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John 20 1-9

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Easter Sunday

John 20:1-9

April 11, 2004

“Good News From A Graveyard”
after J. BRAATEN

            If wild applause was ever in order in the church, Easter is the time. It is a day for Christians to cheerfully celebrate Christ's victory over death. Clearly the dominant mood in our worship this morning is joy. It is a day for breaking out the band, clapping hands and singing, "Hallelujah!"

            But if you ever read the gospel accounts of the resurrection, you discover an unusual thing; the first reaction of the men and women who came to the tomb was not joy - it was bewilderment and fear! The immediately impact of the resurrection on the followers of Jesus was confusion and apprehension. Mary Magdalene was in shock and the disciples were clearly unnerved by it all. After all, they went from that tomb and locked themselves in a secret room.

            So it all adds up to this: Whatever else the followers of Jesus might have foreseen following the crucifixion, whatever they dreamed of, they did not anticipate a resurrection. That apparently was about the last thing they expected. The discovery of an empty tomb left them disconcerted, hesitant and scared.

            If we are going to understand the power that is embedded in the very heart of Easter, we need to come to terms with the disciples' strange reaction of bewilderment and fear. That is hard to do because Easter comes as no surprise to us. We've been waiting for it all during Lent. We expect it. We plan for it. And because we expect it, we tend to lose the sense of amazement and surprise.

            But while Easter's revelation of resurrection is anticipated by us, it took the disciples completely by surprise. A person who has been dead for three days doesn't just get up and begin living again; that would violate all the accepted laws of nature. They were intelligent people; they knew that.

            So when Mary Magdalene, Peter and John encountered the risen Jesus, they didn't go walking off, hand in hand, into the sunset singing, "In the sweet by and by." Far from it! They were terrified. And we will need to come to an understanding of why they were afraid if we are going to plumb the depths of the resurrection and recapture the Easter ecstasy.

            The followers of Jesus were confused and disheartened by his death. They wept at the cross. They wept at the tomb. But they accepted it. We read that the women came early, while it was still dark, presumably to anoint Jesus' body with embalming spices. They had accepted the fact that he was dead. They resigned themselves to that; after all, we eventually all die. They were ready to pick up their lives where they had dropped them when he died.

            Many of you here today have learned to come to terms with grief. You too have come to accept the grim reality of death. We learn to carry on. We have to. But part of the great astonishment for those initial followers was the realization that God works through suffering and death. The terrible tragedy which took place on Calvary was all part of God's plan!

            I'm sure that those first disciples believed that there was an abundant life in the hereafter; Jesus had talked about it often enough. But they did not consider the possibility that God's lofty purposes of grace would be accomplished through things like suffering and death. It is one thing to deal with the harsh realities like death and disillusionment, to live with them, to accept them - but it is another thing entirely to face the reality that this is often the way God chooses to work in this world. These are the methods by which God's purposes are carried out. Now they knew. God does not save us from suffering and death. God saves us through them. This fallen, sinful world was brought back into the loving embrace of God through the sufferings and death of Jesus, God's own Son.

            We wonder, "What does this mean?" Then we recall that when we were baptized, the imprint of the cross was made on us as a sign that we would not only share in the power of Jesus' resurrection, but that we would know the fellowship of his sufferings. God's people are called to share the sufferings of Christ.

            In its milder forms it might mean we are called to give up the status symbols others think are so important. On a deeper level we might be required to take unpopular stands that will result in lost friends or alienated family.

            There is another aspect to the bewilderment and fear of Jesus' followers which we must not overlook. Before those first men and women could experience giddy glory of Easter, they had to come to terms with the fact that with Jesus' resurrection came impending judgment. As the news of Jesus' resurrection is relayed from one incredulous follower to another, fear engulfs them!  They are afraid because now the one they thought had died had come to life again. With Him all the other things come back. To a man, all of the disciples had betrayed and denied their Lord. They must meet, face to face, the one whom they have betrayed, blasphemed and forsaken. There would be no forgetting or escaping the memories of what they had done. No wonder the disciples were afraid. Instead of being able to forget, they would be forced to relive their shame!

            Perhaps that is why the gospel accounts often speak as the first word not, "be of good cheer." But rather, "Do not be afraid." Do not be afraid. For the one who brings everything back to life again is the One who loves you and gave himself for you. The one who permits no escape, no forgetting, even in death, is the one who remembers and loves you still. Of course no one deserves that love, the first followers didn't and we don't either; that is not the point. The point is that God loves you and Easter proclaims this message loud and clear. God loves you. Thank God there is no escape from that love. No escape, even in death!

            That was Mary Magdalene's experience. Her encounter with Jesus made it clear. When he spoke, such love and acceptance emanated from his words that in joy she ran to him headlong so she might be embraced by him. He had sought her out in love and compassion; he came to the disciples in the same way, not in judgement, but with love  ... and he still comes to you and you and to me, lovingly, compassionately.

            That ought to mean a great deal to us for it means we don't have to run from God any more. We don't have to try to hide. We don't have to pretend, to God, or to others, or to ourselves. It means that Jesus comes back, not in condemnation, not in judgment, but in grace and peace. Do you understand that? Our Lord comes back to resurrect us so that we who were dead in our trespasses and sins don't have to live in guilt any more, we don't have to be afraid of God or judgment. All of God’s judgment fell on Christ. As the door of rock was rolled away from His tomb, in His resurrection we are justified, declared not guilty before our Heavenly Father.  

            Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, proclaims that all the doors that shut us in - fear, guilt, anxiety, insecurity - they are all overcome and we are free from them and the doors are now opened. Christ opens those doors and gives you your freedom. He opens the last door to us, too, the door of death. Some people believe that when they die they will stay dead, but that is not true. You didn't ask to be born, but you were born. You didn't choose when you were born, but you were. You didn't decide to wake up this morning, but you did. So you will not be asked to be raised from the dead, but you will be. For Christ will call you and you will arise and he will give you life. Those who believe in Him, in the forgiveness He offers for the sake of His death, will be raised from the dead to new life in Christ.  

            In our Gospel lesson the Angel asks, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Certainly the angel was implying that Jesus was no longer dead and the He had risen. But, perhaps we can look at that question in a different light…in the light of the resurrection. Before Christ’s’ resurrection graveyards were indeed places of death, a one way ticket. Now, our tombs can be seen as the doors we must all walk through, not to death, but to eternal life. Now, in hope and faith we can look for the living among the dead.

            How strange that life can flow from out of a grave. But then that is rather like God. Out from the Nuremberg war trials in post-World War II Germany, comes the witness of one man. During the war near Willma, Poland, a group of Jews who had escaped death in the gas chambers took refuge in a cemetery. They lived there, huddled and hidden in the bottom of dug graves. A baby boy was born one evening in one of those graves. The grave-digger, an old, strict, orthodox Jew, clothed in a linen shroud, assisted in the birth. When that newborn uttered its first cry, the old grave-digger exclaimed, "Great God, have you finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah would be born in a grave?" The Scriptures tell us that Jesus, the Messiah, is the first born from the dead. Col 1:18ff “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

            Born in a grave. That's us, you know. Our lives literally came out of a grave, Christ’s grave! How like God to do something like that. Born in a grave. Born to celebrate. Born to leap for joy, to live in anticipation because God's resurrecting power has been let loose in this world.

            That is the good news from the graveyard: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead so that you and I might live in the assurance that the door of life is opened to us. That is the conquest of the cross, the victory of Easter.

            So we are invited to open the door and step out into life with the wonder of the Easter message: that Christ not only lives, he is life-giving, life transforming, life-resurrecting.

Its truth is overwhelming, far outrunning our capacity to express or understand. Believe it and let it possess you. I invite you to go out from this place, asking God to live out your life with the kind of abandoned joy and righteousness which is fitting for one who has received so very much for the sake of Jesus Christ, our resurrected Lord. God bless you this Easter and in your celebration of Christ’s marvelous power in your life. Amen.

One person made the statement (Paul Tillich)  that Jesus' burial was a powerful symbol which suggested to the disciples that all things could now be put behind them. Buried was the fact that they had all, in cowardice, forsaken him and fled. It was reasonable now for them to assume that they could pick up the pieces of their lives, their shattered aspirations and somehow get on with life.

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