Preached March 31, 2013 ~ Easter Sunday
Text: Luke 24:1-12
The Story, Ch. 27
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said.
Where else would they look? They saw his lifeless body laid in the tomb. Where else would they expect him to be?
But the men in dazzling white ask anyway: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
He has risen.
I tried, this week, to tell the Easter story to my three-year-old. She understood the beginning of the story – how people could be so angry that they would hurt, and kill. “Did they hit Jesus?” she asked. “Did they push him and make him fall down?”
It made me weep, how instinctively she understood the cruelty toward another person, how quickly she grasped the horror of the story.
And she understood the sadness, too. Tears streamed down her face as she curled herself up in a tight little ball in her bed, as if she was trying to protect herself from the sorrow of it all. “What about Jesus’ mommy? She will miss him!” she said, with fierceness in her voice. I hadn’t mentioned Mary in the telling at all. But she knew, somehow, that a mother’s heart would break when Jesus died.
My mother’s heart ached at my little girl’s despair. I want her to know the stories of our faith, of course. But does her tender heart have to feel it so deeply? I want to protect her from the grief.
So I tried to gloss over it – to push on to the rest of the story. “But then God…” I say. She still cries quietly, her back to me. “But then God raises Jesus from the dead! Jesus is risen!”
That’s when she craned her neck around to look at me. “Risen?” she asked in confusion. “What it mean, God ‘risen’ Jesus?”
And my mind goes blank. Toddler verb tenses aside, how does one explain to a three year old what happened on that first Easter morning, when Jesus rose from the dead?
For that matter – how do any of us understand what it means when the angels proclaim, “He is not here, he is risen!”
To my little girl, I said the only thing I could think of to say: Jesus was alive again. God brought Jesus back to life after he died.
My little one said nothing to indicate she understood. I actually thought she might have fallen asleep there beside me, still curled up tight in a ball facing away from me. But I couldn’t bear for her to think that the story ended there, so I rubbed her back and kept talking.
“You know how Jesus’ mommy was sad?” I asked her. Well she didn’t have to be sad anymore, because Jesus was with her again. Jesus’ friends were excited because he was with them, too. And the bad guys who hurt Jesus didn’t win; God was bigger than any of them. God wouldn’t let them hurt Jesus anymore now!
Anything I could think of to let her know that the story didn’t end with Jesus’ mommy crying at the tomb.
The next morning at breakfast she asked me to tell her the story about “the grown up Jesus” again. With some reluctance, I did. And this time, when we got to the tomb, Gracie leaned forward in anticipation and prompted me: “But then God…”
And when I said, “But then, God raised Jesus from the dead,” she began to jump up and down, clapping her hands and calling out: And Jesus’ mommy was happy again! And God beat the bad guys! And Jesus’ friends were excited!
Ah, she got it, after all! Relief flooded over me. She did know the rest of the story!
When the women arrived at the tomb, looking for Jesus’ body, the angels asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen! Remember how he told you…”
The angels speak, and the women respond, at first, just like my Gracie. They can’t take in the rest of the story; it is too much, too far from where they are emotionally and mentally. They turn away, faces to the ground, backs to the angels. They just don’t understand. They are too caught up in the horror, the grief, the sorrow of the day.
The angels don’t seem to notice the women’s terror – or maybe like me, they are just so desperate for the women to hear the rest of the story that they must keep talking:
Remember! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. Remember!
Remember, dear women, what Jesus told you would happen. Remember that death isn’t the end of the story!
The women had much to remember. These were the women who had been with Jesus in Galilee (23:55). The ones who had journeyed with Jesus and supported Jesus in his ministry (8:2-3). The ones who were present at the cross (23:49) and the tomb (23:55). They remembered the way Jesus welcomed them among his disciples, against the traditions of the day. They remembered the way Jesus healed them and brought them wholeness and health again. They remembered the times they laughed together, and cried together. They remembered.
And in remembering, they were empowered to tell the story themselves. The despair melted away, and joy bubbled up in its place. They ran – laughing, I imagine, bubbling over with delight like a little girl clapping her hands and jumping up and down in excitement. They knew the end of the story, and it made all the difference!
The disciples who heard their story, though, didn’t know the end of the story. Not yet. They were still – figuratively if not literally – curled up in a ball like my little girl, or lying with faces to the ground like the women had been. They weren’t ready to hear the rest of the story.
So when the women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the others – told them that the tomb was empty, the didn’t understand. They called it an “idle tale” – foolishness! Insanity! Ridiculous.
Only…what if it were true? What if…? Peter was the one who couldn’t quite shake the question out of his mind.
So he ran to see for himself if the story the women told was true. Ran to find an empty tomb, grave clothes lying in a heap. And he left “amazed.”
There is nothing here that says he believed or understood. Only that he was amazed. The dictionary defines amazed as “filled with the emotional impact of overwhelming surprise or shock.” That was Peter. Overwhelmed with shock. Surprised, astonished. Amazed – but not yet understanding or rejoicing. That would take awhile longer.
The time would come, though. As the days went by, Peter would begin to wrap his mind around the truth. He would remember what Jesus had said when they gathered around the table. And as he remembered, he would come to know the risen Jesus – alive! He would hear Jesus speak forgiveness and love to him. He would find his own voice again – ready to tell the story to others, as we hear in Acts.
And so it begins again – the cycle of hearing the good news, wondering at its meaning, coming to understand and then sharing the story with others.
During World War II, the phrase “on a wing and a prayer” was used to describe damaged warplanes limping back to base with a wing blown off – arriving safely, somehow, “on a wing and a prayer.”
It might be said that resurrection faith lives “on a word and a prayer.” The evidence of the resurrection – for the women, for Peter – was nothing. Emptiness.
We might prefer a Lazarus-style resurrection; Jesus walking out of that tomb, still wrapped in his grave clothes. But instead, we get a pile of linen cloths and an empty tomb. There was nothing there, in Luke’s account, to prove that Jesus was risen.
Nothing, that is, but a word. A word from men in dazzling white, for the women. A word from the women, for Peter. And later – a word from Peter to Cornelius and others. Faith in Jesus continues to spread, on a word and a prayer, right down to us today.
We’re here today – every single one of us – because we’ve heard word from someone of the power of God to bring new life through Jesus Christ. We may not quite believe it. We may, quite frankly, think it all an idle tale. But like Peter, we’re here to see for ourselves, just in case it might be true.
And the good news of Easter is that the promise of resurrection doesn’t depend on how we receive it or how much we believe it or whether we can make some logical sense of it. God doesn’t wait for us to believe to raise Jesus from the dead. Jesus is risen – whether we understand it or not.
And us? We’re invited on a journey of faith to see for ourselves what new life is all about. And chances are, we’ll find that God shows up right in the places we thought were most dead – the dying relationship, the dead-end job, the long-buried hopes and dreams – God meets us there, and brings new life. Thanks be to God – Christ is risen!