Easter Sermon 2018: John 19:38-42 & John 20:1-18
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
When I was younger, like older elementary school and middle school age, it seemed like my parents were always taking me to a funeral of a family friend, extended relative, someone from the church I grew up in, or someone my mom knew in her hometown. I became accustomed to the rhythm of the funeral proceedings, the church service, the procession to the cemetery, the graveside service, and then a reception back at the church.
At the graveside, there was those awkward moments when no one was in a rush to move and the funeral director had to coax family under the tent to be seated. Then friends were encouraged to draw in close around the tent perimeter before the preacher would start the graveside service. Of all of those services I went to growing up, I can’t recall a single one in which friends and family stayed at the graveside until the burial was complete. We robbed ourselves of the finality of the loss by departing while the gravedigger completed his work away from intently gazing eyes. With the graveside service done, it was time to ride back to the church for funeral fried chicken and country ham biscuits. While we ate, the burial was completed.
Then it happened. February 2011. I was the preacher standing at the front of the funeral tent, feet planted on the fake plastic green turf they put on top of the dirt dug out of the grave. I motioned for friends to draw near around the tent so they could hear the graveside service. The readings were from the Gospel of John where Jesus tells his disciples he will go ahead of them to prepare them a place in everlasting life. After I spoke the words of the committal, the gravediggers came forward, moved some flower arrangements out of the way, and waited. We all waited. I cut my eyes at the funeral director. He asked if the family wanted to depart before the burial began. No one moved.
The gravediggers kneeled down placing the little casket into the grave. Then they began shoveling until the grave was full of freshly turned dirt. No one moved as the wails of family echoed against Harpeth Hills.
I would’ve done anything to stop that agony and grief for that family if I could have. Many times since, I have stayed with families at the graveside who wait those agonizing minutes to see the completion of the burial. The agony and suffering in those minutes has no rival.
Jesus was buried by a secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, the inquisitor who approached Jesus early in his ministry. Both men are unlikely candidates to be entrusted with the body of Jesus for burial. Of note is that Joseph and Nicodemus anointed Jesus with one hundred pounds of spices and oil. Jesus is afforded the dignity of a proper burial in a borrowed garden tomb. However, it’s a surprise the two men were even given the opportunity by Rome to bury Jesus. It was not uncommon that Roman criminals were made an example of and deprived of proper burials. The terror of Crucifixion and torture helped with crowd control and to keep revolutionary aspirations for independence in check. Jesus’ promise of a new kingdom in which heaven kissed Earth was a threat to Rome and its ways of terror. In Rome’s eyes, there wasn’t enough room for two kingdoms to exist side by side.
When Mary went to the garden tomb, I imagine she went to grieve. She had seen the Crucifixion. Surely she had heard that Joseph and Nicodemus had buried Jesus. She and the other disciples were probably keeping out of public eye so they didn’t risk the same fate as their Lord. But perhaps in the turmoil of the crucifixion and the disciples fleeing behind locked doors, maybe some private time to grieve hadn’t yet arrived. So she went before daylight for a moment of solitude and quiet to shed tears for her departed friend, teacher, and Lord. She went to grieve the finality of loss.
Upon seeing the stone removed from its proper place, Mary quickly went to the disciples to report what she had seen. At this juncture, this is not good news. Mary is implicitly reporting a grave robbery. It’s the only logical thing. Either grave robbers or enemies of Jesus moved his body. It would have made perfect sense. So Peter and the Beloved Disciple make haste to see for themselves. They arrive at the tomb, see the grave clothes and believe Mary’s report about the stone being removed. Thus far, we have a grave robbery; not yet a resurrection.
When the angels speak to Mary they want to know what the cause of her weeping is. Why are you weeping? What burdens have you brought with you into this house today? Like Mary, we are searching for the Lord and grief, despair, and turmoil have kept us from seeing how close Easter is. She tells the angels she is looking for Jesus but fears he was taken away. When she turns around, she meets the gardener who reiterates the question the angels asked.
What is the cause of your troubles? Mary tells gardener Jesus the same thing not knowing who he is just yet. The Lord’s body has been taken and I don’t know where to find him. When Jesus speaks her name, we have confirmation that Jesus is not missing. Death couldn’t keep him bound. He’s alive, well, and in a glorified body that no longer knows the captivity of death.
The whole story of creation turns on this moment when the Risen Christ returns to his disciples. The worst thing isn’t the last thing. Even when death, terror, despair, and hopelessness seem to reign, it’s only for a little while. The seemingly worst thing is never the last thing. I can’t emphasize enough that whatever condition of life you find yourself in this morning, whatever burdens you carry in your bag of rocks, whatever grief, shame, or despair you carry in your bones, don’t have the final word.
If Jesus wasn’t raised by the spirit of God to a new and glorified creation, then our hope is in vain. Death still has its sting. But if the spirit of God raised Jesus Christ breaking him free from death, then we have hope that we too will share in this newness of life. If we are raised with Christ to stand again, then we can walk through a lifetime of Good Friday’s knowing and believing that even the worst thing isn’t the last thing. We can live immersed in the grace of God because Jesus Christ is victorious over the sting of death. That is the sole cause of our hope-not optimism that everything is gonna be alright, but hope in that we know the reign of God is at hand.
The hope of the resurrection is that this world is not just where Jesus died-this world is where Jesus lives! And because Jesus lives, because God has broken the power of sin and death, we have been set free to live as well. Sometimes that is hard to believe. The principalities and powers of evil often appear to be in control. Some days it is hard to see with eyes of faith. That is why we need the church, so that in those times when our sight is blinded by tears, we can hold on to another’s faith. That is why we need the meal we call The Lord’s Supper. The sacraments might seem like child’s play to the world. Eating bits of bread, drinking sips of juice-to a casual observer it would appear a harmless tea party. But when we look with eyes of faith, when we listen with ears of hope, in this bread broken, this cup poured, we discover anew Mary’s gospel: I have seen the Lord! When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we dare to imagine a different world, a world not imprisoned by the powers of sin and death, but set free, set free for love, justice, peace. (http://day1.org/986-set_free)
When you depart from this place, my prayer for you is that you carry the hope of resurrection with you. You will be free to seek justice, enact mercy, love recklessly, and imitate the love of God in Jesus Christ to all you meet. It is only through the hope of an empty tomb and a Risen Savior in our midst that we will journey through the Good Fridays to come. Our mourning will turn to joy, our tears will be wiped away, suffering will be no more, and we will hear the voice of the Lord saying, ‘behold I make all things new.’ The resurrection is our hope. Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen indeed.