From the beginning of humanity and from the fall of Adam, God sought to bridge the gap that lies between us and God. Through so many ways God has sought to bring us back to him. To bring us home. After Death came into the world, God promised us a conqueror of Death. For three days, as Jesus lay sealed in his tomb, as he descended into the land of the dead, all hope of this seemed lost forever. But today, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is with great joy that I proclaim to you that once and for all, death has been defeated! Christ is risen! Our Redeemer Lives! Alleluia!
The joy we share today in this good news has not come easily nor without a long and often dark journey. Mere hours ago we gathered here in this same space to commemorate Good Friday. That day which is good not because of us, not because of any good we will ever do but because while we are all, every last one of us, utterly unable to save ourselves, Jesus was about the terrible and awesome business of saving not just you, not just me, but all of creation. In our gospel lesson for today we hear about the women who have come to complete the heart breaking task of preparing the body of Jesus for its final rest in the tomb. Mere days ago, they stood atop the hill of the skull which, for all the darkness the events taking place there brought, might as well have been down at the very gate of hell. They and the gathered crowed watched as Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, died on the cross.
Though we know what joy this day is, this day of resurrection, brings to us all, they did not know what was coming. Can we even imagine what they must have thought and felt? The women, the disciples, perhaps even more of Jesus’ followers, all bore witness to this seeming tragedy, not knowing what was to happen.
Imagine what it must have been like. For some time now, Jesus had gathered many followers. So many that everywhere he went, people were right behind him, beside him, waiting on him when he arrived wherever he was going. Heal me, teach me, give me sight, hearing, clean my skin of leprosy, cast out the evil that has taken hold of me. And he did all these things, while the disciples, the women, his followers all bore witness to it.
Martha and Mary saw such amazing things from Jesus! Teaching so profound that it moved Mary to stop whatever she was suppose to do around the house and sit at the feet of Jesus, even sitting beside the men, to learn from him. Martha, though she was in the kitchen and buzzing around the house, must have learned something because when her brother, Lazarus, died and Jesus came to them, she made one of the two most profound confessions in the gospels. I know you are the Messiah, she said, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. And then Martha and Mary and all the rest there that day saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.
All the disciples had seen Jesus do unbelievable things! He had walked along the water—not the water’s edge, mind you, but ON the water itself. With a mere word from him, a raging storm that threatened to drown all the disciples in their tiny boat was brought to complete submission. To utter stillness. How many lepers had he cured? Uncountable! How many sightless eyes had been restored to full vision? How many ears had been opened to hear the world around them? How many had once been unable to stand, much less walk, and with even a word from him, were restored to full health? Had not they themselves seen a lifeless little girl, her body laid out on her bed, Jesus taking her hand and saying Talithia Cum—little girl, get up. Had they not seen her eyes open, now filled with life; had they not seen her get up and move around. Brought back from the dead!
How many had seen him cast out demons? Even the agents of evil knew him and feared him.
How many had heard him debate with the Pharisees and Scribes? There was not one of them who could best him in his knowledge and wise application of the law. Though they tried at every turn to trip him up and confuse him, he could think and teach circles around them all. How many had heard his blessings—his way of seeing the world that included everyone, even the poor, the meek, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners of every kind.
Jesus had asked the disciples, after they had been with him quite a long time, who do you say I am? And Peter, like Martha, said: you are the Messiah. Over time in his ministry many, many people had come to believe he was the Messiah, the one whom God was to send to save them, the great leader and king like David. A mighty man of God. A hero. And he had a hero’s entrance into Jerusalem! Shouts of Hosanna Hosanna! And palm branches strewn along his way. The king has come to Jerusalem!
But what was this mighty man doing on the cross? What was a hero doing here, of all places, dying in humiliation? Those that stood at a distance and watched had known this man, Jesus, they had lived with him, talked with him, traveled with him. They knew the sound of his laughter and his tears. They had shared in his prayer and had shared in the bread and wine of his last meal. They had believed in him. After all that he had said and done, could he not have debated his way out of the trial that led to this? But he didn’t. He was virtually silent. He who had power over the natural elements and could command demons, could not he have stopped his own crucifixion? But he didn’t. He never resisted. Like a lamb he went willingly. Where was God in all of this? They had called him Messiah, the anointed one of God, their King and yet God let them put a crown made not of gold but of thorns on his head.
After a ministry of miracles and truth, turning the suffering of others into wholeness and joy like turning water into wine, there it was. All ending. He took his last breath in humiliation and brokenness and shame. No messiah, no king, no redeemer. Only death. The end.
And then it was over. Or so they thought.
After putting his body in a tomb, they all left because it was the Sabbath and they could not work on that day. The preparations for Jesus burial would have to wait. The women who were there would have gone home that night and said their evening prayers while lighting candles. It begins: Blessed are you o Lord Our God, King of the Universe. Oh how hard that prayer must have been that night! Where are you, o King of the Universe? Why have you forsaken him? Why have you forsaken us?
A contemporary theologian writes: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the Cross”. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many a Buddhist temple and stood before the statue a remote look on its sculpted face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away and in my imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross plunged in God forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. With us.
Our second lesson today contains some of the profound thoughts of the Apostle Paul about the meaning of all this that took place on that hill of the skull. Most profound is the final line: The last enemy to be destroyed is death. If Jesus had come and had done all that he did; restoring health, clarifying the law and teaching all who would hear how to live a good life, performing miracles, healing, and casting away evil, then he would have been a great man, that is certain. But he would not have done what he came to do. He did not come to only do these things but, even more than all of this, he came to be one of us. He came to suffer with us and for us. And he came to defeat the last and greatest enemy of the world: death itself. And he had to die to do it.
Some say that part of the reason we are here—here in church, here with God, here as part of this Christian community, is to make some kind of sense out of the loss of loved ones. To wrestle with this Death to whom we lose those we love and whom we must all face. I think there is a good deal of truth in that. And while I believe it is good on a Sunday morning for us to hear the ways we should live our lives differently because we are Christians, on this day of all days, is not about what we do but about what has been done for us. There is a reason why we are helpless on Good Friday while Jesus does the terrible work that must be done. This day is about that wrestling with death; that bondage to our last, great enemy from which we cannot free ourselves. It is not about winning that battle but about it being won for us.
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women, broken hearted, headed for the tomb of Jesus. The one they had thought would be the Messiah, the king, the mighty man of God. But when they arrive at a place of death, they instead find a proclamation of life. Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen! Jesus was not merely a mighty man of God but God himself, God who wrapped himself in our flesh and blood, filled himself with our hearts, our very lives, and took upon his own shoulders all the broken sinfulness of the world, climbed up on the cross, opened wide his arms to hold us all, and dove into the last and greatest battle with death itself. He was not in the tomb when the women went that morning because death had been defeated. He had died, just like we all will, so that when he rose, he could bring us all with him. He died to be united with us so that we are united with him in his resurrection.
From the beginning of humanity and from the fall of Adam, God sought to bridge the gap that lies between us and God. Through so many ways God sought to bring us back to him. To bring us home. From the very day that Death came into the world, God promised us a conqueror of Death. For a moment, as Jesus lay sealed in his tomb, as he descended into the land of the dead, all hope of this seemed lost forever. But today, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is with great joy that we may all join with the women, the disciples, the angels and all heaven to proclaim to the world: he is not in the tomb. Once and for all, death has been defeated! He is risen! Our Redeemer Lives! Alleluia!