April 12, 2015
The immediate problem is the stone that has been rolled against the entrance to the tomb. The women who are coming to the tomb this morning had been watching the evening before when Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, and sealed the tomb by rolling that huge stone in front of the door. Even though there are three of them, they know that they are incapable of gaining access to the tomb.
Their purpose in coming to the tomb early this morning is a well-known part of the Easter story. They want to give Jesus a proper burial. In spite of the fact that Jesus has died the death of a criminal, and lacks the privilege of a proper burial, these women have loved him. They have been with him very nearly from the beginning of his ministry; they have supported him with their presence and their prayers and their finances. And now, their hearts are telling them that they must do for Jesus, what, apparently, no one else is willing to do. They want to give him a proper Jewish burial. And so they have come this morning with an array of spices and ointments to anoint the body of Jesus. As they accomplish this ritual anointing, they will offer prayers of both grief and thanksgiving. But the stone– it is a problem. It stands in the way of their faithful ministrations.
And they wonder, as they make their way to the tomb, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Who will remove the obstacle that prevents us from accomplishing our last act of love and devotion to Jesus? Now the men among us this morning don’t get this. We pride ourselves on our practical natures. Our first reaction is, what were they thinking? They saw the stone when it was rolled into place. They knew ahead of time that the stone was too large for them to move by themselves, why didn’t they bring some guys along with them to do the work for them?
Well, consider this: These women are in a city far from home. Most of the men they know have gotten into the wind. They’ve run away. They’ve gone into hiding for fear of their lives. They are unavailable. And so as the women make their way to the tomb this morning, their bravery and their determination and their dedication stands in stark contrast to their male counterparts.
As it turned out, however the women’s concern was unnecessary. The stone, the obstacle that stood in their way, had already been rolled back. I suppose that there will always be some stone or obstacle that keeps us from getting to Jesus, we could probably make a pretty good list this morning of those things that keep people away from Jesus, but this stone was only a temporary obstacle, and it only prevented the women from attending to and ministering to a dead man. And, let there be no question, it was a dead man that they had been seeking. The women had seen Jesus die. They had seen him buried. Their only intent was to give him a proper burial that honored his life and his ministry, and the loving relationships that they had had with him.
But, nearly in the twinkling of an eye, their whole world has changed. Upon entering the tomb, the women encountered a young man, clothed in a white robe, sitting at the right side, and they were sore afraid. “Alarmed,” is the word that Mark uses, but the effect is the same. “Terrified” is probably a better word. This is not at all what they expected, and it comes as a shock to them. And there’s something about the appearance of this young man that unsettles them greatly. It was shock enough to see the stone already rolled back. That was not part of the plan. But now, here is this young man sitting there who does not appear to be like any other young man that they have ever seen. Their reaction of fear is consistent with other human beings who have encountered an angel. Angels are other-worldly creatures who strike terror in the hearts of human beings who encounter them. Angels are never the cute, cuddly, chubby things that we put up on our Christmas trees or see on greeting cards. Angels are fearsome creatures. And while Mark exercises incredible restraint in not telling us straight up that this was an angel, I’m convinced that his intent is for us to figure it out on our own.
And true to form, as all angels must, when they appear to human beings, this young man commands the women to not be alarmed. But what really convinces me that this is an angel is that he has a message from God. That’s what angels do. Angels are God’s messenger service. They are deliverers of good news from God. And boy, is this good news. It is the greatest news ever delivered to humankind. It announces God’s victory over all things evil and demonic. It announces that God’s reign and God’s gift of salvation has entered a new age of fulfillment.
And just so that we know, and the women know that Jesus is alive, the angel announces that in no uncertain terms. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” The first half of that announcement seems a little redundant, doesn’t it? It seems redundant especially from the women’s point of view. They have been following Jesus just about from the moment that he began his ministry along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. After three years of spending time with him as faithful followers, they have come with him to Jerusalem. They watched him as he suffered and died on the cross. They saw the place where he was buried, and this morning they have returned to it. Yes, of course, they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. They were on a mission to give him a proper burial.
The angel’s point, however, is well taken. The women are looking for Jesus. But the new reality for them is that he can still be found. Their quest for him does not end at the tomb. Hence, the second half of this announcement. “He has been raised; he is not here.” Jesus will not be found here in the dead environs of the tomb, laid out on a slab of stone; he is alive. “Look, there is the place they laid him.” See for yourselves.
But there’s more! I sound like one of those T.V. ads for the combination vacuum cleaner and yogurt maker. Have a fresh, refreshing snack after you do your chores. But there is more. Every time that Jesus told his disciples that he would die, he also told them that he would be raised up. But nobody really heard that. They were too distressed and confused. No one could reasonably believe that the Messiah would die. Everyone had grand expectations for him that in no way included death. And so, like most of us, they did not hear what they did not want to hear. The final time Jesus announced his impending death was in the Garden of Gethsemane. And there, in the garden, he said these words: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” And now, the angel reminds the women of this wonderful truth. The angel says, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus has led his disciples in paths of truth and righteousness for three years now. As the Risen Christ, he will still lead them. He will still go ahead of them. In the immediate context, the women will be able to find him in Galilee, but in all times and in all places the faithful followers of Jesus are still able to find him, and are still able to be led by him. That is the wonder and the glory of the Resurrection. Jesus is still present with us. There is no tomb that contains him or restricts him. He is alive, and because he is alive, we are alive, and we are alive forever.
It is a matter of great wonder and great glory to me that the greatest event in all of human history was first revealed to women. In the first century, women received very little respect. For the most part, they were considered to be property. They were never allowed to testify in a court of law, because it was automatically assumed that their witness would be unreliable. And that’s putting it rather politely. But during his ministry, Jesus related to women lovingly and intimately and compassionately, and in ways that shocked and angered his contemporaries and even his disciples. In a culture that demeaned women, Jesus elevated women to a place of equality.
In Genesis chapter 1, beginning at verse 26, we read these words: “Then God said, ’Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
But something happened over time, didn’t it? God created men and women equally, in his image. But because of sin, we have always been able to convince ourselves that some human beings are more worthy than other human beings. We have even found ways to justify our sinful attitudes in ways that sound reasonable and righteous to us, and this attitude persists even today, and it will persist as long as sin reigns in our lives and in this world.
But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God restores the original intent of creation. God abolishes all of our attitudes of superiority over one another. In part, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection depends on God’s determination to do it all wrong, at least in our eyes. If we were faking this story, if we were making it up, we would never have chosen to reveal the truth of the resurrection first of all to women. We would have picked persons of authority. We would have picked men. We might even have picked disciples. We certainly would have picked reliable witnesses. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1Cor 1:26-28) God chose women to receive the revelation that Jesus was alive, thus restoring them to their rightful place in creation for all of eternity.
One last thing. Mark closes his Gospel at verse eight. In verse eight, the women flee the tomb, overcome by terror and amazement. I fear that we have lost our sense of terror and amazement. We have lost our sense of awe and wonder. The resurrection of Jesus Christ signals the end of death and hell. The resurrection of Jesus Christ abolishes the reign of all things demonic. The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us life eternal. Can we tremble? Is it still in us to be overcome with terror and amazement at the awesome things that God has done for us?