The tomb that had been provided by Joseph of Arimathea had been “forsaken,” abandoned by Jesus of Nazareth That fact caused the poet Alice Meynell to observe:
“No planet knows that this earth of ours…
Bears, as its chief treasure, one forsaken grave…1
The angel said to the women, “(He is not here!”(
We often hesitate to be first. I remember, as a boy, being on a Boy Scout camp out. We usually camped down by the beautiful Black River that meanders its way through central South Carolina to the sea. Early in the morning when the air was crisp and it was cool, we would begin to stir. There would be a great discussion almost immediately as to who was going to go first into the water, for we always went swimming. The questions would arise:
“I wonder how cold the water is?”
“Isn’t it too early to go swimming?”
The prospect of going first, of going ahead often causes us to hesitate and procrastinate. We hold back waiting for someone else to take the chance or the plunge. Our Savior is the One who is always going ahead of us.
I have always liked the fact that the women were the first to know of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were there at the crucifixion, when the disciples had fled the city. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea took the body down from the cross, as he had requested of Pilate (
Early Sunday morning, three women at sunrise, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, made their way to the tomb with spices they had purchased to do some final things (
They worried about the huge stone that had closed the entrance to the tomb and they wondered about the Roman guard that had been set there to keep it safe and to keep it closed. When they got there, they were shocked that the stone had been rolled away and there was no guard (
It was then that they learned that Jesus was not there, that He had come back to life (
I want us to respond to this great Easter text from the Gospel of Mark by building our thoughts around three words. The first is …
We should be comforted by the fact that our Lord always keeps His promises. The women were told, “Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see Him there, just as He told you before he died” (
This whole city has had an opportunity to think about the promises of the resurrection, for this has been a very tragic week in Atlanta. Four young lawyers suddenly taken from us along with the pilot of another plane. Two planes collided in mid-air of an unknown cause and five relatively young men were suddenly taken from us. A son of this church, age 34, was killed in a rather freakish accident involving a forklift. It makes you think about the resurrection when a tornado touches down on your street and misses your house and destroys the next four.
The resurrection is something we ought to think about, and when we think about it, our thoughts always turn around the great promises:
“I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am there you may be also.”
“Because I live you shall live also.”
“Those who believe in Me though they are dead, yet shall they live…”
“Lo, I am with you always.”
In the challenges and chances of life, we hold on to these stout promises that enable us to look beyond the present suffering, sorrow or calamity, and give us strength to make our way through with His companionship.
Easter is the “main event” of Christianity. It is the victory of Easter that helps us move beyond our suffering and the inevitable questions, “Why? Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to mine?” We move beyond that because of the Resurrection to more important questions, “How? How can I face this pain? How can I handle this loss, this challenge, this hurt? How can I turn this pain into a new purpose?” Only the resurrection can provide us the capacity to do that.
John Irving wrote a rather thought-provoking novel entitled, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen Meany, the central character, had some profound and probing observations about the Christian faith and about the resurrection in particular. He said, and I quote:
“I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished — I am terrified that, this year, the resurrection won’t happen… Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a Christian believer.”2
Again and again I am called upon to minister to people in the catharsis of grief, tragedy and pain. I must tell you that I do not know what a person would do or could do in the face of the sorrows of this world without a belief in the resurrection hope and the resurrection promises. I do not subscribe to the point of view about life that Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, advanced in his rather autobiographical play titled Long Day’s Journey into Night. What he said was that we are born into the brightest light we will ever know and, from that point on, the shadows begin to gather. The shadows deepen as we move further and further into life until finally we come to total darkness and into that total darkness we slip. That’s not the Christian view of life. “Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”
The second word I want to lift up is the word …
Our Lord is always going before us. “Jesus is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see Him there.” The fact that He goes before us, preparing the way, gives us great confidence. When the son of William Sloan Coffin, a distinguished American preacher, was killed in an automobile accident, Coffin preached a sermon with this title: My Son Beat Me to the Grave.
How could he preach such a sermon in that context? I can tell you how. He was and is confident in the resurrection. Our Lord goes ahead of us, and promises that we shall see Him there. In fact, we are promised in the Bible that we shall see Him face-to-face. He stands with us and goes ahead of us in our suffering. He has gone before us in death and the Resurrection assures us of victory. If you study the Bible with care, the case can be made that God is a “Go-Ahead-God.”
When Moses and the children of Israel faced the trackless waste of the desert wilderness, God went before them by day in a pillar of cloud and by night He stayed among them with a flaming fire.
Through years of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, through good times and exile and wars and calamities of every kind that one can only imagine, God always went before His people wherever they were, whatever their needs, dispatching His prophets among them to tell them the truth and consequences of disobedience.
God had gone before the women rushing to the tomb to roll the stone away. God is always and forever going before us, not only to prepare the way, but to sustain us in the way in which we should walk.
With His resurrection, the mission of the church was about to begin. He had gathered twelve disciples. One of them, the one who betrayed Him, had hung himself by now; another had denied Him with an oath. But now He was risen from the dead and going before His disciples to Galilee, where they were to meet Him. How can we doubt one who is always preparing the way and providing for our every need in life and in the life to come?
One of the most poignant moments I ever experience as a minister is when I stand by a grave side when a veteran of military service is being accorded the final salute. There is a volley of shots and then “Taps” is played. Some months back, a soldier made an unusual request in writing to the military:
“When I die,” he wrote, “do not sound taps over my grave, but reveille, the morning call, the summons to rise.”3
He could make his request with confidence because he knew our Savior had gone before him, not only in death, but in Resurrection. There is no place that we can go that He has not been, there is no place that we need to go that He has not been before. An unknown poet captured it for me:
The road is rough, dear Lord, I said,
These are stones that hurt me so.
Yes, child, He answered, I understand
For I walked this way long ago…
My burden, Lord, is far too great,
How can I bear it so.
Yes, child, I remember its weight,
For I bore my cross, you know.4
We are comforted this Easter because our Lord always keeps His promises. We are confident this Easter because He always goes before us, but there is a third word, and that word is …
He is always challenging us to make the foundational choices.
The angel who met the women at the tomb gave them a task, “Now go and give this message to His disciples, and to Peter” (
We are all given the task of telling the story of His “aliveness.” The youth choir in this church sings a wonderful song, He Is Alive! The women are so frightened that they tell no one initially (
1. The first is Obedience. The women, shocked and frightened, did not tell anyone, including the disciples. What’s your excuse? What’s your excuse? The Bible says that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” There is a Charlie Brown cartoon that I saw recently that I liked, lucy asks:
“Why do you think we are put on earth, Charlie Brown?”
“Well,” he says, “To make others happy.”
“I don’t think I’m making anyone very happy… Of course, nobody’s making me very happy, either.”
The last panel has Lucy screaming:
“Somebody is not doing their job.”5
One could not look at the American Church today without raising the question as to our obedience to our instructions “to go and to tell” the story of His Resurrection. Our lives should be examples of what it means to be the “light of the world,” and yet in any direction you look there is so much darkness.
Maya Angelou, in her most recent book Even the Stars Look Lonesome, dedicates it to the children who will grow to maturity in the 21st century. She then gives them and us this charge:
“Their charge will be to eliminate warfare, to promote equality, to exile disease, to establish justice and increase joy. In fact, to make this a perfect world.”6
She sees this generation as a sign of hope. So do I, but it is a hope based on our obedience to our calling to share, to tell and to embrace the story.
If we respond to the challenge of a deepening commitment and make the choices that are required, beginning with obedience, we must note a second reality.
2. That is belief. You have to believe something before you can be someone. When they heard the story, the disciples did not believe. Some did not believe who had been in the presence of the risen Christ. You have to believe it before you can share it (
The Lamb has been slain, the sheep have scattered. Now is the time for kneeling, the time for believers to kneel and call upon his name, to kneel, to rise again: The Community of the Resurrection.7
It is time for those who believe to stand up to be counted and to be heard telling the story. We keep misplacing our hopes in human structures as if we have not known the Resurrection reality. We find ourselves clinging to the way things have always been. We look at the world around us and respond with anger and despair, as if our Christ did not die to make all things new. We spend much of our time in complaint instead of proclamation. Why is it we keep forgetting the reality that He is alive? The Resurrection is the alternative to our hopelessness. There is every indication that we are called of God to make changes for all of God’s people in this world. It begins when we have let Him resurrect us, change us. Again, Ann Weems speaks:
“the stirring wildness of God calls brittle bones to leaping and stone hearts to soaring.”8
The world will not change until we change and we will not change by just being in church once a year at Easter.
A little drama played itself out on one of our buses two or three weeks ago. There was a new bus driver who was not familiar with us. It was his first Sunday and he was in animated conversation with someone who was riding the bus. When he drove in, he suddenly saw this huge cross we erect out front and drape it with purple at the beginning of Lent. She said, “Right in the middle of the conversation, he just forgot all about me and said: ‘My God, somebody big must have died!'”
He was thinking about one of those little white roadside crosses that we put up, sad to say, when somebody’s been killed. Let me tell you, friends, somebody big did die for you and for me, but He came back. He came back.
They thought that death would silence Him,
They nailed Him to a tree;
But I am sure He rose again
Because He lives in me.
I never envy those who heard Him
Preach in Galilee;
For since my heart has turned to Him
He daily walks with me.
I never wish that I had walked
With Him beside the Galilean Sea;
For here and now on Atlanta streets,
He often walks with me.
They thought that death would conquer Him;
They nailed Him to a tree.
I know. I know He conquered death,
Because He lives in me.”
Is He alive in you? If not, don’t waste this Easter.
1Leonard Sweet, Homiletics, April/June, 1996, 2(8), 6.
2Quoted in James A. Harnish, Believe in Me (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991) 51.
3Leonard Sweet, Homiletics (Canton, OH: Communications Resources. January/March 1997) 1(9), 50.
4Leighton Farrell, Cries from the Cross (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 58-59.
5Leonard Sweet, Homiletics (Canton, OH: Communication Resources, April/June 1995) 2 (7), 14.
6Maya Angelou, Even the Stars Look Lonesome. (New York: Random House, 1997) dedication page.
7Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992) 90.