Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George's, Middlesex Centre, 23 March, 2008
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1)
The first thing we need to understand is that there was a stone. In the resurrection story, in each of the four gospels, the stone is mentioned. It was a big stone, a boulder. It needed to be large enough to close an opening that, at the very least, would have allowed a crouching man to enter. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told that Joseph of Arimathea had a “great stone” rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus (Mt 27:60). Matthew adds that the stone is there to stay, because the chief priests have it “sealed” to prevent the disciples from stealing the body (Mt 28:66). In Mark’s gospel, the women want to go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, but they know that they will need someone to “roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb” because the stone is “very large” (Mk 16:3).
Today we don’t use stones to seal graves, but we still seal them. Stand by a graveside after the family and the mourners have left, and you’ll see the men in coveralls come out from hiding. While the funeral directors watch attentively, the truck is positioned and the vault lid is hoisted down into place. The hydraulic crane makes it look light, until you hear the thud as the lid falls into place. Then the green astroturf covers are removed from the mounded dirt, and the backhoe gets ready to do it’s work, sealing the vault with the weight of all that earth. It’s done quickly and efficiently, and there’s a kind of ministry to it as these men close the graves of our loved one and make it possible to nature to do it’s healing work. Grass will grow, the wound in the earth will heal, and the place will become peaceful. But it’s impossible to watch this work and not be tempted to think, how final this is, how irreversible it is is. In this respect, the vaults and lids of our loved one’s graves, like the stone in front of Christ’s grave, underscore the terrible reality of death. Death, like stone and concrete, is real, cold, heavy, and final.
If you’ve ever stood beside a bed in a hospital or a nursing home after a death, you will know this feeling. Slowly it dawns on you that the person you loved is gone from you, removed as surely as if they had been sealed behind a great stone. I well remember the feeling last October as I helped my brothers empty my father’s room after his death. We worked mechanically, each of us aware of the terrible finality of the moment. The man who had raised us, inspired us, and loved us was gone. To be sure we had memories, we had his example, and we had some keepsakes, but our father was gone. No more corny puns, no more chances to say I love you, no more squeezes of his hand. The great rock that separates us from the dead had been rolled into place and sealed him away from us.
Given the reality of death, it’s difficult for many Christians to take Easter that seriously. I personally know some who tell me that it’s ridiculous to believe in the resurrection. Such people might say that Easter is merely a poetic way of saying that Jesus lives in our hearts and lives as a spiritual presence, like my father lives by example and memory to me and my brothers. But tell such people that a great stone was rolled away, that Jesus returned from the land of the dead, and you are asking too much of them.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1). Last week, when we were watching the vault cover being lowered in the cemetery at St. George’s, I remarked to Jeremy that it looked heavy, and I said I hoped the angels on the Day of Judgement were strong ones. It was a small joke, but I went home and I came across a book on Easter which had a remarkable picture, a medieval painting by Nicholas of Verdun. As in many other ancient and medieval illustrations of the resurrection, Jesus is emerging, not from a cave, but from what looks like a stone vault or sarcophagus. A heavy looking lid has been tossed to one side, as casually as a sleeper might throw back the covers in the morning. The figure of Jesus is muscular, his expression determined as he raises his hands to heaven in triumph and thanksgiving.
This picture reminded me of the force behind the event that John is describing. The Easter story begins with this sign that God has done the unbelievable. That great rock, so final, so immovable, has been brushed aside by God’s power. All through our Lenten journey these last six weeks we’ve heard hints of this power: water that quenches thirst forever, mud and spit which heals a blind man, the breath that brings dead bones to life, the voice that calls Lazarus from his tomb. All these stories have suggested what God has sent Christ to do. Now the promise is fulfilled. The rock is moved. Jesus is walking in the garden. Death has no dominion. Nothing is beyond the power of God.
Last week I came across the Easter sermon by Bishop Bethelhem Nopece, the Anglican Bishop of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, and he began with these four words, “No Easter, no faith”. These are words that challenge preacher and congregation in the clearest and starkest of terms. Bishop Nopece stands in a long line of preachers who tell us to believe big or go home. The first in this line is of course, St. Paul, who writes that "And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our preaching is useless and so is your faith ... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all people. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Cor 15:12-20ff).
Both Paul and Bishop Bethlehem are telling us to believe big or go home. If we don’t want to accept a God who blows the lids off graves and brings the dead to life, then our preaching and our worship our empty. But if we want a Saviour who can move boulders, revive hopes and bring us to life, then our worship is glorious and our hopes our rich and we are to be envied, not pitied.
Go forth and believe big. Ask God to remove the biggest boulders in your lives: the stones that keep our hearts from loving, the boulders that we can’t let go of because of our guilt and shame, the heavy rocks of grief that lock us away from the world. When these stones seem too big for you, you’ll find a muscular and living Saviour, putting his shoulder to them and rolling them away, and calling you forth into the light.
Go forth today and love big. The love of Jesus for us was so big that he went to the cross for us. His love for us was so strong that it brought him back from the dead, because he knew that there were people like Mary in the garden, like you and I, that needed his love. Receive his love, draw strength from it, and share it with others.
Go forth today and trust big. For those of us with loved ones on the other side, who have let them go behind the heavy lid of death, don’t lose heart. Nothing can keep us from the love of God and the life of God. Those rocks and stones will be moved, and the dead will be raised.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1). Alleluia, Christ is risen.
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