Encounters with Jesus: In the empty tomb (1)
May 4, 2014
Christmas has a large and colorful cast of characters including not only the three stars, but the angel Gabriel, the innkeeper, the shepherds, the heavenly host, the three Wise Men, Herod, the star of Bethlehem, and even the animals kneeling in the straw. We have seen them represented so often that we would recognize them anywhere. We know about the birth in all its detail as well as we know about the births of ourselves or our children. The manger is as familiar as home. We have made a major production of it.
Easter is different though. We spend the weeks of Lent preparing for Easter: Praying, meditating, reading scripture, focusing on the deep meanings of the death of Jesus. Then we fly through Holy week. There are the palm branches, the black cloths, the seven last words, and the silence of Saturday. Finally, Easter is here, the Lord is Risen AMEN. Let’s go home and have ham. Then the church is off to Mother’s day, and senior recognition day, and Memorial Day.
This year I have decided in these weeks following Easter that we are going to stay with the resurrection story for a few weeks, and specifically what we call the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus
There are more than a few post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The number varies depending on how you combine them or make them distinct stories. I have selected 5 on which we will focus this year. Each of these stories has an original piece of art attached to it. Here is the first, from Sarah Ellenberger. You can find the original on the wall over here, with a prayer and a scripture to read. I am posting them one at a time and want to encourage you to stop in during the week and spend some time praying here in the sanctuary and meditating on the stories this art represents.
The first story is, I suppose, not technically a post resurrection appearance of Jesus, but it is the only place to start: the empty tomb. You might say this is not an appearance of Jesus, but rather a disappearance. It is the heart of the Easter story. So let’s see what we can learn from Luke’s account.
Luke begins with the word, “But”… Wait! Let’s stop there. This is the biggest but in the history of humanity. In the 23rd chapter, Luke has been telling us about the death of Jesus, specifically, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion, the death and the burial of Jesus. The curtain comes down because it is the Sabbath and Luke reports, “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
That would appear to be the end of the story. By all the natural laws of the world that should be the end of the story. If it were a movie, it is one of those where the audience sits in stunned sadness as the lights start to come up. People start to rustle around collecting their things, but suddenly the projector comes back on and the theatre is plunged into darkness: BUT!
The gospel screams BUT WAIT! That isn’t the end. There’s more…There is much more, and if you leave now you will miss the best parts.
“But on the first day of the week early at dawn.” We go from the darkness of death to the darkness of dawn. The Greek word used there does not just mean early, it means deep: In the deep darkness of the morning. The morning would be Sunday morning. Remember the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday and we worship on Sunday because it is the day of resurrection, but I get ahead of myself.
They came to the tomb. Now Luke is clear that the women know exactly which tomb is Jesus’ because they accompanied Joseph of Aramathea to the tomb just three days earlier. There is no question about whether they might be at the wrong tomb. This is it.
They brought spices. Now, the Jewish death rituals did not include embalming as the Egyptians did with their mummies. The goal of the spices was not to preserve, but to cover up some of the smell of decomposition. In fact the Greek word used here for spice means aroma. They brought “aromatics” to put on Jesus face and hands, and to sprinkle around the body.
Here we go again BUT!!! This "but" happens to be in the middle of the next sentence, but it applies to the whole thing. "BUT" they saw the stone was rolled away and he wasn’t in there! What must they have thought?
· They might thought they were in the wrong place, but as I told you, Luke is careful to make sure that they know where to go.
· Maybe they thought the body had been moved. In other gospels, Mary thinks the gardener has moved Jesus.
· Maybe they thought t the body had been stolen. In Matthew, there is the story about the guards going to the chief priest, which is intended to prove that he was not stolen. Besides that, who would unwrap the body and leave the grave cloths?
I’m sure all of those things swirled through their heads as they stood there in the entrance to the tomb. They only thing that didn’t swirl through their heads was “resurrection.” Apparently, they had forgotten Jesus’ prediction of the resurrection.
The world was still in the darkness of Jesus’ death. The women came in darkness to pay their respects. Now they entered the deepest darkness of all, the darkness of not being able to make sense of what has happening.
The scripture says they were perplexed. The Greek word actually has to do with sight. It was like being in a fun house with everything upside-down and not being able to trust their eyes. They just stood there trying to make sense of what they were seeing. It would be like opening a coffin expecting to see a loved one and seeing only the silk pillow. They stood there trying to take it all in and make sense of what they were seeing.
SHAZAM!... well, that is the best I can do to translate the next Greek word. It means suddenly, but it is an interjection. It is a one-word exclamation. So SHAZAM! Or, as Noah would say, “BaBam.” Suddenly the room was filled with light and there were two men in dazzling or bright clothes. Dazzling is the same word used at the transfiguration of Jesus to describe Moses and Elijah, and the shine on his face as he left the mountain. It is a holy glow. These were not ordinary men, but angels.
The angels’ first words are key. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Sure, it is a wakeup call for the women but it is so much more. It is the first time the Easter story has been proclaimed. He is living! You are looking for a body, but he is living! You are coming to face death, but he is living!
I don’t think that made them any less perplexed! You know they lived in the same world, with the same rules we do. They say that there are only two certain things, death and taxes and suddenly death is not so certain. As Anna Carter Florence says, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” We think of death as final and irreversible, but for the first time ever death was not the final word. Sure, there have been resuscitations in the Bible like Lazarus, but he went on to die again in his old age. This was different. This was new. This was impossible by every worldly standard.
The resurrection is not of this world, though. In the resurrection, God reaches out of the eternal into the finite and reclaims his own son. There had never been anything like it before, and there has never been anything like it since.
Finally, the angels help the women make sense of it. “Remember,” They say, “Remember how he told you that the son of man must he handed over to sinners, crucified, an on the third day rise again?” And they remembered. They remembered. These women were the first Christians, at least in as much as they were the first people to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a little surprising to me that, even though Jesus predicted his death … and resurrection … several times across his ministry; no one greets the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave and defeated death and the devil by saying, “Praise God!” No one shouts “Hallelujah” when they hear that their friend and Lord has been raised to life. And absolutely no one, upon hearing the news that death itself could not hold the Lord of Glory captive, says, “I knew it – just like he said!” The angels have to remind them.
The women run to tell the 11 disciples, and what do they find? “These words seemed to them as an idle tale.” Actually “idle tale” is a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word “delirious.” So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense.
The disciples don’t believe them. Except for one disciple, and it is no surprise who that is. Peter goes running off to see for himself.
So what are we to take away from this Lucan account of the empty tomb?
Classic preaching says that a Good sermon has three points that the congregation can remember. Therefore, I am going to give you three points.
First point, He is Risen!
Second point, He is risen!
Third point … (you guess) that’s right, He is risen!
Kind of like the old adage about real estate: that the three most important things in real estate ate location, location and location.
The three most important things from this story are, He is risen. He is risen. And He is risen. We have to understand that before any of the post resurrection appearances make any sense. He is risen!
The first “he is risen” comes from the proof of the women’s own perception. The women stand there with the stone rolled back in the dark, cold, empty tomb staring at the grave cloths, and there is only one conclusion. He is risen because they can see it with their own eyes. They might not believe it, but they can see it.
The second he is risen comes from the angels have one important message. He is not here. He is risen. What else is there to say?
The Final “He is risen” comes from Jesus own testimony, remembering that he promised to rise from the dead on the third day. There is only one conclusion. He is risen.
I started talking about the biggest “but” in history. The biggest but in history is BUT… He is risen, the biggest 4 words in history are “but he is risen.”
He was dead, but he is risen!
Death was the last word, but he is risen!
Your darkness may seem deep, but he is risen!
Your sin seems powerful, but he is risen!
Your life seems meaningless, but he is risen!
You might not be sure what tomorrow will bring, but he is risen!
You might be grieving the death of a loved one, but he is risen!
You m might be facing cancer, or diabetes, or macular degeneration, or any number of terrible diseases, But he is risen!
You might be trapped in a cycle of addiction, but he is risen!
No, the resurrection does not take the difficulty away. The resurrection didn’t rewind to Friday afternoon and take the cross away, but it did win victory over the cross and death.
There is victory over death, because he is risen!
Death does not get to have the last word, because he is risen!
In your darkness, you can find light, because he is risen!
In your sin, you can find resurrection, because he is risen!
Meaninglessness is filled with significance, because he is risen!
You can face tomorrow with hope, because he is risen!
We can walk through grief, because he is risen!
We can face cancer, or diabetes, or macular degeneration, or any other terrible disease, because he is risen!
You can break the cycle of addiction, because he is risen!
Go in peace and power, because he is risen!