I had the honor of preaching this sermon at the ecumenical Easter Sunday service for Greater Dayton Christian Connections on April 17, 2022.
Luke 24:1-12 (NRSV)
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 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.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
All through my childhood, my father would wake us up on Easter morning by playing the Hallelujah chorus over his stereo–loudly. It would echo all through the house. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I can’t say that as a teenager I was overly appreciative of being awakened in this way, especially at 5:00 in the morning. I didn’t know why the women couldn’t have come to the tomb around lunch time.
Either despite or because of that, I love the Hallelujah chorus. It’s the high point of Handel’s Messiah, an explosion of praise to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Over and over again it proclaims the majesty of the ascended Christ: he is King of kings, Lord of lords, King of kings, Lord of lords, King of kings, Lord of lords–and he shall reign forever and ever!
Late on that Friday afternoon when Jesus hung on the cross, no one was thinking anything like that. No one was calling him King of kings or Lord of lords, or proclaiming that his kingdom would have no end. Those who were nearby were mocking him. Those who had followed him were hiding in despair. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, the King of Israel. But now he hung on a Roman cross, tortured, humliated, dead–and to all appearances, defeated. How could this have happened? Didn’t we see him heal the sick, cast out demons, even raise the dead? How is it that the one who just a few days before was hailed with loud hosannahs as he rode into Jerusalem like a king–is now on display before our eyes, killed like so many other political criminals?
How could this happen? What went wrong? Everything that came before, all the miracles, the teaching, the triumphal entry–it all must have seemed like an idle tale, an idealistic dream. And now the cold winter of reality had set in–or at least they thought so.
You and I didn’t see Christ die on the cross, but we’ve all experienced despair. We’ve all had times in our lives when it felt like everything was falling apart, when the world just seemed to be darkness, when it seemed like we had no hope. I’ll bet you’ve been there, and if you haven’t, you just haven’t lived long enough. It’s that feeling of being overwhelmed, when the weight of the world is so heavy that you just want to collapse.
We may not like it, but emotions like that are a part of human life. The Bible describes this kind of sadness in Psalm 88:
3. For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
That emotion–the one the psalmist describes–is despair, and there’s plenty to go around today. Two-and-a-half years ago, I’d never heard of a coronavirus. I’d certainly never heard of COVID-19. But I sure have now. All of us have. No life has gone untouched by this disease. The last two years have been a gauntlet. COVID-19 has been an especially cruel disease not just because of the physical illness it causes, but because it has kept us apart. We human beings are made for community, not isolation. Countless people not only died, but they died alone, and their loved ones were left feeling both helpless and guilty. And so along with a pandemic of illness has come a pandemic of loneliness, depression, and isolation.
Our Lord knows that feeling, too. As he died on the cross he cried out to God. He knew the feeling of abandonment and isolation, the agony of betrayal, the darkness of death. Jesus knows.
Jesus’ first followers were surely overcome with this very human emotion as well, when their beloved teacher and Lord–the one for whom they had given up everything–was taken from them, tortured, and killed.
But God said this story isn’t over. Early on a Sunday morning the women came to the tomb. Everyone else it seems had given up on Jesus, but these women went to honor him, to perform the burial rites. But when they came to the tomb, it was missing the one thing they expected to find. Jesus’ body wasn’t there. Instead, two men in dazzling clothes–two angels–were there. And they asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In other words, Why search in a tomb for Jesus? Tombs are for dead people, and he’s alive. He is risen!
“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.” He said all this was going to happen.
And then it clicked. They remembered. Yes, he said these things. He told us this would happen. He told us he would be handed over. He told us he would die. And he told us he would rise again.
And so they left the tomb and they told all this to the apostles. Can you imagine their excitement as they burst into the room?
He is risen! We went to the tomb, but he’s not there! He is risen! Remember? Just like he told us? He’s risen from the dead!
And did the apostles jump up and begin celebrating? Did they all run out to find the risen Christ? No. They didn’t believe. They thought it was an idle tale, and we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.
Sometimes we are wounded so badly, or we have become so used to disappointment, that we can’t believe good news when we hear it. Maybe we’re afraid to believe it. Maybe we don’t want to be let down again. Maybe we’ve just become so cynical that we expect nothing other than one disappointment after another. Our minds can become conditioned to negative thoughts.
And so the disciples don’t believe them. The death of Jesus has just been too much for them. It had crushed them. And this story about the empty tomb– it just seemed to them an idle tale. It’s easier that way. It’s safer that way–to believe that Jesus is still in the tomb. It’s easier to be a cynic. It’s easier to be a pessimist because if we keep our expectations low enough, then we won’t get hurt again. And when everyone around you is a pessimist, the optimist seems like a fool.
But there was one among them who believed: Peter–rash, impetuous Peter. He believed enough to go see for himself. Maybe he remembered Jesus’ words, that on the third day he would rise. Maybe, he thought, this is no idle tale after all. And so he ran to the tomb, and he bent down, and he looked in, and there were Jesus’ burial clothes, but no Jesus. Why look for the living among the dead? He is risen. He’s alive.
Years ago I was serving on the staff of a church in Dallas. I was teaching a class, and we were talking about the resurrection of Jesus. There was a man in the class who was a skeptic. He didn’t believe the things that we Christians say about God. He came to church because his wife wanted him to. One day he raised his hand and asked, “Is anything really different after the resurrection?” In other words, you Christians claim that this is the most important thing that ever happened, but what has changed? There’s still pain in the world. There’s still war and strife and hunger. People still kill, steal, and lie. If Jesus was raised from the dead, what difference has it made?
It’s a fair question, and Scripture teaches us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you. Yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).
So here is my account, and I pray it is both gentle and reverent.
Yes, the world is still broken. But the Bible never says that, with the resurrection of Jesus, God made everything right. That’s coming, but it’s not yet.
But while God has not solved every problem or wiped away every tear from our eyes, his work through the resurrection is nonetheless wondrous and wonderful.
Crucifixion was a punishment that was supposed to destroy movements. When there was a political uprising or a slave rebellion, the crosses would go up, along with the criminals who hung upon them. The reason it was always so public is that it was meant to make an example out of the person who was punished. That’s why there is an inscription over Jesus’ head that says, “King of the Jews.” The Romans wanted everyone to know that Jesus was being killed for claiming he was a king. Crucifixion worked. Time and again the Romans crushed those who opposed them through the terror of the cross.
The cross worked–except for this one time when a crucified man got up. This time, the movement that the Romans tried to conquer went on to conquer Rome, and eventually it would spread to the ends of the earth. This time, the cross would become a symbol not of the power of Rome, but of the power of God. This time, death would not prevail, but through death, Christ would conquer death. And this small and frightened group of Jesus’ followers, hiding away because their Lord had been killed, would give rise to what would become the most powerful spiritual movement the world has ever known.
This time, things would be different because in every other case, the crucified person stayed dead, but in Jesus’ case, he got up. He is risen. And he would show his followers that nothing–not even the might of the Roman Empire–not even the tyranny of the cross–could stop what God was doing.
God conquered death through Christ, and now the same Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead lives in you. God has conquered death in you–personally–and now your timeline is eternity. The resurrection of Christ wasn’t a one-time event. It was just a first-time event. Paul talks about Jesus as the first fruits of the resurrection, but what does this mean? Jesus lived in a farming society, and when it was harvest time, on the first day they would gather up just a small bit of the harvest–the first fruits–and have a celebration. Then the next day the general harvest would begin. Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection, and we will belike the general harvest. Someday we who have been made like him will rise like him.
The women who went to the tomb bore witness to something that would change not just the world, but eternity. But on a much more personal level, they bore witness to an act of God that would change my life and yours. The same Spirit that raised Christ Jesus from the dead lives in you. And through that Spirit, God has taken people like you and me, who were dead in our sins, and given us new life. We are free from the bondage of sin. We are free from death. And the one whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
The resurrection of Jesus is no idle tale. He is alive, and that is the basis of our hope. It’s the reason we worship the King of kings, Lord of lords who will reign forever and ever. Thanks be to God. Allelujah. Amen.