward in faith and experience the risen Christ face-to-face. The tomb is empty. Christ has risen. He’s calling us forward as witnesses to his resurrection. It’s Easter! He is risen! How? I don’t know and I don’t care! All I know is that Christ isn’t back there! He’s out there, waiting for us to see him in our jobs, in our schools, in our homes, in the streets! So are we just going to sit here? Or are we going to get moving?