We Encounter the Empty Tomb: A Resurrection Sermon
“We Encounter the Empty Tomb”
Easter Sunday Sermon
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
(You can find a video of the sermon here.)
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then 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.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Its been a long week.
The Sanctuary we now sit in may look very much like it did last week but an entire story, that captures the story of all life, has played out here through the week and we have set, re-set, torn down, and set again the stage of that drama from Palm Sunday’s resistance crowds ready to crown a King to contest with Rome… to that same King getting on his hands and knees to wash our feet, break our bread, and weep over our fickle allegiance as he became forsaken, betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, crucified, and dead, dead, dead….. laid away in a tomb and sealed off where no hope might come, walled away with the promises of abundant life sadly lacking.
And we had to sit and wait in that moment. We had to sit and wait in that despair. We had to sit and wonder “what next?” but with no one of whom to ask the question.
And as that reality was sinking in… just when a pair of sleepless nights yielded an excruciatingly early morning trip to the tomb that we might, at the very least, properly lay his body to rest… the whole world shakes and is turned on its head: because death – that one thing as sure and certain (and taxes of course – don’t forget to mail yours in by Tuesday) death that certainty to life was no longer a binding reality. A tomb unsealed… a given conclusion unreached… a hell traversed and emptied… a life sprung up a SECOND time. The rules are broken and God is on loose.
He is risen. He IS risen. HE IS RISEN!!
He is risen, indeed.
And now…. We take a nice picture with those deadly pungent but glamourous lilies all decked out in our Easter best… and we trudge home back to our daily grind. It is good, Palm Sunday was spot on after all, we just hit the reset button on the week and we are situation normal and all is well? That’s what this is about, right?
I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan. Ok… I’m not convention nut level of fan, but I’m a bit more than just a fan. After all how many people have a life-sized Yoda statue in their house? Trust me if you are going to do life-sized character statue Yoda is a way better call than Chewbacca. But if you remember the first movie… you know, the one that is now the fourth movie. Star Wars: A New Hope. Where it all because… until we went further back and re-began it.
Anyway, a scene comes to mind just now when they are in the Death Star trying to rescue Princess Leia. And they storm the detention block (fancy word for jail) and having shot or knocked out all the guards Han Solo sends Luke to get the princess while he deals with the alarm that is going off and speaking into the microphone he says:
“Ah, ah, everythings under control, situation normal.”
“Ah, we had a slight weapons malfunction but everything is fine here now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”
“We’re sending a squad up.”
“Negative. Negative. We have a reactor leak here now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Ah, large leak, very dangerous.”
“Who is this? What is your operating number.”
Han blows up the microphone: “Boring conversation anyway. LUKE! We’re gonna have company.”
Luke! We’re going to have company. You can say that again!
So here are these women… standing next to the guards, and an earthquake occurs, the stone rolls away, the body is gone, the guards go catatonic, and an angel pops in and sits on the tomb and says: yah, ah, don’t be afraid, everything is normal. We’re fine here now, thank you. And then a moment later, “now go tell Luke y’all are gonna have some company. (The y’all is on account of everyone knows that angels have southern accents… also no idea why Luke didn’t include this Star Wars encounter in his Gospel.)
As awesome as this news is you have to imagine in the hasty rush of all that happens after that earthquake NOTHING is normal. Nothing will seem normal ever again. And they have to feel a little bit like their scrambling now to make sense of it even as they immediately run off to make sense of it for other people… for ALL people.
But really… what just happened? What IS going on? And just how bad – or good – is this reactor leak after all.
I do love the week we just went through. I like it fully, darkly, and in its full height, depth, and width. I don’t love it because it feels good. I don’t love it because it’s easy. I love it because most of the time we are all supposed to act like everything is “just fine”. And in this week we get painfully, brutally, and vulnerably honest. Honest about disappointment. Honest about self-giving service. Honest about the consequences of playing with rules of love rather than war. Honest about death and fear among us. Honest heartache and despair. And God leads us into that honesty, demonstrates the extent God is willing to go for the sake of love and gives us the greatest gift of all… the life of the Son and Savior of the World… broken and poured out for us.
Jewish writer Etty Hillesum wrote a diary much like Anne Frank but she was in her late 20s and it chronicled her two years in Aushwitz before being killed in 1943. In her diaries, named An Interrupted Life, she writes about the power of integrating death into life.
“The eventuality (or possibility) of death, has been integrated into my life. I can now look at death in its face and accept its a part of my life, and in that way, I enlarge life. On the opposite to sacrifice today to fear of death, to sacrifice a bit of life because of this fear and with refusal to accept it, it’s the best way of just holding on to a tiny bit little bit of life which hardly merits the name of life. That seems paradoxical, to exclude death from life is to sacrifice a complete life, and yet to welcome it is to enlarge and enrich life.” (Etty Hillesum, The Interrupted Life: Diaries from Auschwitz 1941-1943)
A have a deep affinity for this reflection, as I heard these words this week it grabbed me: to enlarge life we need to stop excluding death from it. We need to listen to the angels tell us, again and again, to not be afraid. To embrace the risk and consequences of living boldly because it’s ok to be sacrificed, killed even, for the sake of life… but never to sacrifice life for the sake of death. Etty learns that in the concentration camp and hearing her words I see them in the story of God whose interrupted life became an interrupted death.
A God who is hurt, and who hurts for us. A God who gets frustrated, tired, lost, angry – a God who turns over tables and who goes to bat for criminals, heretics, and ostracized unclean nameless women. A God who offensively won’t compromise the grandness of the Kingdom vision founded on non-violence, love, self-giving service, and forgiveness… and yet whose humility will ensure that the only one who pays the price for that high standard is God’s self alone. A God who dared infancy, adolescence, scorn, disbelief and betrayal, and then the very depth of hell itself. A God who never allowed death to make sure God settled for so small a piece of life that it doesn’t merit the name. A God who was broken, and whose heart breaks for the world…. But who did not stay that way.
He is risen! He is risen, indeed.
In Jesus Christ we meet God willing to pay all the consequences of living a way of idealism that “doesn’t work”, of being intentionally naive, a way of turning the other cheek because a life founded in Kingdom-vision of humble, steadfast love born on the back of a million fallible servants unsure if they are doing it right can actually work, as foolish as it sounds. It does work – this week attests to – and it is worth dying for! In resurrection, THIS God puts the world on notice: that the Empires of our world who insist that scarcity is real, death is all-powerful, and military might and production dominance is the only way to secure life is a false god… a tiny bit of life hardly meriting the name of life. And it is not worth dying for.
There is an ancient tradition of the harrowing of hell. I’m acquainted with it because often people ask me, “why do Presbyterians add that Jesus descended into hell?” And I tell them actually we are the one that didn’t remove that tradition – it is ancient. The belief is that once dead Jesus descended into hell – the place of God-forsakenness. And that descending to that final pit God and God’s grace manifested in the very place defined by God-forsakenness… and thus now NO PLACE is without the love and mercy of God. When Jesus rises, then, he does not rise alone… but all of hell is cleansed and emptied and hell itself rises to abundant life.
The tomb isn’t empty because Jesus isn’t in it. The tomb is emptied because Jesus demonstrates that the powers of death and fear are defeated and hollowed out… and in its place we find life – abundant life – love and justice overflowing. And this is not news to take a selfie with… this is not news to sit on and figure out… this is news to get out and share. God is on the loose… life is rising in the place of death… get on board and spread the word.
So what are you going to do tomorrow? What Galilee is God calling you to? How are you sharing life, growing the Kingdom and meeting God at work in the world? Because nothing is normal. Nothing is the same. And everything is pregnant with the awe and wonder of Divine love.
Friends, he isn’t risen alone. We are risen – go, tell, live that story this day, and forevermore.
Thanks be to God.