After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of 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.” Matthew 28:1-10 (NRVS)
Various kinds of genres of artwork and even the artist themselves more often than not have certain tell-tale clues or earmarks that tip us off to specific details about the piece of art. Like the time period or the identity and character of their creator and other details.
Two bars of a piece of jazz music and I can tell you if that is Miles Davis or Chet Baker playing the horn. You can tell by reading a paragraph if you are reading William Faulkner, with his run-on sentences and sparse punctuation, or Earnest Hemingway with his short, staccato sentences and descriptive prose.
If you are watching a movie and a beautiful blond woman who is with some friends in a cabin in the woods hears a suspicious noise coming from the barn and says, “I’m going to go see what that noise is. I’ll be right back.” You know she is not going to be right back. She is never coming back. You are watching a formulaic American horror movie.
At this moment in the story of the Scriptures, something similar is occurring. Matthew, who is no less of an artist, wants to clue us in on the fact that this happened on the first day of the week. On the same day on which creation began back in Genesis one, there are earthquakes, angels dressed in lightning, and beaming with good news. Matthew is tipping his hand to the fact that this moment of resurrection is THE ultimate moment in God’s story to heal, reclaim, and restore a broken people and a broken creation.
Matthew doesn’t want us to miss that on this day,
Morning has broken, like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the word.
Matthew doesn’t want us to miss that this moment is THE moment—that the morning of the very first Easter in the morning that would change us and everything forever.
If you read popular culture’s commentary about this holy day you will quickly learn that they don’t hold to the same view about the significance of this day as Matthew did.
We gather today and celebrate this holiest of holy days because something happened 2,000 years ago that was more significant than brunch specials at the local restaurants, mattress sales, or Easter Egg hunts. Easter is not about vague niceties or moral platitudes.
The announcement of Easter is the good news that something has happened, out in the open in history that has changed everything forever. Easter changes everything.
So, I want to invite you for a few moments, to take up the angelic invitation with me and come into this tomb and see what we find there and to go out changed by resurrection. To come in and to go out.
Let’s go into the tomb with Mary and Mary. They are making their way in the predawn dark to Jesus’ tomb, hoping that the dark will give them the opportunity to morn with a little peace and privacy. But when they get there they are startled by an angel dressed in lightning and trumpeting good news. An angel rolls back the stone as these terrified women stand among the corpse-like bodies of Roman soldiers who have been frightened into a death-like stupor and hear one of the angels say:
“There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus…He is not here. This is a tomb and tombs are for dead people. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was laid.”
So, they enter the tomb and are surprised by the resurrection.
When Christians talk about Jesus coming back to life we are not talking about the memory of Christ living on in the minds of his followers. We don’t mean His teachings are living on to the present. When we say He is risen, we mean that the joints that had begun to become stiff from rigor mortis, the eyes that glazed over, the cells that had begun to disintegrate, somehow began to pulse and thrive again. We mean that Jesus went through death like we might pass through a gauzy curtain and came out on the other side into victory.
One of the earliest creeds of the Christian church put it crudely by saying, “His corpse stood up.”
When we talk about the resurrection we mean that in a show of power not seen since the dawn of the cosmos, the Living God burst Jesus from the tomb. Undoing our death, curing our sin-sickness, and beginning God’s work of healing a ravaged creation forever.
That’s what the angel means when he tells these two terrified friends of Jesus, “He’s not here. He is risen.”
I know that the thinking person must wonder about this claim. I mean come on, really. I’ve seen lots of dead things and I know a dead body begins to decay very quickly. I know this is a hard idea to accept. If not you, many of your family and friends really struggle with the idea that a man three days dead “stood up.”
You may like the festivities that surround Easter, the flowers, the nicely dressed church folks, and the brunch specials, but you just can’t buy the whole resurrection business.
If that is you, I would encourage you to veer away from the chronological snobbery that would listen to this story and think “now that we live in the 21st century we know that we can’t believe in this kind of thing. These two Marys didn’t have an opportunity to take human anatomy courses and advance biology seminars.”
But you know what? They were familiar with death. They’d seen it before. In fact, they may have had much more first-hand experience with death than any of us. Infant mortality was higher than it is now. There are professional people to come and deal with the dead in our day. Back in those days if someone died in your family or in your neighborhood—you touched it, cared for it, and prepared it for burial. Just like these women. They knew about death.
These women knew what we know, that the death rate hovers right around 100%.
And yet these two women, who would be the last two women on earth to expect it, were just as surprised as the entire world has been for over two thousand years—with the news of the resurrection.
Lee Strobel was a legal and crime editor for the Chicago Tribune for a long time and an avowed atheist. He wrote about his own spiritual journey as he wrestled with whether or not he could really believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. He wrote the story of his own journey in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago,
It was the worst news I could get as an atheist: my agnostic wife had decided to become a Christian. Two words shot through my mind. The first was an expletive; the second was “divorce.”…For nearly two years, I explored the minutia of the historical data on whether Easter was myth or reality. I didn’t merely accept the New Testament at face value; I was determined only to consider facts that were well-supported historically. As my investigation unfolded, my atheism began to buckle…One by one, my objections evaporated. I read books by skeptics, but their counter-arguments crumbled under the weight of the historical data…In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.
— Lee Strobel, from “How Easter Killed My Faith In Atheism,” in The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 16, 2011
How on earth could he say that? Here’s why: From a historical perspective the resurrection of Jesus is by far and away the best explanation for the events of the first Easter morning and the explosion of the Christian movement after it.
Even people who are not followers of Jesus easily poke holes in all of the other explanations that people venture for what could have happened that first Easter morning. Like maybe Jesus didn’t really die, or maybe all of Jesus’ disciples had some sort of spiritual experience that they talked about so much it became embedded in their collective narrative and felt as real as a fact, or maybe it was a hoax concocted by Jesus followers to validate their movement.
Historians of various stripes and kinds have noted that Jesus was killed by killing experts. And psychologists have done enough research to be able to say that hundreds and hundreds of people don’t have the same hallucinatory experience at the same place and at the same time and talk about it in exactly the same ways. And we know historically that many of Jesus’ first followers died for their witness to His resurrection. Lots of people have died for things that are a lie throughout human history, but nobody dies for things they KNOW are a lie.
Even if you choose to disbelieve the story of Jesus’ resurrection you have to find another way to explain the explosion of the Christian movement across the world. A movement that has grown faster and farther than any other faith movement.
I love how one thinker puts it,
Never in so short a time has any other religious faith, or for that matter, any other set of ideas religious, political, or otherwise, without the aid of physical force achieved so commanding a position in such a short time in such an important society. The more one examines the factors that seem to account for the extraordinary victory of Christianity, the more one is driven to search for a cause underlying them all, it is clear that at the very beginning of Christianity there must have occurred a vast release of energy virtually unparalleled in history without which the future course of the religion is utterly inexplicable. ~ Wayne Meeks (Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies, Yale University)
Like a corpse standing up, something like a resurrection.
So, the invitation is still being offered to come into the tomb of Jesus with your anxiety, your cynicism, your questions, and your doubts and be surprised by resurrection.
These two women are invited in to see the empty tomb, but then they are propelled back out. I want us to do the same.
Now, I think these two women running bewildered in the pre-dawn dark of the first Easter actually guides us in figuring out what Easter does to human life. How it transforms us. They do two things that I want us to attend to for a moment:
- They Take Hold of Jesus
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. vs.8-9
These two women, brim-full of fright and delight, as they sprint from the midnight of the cave to an unexpected morning, somehow and someway—Jesus is there and they hear a familiar voice—“Greetings!” Or “Rejoice!” And as they turn and see Jesus, they come undone. They fall at His feet and cling to Him and worship Him.
This is what the good news of God coming among us in Jesus and of Him living for us and dying for us and being raised from the dead for us does to us. Mourning has broken!
This is the good news that when we hear it and it finds its way down into our hearts—down where the knobs are—we take hold of it for dear life.
Easter is the story of God sneaking up on us in our darkness, addictions, confusion, and death—and greeting us. Embracing us. Healing us. And that is good enough news to hold onto for dear life.
I invite you to take your cue from these two women and take hold of Jesus. Perhaps that will happen for the first time for you this morning. Or perhaps some of you have come to church for the first time in, I don’t know, a year—but something is stirring in your soul and you need to grab onto Jesus again and cling to Him for dear life.
The good news of Jesus is worth centering your entire life around. So, take hold of Jesus and hang on for dear life.
- They Tell the Story of Jesus
The resurrection transforms them from mourners into preachers.
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” vs. 10
Galilee was Jesus’ home base. It is where He carried out most of His ministry. Where He called disciples and defeated evil; healed sick people and announced the staggering news of God’s grace for broken people.
It was where He told haunting stories about all the wrong people being acceptable to God. Galilee was where Jesus preached over and over again that the Kingdom of God was at hand—that Up there was finally coming Down Here.
Mourning has broken!
The point of Jesus telling them to go back to Galilee is that Easter isn’t the end of the story, it is only the beginning. See, Jesus’ being raised from the dead is not that someday God will beam us up Star Trek-style from this terribly broken world before He melts it down or blows it up.
Easter is the good news that God loves this material world. And that He loves this world He created so dearly that He has come into it as a material man with real skin, bones, hair, and sinew—to heal it and make it new.
Easter is God’s future bursting into our unsuspecting present.
The promise of Easter is that what God did in the physical body of Jesus on the first Easter morning, He will one day do for you and me —Mount Princeton, the Arkansas River, Denver, and the Pacific Ocean.
One day you and I and the cosmos will get a resurrection.
And followers of Jesus are people who live, work, and serve with that hope here and now. We know that the way in which we extend grace to people when we give compassion, all of the time we spend serving and healing people who are sick and visiting those incarcerated in prison and pursuing justice and celebrating beauty in this world—all of this matters and lasts because of Easter. God intends to make this world new.
As followers of Jesus, we are invited to live in such a way that announces that great hope here and now. Easter is good news for this present world.
That’s why this church serves 100 rafting guides a free meal in the summertime. That is why this summer we have a mission group coming to join us and do community service projects here in BV. That is why we take clothes down to Victor Lira in Alamosa to hand out to the poor and homeless of the San Luis Valley. That’s why we cut and split firewood for the community. That’s why we are joining up with another church to bless our community with clean-up projects here in our town.
Because we believe that God loves THIS world and intends to restore it and make it new. We intend to be a part of that in some small way.
Even unbelievers ought to hope that Christianity is true and that those who call Jesus Lord live out His teachings because in so doing this world will be a better place to live—here and now. And, honestly, to the degree that so-called Christians are not getting their hands dirty in the day-by-day restoring of this planet and the people who live here, they are NOT living out the faith demonstrated at Easter.
This life is not a rut that ends in a grave. We are working on fulfilling the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is being done in Heaven.
That is a big story. Morning has broken!
Our sense that beauty, justice, and relationships matter is not an accident. The faith that we cling to at Easter is that God intends that these things will be transfigured, healed, and restored through the resurrection. So, even unbelievers ought to hope that Easter is true and that those who follow Jesus would finally live out their faith. The world would be a better place if we did.
Easter changes everything.
A few years ago an attorney began to come to our church named Adam. He and I began to meet every Saturday morning at a local Starbucks to talk about life and faith. He was single at the time and a public defender in Mount Vernon, Washington. As a public defender, he had seen humanity at its worse. And because of his analytical and critical mind, he was very skeptical about life outside of this tangible world. But, curiosity and an inner wonder drew him to explore faith.
As we walked through the scriptures and began to read books and discuss them together his keen intellect would ask the most provocative questions. I answered the best I could. And over time he grew softer and softer towards the faith.
One Saturday morning Adam, with fists clenched and voice rising in volume said, “Okay, I believe that Jesus is exactly who He says He is. He is the Son of God. But pastor, I have a problem!”
What is that, Adam?
“If He really did rise from the dead—it changes everything. I can’t continue to live the way I’m living.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Now what am I going to do?”
“Cling to Him for dear life, Adam,” I said.
So, brothers and sisters hear the good news that changes everything: Morning has broken, like the first morning. Christ is no longer in the tomb but has risen.