St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 5th April 2015
Readings – 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 24:1-12
Did you witness the recent eclipse?
What was it like?
If you were there, then I don’t think any of us will quickly forget the experience. There was that kind of eerie half-light as the eclipse reached its maximum, and that sudden drop in temperature which caught all of us by surprise. I myself was standing near our apple tree at the time, and I was struck by the silence of the birds who had all flown off to roost. For a few minutes we were caught up in something profoundly wonderful and mysterious, completely unlike anything we’d ever encountered before.
But then of course it passed, the sun came out again and almost at once the birds returned to our garden. Life pretty much returned to normal. Yet imagine what life would be like if there was a permanent eclipse, if every minute of every day was dark, cold and still. It would all be fairly miserable, wouldn’t it? Perhaps then you can begin to understand why the Bible describes life without God as living in darkness, a kind of shadowy existence, cut off from the warmth and goodness of His light and His love.
And it was pretty dark for the first disciples early on that first Easter morning. Two days earlier they had seen their Master, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified. As He hung there on the cross, a terrible darkness came over the land. For three agonising hours the sky turned black until with a cry He finally gave up His Spirit. And although the sun had come out again, there was still a terrible darkness in the hearts of His followers. They felt abandoned by God, their hopes and expectations crushed, with only the prospect of an uncertain and unknown future ahead of them.
So when the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb (v.1), we need to clear: their only intention was to pay their respects to the dead. They had no expectation of what was going to happen next, no idea that anything other than grief and sorrow would await them. In fact, they were thinking and feeling like so many people I meet today, people for whom death is quite simply the end, where any hope beyond the grave is but a vague and unknowable possibility.
And I want us to focus on these women, because it’s really important to understand what’s going on in this Easter story. You see, we can be so familiar with the details we love and know so well – the empty tomb, the angels, the appearances of Jesus – that we fail to grasp what it’s actually all about, a journey from darkness to light, from despair to hope.
What exactly, then, can we learn from these women who came to grieve and to mourn?
First of all, they made a surprising discovery.
Let’s listen again to our opening verses:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
Now you can try to explain what the women discovered in any number of ways, and indeed over the centuries all kinds of interesting theories have emerged. Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb. Perhaps the authorities had stolen the body. Perhaps Jesus had miraculously revived and despite his many wounds rolled away the stone. People who do not want to believe the Easter story have come up with so many different, and dare I say it, fanciful explanations. But none of them have stuck, because at the end of the day none of them make sense of the evidence the women discovered.
Something happened on that Easter Sunday which defies human explanation, even after two thousand years of research and speculation. The women who were there could not understand it, and indeed it was only the sudden appearance of the angels which gave them any clue as to what had taken place – that God had intervened to raise Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
So the first thing that we learn from the Easter story is that we have a God who is greater and more powerful than we can possibly imagine. He is an awesome God who can defy the forces of death. He is able to give life in a situation where our human experience tells us there can be no life. He holds the very fabric of our being in His hands, and we can only fathom a very small part of all that He is able to do.
Now I realise that many people find the idea of such a God tremendously challenging and unsettling. When I am sharing my faith with people who do not yet believe, I often find they want a God who is at the end of a human argument, or one that I can prove in line with human reason. But if I could prove God, or come up with a watertight argument, then I would only create a very small, weak God made in my own image. Such a God would lack the power to change our lives, to raise the dead, to create galaxies, to sustain millions of universes day by day, hour by hour. Yes, He might satisfy our intellectual curiosity, and He might appear warm and appealing, but He would not be the God who brought Jesus out of the tomb, a God who could turn darkness into light, or despair into hope.
That’s why, even if you are here today as someone who knows the Easter story so well, I want you to spend a moment with the women as they find the stone rolled away but no sign of the body of Jesus. Is the God you worship powerful enough to do what He did on that first Easter Sunday? Do you know what it is like to bow down in mystery and awe at His majesty and power? If we are not open to the God who can work such wonders, then what precisely is the good news we hope to share?
So the women made a surprising discovery.
Secondly, the women heard some surprising words.
Let’s go back to the empty tomb. As we have seen, the women were not the only ones who were there. Two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning (v.4) also appeared and they indeed confirmed that something wonderful and mysterious had happened. But that was only part of their message. Listen again to their words, and the women’s response in verses 5-8:
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered His words.
What does it mean when Luke says the women remembered His words? Surely he’s suggesting far more than them simply recalling something they’d forgotten. Rather, as the angels delivered their message, suddenly all that Jesus said and taught over the past three years made sense. That teaching about dying and rising again which had so confused them now became perfectly clear. They understood exactly what Jesus had been saying.
And I believe it is as the women remembered those words, that the light of faith began to dawn in their hearts. Because once they realised that Jesus had been speaking the truth, they started to grasp the real identity of Jesus. Jesus was not just another failed revolutionary who had ended up executed for His crimes, or a mistaken prophet who paid the price for His false teaching. This Jesus was none other than the very Son of God, the Saviour who through His death and resurrection had achieved all that His Heavenly Father had asked of Him.
This leads us to another important point about the Easter story. Because although the fact of the resurrection shows God to be a far more powerful God than we can ever possibly imagine, the way Jesus’ followers learn about the resurrection also show Him to be a profoundly personal God. We are not left to guess what happened on that Easter Sunday. We have the very words of Jesus, and indeed the whole words of Scripture, to explain what happened. And although unlike the women, we probably won’t have a couple of angels to help us understand it all, we do have the gift of the Holy Spirit to turn the words of God into personal truth for us, so that we too can come to a saving faith.
That’s why, even if you are very familiar with the Easter story and may have heard it many times before, I would encourage you to read it for yourself. For when I look at church history and see how Christians throughout the ages were converted, in every case I can think of men and women found a saving faith through encountering Scripture. Yes, I know that some people find it difficult to read. Yes, I know that some struggle to find time to study it. But let’s not forget – this book is the way in which the God who raised Jesus from the dead wants to speak to you. And the wonder and joy of the Easter story is that when we allow God to speak to us through His word, we end up ourselves being raised from death to new life with Christ Jesus.
So take time to listen to the words of Jesus, meditate on them, even remember them. Because the person who knows God’s word knows God. And there is nothing more important that anyone of us can ever do than know the one who made us, who loves us and who has saved us through the cross.
So the women made a surprising discovery
They heard some surprising words
They passed on a surprising message.
Now although the women had a most life changing and revolutionary experience at the empty tomb, this did not mean they instantly became top theologians or high-class evangelists. Indeed there was much which still baffled and confused them, and, at least according to John’s account, Mary Magdalene was very much grieving for the absence of Jesus. Yet they could not deny something miraculous and extraordinary had just happened. So what did they do? They simply went back to the rest of the disciples and shared what had happened.
There is so much we can learn from the story of these women at this first Easter. So often when it comes to outreach or mission or whatever you want to call it, people’s first reaction is to say they just don’t know enough. They don’t have the education or the qualifications or the right church background.
Actually I would put it to you that when it comes to sharing our faith, most folk we meet aren’t actually that interested in a nice neat academic argument, and are more than a little suspicious of clever sales tactics. What they are looking for above else are people who clearly have had a genuine experience, the sort that has so affected them that they cannot but talk about it.
You see, one of the main problems that the church experiences in this country at the moment is, to put it quite bluntly, a credibility gap. If you ask believers to talk about their faith, yes, they will talk about the wonder and joy of knowing Jesus. But if you look at them leaving church, there’s often very little sign they’ve had any meaningful encounter with the powerful, personal God of the empty tomb. They’re generally not talking about what’s happened in the service – unless, of course, they’re complaining about the vicar’s sermon, yet again(!). And when they turn up at work on a Monday morning, they don’t seem actually that different from anybody else in the way they behave or talk.
I am of course exaggerating – slightly. But all the research tells us that the major reason why young people in particular are turning away from the Christian faith to other religions like white magic or paganism or even Islam is quite simply that the church does not seem spiritual enough. And a dying church where there is little experience of resurrection is not one that is going to grow.
So let me come back to that image of the eclipse that I started with this morning. I talked about it as an image of life without God. It could also to a large degree describe the spiritual state of this nation. I am so conscious that whenever I get up to preach on a Sunday morning that not very far from us people are living and dying without the knowledge of a Saviour Jesus Christ. So if the Easter story is true, if we worship a God who has the power to bring life out of death and a God who still speaks to us today, then what we will do with that story?
I am not saying that as soon as we start sharing the Easter story those who hear will instantly believe. Luke tells us that the disciples did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. But out of all the people gathered there one – just one – decided to get up and investigate the empty tomb. What would happen if we helped just one person to discover the wonder and the joy of the Easter story? If next week each of us could bring just one more person along to find out more about Jesus?
Today as we celebrate Easter, ask the Lord to show you that person and may you go out in the power of the risen Christ to make His glory known. For His name’s sake. Amen.