As I am between (I hope!) calls, I attended church yesterday with extended family, with whom my husband and I were visiting for his mom’s 85th birthday. But I miss preaching! And so . . . here’s last year’s sermon:
Empty Tomb, Overflowing Love
The stone sealing the tomb – it was heavy. The tomb contained a body, laid there just day before yesterday. And now, this morning: the stone rolled away, the tomb empty – what do these things mean?
The gospel of Luke doesn’t offer us many clues.
When we read this story, we are often left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with a sense that much of the story is missing, with an empty feeling of having been left hanging. It’s a simple story which makes a big claim – but what is Luke trying to tell us?
There are some women, three of them named –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna – and at least two of them not named. They have prepared spices with which to tend to the body of their beloved friend Jesus, the one who was killed by crucifixion two days earlier.
They arrive at the cemetery, they find the cave-like tomb open, and inside, instead of the broken body for which they hope to care, they are confronted by two men, dressed in dazzling clothing, who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but he is risen.” Then the men remind them of what Jesus had told them in the past about this event – that he would be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again.
The women do remember, and so they leave to find the other disciples, and to tell them what has happened. The other disciples don’t believe them; they call the women’s story “an idle tale,” or “nonsense.” But Peter, apparently wanting to see for himself, dashes to the graveyard to look inside the tomb and then, finding nothing but the grave clothes lying limply where a body should be, goes home.
And that’s it. That’s the story as we have it from Luke.
It’s not much of a plot to go on: We have a few individuals, several of them not even named, in a desolate setting, having some sort of supernatural encounter, hearing the words “He has risen.”
And we have the verbs that the gospel writer used to describe these few people, these few followers of a man who has been killed and whose body has now mysteriously disappeared. Depending upon your translation, the women and the other disciples are variously described as:
Perplexed. Terrified. Frightened. Amazed. Wondering.
Maybe those are our clues as to what Luke is trying to tell us. These words, these responses:
He has risen. Confusion and fear and amazement. The women, ridiculed. Peter, so stunned that he . . . goes back home. They had been told, by Jesus himself, that this would happen but, come on! As another preacher has said, and I wish I could take credit for this one, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what CAN you count on?”
You can’t count on the dead to stay dead. You can’t count on bodies to stay in tombs. You can’t count on people to remember what they’ve been told, or to understand what they see with their own eyes.
What you CAN count on is that God is not stymied by heavy stones, or dark tombs, or human confusion or fear. What you CAN count on is that God is not bound by the old, and most definitely not defeated by death.
What you CAN count on is that God is doing a completely new thing. A completely different thing. Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend.
Something so vast, so powerful, so all-encompassing, that we can only begin to grasp it by allowing ourselves, like Jesus’ first disciples, women and men alike, to be perplexed and terrified and frightened
And to wonder: What force has been unleashed in the world, what power is so grand, that it has emptied a tomb?
There is only one such force in the entire universe, and that is the force of love.
What that empty tomb represents, what those limp and useless grave clothes tell us, is this: That things are not as they were. History has been challenged. The course of events for all of creation has been altered by a God who will. not. be. satisfied. to let sin and destruction and hopelessness and death have the last word. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, God’s kingdom of love reigns over all other kingdoms of self-centeredness and acquisitiveness and materialism and manipulation and politics and violence.
The disciples don’t seem to have understood all of this at once. How could they have? We don’t understand it ourselves, 2,000 years later. I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ followers talked about among themselves that morning after they went home. I imagine that much of the conversation was like that which follows any death. “What now?” And that it was heightened by the missing body. And by the words of those dazzling men, whom we presume to have been angels: “Remember what he told you.”
Perhaps as they sat together, made breakfast, drank their coffee, expressed their fears to one another, perhaps those early followers of Jesus recalled not only his words, but other words they had learned. Who knows? Perhaps they even recalled those other words given to us this morning, from the prophet Isaiah:
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. . . . 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 build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. . . . 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. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
New heavens and a new earth. Joy. Delight. The building of houses and the planting of vineyards and the lusciousness of fruit. The peaceful cooperation of those who were once predator and prey. The absence of hurt and destruction. A God who answers before we call. A God who hears before we speak.
No wonder Luke leaves us hanging on Easter morning, pauses us in a moment of stunned silence. No wonder the women and men who followed Jesus are a bit bewildered and lost, wandering back to their homes in a state of confused apprehension. No wonder. No wonder at all.
The wonder is not that they respond as they do. The wonder is reserved for what has happened. Death has been conquered. Love has triumphed.
Jesus has completely, powerfully, overwhelmingly, defeated death by transforming it into life.
Jesus has taken the horror of death — the torment, the bodily disintegration, the despair, the grief – and demolished them all. He has begun the work of the new creation; in his rising he has flung open the door that leads to the light and life of new heavens and a new earth, to the full presence of God in which we, too, will be transformed by love.
That tomb? It’s empty. Those grave clothes? Useless. Those befuddled disciples? Witnesses to something so new that they could not yet grasp it, not on that perplexing, terrifying, amazing morning.
But pouring, rushing, overflowing from that empty tomb and into the universe: a love so complete, so powerful, so creative that it rises victorious over all that threatens to harm or break or destroy . . . a love that destroys even death.
Go ahead: Be stunned. Be amazed. But be NOT afraid. Because love wins.
 Anna Carter Florence quoted by David Lose in Working Preacher