He is Not Here

A sermon for 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.

2 thoughts on “He is Not Here”

  1. Beautiful Songbird. Amen! Alleluia indeed! He is risen! :c) A blessed Easter to you and yours. Wish I could hear you deliver this message.

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