Sermons

He is Not Here

Easter
Sunday A March 23, 2008 Matthew 28:10

Yesterday
morning I arose early to commence an important shopping trip. My destinations:
Standard Baking Company and Micucci’s Italian grocery store. I had a list in my
purse and made the second of three early morning calls to my sister-in-law to
be sure I would remember everything we needed for today’s festive meal.

At Standard,
I was excited to see three stacks of white bakery boxes, and the card on the
left hand stack which said “Hot Cross Buns.” After my failure to find any on
Friday, here was a second chance!

I don’t
really like Hot Cross Buns as I’m not a big fan of fruit in baked goods, but my
mother served them when I was a child, and as is true at every holiday, we get
ideas in mind and we want to do things a certain way.

I took a box
off the right hand stack, which was lower, and went to the counter to pay for
my things.

“These are
hot cross buns?”

“Yes,” I
said, wondering why the clerk was asking.

I didn’t
discover the reason until I got home. Are you ahead of me? Some of those boxes
held precious little cheesecakes instead, beautifully garnished with a round
slice of lemon.

Easter is all
about the unexpected.

28:1
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and
the other Mary went to see the tomb.

Long ago, or
so the author of Matthew tells us, two women, both named Mary, rose to perform
an act much more elevated than the sort of errands I took on yesterday. Each gospel gives us the details a bit
differently, but today we have Matthew’s version, and we follow Mary Magdalene
and the “other Mary” to the tomb. They wanted to grieve at the place where
their friend’s body had been laid, at the entrance to a tomb covered by a large
stone. Because the previous day, Saturday, had been their Sabbath, they could
not go right away but had to wait from Friday night until Sunday morning. The
rituals of their religion had been performed by the men who carried him there.
We presume they went to be sure all had been done well, and we remember a
detail from another gospel, in which the women wonder how they will roll the
stone away to get to the place where Jesus’ body rested, lifeless.

But there
would be no need to wonder such a thing in this version of the story, would
there?

28:2
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.

28:3
His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4
For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

Ah. A word
about the guards. We don’t hear the whole story of the guards in the verses we
are reading this morning, but they are important in Matthew’s gospel. It’s
their job to guard the tomb because the Roman authorities fear a riot. All
these events took place around Passover, so the guards had a bit of a break on
Saturday, when no devout Jew would have visited a tomb. But Sunday, oh Sunday!
Who knew what might happen?

And just as
the women arrived, suddenly there was a great earthquake!!

There have
been a couple of Sundays recently when, during the service, snow suddenly fell
off the roof of the church, making a loud noise and generally shocking us all,
particularly on the day it happened during our prayers! Multiply our surprise a
thousand times and we might begin to feel the shock of the women. For not only
did the earth shake, but an angel descended from heaven, and rolled back the
stone of the tomb, and sat on it.

No wonder
the guards were afraid! They expected enemies they could fight with
conventional weapons. Clearly they had nothing to use against this amazing foe!
What did this all mean?

The angel
spoke:

"Do
not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where
he lay.

What a
terror this must have been! What could the angel mean? And where could a dead
body have “gone?”

He is not
here. And if he is not here, where is he?

That is the
Easter question, isn’t it?

Here our
story continues in two different directions. Let’s follow the soldiers first.
They represent the status quo, the authority figures in town, the ones who want
to keep peace not for the sake of peace but for the sake of security. The Roman
military forces occupied Jerusalem, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the
Jewish people weren’t pleased about it. Jesus was not the only revolutionary
figure in the mix. The chance of a riot or an outright revolt seemed high.

As nice,
church-going people, it may be hard for us to remember The Powers That Were saw
Jesus as an insurgent.

 “Life is on the loose and cannot be
restrained.” Those of us who participated in the class, Living the Questions,
may remember these words from the scholar and pastor, Walter Brueggemann, about the Resurrection. The soldiers could
not follow their orders because heaven intervened. “He is not here,” said the
angel. Indeed, Jesus was on the loose and earthly powers could not contain him
anymore.

We make a
lot of attempts to contain things through our rules and our customs and our
expectations. In fact, the establishment of institutional religion, the
building of churches and their maintenance, runs the risk of taking all that
life and promise, and even the fear and great joy, and entombing it in an
air-tight container.

He is not
here, for Easter breaks through death and rolls away the stone, even when we
would rather keep things the way they are.

28:5
But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are
looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where
he lay.

I have to
wonder how it felt to peer into the tomb.

Did Mary
Magdalene and the other Mary hold each other’s hands as they walked gingerly
through the opening, perhaps bowing their heads to fit in the doorway to death
and decay? Did they hold their breath, both wanting to see their friend’s body
safely in its place, at the same time they hoped he might yet live?

The angel
went on:

28:7
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."

28:8
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his
disciples.

He is not
here, said the angel, and sent them off to find the disciples.

But what
could they tell them? What did it mean that he had been raised? Was he alive,
his body walking again?

They had
only a moment to wait, and then they saw him.

28:9
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him,
took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

Matthew
wanted us to believe that the body had been raised, that Jesus appeared to them
in a form they could touch and feel, a form they could take hold of and
worship. That may be the hardest part of the story for some of us. We like the
mystery of Easter, the “Aha!” moment of the Resurrection, but we may not want
to focus too long on the question of what kind of form Jesus took after the
Resurrection.

We’ve all
played those games or answered that party question, if you could meet one
person from history, who would it be and what would you ask him or her? I think
this is the one for me. But he is not here, and we are left to our own devices
and conclusions.

And Jesus
himself did not dwell long in the moment, instead sending the Marys out to
deliver a message to the disciples, echoing the angel’s words.

28:10
Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go
to Galilee; there they will see me."

Go to
Galilee.

Don’t stay
at the tomb. He will not be not here.

Don’t go to
the Temple. He will not be there.

Go to
Galilee.

According to
Matthew, the soldiers left this scene to return to the city not to report to
their superiors, but to ask for advice from the Chief Priests at the Temple.
Advised to tell a story about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus, they
take money and agree to keep quiet about what really happened. The women
meanwhile deliver the message to the disciples, and they go to Galilee to meet
Jesus, where he gives them the Great Commission, the instruction to go out into
all the world and make disciples. And then they do not see him again.

He is not here.

He is not here,
but we are. In the nearly two thousand years that have gone by, we have moved from
being people on the margin to being people in the majority to a strange new place
where our practices are a little quaint to some and threatening to others and simply
obscure or unimportant to many. It may feel like a very long time since Jesus has
been here, but as long as we remember, he is with us. As long as we remember, we
are under the same instructions, to go into the world and share the Good News of
his life and death and resurrection, to share the Good News that God’s spirit is
alive and the Christ energy resists containment, and that Life and Love with a capital
“L” are among us and in us!

With fear and
great joy, the women left the tomb, and if we really stop to think about being carriers
of that Life and Love, we may experience just such a strange combination of feelings:
fear AND joy, together again, and not for the first time. We feel them every time
we take a step into the unknown, believing God beckons in a particular direction
and hoping we have the right map to follow.

He is not here.
We are not called to stay in one place and simply remember but to spread out into
the world, into our world, and share the Love, and share the Life.

Why come to church,
then? What’s the purpose of this place?

I believe its
purpose is to nurture us into being the sort of people who can believe in the mystery,
the sort of people who can courageously peer into an empty tomb and reach a conclusion
about it that may make no sense to the rest of the world but means everything to
us.

This is the Good
News: He is not here, for he is risen. He is not here, for the stone is rolled away.
He is not here, for no one and nothing can contain him. Alleluia. Amen.

4 thoughts on “He is Not Here”

  1. Very good. And di you ever get the Hot Cross buns? I don’t like those things either, but my dad did too.

  2. Nope, no Hot Cross Buns. I do have a gorgeous loaf of Columba bread for tomorrow’s breakfast, though, and I’m looking forward to slicing it!

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