In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This fellow had been sick for sometime, confined to the hospital, slipping in and out of consciousness for months on end. But his wife was the most faithful of spouses. She stayed by his bedside night and day. One morning when the husband was especially lucid he called his wife to come sit by his bed. Holding her hand he whispered, ‘ You know what? You have been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired you were there to support me. When my business failed, you were there. When I declared bankruptcy you were by my side. When we lost the house you stayed with me. Now that I’ m sick you are still by my side. You know what . . . ?
‘ What dear, she responded smiling down at her husband.
‘ I think you’ re bad luck.
Poor Mary Magdalene, before Easter morning she must have wondered if she was bad luck. Faithful Mary, steadfast Mary, she was there with Jesus every step of the way ‘ the trial, the beatings, the humiliation and finally the crucifixion. What must it have been like for Mary that Sunday coming to the tomb early in the morning only to find the sanctity of the grave violated – the stone rolled away and the body missing. Imagine losing someone you love, going to the cemetery to mourn their death and finding their grave seemingly desecrated. Think about how incredibly this would compound your grief. The man she loved, the man she expected to save Israel was dead. He had been killed as a state criminal in the most horrible way. All Mary could do was care for his body and now even that was gone.
But through her tears, in-between her sobs, Mary saw someone approaching, someone who seemed like the gardener. ‘ Mary, this man said to her, just one word, but it was enough. Even on the other side of the grave she knew that voice. His voice gave him away. This was no gardener, it was Jesus. His body hadn’ t been stolen. His grave hadn’ t been defiled. His grave had been liberated. Jesus was alive, whole and standing there in front of her.
I wonder what the disciples thought when she ran and told them the news. Women in those days were not considered reliable witnesses. In court of law a woman’ s testimony mattered little. What must Peter and the others have thought when she came running, screaming at the top of her lungs ‘ the Lord is risen, the Lord is risen! Do you think they believed her at first? Would you have believed her? Do we believe her now on this Easter morning two thousand years later? Well, that’ s the question isn’ t it? On Easter Sunday all of us have to decide how we are going to handle the message of the empty tomb.
A story is told of the way the news of the victory at Waterloo first arrived in England. There were no telegrams or telegraphs in 1815. But everyone knew that Wellington was facing Napoleon in a great battle and that the future of England was at stake. A sailing ship semaphored (signaled with coded flags) news of the battle to a signalman on top of Winchester Cathedral. He then signaled to another man on a distant hill and in this way news was relayed from place to place. When the first ship came into view the signalman on board sent out the first word: Wellington. He then sent out the next word: Defeated. But before any more news could be relayed the ship sailed into a fog bank hiding the it from view. The message ‘ Wellington Defeated traveled all over England and a great gloom settled over the country. It was only many hours later when the fog lifted that the rest of the message could be sent from the ship: Wellington Defeated – The Enemy.1
Today you and I have some choices to make regarding the message Scripture sends us about the crucified Jesus. Is the message simply two words ‘ Jesus Defeated? Or is there more to it ‘ Jesus Defeated Death? What does our heart tell us? Is all of this just a strange story or did he rise from the grave never to die again? How we answer has a great deal to say about where we put our hope in this life.
In the early church little else was preached except the news of Jesus’ resurrection. For the first Christians it was the one central theme heard over and over again. The resurrection wasn’ t just a part of the faith it was the central content of the faith. You have to realize the early followers of Jesus didn’ t believe in the resurrection because they believed in Jesus. Rather, they believed in Jesus because they believed in the resurrection.2 And yet, 2000 years later I think there are many modern Christians who almost feel embarrassed to preach the resurrection. It is too supernatural, too out of the ordinary, too far out. But the message ‘ Jesus Defeated Death, Jesus rose from the grave, Jesus lives and we too will live with him ‘ is central to our faith. There is no Christianity without it. There is only the interesting story of an interesting man who lived once upon a time long ago.
Quite honestly, every bit of hope I have is wrapped up in this day. Today is the reason I can stomach reading the newspaper or watching the news on television. Today is the reason I can still have hope when children shoot up their schools and their classmates; when terrorists blow up innocent men, women and children; when thousands starve because of a senseless civil war. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘ Be not afraid. The resurrection is how I can ‘ be not afraid. Because the resurrection declares that suffering and death, disease and injustice, are not the way things are supposed to be, nor are they the way things will be forever. Our Easter faith recognizes that the raising of Jesus from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. Our faith understands the risen Christ as God’ s protest against death, and against all the people who work for death.3
For those of us who know the whole message of the empty tomb and claim that message as our own, our job is to live in such a way that the miracle of this day can be seen in our lives. Remember, when you forgive your enemy, when you feed the hungry, when you defend the weak ‘ you proclaim the resurrection.4 When you work to repair broken relationships, when you sacrifice for the sake of your family, when you take time to support a friend ‘ you proclaim the resurrection. When you stand up for the truth, when you refuse to compromise your integrity, when you love the unlovable ‘ you proclaim the resurrection. This is our job as Christians ‘ to declare with our lips and live with our lives the hope of Easter in a world, where for many, hope can be difficult to find.
I remember several years ago Newsweek published a letter sent from the Greenville County, South Carolina, department of Social Services. In wonderful bureaucratic fashion, it was a letter to a dead person. It read ‘ ‘ Your food stamps will be stopped effective immediately, because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. Should your situation change, you may reapply at anytime.
Today God declares that our situation has changed. Christ has changed it. By the resurrection our hope-less world has become hope-filled. We are no longer bound by the grave, we are no longer slaves to the power of death. Life has conquered death; we have been freed from the grave. The tomb is empty and our situation has changed because the Lord is risen. Alleluia, alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed. Amen.
1 Taken from a sermon by H. King Oehmig.
2 Martin Marty.
3 Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless.
4 Carlo Carretto.