The not-so-empty tomb

This is my 2020 Easter sermon. We heard the Gospel of John 20:1-18.

Easter is the most sacred of days, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ – a day that changed the world like no other before, nor since.  Although we in the church revel in the return of the “Alleluias,” the Gospel story of the resurrection is quite different.  The story as told in John’s Gospel starts as one of emptiness, disbelief, and tears.  It is a story of not immediately seeing what is happening, who is right there in front of you.  It is a story that unfolds slowly, deliberately, rather than with the heightened energy and excitement that seems to surround other stories – Christmas, for instance, with its heralding star, angels proclaiming the news, and magi with gifts.  It is a story of expectation and longing.  Then it becomes the story of the promise fulfilled.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner writes:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face.

 (http://frederickbuechner.com/content/easter)

In today’s Gospel,  Mary Magdalene rises early and quietly returns to the tomb to pay her respects to her beloved friend and teacher.  It is easy to believe she expected to be alone with Jesus, in a time of quiet sorrow that the hopes she shared with so many others for a different kind of life, a life that had been summarily taken from them with Jesus’ execution.  Imagine how she must have felt, to have even this ritual of mourning taken from her.  Imagine her disbelief that anyone would have taken his body.  Imagine her longing to be able to be with Jesus, even for just one more day.  She runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to share her grief and disbelief.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple cannot believe it either.  They have to see for themselves, so they accompany Mary Magdalene back to the tomb.  When they see that what she told them is true, they turn and walk away.  They believe it is over, that there is nothing left to expect.  They return to their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene there, alone at the empty tomb.

But wait!  The tomb isn’t empty.  There are angels but not the loudly, joyfully proclaiming angels who heralded Jesus’ birth.  These angels are sitting quietly, as if waiting for Mary to notice them, waiting for her to make the first move.    When she looks in, they ask her a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She answers them and then turns away to leave.  And then she has the experience of meeting the risen Christ face-to-face We might wonder how it is she did not recognize the man she dearly loved and respected, the man she knew could change the world.  How could she mistake Jesus for the gardener?  Wouldn’t it, shouldn’t it, have been obvious to her who he was?

Imagine Mary Magdalene, there with Jesus through his ministry, his crucifixion, and now at the empty tomb, without the benefit of the 2000+ years of history and experience we have today.  She is there at the empty tomb with no other plausible explanation for what happened to the body of the man she saw die than that the authorities moved it or someone, for some reason, stole it.  It is little wonder, really, that she mistook Jesus for a gardener.  She does not know what to think, what to believe, but as much as she longs for it she does not expect to ever see Jesus again.

Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Christ is as true an experience as can possibly be.  Jesus does not push his way into our lives.  He does not insist we recognize him.  Jesus invites us into relationship.  He invites us to open our hearts and our minds to him.  Jesus gently holds the full promise of forgiveness and redemption, of eternal life, which is our Easter joy.  He literally died on the cross so that we might come to know him in this way, yet he does not insist that we accept this gift.  Jesus desires that we seek to see his face in the times and places, circumstances and people in which we’d least expect to see it, even, as happened to Mary Magdalene, at the empty tomb.

Jesus is everything we’d expect from the incarnate God and so completely unlike our expectations.  Jesus comes to us in our brokenness, our emptiness, and invites us to believe, even in the face of the impossible.  Jesus is there to answer our deepest yearnings, the most intimate longings of our hearts.  Jesus continues to be present to us in the most intimate and the most public of ways to save us from ourselves and all the brokenness of this world.  Jesus is here for us wherever it is, however it is, we long to find him, even in the times that seems unlikely or impossible.  That is the promise of Easter, the promise we as Easter people long to receive.

The empty tomb is not really empty. It is full of the love of God for all people.  It is full of the promise from God to all people.  It is full of the life given for and to us. It is full of the Easter message that with God, all things are possible.

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