People Of The Rolled Stone
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
"People Of The Rolled Stone"
A three-year-old little girl was just as anxious for Easter to come as she had been for Christmas to come. Mom and Dad took her shopping. They picked out a new dress and a new white bonnet and then stopped to buy her a new pair of shoes to go with her outfit. When they got home and laid out all the new things, the little girl said, "I can't wait for Easter, Daddy!"
Dad asked her, "Well, do you know what Easter means, honey?"
The little girl replied, "Yes."
"Well, what does Easter mean?"
In her own sweet three-year-old way, with a smile on her face, she raised her arms, and at the top of her voice she said, "Surprise!!!"
What better word could sum up the meaning of Easter! Surprise death! Surprise sin! Surprise disciples! Surprise world! Jesus is alive! He is risen! Easter is a day full of surprises.
I recently read about a phenomenon of Nebraska. Early in the spring when things are just beginning to turn green and the hint of spring is in the air, like everywhere else people begin looking for the first flowers, the first real signs of spring. You can look and look but you won't see a thing. But then one morning you will wake up, look out the window and the yard will be filled with little orange flowers that have sprung up overnight. They're called "surprise lilies." And every spring, just when the time is right, they burst forth with the beauty of spring, they burst forth with the promise and hope of new life. (1)
Today we've come to celebrate that same kind of event. Today we celebrate Easter, the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That very first Easter Sunday was a day chock full of surprises.
I. IT SURPRISED THE WOMEN AND MEN:
A. That first Easter surprised a whole group of women. They woke up early and before daylight headed out to the tomb. They had witnessed the death of their friend and Savior. They witnessed the unceremonious and hurried way he was shoved in a borrowed tomb. Nothing had been done properly. None of the burial procedures had been followed. They had just barely had time to wrap Jesus' body in the linen clothes before the tomb had been sealed on Friday. Now here it was Sunday and they were finally able to go and do that which should have been done.
But it wasn't easy. Their grief was nearly overwhelming. As they approached the burial area, it suddenly dawned on them that they needed someone to roll the stone sealing entrance to the tomb. They continued to walk, while they discussed who. However, when they reached the tomb, they were in for a surprise, the stone had already been rolled away. Mary Magdalene immediately took off running and told the disciples that someone had stolen the body.
Mary was surprised by the empty tomb and the rolled stone. She didn't know it yet but she and all the rest were in for an even bigger surprise. The heavy, ponderous stone that had worried the women and sealed Jesus in the confines of that tomb carved out of rock was but a pebble compared to the Rock of Ages inside. Mark tells us that an angel appeared to the women and told them that Jesus wasn't there because, "He had risen from the dead."
B. That first Easter surprised the men, too. Their grief may have been worse than the women's. Life was over for them. Their world had come apart at the seams. That for which they had given three years of their life; the one for whom they had given up their livelihoods, was gone; crucified, dead and buried. They were sitting huddled in fear, hiding from the Romans and their own Jewish leaders. They were afraid the same thing would happen to them that had happened to their leader.
Somehow they had all made it back to the Upper Room. It seemed like a safe haven, even though the memories of other times, happier times, haunted the place. They locked the door and looked to each other for leadership. But their grief and confusion was so deep that no one could offer any kind of leadership. They were each just barely holding on.
And that was when the women surprised the men. The women burst into the grief filled room with a message that was startling and almost unbelievable. But it was enough to shock them out of their gloom. Peter and John took off running.
From a distance they could see the stone had been rolled away. That surprised them and spurred them on. John was the first one there. He skidded to a stop and bent down to look in. What he saw really surprised him. The tomb really WAS empty.
True to character, Peter barged right on past John. He didn't even bother to bend down and look. But for John, that glance into the empty tomb was the biggest surprise of his life. It set him on his heels. Until that moment, the stone which had sealed the tomb had also sealed all hope. It had sealed their fate and buried their dreams, their vision, their hope for the future. But suddenly, the rolled stone allowed the light of the empty tomb; the light of Christ the Son of God, to flood John's heart and soul. It rolled aside the stones of defeat and despair. They were replaced with a growing joy and amazement.
II. IT SURPRISED SIN AND DEATH:
A. That first Easter Sunday surprised the women and it surprised the men, but there is no one it surprised more than sin and death. Sin and death had hung around in the background, egging on those who were opposed to Jesus. They plotted His downfall. On Good Friday they stood at the foot of the cross licking their chops and rubbing their hands in wicked anticipation and glee. They could hardly contain themselves as the darkness rolled in to engulf the world in grief. When Jesus uttered the words, "It is finished," death cackled and sin danced with joy. All they had to do was wait for the tomb to be sealed, then they could have their way with the world. No more Son of God to contend with. No more good always triumphs over evil. Now sin and death had the world in a strangle hold. And they weren't about to let loose. This is what they had been waiting for. God had been defeated. The game was up and the enemy had won.
Or so they thought. The party was probably still going on that first Easter Sunday morning. Sin and death and all their minions slapped each other on the back and gave each other high fives. But their focus should have been on the tomb and not on their empty victory. For while they weren't looking, the first pale fingers of dawn began to touch the sky.
God couldn't contain himself anymore and chuckled. In the sudden sound of that chuckle, the stone heaved out of its track and rolled aside. The light of the risen Son of God mingled with the light of the rising sun and the world was never the same. The stone was rolled away and all heaven broke loose. A grin began to form and then to spread across the face of the earth. The grin spread, proclaiming the surprising news of life and forgiveness for everyone. Sin and death were caught off guard and defeated forever.
III. IT SURPRISES US:
A. The Surprise of Easter still catches us by surprise even today! No matter how often we hear the Easter story, it catches us by surprise. It catches us off guard. The Good News of Easter is that sin and death have been defeated. And we need to hear that message again and again. It has something for all ages. "To a child it is wondrous because it is so new; to grandparents it is wondrous because it is so old."
The message is simple. "The tomb is empty. Jesus, the Son of God, is risen!"
A certain church was putting on an Easter Pageant. All the parts were to be played by children, so the director was working with each of the children, helping them to feel comfortable with their part. One boy insisted that he wanted to be the stone in front of the tomb. The director was a little curious and asked, "Wouldn't you rather have a speaking part?" But the boy said, "No." He just wanted to play the stone.
The production went well and when the children were all gathered back stage, the director finally asked the boy why he wanted to play the stone. The boy grinned from ear to ear and said, "Oh, it felt so good to let Jesus out of the tomb." (2)
What a great tribute to that young man's faith and to the resurrection. But part of the surprise of Easter is that the stone wasn't rolled aside so that Jesus could get out. The stone was rolled aside so that folks could look in and see that the tomb is empty and that Jesus WAS raised from the dead.
B. I'll be honest, I think this weekend is the perfect weekend for Easter. What better day to celebrate Good Friday than April 1st, April Fools Day. For me, Easter is God's great April Fool's joke on sin and death. And they fell for it, lock stock and barrel. Easter is the punchline to God's eternal life anecdote. It is God's great "GOTCHA" in God's conspiracy of Grace to bring us life and hope.
Without the Good News of the resurrection, the cross and Christ's death make no sense at all. Without the Good News of Easter, life itself makes no sense. Easter is the day that makes sense out of all the rest of life. Easter is the day that gives meaning to life. It gives meaning and purpose to the sordid events of Holy week. Now, because the tomb is empty there is victory and power and hope in life.
During the Civil War, a Union soldier from Ohio was shot in the arm during the battle of Shiloh. His captain saw he was wounded and barked out an order, "Gimme your gun, Private, and get to the rear!"
The private handed over his rifle and ran toward the north, seeking safety. But after only going about two or three hundred yards, he came upon another skirmish. So he ran to the east, and found himself in another part of the battle. Then he ran west, but encountered more fighting there.
Finally, he ran back to the front lines shouting, "Gimme back my rifle, Cap'n. There ain't no rear to this battle no where!" (3)
Life is like that. Sometimes it's a battle. Sometimes it's only a skirmish with ourselves. But whether it's daily living or the troubles of the world, "there ain't no rear to this battle nowhere!" You just can't run away and hide.
But the Good News of Easter is that you can't run and hide but you CAN win! Through the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead, you CAN win! The resurrection of Christ can become a means of your own personal triumph over sin and death. It can give purpose and meaning and direction to your life. It can give you that much needed second chance. The cross proves God's great love for us. The empty tomb proves that God is faithful, that God keeps God's word.
The message of Easter is that sin and death no longer have a grip on us. Jesus is alive. New life is available to everyone who calls on his name.
A group of third graders were asked if the knew what RIP on a tombstone stands for. No hands went up. Finally, one brave soul raised his hand and said, "Return if possible." (4)
That could have been carved into the stone that sealed Jesus' tomb. RIP, "return if possible". And did he ever. Jesus burst forth from the tomb letting the light of the resurrection flood in upon the darkness of sin and death. No more fear of death. Christ has conquered sin and death for us.
The tomb is empty. The real proof of the resurrection, though, is the Church. The Church is still here. Despite our differences. Despite our splits. The Church is still here. We may add all kinds of denominational trappings to what and how we think we are to believe. But the bottom line belief of all Christians is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross for our sins, was dead and buried and on the third day rose from the grave to bring us eternal life. We may say it differently, we may celebrate it in different form but that is the basis of our faith and our being.
Jesus' agony, the lashes of the whip; the nailing of the nails; the rumble of thunder; the dark descending; all of these were the sounds of God's tears and God's heart breaking as Jesus, His only Son, died on the cross. The silence of Friday night on is the sound of God's grief.
But on Sunday morning, the sound of the rolling of the stone, the birds singing, the disciples running, and even the sound of the Sun warming the earth and plants and trees, was the sound of God's laughter. That laughter began as a quiet chuckle that built to a roar of laughter as the disciples discovered the empty tomb and the realization of the resurrection set in.
We are the people of the rolled stone. It is our heritage and our legacy. Because the tomb is empty we're called to join in the laughter, God's laughter, the laughter of new life and life filled with hope. We're called to laugh from the sheer joy and knowledge that there is hope and the promise of forgiveness. AND that there is life beyond this life. The laughter comes from knowing that sin and death have been defeated. The laughter comes from knowing the surprise punchline to God's great joke before it's ever told. The Tomb is empty. The risen Christ is with us.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. The Clergy Journal, Jan 1994, p. 25.
2. The Joyful Noiseletter, April 1994, p. 2.
3. p.48 PREACHING, March-April 1990.
4. Teaching K-8, March 1993, p. 86., Mary Jursa of St. Alfred School in Mississauga, Ontario.