When I was in college, a desperate friend awakened me one night. He urged me to go up to the cemetery with him. This was not a trip I cared to make! Embarrassed, he explained that he’d gotten a massive headstone to rocking and turned it over onto the grave. It turned out to be the grave of our college president’s father! A bunch of us guys squeezed around that marble headstone and pulled with all our might – to no avail. It took a crane to undo what my foolish friend had done.
The women who went to the tomb early that Sunday morning had similar problems: a massive stone setting where it shouldn’t and a weight like stone on their hearts.
They were going to rub spices onto the body and into the grave linens. It was the custom in a time long before formaldehyde. So intent were they on getting their spices, getting together, getting on their way, they never thought about the stone – the big round slab of rock that covered the entrance to the tomb. Suddenly, as they walked through the mists of almost-morning, they realized they had a big problem on their hands.
Comes the question like a cold splash in the face, “Who will move the stone for us?” Talk about a reality check. Jesus was dead. The Teacher was gone. And hope lay with him in the grave. See their eyes, so red from crying. See their faces lined with loss. Feel the weight of hearts so heavy, burdened with grief, pain, and fear.
Do you know grief, when the nights are long and time drags across your mind like a dull blade? C.S. Lewis married late in life. He married a woman named Joy who was dying of cancer. However, a miraculous remission followed and Jack and Joy spent two very happy years together. Yet, like an unwelcome guest, the cancer returned to claim Joy’s life. Here are Lewis’ words, written in the darkness of his grief:
“What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?” 1
Do you know grief? It lies on your heart like a stone, stabbing you with doubts even as it smothers you with loneliness.
Are you in pain? Think of Mary Magdalene, one of the three women named here. Traditionally, she’s been thought of as a prostitute. Actually, the Bible doesn’t say she was a prostitute. What it says is Jesus freed her from seven demons.
I don’t know what these things did to her. I imagine they wreaked havoc with her body and her mind. I’ve no doubt that she clung to Jesus not only out of gratitude but for protection from further demonic oppression. Now the demons had come back – and jerked the props out from under her.
Some of you have experienced great good – a wonderful, fulfilling job; bright, beautiful children, love itself. Then it was ripped away. You lost your job. Your children turned against you. The cancer came back. Love abandoned you. Are you in pain? It lies like on your heart like a stone, doesn’t it?
Are you afraid? When you’re grieving, when you’re in pain, fear comes next. When you can’t sleep, you fear going to bed at night. When you suffer a long illness, you fear you won’t get well. Some of you have to take insulin. Some of you take medication for anxiety attacks or some other disorder. That pill, that needle, is like a closet hiding something bad. You can hear the bad thing scratching at the door, waiting, biding its time. So many things we’re afraid of–loneliness, poverty; what people would think of us if they really knew us.
Then there’s the fear of death. Winston Churchill was seated at dinner with a jabbering lady who said that if she were ever given a life sentence she’d rather die than serve it. “No!” said Churchill. “Always choose life! Death’s the only thing you can’t get out of!” That’s why we’re afraid of death, isn’t it? That’s why we sweat on treadmills, douse with vitamins, subject ourselves to barbaric radiation and chemotherapy. Because death is the only thing we can’t get out of.
Are you afraid to die? Most of us don’t notice the weight of that stone, but it lies on our hearts just the same.
Here they are, then: Grief, Pain, Fear. Monuments too heavy for anybody to budge. And the Prince of Darkness, the spirit that distracts and distresses and destroys, sits on the top of that stone, cleaning his nails with a switchblade knife. Is there no one on this planet to even challenge him!
“Who will roll the stone away?” Not three grieving women. Not you. Not me. Only one Man can do it: The Man with the Power.
Do you know His power? Oh, how He suffered upon that cross! These poor women had cradled his body in their arms. His body laid there, a lifeless mass of welts and wounds; lay in the drizzle of their tears. But He was no victim. Blood was the price for our sin, the only liquid upon which a stone would float. “No man takes my life from me,” He said. Hear the strong and sturdy word echoing down through time: “I give it.”
Do you know that He gave His life for you? Do you know He’d do it all again if He had to – for you? To know that love is to know power and freedom and healing. It rolls the stone from the heart!
Listen, beloved. He doesn’t just offer the memory of a sacrifice. He offers His very own presence. He’s not in a grave. “He is risen,” said the angel. “He is not here.” Don’t look for a tomb to visit. Don’t look for a grave to put flowers on. He’s here! His living Spirit dwells in us who want Him.
“How do you know, preacher? How do you know He’s here?” I know because I can hear His laughter.
When I’m up before the congregation thinking I’m really going to be a hit today – and I start out reading the wrong page in my Bible, I hear Him laugh.
When I’m working through my Bible-In-A-Year program and I miss a day or two, I try to make it up, speed-reading with no comprehension, just so I can say I’m hitting the mark! And I hear Him laugh. He says, “You want to take a pop quiz on what you just read?”
When I take myself – my fears, my worries, my struggles – so seriously, He clouts me upside the head and says, “Son, don’t you know? You’re with Me! You’re free!”
Can’t you hear the laughter? Can’t you smell the burning joy? It rolls that stone, that massive rock, from our hearts!
Do you know His Promise? “Tell His disciples – and Peter…” “If I must go to prison,” Peter had declared. “If I must die,” Peter had said, “I will never deny you.” And for a few hours, he didn’t. He even cut off a man’s ear, though I don’t think he did it so much to protect Jesus as he did out of the rage that stems from cold fear. Pretty soon, he was denying he ever knew the man.
Of all those who fled in fear, who knew pain, who grieved over being unable to stand with the One who loved them most when He needed them most, Peter must surely have hurt the worst. He thought of himself as the Rock, a massive support for his Master. He discovered he was just a loose chunk, a rolling stone – and more dirt than rock at that. The weight of his guilt lay on his heart like a stone.
But the promise goes out to the disciples in general and Peter in particular. He’s in Galilee. Go meet Him!
I heard a preacher say, “If I really knew you, I wouldn’t want you to be my congregation. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t want me to be your preacher.” I feel the same way. It is only by his grace that I stand here today.
I want you to know, Jesus knows. He knows about the fight you had with your wife on the way to church this morning. He knows about that slightly shady business with the money. He knows about the lies and the cover-ups. He knows you. And He’s told me to tell you – you, Peter – to come and receive His embrace.
If you do, so many good things will happen. Maybe not all at once. It’s not magic He’s offering, unless you want to call meaning, purpose, and hope magic. What He offers is, in fact, life from the dead. Come meet Him. See what He’ll do for you.
Gary D. Robinson is Preaching Minister at Conneautville Church of Christ in Conneautville, PA.
1. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. New York: The Seabury Press, p. 26.