After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdelene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
This week, many of you read an article http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/04/20/2226219/brush-with-death-revealed-his.html#storylink=misearch in The Charlotte Observer about St. Paul – the growth, the transformation, the resurrection that is taking place here and that all of you – every single one of you – are participating in. Part of that article told about an incident that occurred 11 years ago in my life; when, at 20 years of age, I was held up at gunpoint in the backroom of the food store where I was assistant manager. It was a moment that changed my life. “Brush with death reveals true calling” said the headline. A more accurate title might have been “Kid freaks out, nearly soils himself, and has a crisis of identity.”
That night set into motion a series of events that would forever change the direction of my life. For one thing, I do believe that the shock I experienced on that night is what caused my hair to start falling out. If I were to meet that gunman today, perhaps I would sue him for what might have been a very lucrative career as a shampoo model.
But, in all seriousness, that night did begin a process deep within me that caused me to rethink my life’s direction. That night serves as a clear and distinct marker between two very different trajectories in my life – one in which my talent, energies, and efforts would be devoted to climbing the ladder in the corporate world, looking out for me and my own interests. But after that night, I found my life aimed in a very different trajectory – one in which I dedicated myself and all that is within me to doing what God would have me do, which, I suppose, is why I’m standing here right now.
The article described that day as life-changing; no kidding! Life-changing, that’s the understatement of the century. It might be better to say that was a day that rocked my world, a day that was literally earth-shattering for me. But friends, here is the good news: my world was rocked, yes, but in that very rocking, my eyes were opened to a new possibility, and my feet were set on a new path. Yes, the day was life-changing, but even moreso, it was life-giving.
In the church, we have a name for an experience and a moment like that. It’s called “Easter,” it’s called “resurrection,” and as it’s told to us in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s the ground-shaking, world-rocking story of an empty tomb, some startled women, and a new beginning. You’re here today because it’s Easter, it’s the day to celebrate resurrection, it’s the day for new beginnings and fresh starts, it’s the day God says, “From this day forward, everything shall be different.”
So, I hope you have come today expecting to get your world rocked. Now, I realize that for many here today, you didn’t come to get your world rocked. That’s not what you signed up for! Perhaps today is an excuse to wear new pastel clothes or the first day of the season to wear white shoes, a chance to have an egg hunt or have a nice ham dinner at Grandma’s with that goofy little butter lamb with the cloves for eyes. I realize that some people go to church on Easter out of guilt or obligation to parents or a partner or a friend. I don’t really know why you’re here today, but whatever the reason, I’m just glad you made it. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you, and I have some good news for you this morning. Pay attention; it just might rock your world and it just might change your life, and it just might give you the hope you’ve been looking for. May we pray.
It was early in the morning on the first day of the week. Pale cracks of pink and purple and yellow were emerging on the horizon as the sun began to come up, in those moments where there is plenty of light to see, but everything still exists in various shades of gray. Two women, both named Mary, were walking down a garden path to the tomb that contained the remains of their friend. On Friday, their friend, Jesus, had been crucified – executed as a criminal – the cruelest and most humiliating death imaginable.
His death came after a heart-breaking week – the religious authorities and the government officials conspired against him, trumped up all sorts of false charges against him, and had him executed. What was his crime? What was so offensive about Jesus that they wanted him dead?
In short, Jesus was a rule-breaker. The religious leaders had made up all sorts of rules that served only to alienate lost people from God, and Jesus said, “You all missed the point. You have been so busy making up your rules, protecting and preserving your little holy club that you’ve forgotten what the point of this whole thing was to begin with.” Religion for its own sake is worthless, nothing more than empty rules and ritual. Jesus kept showing over and over again that if religious practice didn’t somehow result in transforming the hearts of people with the love and grace of God, then it was all worthless.
The religious leaders didn’t like this because it threatened their positions of power. They plotted to have Jesus killed, and they were successful. They had to lie, cheat, and steal to do it, but they got it done. “Good riddance to Jesus,” they said. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, they looked at each other in self-congratulation – finally they were done with him.
But God was just getting started. Early on Sunday morning, the two Marys arrived at the tomb, to find the stone rolled away, and an angel with a message – “He is not here; he is risen!”
One of the things I love about Easter is that every year, it’s the same story. The characters are the same – yup, there’s Mary, there’s the other Mary, there are the soldier guards, there’s the angel, and yup, resurrected Jesus. The plot is still pretty much the same – Jesus still makes his resurrection appearance. Easter’s not like Groundhog Day – I’m not going to come out and say, “Sorry folks, Jesus just didn’t feel like getting up this year.” Resurrection is a universal experience, too – it’s not like the different denominations have to share the resurrection, each one getting their turn – “Oh, sorry you showed up here this year, turns out the Episcopalians and Baptists have him this year, the Catholics and Presbyterians next year, and then we Methodists and the Lutherans get him the year after that.”
The story and the message is the same year in and year out. But the hope and promise of Easter are brand new and fresh every time we hear them, so I suspect you’ve come both to hear the old familiar story, but also to have your cup filled to overflowing with hope. Some of you have heard this story countless times in your life, and some of you may be hearing it for the very first time today.
If the message of Easter rocks your world, that’s good; it’s supposed to! Matthew’s Gospel describes the resurrection as being accompanied by a great earthquake; the message of Easter is meant to rock our world. It certainly changed everything for the two Marys as they started down the path to the tomb. They had no idea the path would lead them to an encounter with the risen Lord. That’s the world-rocking story of Easter, as old as events 2000 years ago, as new as this morning.
The two Marys weren’t looking for resurrection, it was a gift to them before they even knew what was going on. Resurrection is a reality; the women were simply invited to experience it. So it always is with God’s amazing grace – transforming, life-giving, in-your-face, rock-your-world grace. God’s grace is a reality before we know about it or ask for it or have done anything to make ourselves worthy of it; we’re just invited to experience it.
The angel said to the women, “I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here.” It’s the message that changed everything. Throw out the rules of what was, because now, with God, all things are possible. God takes what is hopeless and breathes hope into it. God takes sorrow and turns it into dancing. God takes death and turns it into life!
And, if you’re not interested in resurrection, if you’re not interested in hope, or joy, or promise, if you’re not interested in transformation, that’s fair enough, but I hate to break it to you: you came to church on the wrong day. Today is all about hope, it’s all about promise, it’s all about a new start.
The journey of Easter is always the same – one from despair to hope, from fear to faith, from sadness to joy, from death to life. The hope and promise of Easter always rocks our world.
All too often our lives remain stuck in places of despair and heartache. We’ve been hurt too much. We’ve refined our defense mechanisms to cope with life. The surprise of Easter is that God doesn’t want us to stay there, he invites us into a new relationship, he begins to work a transformation on us.
I don’t know what’s going on in your life today, but I do know this: every single one of us could use the transformative touch of God in our lives. We all need God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s mercy. Easter is a transformative reality that happens all around us, and in us, and through us. And when that transformation happens, we call it resurrection.
Look around! You can see the resurrection power of Easter everywhere. When the things of God begin to grow where only the things of the world grew before, we have a word for it – resurrection. When hard hearts are softened, when enemies become friends, when pride gives way to humility, we have a word for it – resurrection. When religious people suddenly care more about people than they do about rules, when bigotry gives way to acceptance, we have a word for it – resurrection. When your life is headed in a very self-centered direction and God directs it in a God-pleasing direction, we have a word for it – resurrection. When exclusion and hate give way to love and embrace, we have a word for it – resurrection. When paths of death give way to paths of life, we have a word for it – resurrection.
Do you want to know where God is? Do you want to know where God will show up? Look for despair, and hopelessness; look for lives in need of transformation, look for hurt places and lonely places; and there, in those dark, lonely, forlorn places, you will likely find God. God has a history of showing up in cemeteries, but not only does God show up there, God does God’s best work in cemeteries. God takes the broken places, the hurt places, the dead places the crucified places in all our lives and transforms them into something new.
And so, that’s the message of hope and promise and a new start for you today. Whatever in your life is broken, whatever is hurt, whatever is lonely, whatever is dark, whatever is hopeless, whatever needs to be transformed, whatever is crucified, dead, and buried in your life – God wants to take it and transform it. From something fearful into something beautiful, from something sorrowful into joy, from something that weighs you down to something that will rock your world.
And God can do it, too. God is in the transformation business. Think whatever you’re dealing with is too big for God to do anything with it, or too small for God to care? Think again. We worship a God for whom not even the death of Jesus was a permanent condition – if Jesus could conquer the grave, surely he can work on whatever you’re facing, no matter how big it is. The empty tomb is there as a permanent testimony that God is in the transformation business, and that even the seeming finality and daunting depths of death are no match for God.
Easter is a story that changes us, because it is more than a story, it is a reality. Don’t leave the Easter story here in church today, with pleasant memories of flowers and music. No, take Easter with you wherever you go. Take the transforming grace and power of God with you. Don’t leave it here. The building is going to be closed up all week; I’ll be at the beach – Easter hope and promise is going to do you no good if you leave it here! Take it with you. Touch lives with it, and transform hearts. Offer hope; offer promise, offer a new start. Go out there and rock somebody’s world with the good news of Easter.
Take Easter with you. Don’t leave it here. Offer the message of Christ’s resurrection, and watch him spring to new life in the hearts of those around you. And I guarantee that as you do, you’ll find your own heart changed, too. Jesus has a way of springing to new life in cold and hard places. If he could rock the tomb, he can certainly transform your heart and mine.
Christ is risen! That’s all you need to know today. The cemetery is empty and Christ is alive. May he live in your heart, now and always.