Several years ago, I went to the Holy Land Experience amusement park in Orlando. It's a strange place, to be honest. I'm not sure just how much of the amusement park itself is representative of the Holy Land... but it's an experience, so there's that.
At the Holy Land Experience amusement park there is a replica of the Empty Tomb of Jesus. This is a photo of the inside of the tomb:
Yes. That is a door in the back of the Empty Tomb. I have used this before in a sermon, but it's just too good to not use again. I can't tell you how many deep theological problems this back door to the Empty Tomb creates. But there it is.
I've had the opportunity to go on two different pilgrimages to the actual Holy Land in Israel, and am preparing for a third trip a year from now.
As part of the trips I lead, we visit an area just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem that is believed by many to be the site of the garden where Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb. It is definitely a first century garden, with a first century tomb in it.
This is a photo of the inside of the tomb in the actual Holy Land:
So we have these two tombs...
One is made out of stuff you can buy at Lowes, and has a back door so that the actor playing Jesus during the Passion Play at the Holy Land Experience can be buried, and then reappear in risen glory on top of the hill just behind it. It's awesome. I waited to sit it in 100 degree heat with no shade.
Then there is the other tomb, which could very well be the actual tomb that Jesus was buried in after he was taken down off of the cross... This one was carved out of the solid rock in the hillside bordering the garden.
And both of these tombs have something in common--believe it or not.
Want to guess what it is?
They're both empty.
Because, as we Christian-types are fond of saying: the tomb... is... empty.
And those of us in the Christian tradition also have this thing that we do on Easter that sort of celebrates this fact---because as I mentioned... it is a fact that the tomb... is... empty.
In some churches--like ours--the pastor will say "Jesus is risen," and then the rest of the people in the congregation will say, "He is risen indeed!" It's what we do.
Because the tomb... is... empty.
Some people wonder about the certainty of that statement. And they wonder if it really happened. Maybe you're one of those people. You can here today because someone asked you, or bribed you, or you want to see what kind of pastor actually wagers a tattoo to get his people to invite their friends to church. Or maybe you sort of enjoy church, you like the atmosphere, and all--but you don't know whether you buy the whole thing or not. Or maybe you do believe or at least you think you do...but you're having a hard time convincing yourself that everything the Bible says happened...actually happened. I get it. It's hard to accept miraculous stories--even ones that are passed down from generation to generation and upon which an entire belief system is based.
So do you believe in miracles?
Do you try to find reasons... Or do you whisper, "That--was--miraculous." and find yourself okay with believing it as you say it?
Okay, let's say that miracles happen---and we can all agree that someone being raised from the dead is kind of on the high end of the miraculous spectrum. But that leads us to another question: Why does it matter that Jesus is risen? Why does it matter that the tomb... is... empty.
Well, it mattered so much to the Christians in those early years after Jesus that they were willing to give their lives rather than relinquish that belief. And here's something that makes me tingle. I get how generations later people would be willing to die for their beliefs---beliefs that were passed down from family and friends that the love and trust. But those early Christians--they believed because they saw Jesus risen. They wouldn't have died for something that wasn't true--especially since they were there when he was executed.
The Resurrection of Jesus was so important to those early Christians because of what it meant for their future. They faced persecution and death without fear--because they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that because Jesus was raised from the dead, they did not have to be afraid of anything... ever again. If the worst that someone could do to you is kill you, they reasoned, and death has already been defeated through Jesus resurrection... then bring it on.
You may still not be convinced. That's cool. Even if you are, there's more for us to do. We're going to be studying the version of the Resurrection story that is found in Matthew's Gospel. There are four different version of the Resurrection in the Gospels--each with it's own vantage point, and details.
As we read through this text and do some study together, I want us to hold on to this one very big idea that will carry us through our exploration:
Because of the Resurrection, You Are Free to Be Fearless...
Let's do some work.
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. 2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.One of the most important words in this passage occurs in just a moment: "Suddenly." Everything that happens in this story happens "suddenly." The first Easter literally explodes with life---all heaven is breaking loose isn't it? And this is because God is entering into the world in a new way. The ground shakes, just as it did on the day that Jesus died on the cross. Just as the author of Matthew describes what happens when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem the previous Sunday when the entire city "shook."
And I love what happens when the angel rolls back the stone. He posts up on it and uses it as a seat. It's like he's saying, "Whut? That's what I'm talkin' 'bout! God is in the hizzouse!!!" And if that's too "street" for you, then he was saying something like, "Hashtag BOOM!" This is an awesome moment when God seems to be talking smack through this angel--who uses the stone that was supposed to hold the Son of God inside as a chair. Come on now!
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”I love this, too. "Come and see the place where he lay." That's past tense. He didn't say "Come see where he is lying.... Come see his body where you left it..." Instead he invites the women to peer into the darkness of that tomb and realize the truth about everything Jesus had been trying to tell them all along.
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”There's so much awesomeness in this story. The women go away afraid "for joy." You know this kind of joyful fear. The kind of fear that grips you when you fall in love, see your newborn child for the first time, get that job that you longed for... you can't believe how awesome you feel, and you are afraid--afraid it will go away, fade, or not be true...
They are literally running to tell the disciples the good news when "suddenly" Jesus appears to them and says, "Greetings." Don't you just love that so much? "Greetings." It's the first century equivalent of "Howdy." "Hey." "'Sup?" And then the women prosekynesan at his feet. They fall down. Like the wise men who brought gifts at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, these women worship Jesus for who he is---the very Son of God, the Living Word, the Risen Christ.
Matthew allows the reader to watch the resurrection happen. I am so glad we have this version. It highlights the miraculous nature of this event. There's no guards stealing the body---no disciples spiriting him away---nothing but God entering into history, shaking the very earth and posting an angel on top of the rolled away stone that couldn't hold the Son of God.
The landscape of the world--of history itself has been rearranged. No one else did this. Only God. And joyful fear is the most appropriate response to this kind of rearrangement because its the only proper recognition of the absolute necessity of the glory of God to transform the world from brokenness to wholeness. Only God can ultimately defeat sin and death. It takes divine intervention to stop the bleeding in this world because no matter how hard us human beings try, God knows we haven't been able to do it on our own.
What this miraculous moment makes us realize if we are willing to see is that if goodness and mercy are to withstand the onslaught of evil, it's not going to be because good people kept trying.
Come on. You know this is true. We all do. We just don't like to admit that we aren't enough.
But you get it, don't you? You've may have had dreams that have died. You may be in a dead end career. Maybe you've had relationships lose their life and come to an end. Perhaps you've seen the demise of your finances through a bad economy or bad decisions. Or maybe you see your future as buried in darkness--with a stone rolled in front of it.
Then there's the things that are beyond us---powerful evil things that fill us with more dread than we can handle. Things like loneliness and pain and even death itself. Or hunger and violence, hatred and racism... and of course war.
Here's the thing. The reason why those first Christians thought the resurrection was so important is because of this important fact: the resurrection of Jesus declares that there is hope beyond death and the death-dealing powers of this world do not have the final say over our lives...
Author Brian McLaren puts it like this:
For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No, each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
And from that tomb,
If you take away the resurrection there is no gospel---no reason to even show up here today. If you try to explain the resurrection of Jesus away, to cast it into doubt it might very well create a safer belief system.
But if your religion is too safe--it isn't good news. We don't need safe right now. We need miraculous. We need to know that there is more---that this is not the end.
Jesus is risen. And because Jesus is risen we know that this is not the end.
Those first Christians, the ones who listened to Jesus teach both before and after his resurrection---they believed that one day they would be raised from the dead just like Jesus. They knew this, they believed it, they died for this belief... because he told them it was true---the one who was raised from the dead told them this. It was, "just as he said."
Beloved, because of the Resurrection, you are free to be fearless. This is not the end. This is not the end of your dreams... of your relationship... of your career... evil doesn't get the last word. This is not the end of hope that we will see a world free from hate, violence, hunger and death.
And this is not the end of us...
This is not the end.
This is not the end.
You and I will rise.
Come alive like third day morning first breaths of Christ…
Sing like the birds in the leaves do…
Hum like the souls of the old do…
You and I will rise.
This is not the end…
This is not the end…