You don’t go to a tomb to rejoice. You don’t go to a graveyard, shortly after someone has been buried there, to celebrate.
And so, Matthew writes, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
They have come to pay their respects and to remember their now deceased teacher. They have come to mourn–expecting to find comfort, perhaps, in being together, but not expecting much more than that.
Then an angel pushes away the stone covering the tomb–we can think of the tomb as a sort of underground walk-in closet. And the guards are so scared, they shake and are petrified.
“Do not be afraid!” the angel has to say to the unsuspecting women. “Jesus is not here–he is risen!” Come, look, the angel says, “see the place where he lay.” “Go quickly and tell his disciples–He has risen from the dead!”
As they hurry off, their fast-beating hearts a jumble of joy and fear, they see Jesus. “Greetings,” he says, nonchalantly. (“Hey, what’s up?”)
They kneel down, grasp his feet, and worship him.
They had gone to his tomb to weep.
Instead, they went away laughing and rejoicing.
They had come early that morning to encounter the stark reality of death.
Instead, they found the glorious miracle of new life.
They had come to process an immense and unthinkable loss.
Instead, they met a living Jesus, the triumphant victor over death.
These women, and then, in turn, all of Jesus’ disciples from that day forward, would never see death the same way again.
Death Swallowed Up in Victory: Paul’s Reminder
Some years later Paul would remind his church of the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus.
The good news, he says, is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….”
By this “gospel,” the good news of Jesus’ death and coming back from life to show himself again to his followers–by this “gospel,” Paul says, you are saved. You are delivered.
Where your life had been a prison,
you are freed.
Where you had once seen darkness,
now you see light.
Though you had come to a tomb, ready to mourn because of the end of things,
now you rejoice at a new beginning and fresh possibilities.
Where it had once been a long, hard, cold, relentless winter,
the spring of new life is finally here.
Because Jesus was raised on the third day, we will never see death the same way again.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Paul speaks of a day when that will come true, when death itself is finally and forever dead.
But the way Paul is talking–it’s so certain a fate for death, for it to be completely vanquished and drowned in new life… it’s so certain that he’s saying it’s true, in a sense, right now.
Through the resurrection of Jesus, death and evil have already been defeated.
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Christ’s resurrection proved that, when God is at work, “dead” isn’t really “dead.”
Feeling Defeated by Death
And yet, such an idea was the farthest thing from the minds of the disciples that weekend.
How long Good Friday to Easter Sunday must have felt that year!
When you lose a friend, a brother, a spouse, a parent, a child, someone you love… the day of your dear one’s death is painful. Agonizing. Unthinkable. Whether unexpected or expected, there’s always a quality of “this is not how it should be” when a loved one dies. So much still could have been… should have been.
Then there’s something about the second day that hurts even more. Maybe the initial shock is gone (though probably not really), and reality sets in a bit more. This death wasn’t a bad dream you woke up from. You’re still here, and your good friend, your valued family member is really gone.
I bet that second day–Saturday–was even more difficult for the disciples than the Friday when they watched Jesus die a criminal’s death.
Jesus was not just any loved one…he was, to his followers, a teacher and friend and humble servant, but he was also supposed to be their deliverer, their shepherd, their light, their life… NOT someone who just goes dying on them.
Was he not who they thought he was?
Was their promised deliverance, their offer of hope and a new life, just a farce?
Was Jesus just one among many other teachers claiming to be divine, but in reality, mortal like everyone else?
One of my favorite movies, and arguably the greatest sports movie of all time, is the movie Hoosiers. It’s based on the true story of a high school basketball team in rural Indiana who in 1954 won the state championship, beating much bigger and more established schools along the way.
And even though I know how it ends, I still watch it, probably at least once a year. “Did they win again?” I’ve often been asked after watching it for the umpteenth time.
It’s a little easier to watch through the suspense and nail-biting overtime games when I know the outcome. But for the characters in the movie, of course, the players and fans that the actors played, there was no guarantee of a good ending.
It’s hard for us to get at just what those women, characters in the story, must have been feeling as they went to the tomb. We know how this story ends. We know what (or, rather, who) is waiting for them at the tomb.
But they felt firmly wrapped in the grip of death, of disappointment, of shattered dreams, of hopes delayed or even demolished. Perhaps their trust had been severely misplaced, after all.
They’re blindsided when they see the angel, the empty tomb, and then… Jesus. That’s why Matthew says they are both filled with joy and scared out of their minds.
It’s not that they had weak faith, but Jesus was dead! Not just mostly dead, but dead dead.
Jesus had cheated death before by slipping through hostile crowds and, for all we know, dodging stones thrown his way, but this was not supposed to happen, or so his mourning disciples thought.
The Last Scene Was a Victory
But a tomb was not the last scene in this story.
The apostle Peter would later preach to a crowd in Acts, “But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.”
Death did not have dominion, mastery, or the power of intimidation over Jesus. Once Jesus got a hold of death, it would never be the same.
Through his miraculous coming-back-to-life, Jesus showed that even death cannot stop him. Through Jesus’ resurrection, Paul says, “Death [was] swallowed up in victory.” As one preacher wryly (but accurately) said, “Jesus beat the hell out of sin and death.”
And so “dead” for Jesus didn’t really mean “dead.” It wasn’t the end. There was life on the other side of it.
We who follow the risen Jesus, then, do not need to be afraid. Though death is maybe one of the scariest, or most painful things that many of us can think of, the Christian’s death does not actually end in death. We, too, have been raised with Christ.
As one Christian martyr put it:
The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves.’ I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ — in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection — are with God and God with them.
“Death has been swallowed up in” the victory of the life of Christ, a life in which we are invited to participate, a life which we can receive by believing in the risen Lord. As we see the living Jesus and hear his invitation to life, how else can we respond but to do what the two Marys did, and throw ourselves at him and praise him?
Death is cause for lament and mourning–you don’t go to a tomb to rejoice–yet just as death no longer has dominion over Jesus, it no longer shall have dominion over us.
Jesus’ resurrection means that death is no longer our intimidator, master, or schoolyard bully.
Evil loses, and death is dead.
Paul taunts death in the Corinthians passage, “Whatcha got, death? I’m alive with the resurrected Christ–how you like me now?”
Paul had to remind his church of the powerlessness of death, just like we need to remind ourselves, because it so often looks like death and sin and evil and inhumanity reign supreme in the world around us. Death and evil are still talking a big game.
But that’s all it is–it’s just talk.
Sin is no longer the undefeatable foe it might have once seemed to be. Evil is not inevitable. Death is not really the end.
We do not have to be afraid.
Through the victory of the resurrected Christ, the lifeless are made alive. Darkness becomes light.
Mourning turns to rejoicing.
Winter turns to spring.
The impossible becomes possible.
Dormant dreams can spring back to life again.
Good outcomes can result from bad things happening.
Because of Jesus’ decisive victory over the powers of evil and death,
even what looks like a cold and empty tomb
contains within it a glimmer of hope,
and the promise of new life.
The above is the sermon I preached on Easter Day 2014.