St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 24th April 2011
I want you to think, if you can, of a moment in your life when something dramatic, something unexpected, interrupted your life. It might be, for example, that each day you parked your car in a particular space, and one day you returned to find that it was gone. Or it might be that you worked at a particular factory for years, until one day you turned up and discovered a notice on the gates to say that it had been closed down. I guess most, if not all of us, have a particular story of when something completely out of the blue changed our life forever. And without wishing to stir up too many unpleasant memories, I am sure you can still remember the feelings of shock and anger and confusion when you realised what had happened.
And that was what it was like for the women who came to the tomb on the first Easter Sunday. Because the probability is, they were already very familiar with the practice of coming to a tomb three days after the burial. It was the standard Jewish practice to lay the body at first in a small chamber at the front of the tomb, and then three days later come back to embalm the body and lay it properly in the main chamber. We have no way of knowing, but I suspect this was something Mary Magdalene and all the other women had done several times before.
So I want you imagine what they must have felt when at first light they slipped through the city gates and were confronted by this sight:
It just didn’t make sense. The stone had been rolled away. The body was gone. And as for the soldiers who were supposed to guarding the tomb, they were nowhere to be seen. Now we know what happened and we tend to quickly read on to the end of the story. But try to imagine the initial reaction of the women. Try to feel their shock and their confusion. In fact read through Matthew’s account of the first Easter morning and see how much fear you find in the story. Because, after all, something like this shouldn’t happen. Indeed something like this couldn’t happen, could it?
And the fact there was an angel sitting nearby only added to this sense of raw terror. Because at this point the women were confronted with the sheer power and awesomeness of God. They had assumed that the death and burial of Jesus was the end of the story. They had come to mourn and to pay their final respects to a good and wise man. And instead they discovered that God had reached down into the natural order of things and brought the dead back to life. Whatever we make of Matthew’s description of earthquakes and angels, one thing is clear; for him Easter Sunday begins with the power and might of almighty God unleashed in a garden tomb just outside Jerusalem.
In the same way, in Romans chapter 1, verse 4 Paul talks about Jesus who was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. And I just want you to reflect for a moment: do you know something of this power of God Matthew and Paul are talking about? Even as we are gathered here this morning, they are loads of people round about us who know something of the Easter story and who know it’s something about Jesus being alive. But they don’t have any real understanding that this story means anything for them, because they no understanding of the power of the Easter message. Easter is a soft and fluffy story of chocolate and bunnies and eggs, isn’t it? No, it isn’t. It is the story of a God who comes in power, who shakes the earth, who causes tough, hardened soldiers to flee, who brings new life to the dead.
So let me ask again, do you know this power of God? Because unless you do, you won’t really understand why this Easter event is so important for you. You see, the empty tomb is proof that God is in the business of changing lives. He doesn’t simply want our words and our music this morning. He wants our very selves so He can change and use us for His glory. He wants for us, as it were, to gaze into the empty tomb and ask God to bring new life to us, to raise us up and re-create us as His children.
It is not really surprising that the women standing there were terrified. And yet the actual reason the angel was sitting there was not to frighten them, or make them flee in terror, but to pass on a message of most amazing good news: Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.
And those little words just as he said are central to the whole understanding of the Easter message. Because when God raised Jesus in power, it was not because He decided to randomly intervene in human history, or momentarily suspend the laws of nature. It was because He decided to act according to His promises. Not just the promises that Jesus Himself had uttered in the course of His ministry. But the promises that had been contained in Scripture all the way back to the book of Genesis.
God had planned for this moment for a long, long time. Not only that, but He had announced what was going to happen. And even if nobody grasped just how He was going to act, He carried out His plan exactly as He had intended. So that around Passover, in AD 30, in a city called Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead to become the eternal source of salvation to all who believe and trust in Him.
So if you were to ask me why should I allow God to come and work in power in my life this morning, my reply would be this: because God’s promises can be trusted. If you want proof that God keeps His word, look at the empty tomb. If you want proof that God loves you, look at the empty tomb. If you want proof that God is able to protect and watch over you, look at the empty tomb. We have a God who can do far more than we can ever ask or imagine, who simply asks that we believe and trust in Him. What more evidence do you need that God our heavenly Father is worthy of your trust?
And notice something else that’s really important about this story. Because even after the angel delivers his message, the women still don’t completely understand what’s going on. Yet even though they are still somewhat afraid, they carry out their instructions, and run to tell the disciples what has happened. And as they are on their way, what happens? Jesus meets them. Jesus meets them! It’s a wonderful lesson that when we ask God to come in power, when in faith and trust we claim His promises, then He meets us and fills us with His presence.
Of course none of us can meet Jesus in quite the same way as these women coming from the tomb. I, for one, find hard to imagine just how Jesus appeared to them, or what He looked like. But the truth remains, we too can meet with the risen Lord Jesus in just as real and personal way as these first disciples. That story we heard in Acts about the Holy Spirit coming on those heard Peter’s message isn’t just a historical curiosity. It’s about the way God comes and lives in the hearts of all those who are prepared to take Him at His word. And if you are willing, you too can be filled with the Holy Spirit this morning. He is quite literally only a prayer away.
One last thing. Look at the message Jesus gives these women, whose lives have just been turned so dramatically upside down. Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. Did you notice how Jesus calls His followers here? Even after they had all deserted Him and in some cases denied Him? Brothers. Isn’t that truly astonishing? You may feel this morning that you’re not good enough for God, that there’s something you’ve done that God can never forgive, that there’s some sin which means Jesus could never meet with you.
If that’s true for you, then think again. Peter’s message in our reading from Acts is clear: everyone who believes in him (that is, Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins through his name. That’s not just true for the person standing at the front, or the established church members sitting over there. It’s true, for you and for you and for you. Come to God this morning, willing and eager for a fresh start. Allow Him to come in power. Claim His promises for yourself. And you will discover the presence of Jesus – the Holy Spirit – in your life changing you forever, changing for good.
Let Jesus be your Lord and your Saviour this day.