April 4, 2021 Luke 24:1-12
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior,
waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
This 150-year-old hymn was an Easter favorite of my dad’s. He loved to sing it loudly and joyfully on Easter Sunday, either with the church choir or just on his own at home, in the car, wherever. My brothers and I all have that hymn ringing in our ears on Easter Sundays. It has become a favorite of mine and is even more meaningful to me this year after the death of my father.
Resurrection hymns usually contrast Jesus in the tomb with the risen Jesus, for indeed that is central to the gospel and central to our belief as Christians. You will listen a bit later to the personal statement of faith prepared by Santos/Brionah. I want to encourage you to listen closely to the way he/she describes faith in Jesus. You can read the statements of faith of both of our confirmands on the back of the bulletin this morning. Santos and Brionah are very clear that Jesus is the one who died on a cross for our sins and who rose from the dead, or came back from the grave. In their own words they are saying “Up from the grave he arose; with a mighty triumph o’er his foes; he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever”, the Son of God, our Savior and our King.
The story from Luke is familiar. The women get up in the dark, carrying the spices they had prepared to ritually care for Jesus’ body. They were carrying out their traditional tasks after the death of a loved one. Luke gives us the names of three of the women but indicates that there were others with them. It was a group of women, likely the same group who had watched Jesus’ body being taken down off the cross and placed into the tomb on Friday before the sabbath began. Both Mary Magdalene and Joanna had been identified earlier in Luke’s gospel as women healed by Jesus who responded to his gift by joining the ranks of the women who funded the travels of Jesus and his male disciples. They were tied to the Galilean portion of Jesus’ ministry, and had traveled the distance to Jerusalem with their male counterparts, now called the Eleven because Judas is no longer included in the original dozen disciples.
The group of women would never have expected to find the tomb open, or to NOT find the body. If you were headed to a cemetery to place flowers on the grave of your loved one, would it have occurred to you to wonder whether he had left his peaceful rest, leaving an empty, open coffin staring at you? As NT Wright reminds us, “Easter is always a surprise.” He goes on to say, “From the beginning, the gospel is good news not least because it dares to tell us things we didn’t expect, weren’t inclined to believe, and couldn’t understand. Did we expect the gospel would be something obvious, something we could have dreamed up for ourselves?”
The missing body was not anything the women (or the male disciples for that matter) would have dreamed up, despite the multiple times Jesus brings it up during his teachable moments with them. He clearly predicts that he will be arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, and that he will rise again on the third day. The words apparently went in one ear and out the other. They physically heard Jesus but did not truly hear and understand him. That can happen to us when we don’t want to hear something, when the news is either bad or frightening or uncomfortable in some way. We can hear it on one level, but we don’t appropriate it, truly receive it or remember it for very long. It gets pushed back into the crevices of the mind.
In a state of utter confusion at the missing body, the women are suddenly joined by two men in dazzling clothing. Angels? Messengers from God? Luke describes this moment as a double testimony—not just one voice but two– reminding the startled women of what Jesus had previously said to them. We can remember the other time that two men showed up with dazzling clothing involved—when Jesus was met by Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. At that time, their conversation was about his impending departure, his movement from his earthly ministry to his next assignment. Before and after the hike up the mountain, Jesus had told his closest associates to expect the Son of Man to be betrayed, to undergo great suffering, to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, to be killed and then raised from the dead on the third day.
Ahhh, they say. Yes, now that you bring it up, we do remember him saying something like that. The women, on their own initiative, leave to get the word out to the Eleven and the rest. They must be holed up somewhere in mourning, and the women clearly know exactly where they are. No one gives this group of women instructions to go and tell the others—they do that on their own. Their male counterparts couldn’t believe their story. To them it sounded like an idle tale, utter nonsense. We can’t fault the Eleven men too much, as the women couldn’t believe their eyes either. None of them really expected this would happen. It is a hard thing to believe—that someone who was placed in a tomb one day was no longer there on the third day. Could he really be alive? Could the words of the two men in dazzling clothing be true, that there is no need to look for the living among the dead? According to them, Jesus is alive! Jesus had said it himself in his teaching about what to expect at the resurrection: in speaking about God, he said, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.” God is the God of the living, and Jesus is no longer dead but alive.
The key question here is what these closest friends and the supporting group of women will do with this amazing news. Will they actually get it? Is it now something that they can truly hear and receive in their hearts? It is the same question that confronts us two millennia later. Do we actually get it? Can we truly hear this good news and receive it in our hearts?
Hearing and believing the news that Jesus, who was once truly dead, is now truly alive is not automatic for us either. It IS still a surprise, an unexpected occurrence, and as we say, it is something we must take on faith, because there is no logical, physical explanation of a human rising from the grave. If you can believe this truth, if you can imbed it into your heart, into your very soul, you carry with you an enduring hope and joy that is not dependent on your outer circumstances. I think of the words that are often repeated at a graveside service. Standing in the cemetery with a coffin ready to be lowered into the earth, to its final resting place, we hear these words: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Amidst our tears, surrounded by loved ones and friends who care about us, we CAN stand at the grave and sing Alleluia. We praise God because we know that this may be the final resting place for a physical body, but it is not the end for our loved one. Life continues, life in new surroundings, life encased in a new, spiritual body which we can only imagine on this side of the grave. When we truly hear this good news of Christ’s resurrection, we approach death in a different way.
When we truly hear this good news of Christ’s resurrection, we also approach life in a different way. It changes our perspective, softens those judgmental attitudes, melts away the harsh words. To believe that he did rise up from the grave, triumphant over his foes, victorious over the domain of the evil one, living forever as ruler of all enables us to be courageous in the face of injustice, to be committed to caring for God’s creation, to be faithful in acts of service, to seek the good in all who surround us. God is the God of the living, for to God all are alive. We are alive here and now, living each day as those who do not fear tomorrow. Let us truly live for today, consistently grateful for the gift of our risen Lord. Let us sing Alleluia, Praise the Lord!