A Sermon for Easter Day (04/04/21): The Empty Tomb

 



The Empty Tomb

Mark 16:1-8


The first Easter morning is fundamentally different from every subsequent Easter morning. We don’t and we can’t approach the tomb as a place of disappointment and despair. There is no way for us to unknow what we have already heard about what the women find there. We already know what they do not know, because they haven’t experienced it yet. Every Easter morning we show up at the tomb, knowing what we are going to find there. Or rather we come knowing what we are not going to find. We come glad and expecting, anticipating the joyful celebration of new life that Easter is. That is not how and why, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome approach the tomb. They too think they know what they will find when they get to the tomb. They will find the earthly remains of their master sealed in the ground behind a great stone. 
The women, in contrast to all the other disciples, the women at least have commitment. They are committed enough to Jesus to be drawn back to him, even when all that is left is a corpse. When there is nothing else left to them, they still want to offer their last acts of care, and love, to someone who means so much to them. They want to be with Jesus, even a defeated, dead Jesus. Their desire, their longing to be with him is strong enough to overcome the fear that keeps the others away. Even what Jesus has given to them in their relatively short time together is something that they want to hold onto and nurture. They want to honour their martyred master. So on Saturday evening they had gone out: 
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 
Then early on Sunday morning, as soon as it was light enough for them to find their way through the unfamiliar city, they set off:
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen they went to the tomb.

It is perhaps worth speculating for a moment, who or what Jesus would be with out the resurrection? We can indulge in some counter-factual thinking. What if when the women got to the tomb they had found what they were expecting? What if when they went to the place where Joseph of Arimathea had put Jesus on Friday night, he was still there, behind the stone which Joseph had rolled across the tomb’s entrance. What if the only problem they had on Sunday morning was the one that had been talking about on their way.
They had been saying to one another, “who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 
My impression of these women is that they are determined and resourceful. Their desire to pay their last respects to their master was such that they would have found someone or something. They would have found a way to gain access to what remained of Jesus. They would have found a way to use the spices they had brought with them to do the last thing on earth they could for Jesus.
And then what? There are of course no shortage of inspiring, but dead, teachers and leaders. There are many wise and insightful individuals whose lessons have lived on, long after they have departed this life. There are numerous movements which bear the name of a long deceased founder. And they the teachings of those who died for what they taught, the lessons of the martyrs are particularly powerful. Would the the two Marys and Salome have become the keepers of Jesus’ legacy In this counter-factual world we are imagining, it is possible to speculate that beginning with the women who came to the tomb on that Sunday morning there would be “Jesusism.”
It is entirely plausible to to think that there would continue to be those who admired, and respected and even acted upon the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or who were inspired by his philosophical insights. Indeed there are people around us who would be prepared to accept Jesus that way. There are who say can admire Jesus the teacher. There are those who acknowledge the depth of Jesus’ insight, and the injustice of his life cut short. There are those who would place the historical Jesus alongside other great and inspiring thinkers and teachers of the past. There are those who are happy to act as if when the stone was rolled away Jesus was still there and the women were able to do what they were expecting to.

This of course is all counter-factual. There is one detail of the Easter story which is actually undisputed. There is one feature of what the women found on Sunday morning which has never been seriously challenged even by Jesus’ opponents at the time, the very people who had had him killed on Friday. The tomb is empty. When the women get there, Jesus isn’t! Just as we can’t think ourselves into the mood of disappointment and despondency which the women experienced as the approached the tomb, neither can we share their alarm when they get there. We already know what they it cannot come to us as a shock or even a surprise. 
The Easter story is that the tomb is empty! But it takes divine revelation to explain what that means. We are meant to take the “young man dressed in white” as an angel. That is we are meant to understand that he is a messenger from God. He offers to the women the truthful explanation of what they are seeing. His explanation is what makes Easter Easter:
You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here. Look there is the place they laid him.” 
That there is a tomb is a clear declaration that Jesus did die. The end result of his crucifixion on Friday was his death. What is more, the women have come to the right place. This is not somebody else’s tomb. It is not empty because it is, as yet, unoccupied, unused. But as it turns out they have come to the wrong place, because Jesus isn’t here. The evidence which the women are asked to pay attention to is the reality of Jesus’ death. They are invited to look at the place where his body had been laid. But they are also told to recognise his absence from that place. The absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb demands an explanation. The “angel” provides the explanation:
He has been raised.
This is the acclamation which we make: He is risen, he is risen indeed!
For just a moment the tomb becomes the most important place in the world. But then, just as quickly it becomes irrelevant. And on both occasions it is for the same reason. Those things are so, because Jesus wasn’t there, and he still isn’t. Christ is alive!

The story will move on. For the women in a sense it will come full circle. For them, their time with Jesus, their experience of him, their discipleship to him, began in Galilee, and it is to there they and the other disciples must return. The “angel” gives them an instruction:
Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.
The place of their ongoing commitment to Jesus is not the tomb. If they believe in Jesus they must go back to Galilee. The call of their discipleship, after the resurrection, is back to the place of their everyday lives. The sphere in which they, and indeed any disciple, will encounter the risen Jesus, is in ordinary life. And as with everything relating to Jesus, this is exactly as he had been saying all along. This is exactly as Jesus predicted, and therefore we can infer, exactly as he intended.
But the curious twist in this story is the women’s reaction. They could approach a dead Jesus. In their disappointment and regret they could go to a tomb. They could overcome their fear of the risks attendant to being associated with a crucified criminal. Which is a fear that the male disciples couldn’t overcome, hence their absence from this scene. But the empty tomb, the lack of Jesus’ body, the prospect of a living Jesus absolutely terrifies them and drives them from this place. A dead teacher can inspire. But a dead teacher is safe. There will be no surprises with a master who is already safely in the grave. All that they are ever going to tell you and everything that they will ever ask you to do is already written down in black and white. It can be controlled. It can be managed. It can be held at a safe distance where it won’t overwhelm you. The risen Jesus is a different prospect altogether. He might send you back to what was your everyday life, but you can’t know what you will find what you get there. Meeting him alive in those circumstanceshe can tell you something you don’t know, and ask you to do something you didn’t expect. He can’t be managed. He can’t be controlled. He will never be held at a safe distance, so that there is a good chance he may overwhelm you. No wonder the women were terrified! 
The empty tomb, and the resurrection it testifies to, leaves us with a challenge. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to respond? It requires us to answer a question, with our lives: What is the difference between being inspired by a dead teacher and following a living Saviour?
Amen.


The Empty Tomb by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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