We Have Seen the Empty Tomb

The Resurrection of Our Lord, Year C, March 31st, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A few months ago, after a funeral, I was asked to explain death to two children.  They were confused—why had we put their great-grandmother in a box, and left her out in the snow and ice far from home?  But while children don’t understand death, adults understand it all too well.  It is one of the few facts of life that is the same no matter where you go or what time period you live in.  Everyone and everything dies, eventually.  Some die young, some die old, some die quickly and others slowly.  Every animal, every plant, every fish, every insect, every person, will eventually die.  Even stars die.  Death and decay is part of the natural order of the universe.  We don’t like to remember this, but we know it in our bones.  Benjamin Franklin put it this way: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.

Well.  He was half right, anyway.  Because we are here today to testify to the fact that death itself has been defeated.  Death is not the end of the story.  It doesn’t get the last word, and it doesn’t get the most important word.  The “natural” order of things has been turned on its ear.  The things we think we know about life are shown to be wrong in the most dramatic way imaginable.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus is not dead, not any more.  He is risen!

When we hear the Easter story, it’s easy to scoff at the women and the disciples, who didn’t believe Jesus when he told them he would rise from the grave.  As the angel points out, Jesus had told them what was going to happen!  Yet there they are, three days after his death, going to his tomb to embalm his body.  They saw the empty tomb, and didn’t understand.  In fact, their first response to the angels was fear and perplexity.  They didn’t get what had happened until someone explained it to them.  But after they knew, when they realized that Jesus had risen, they were filled with joy and went to tell everyone what they’d seen.  But the other followers of Jesus didn’t believe them at first—they thought those women were crazy.  Why didn’t the disciples believe their witness?  After all, the women were long-standing followers and students of Jesus, too—they’d been there from the beginning, and stayed through the crucifixion.  They’d been there, learning at Jesus’ feet, the whole time.  These are women the disciples knew and trusted, just as they had all known Jesus.  And they had all heard him talk about what was going to happen to him.  But none of them seem to have believed his words, or understood them.  Sitting here in church, knowing the story, it’s easy to roll our eyes at how blind they were.

And yet.  Put yourself in the shoes of those women.  Yes, Jesus had done many great things … but everyone dies.  Yes, they believe in the resurrection … but they haven’t seen it yet.  And after all, Jesus was fond of using parables and metaphors and figures of speech.  He rarely said anything that was intended to be interpreted literally.  So I can see how they might have assumed he meant something metaphorical, something spiritual, something that would be easier to fit into their experience of the world.

If the general Resurrection happened today, would we be as surprised as they were?  Yes, we say we believe in the Resurrection.  But it’s been two thousand years since Jesus rose, and nobody’s risen from the grave since.  Yes, we might sincerely believe it’ll happen someday, but in a vague, general way.  We’ve never seen an empty tomb.  We’ve never seen the dead rise, except maybe in zombie movies.  But we’ve seen death.  We’ve seen friends and loved ones die.  We’ve seen pets die.  We’ve seen in the news and on TV all the horrible things that people can do to one another.  Death is very real to us.  New life, the kind that Jesus has, the kind of life that is so powerful that even death itself can’t keep it down for long, that’s harder to accept.

But all our worldly wisdom is wrong.  Our knowledge of death is wrong.  All the experience that tells us that might makes right is wrong.  All the sayings telling us that it’s a dog eat dog world are wrong.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus Christ is doing a new thing, and through his death and resurrection God is doing a new thing for the entire world.  Listen again to the words God spoke through the prophet: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well.  Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Imagine that.  A world with no pain, no grief.  A world without bigotry, without fear, without hate, without jealousy, without callousness, without arrogance, without bullying, without grief, without suffering.  A world where everyone chooses to do good, instead of evil.  A world where predators, whether animal or human, don’t prey on those weaker than they are.  A world where there is enough for all.  A world where love and joy are the strongest emotions, the ones that guide people.  That’s the way God created the world to be.  That’s what life was like until sin and death broke in.  That’s the life God wants for us.  And that’s the life that Jesus died to give us, to give the whole universe.

When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s death.  We share in Christ’s death so that we may also share in his life—the life of the Resurrection, the life of joy and peace and love.  In baptism our old sinful self, the self that is trapped by sin and death, is drowned.  The old self that, like Adam, chooses to disobey God, go astray, and then blame others, is killed.  What rises up out of the water is something new, something that has the seeds of God’s new heaven and new earth within it.  When we come up out of the waters of baptism, we are united with Christ in a bond that nothing can ever break.  In our baptisms, we are started on the path towards the new life, towards resurrection and joy.

We have not yet seen the fullness of that life.  Christ is the first fruit of the dead, in Paul’s words, but the harvest has not yet come.  We have not yet seen all of creation transformed into the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised is coming.  And yet we have felt it.  We have heard God’s promises.  We can see a glimmer, in Christ, of what that life will be like.  We have experienced the love of God through our baptisms, through every moment of grace and goodness in our lives.  It’s true, the forces of sin and death are fighting a desperate rear-guard action to keep us mired in darkness, but we have seen the light.  We have seen life come out of things that look dead and barren.  We have seen the empty tomb.

We have seen the empty tomb.  We stand outside it with Jesus’ first followers and hear the words of God’s messenger: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”  The old certainties of the world—that death is final, that decay is simply the way things go, that pain and grief and hate and fear and selfishness win—those old certainties are turned upside down.  Jesus is not dead; he has risen, and we will rise with him.

Yes, there is still pain in the world.  Yes, sin and death still drag people down.  But not forever.  Their power is broken.  New life is here.  Resurrection is here.  Joy is here.  Christ is here.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!


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