St Michael’s, 27th March 2016
Readings – 1 Corinthians 15:12-28; Matthew 28:1-15
Do you have a piece of music that stirs your soul or follow a particular band? On Monday evening I had the immense privilege of seeing Joe Bonamassa play live at Plymouth Pavilions. It was a truly memorable performance by one of the greatest blues guitarists of this generation and by the end I was on my feet applauding along with everyone else.
Now this morning I could go on at length about that gig. It was a wonderful, exhilarating evening, and I came out of the Pavilions with my spirits soaring, feeling like I had touched something very special, the sort of experience that only comes along once in a blue moon.
But I’m here today to talk about Easter. And as I’ve begun to sit down and write this sermon, one simple thought has challenged me. Am I as passionate about the Easter story as about my favourite music? Does the good news of the risen Lord Jesus thrill me and move me as much as the greatest guitar riff? Because it should, it really should. Musicians and their music come and go with each generation (as we are particularly aware this year), but two thousand years ago the risen Lord rose from the dead and won a victory which lasts for all time. So why is it that when I read the Easter story so often my heart is lukewarm at best, and at worst cold or indifferent?
Maybe one problem is that over the years we can become too familiar with the Easter story. We think we’ve heard it all before. We know it’s all about the women going to the tomb, finding it empty and meeting Jesus. And either we have lost the sense of awe at such amazing good news or somehow it has become, well, just a story, which may be important but doesn’t really connect with our lives day by day.
That’s one reason why this year I want to look carefully at Matthew’s account of the resurrection. Because Matthew’s account is different. It is full of little details the other gospel writers do not include. Not because he was making stuff up but because he wants to confront us with the strangeness and the wonder of that first Easter Sunday morning. And I very much hope and pray that something of that strangeness and wonder will rub off on you, so that you will gain a fresh passion for Jesus, and a new sense of joy at the Easter story.
However the start of our reading this morning is anything other than joyful. Matthew tells us plainly in verse 1 that: After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. This, you see, is a story that begins in the long, grim shadow of death. There is no hope of finding anything other than a body, no sense that there will be anything other than a tomb at the end of the journey.
Now you may wonder why Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went off to look at the tomb. Other gospel writers tell us that their mission was to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. But Matthew simply wants us to focus on the fact the women believed that Jesus was dead. Why? Because, despite what so many people think, the Easter story is not a piece of wishful thinking, not something made up by a group of desperate individuals who wanted to believe their Master was alive.
These women who embarked on the short walk to the tomb only knew that two days previously they had seen the body of their Lord and Master taken down from a cross, wrapped in a shroud and then sealed in a tomb. Along with everybody else, they believed this was the end of the story. And who could blame them? After all, every single one of us has made a similar journey. We all know what it is like to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. We all have shed tears when it seems like death has finally won.
And if there was going to be any hope for these two women, then God would have to do something truly extraordinary, truly miraculous to turn their despair into hope, their joy into sadness – which precisely is what He did.
Listen again to verses 2-4: There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
Now again, no other gospel writer mentions in their resurrection account the violent earthquake, the description of the angel, or the terror of the guards at the tomb. So why does Matthew bother to describe it? For the very simple reason, that the Easter story is all about God coming in power. Now I realise of course that Matthew is simply describing here how the angel rolled the stone away, but maybe he is asking us to consider the even greater power that must have been involved in the resurrection of Jesus.
You see, by the time Jesus died on the cross, He really was dead. He didn’t wake up a little later in a cold, empty tomb or somehow miraculously revive. If a doctor had examined Him, a brain scan and a heart trace would have detected no signs of life. So if Jesus was to be raised to new life, God must have used a might and a force beyond our imagining.
And indeed, later on in the Bible, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:14 that: By his power God raised the Lord from the dead. Just think about that verse for a moment. We sung earlier on that our God can move the mountains, and that is true. We have a God who reigns in majesty over creation and what He does is sometimes nothing less than awe-inspiring. But surely the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking deed the Lord has ever done is to reach into this fallen world and raise Jesus from the dead. And if you do not understand the power behind the Easter story, then you will never really understand why it is such good news.
Yet also notice this: as so often in the Bible, when we have an account of God’s power, we also have an account of His personal care and love. It would, I suppose, have been very easy for the angel simply to roll away the stone and leave again. But instead he sits down on the stone and waits for the women to arrive. Because we have a God who does not leave us guessing about who He is or what He has done. We have a God who speaks, who helps us understand His plans and His purposes, even and especially when what He is doing can seem so unexpected, and beyond what we might dare hope for.
Now Matthew doesn’t tell us how the two Marys reacted when they saw the angel. We can only imagine their confusion and shock. But Matthew’s focus here is on the angel’s message and what a message it is! Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. The thing about God, you see, is that He knows. This may be an obvious point but it is one that so often we forget. God knows about our heartaches, our griefs, our sorrows. In fact He knows more about them than we do ourselves. And what God offers us is not just sympathy or tenderness or love, although there is more love and tenderness in our Heavenly Father than we usually realise. He offers us real, genuine hope based on the real, genuine promises that He has made to us.
As the angel goes on to say: He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. So simple, so beautiful, and yet so marvellous. A few brief words which tell us that despite how it may seems death need not be the last word; that in a world of so much violence and pain there is a hope; that whatever we ourselves might be going through, the Lord is more than able to make a difference. That is the wonder and the joy of the Easter message.
And just in case we still find it hard to believe and trust He even gives us the opportunity to see and prove for ourselves that what He says is true. Come and see the place where he lay. You see, the Easter story is based on solid, historical fact. We can investigate what happened and test the evidence for ourselves. And what I find so striking is that whenever folk have set out to disprove the resurrection, they have nearly always ended up as believers. As the former Lord Chief Justice Denning once said way back in 1960: On… the resurrection we are not merely asked to have faith. In its favour as a living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the resurrection story is true.
But the Lord in His wonderful and undeserved love for us does not force Himself upon us. He loves us so much that He leaves us to decide whether or not to make a response. And so the angel’s final words are a call to the women to respond in faith to what he is saying: Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.
So at this point the story switches back to these women who, as we have seen, had come to look at a tomb, prepared only to mourn and to grieve their loss. I for one cannot imagine all that must have going through their minds at this point. There must have been so many doubts, so many questions, so much confusion and fear. Yet it is to their eternal credit that Matthew tells us in verse 8 that … the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. They must have understood so little, and yet they were prepared to obey the angel’s message. Somehow even very dimly they must have grasped that the Lord was at work, even if that work was so strange and so unexpected they could not fathom exactly what He was doing.
And what happens next…well, in some ways it is so hard to describe. Do any of you remember that scene at the end of the Railway Children when through all that steam and smoke the children’s father appears at the end of the platform and the girl runs forward crying, “Daddy, my Daddy?” That’s the nearest and totally inadequate equivalent I can find to what happened that first Easter Sunday. Suddenly Jesus met them.
There surely can be no more poignant reunion ever recorded. For three extraordinary years Mary Magdalene had followed Jesus throughout Galilee and down on the long journey into Jerusalem. She knew she owed Jesus everything. Jesus was the one who had healed her, who had driven out her demons and treated her with a dignity and care she had never experienced before. She had thought Jesus was dead and buried, and it must have seemed like her world had come to an end. But now Jesus meets her and she finds He is alive. No wonder she falls at Jesus’ feet. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him.
Well, you would do, wouldn’t you? Suddenly all those words Jesus had said about dying and rising again made sense. Those miracles He had performed with such great power took on a new light, and all that teaching about the kingdom of God fitted together. Because Mary Magdalene could now understand this Jesus really was, and is, the very Son of God, the one with authority over all things, even death itself. And so she worships Him. She falls to the ground in praise and wonder and adoration, her sorrow turned to joy, her despair into wonderful and glorious hope.
Have you, I wonder, ever worshipped the risen Jesus like that? Maybe one reason why the Easter message does not fill us with joy is that we fail to understand that we owe Jesus everything. Jesus is the only one who has triumphed over sin and death and evil. Jesus is the only one who can give us new life with God forever. Jesus is the only one who can transform our lives with the power of the Holy Spirit, that very same power by which He Himself was raised from the dead. And if we do not give ourselves to Jesus with the same praise and wonder and adoration as Mary Magdalene then quite simply we have missed the point of Easter. Easter should not just engage our heads but should warm our hearts with a fire and a passion not just for a day or a season but for every single moment of every single day.
But notice this. Jesus does not let Mary Magdalene cling to Him. Instead He repeats the angel’s message to go. Verse 10: Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Because, you see, the Easter message is not something we can keep to ourselves. We can’t come to church today, worship the Lord and then keep silent about what we have experienced. Just like I can’t go to a world-class gig, enjoy the music and then not tell anyone what the evening was like. And as I have said before, this Easter message should be to us even more thrilling and wonderful than any performance we have ever been to. For the simple truth remains: Jesus is alive! Amen? Amen!
And one final small but vitally important point. How does Jesus call His disciples in this last verse? That’s right – He calls them brothers. It’s that extraordinary? These are the very ones who two days earlier had fled when Jesus was arrested, who had denied knowing Jesus, who abandoned Him while He was dying on a cross. Yet Jesus calls them brothers.
It may be that today you have felt I have been talking to other people. Maybe you think that because you are new to church, or don’t know much about Jesus, the Easter story isn’t really for you. Maybe you’ve been listening to all I’ve been saying and thinking, “If only Jesus could be real to me”. Well, here’s the deal. Jesus offers anyone who believes and trusts in Him to be part of His family. You don’t need a church background, a GCSE in religious education, or anything else to accept that offer. Do you believe that Jesus has risen just as He said? Are you willing to give Him your life in faith and trust, and worship Him just like Mary Magdalene all those years ago? If so, then today you are able to become a child of the living God through Jesus Christ. Because the moment you believe and trust in Jesus, He will as certainly meet with you as if He were standing there in front of you. He will come into your heart by His Holy Spirit and fill you with His love. Isn’t that an offer you need to accept? Why not let today be the day when Jesus becomes your Lord, your Saviour?
For if you do, you too will find a wonder and a joy that will never fade, as Jesus becomes Lord of your life …