From Darkness to Dawn and Beyond
Easter is fittingly celebrated at dawn. The rising sun befits the rising of the S-o-n dispelling the darkness of death. But is this a one hour thing and tomorrow, tonight, or as soon as you go out the door the darkness returns? Is the 17th century proverb true? "Easter, so longed for is gone in a day" (James Howell). If that is true, if Easter is gone in a day, a month, a year than we are to be pitied more than all men.
Why? Because then we are left with a darkness that can be felt. Isaiah describes death as "the covering cast over all people, the veil that is spread over all nations." You've been in a nightmare before where you've been entangled in your sheets fighting to get out. But this is no dream and it's not only you. All people everywhere are enfolded in the sheet of death. The Grim Reaper doesn't show up only at the doors of the aged, the bedsides of the sick, or situations of peril. No, he's sitting right behind you; floating right above you. With medicine, safety devices, and technology we've pushed death to the recesses of our mind, but he isn't at play there. In 1960 when Aunt Alexandra says, "Somebody just walked over my grave," (To Kill a Mockingbird) people then knew the meaning of that 18th century saying. But not anymore. Only neurotic people think about death. Only morbid people think about it as being close. Though 1 Corinthians says, "In Adam all die", though Psalm 90 prays, "Teach us to number our days," if you take this seriously, you're considered strange.
The women at the tomb that first Easter took death seriously. They were prepared to breath deep its gathering gloom. They expected to smell the dankness of the tomb and see death up close. They went to anoint Jesus' corpse, so that meant unwinding the linen grave clothes and seeing what Isaiah 52:14 said: "His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness--." Go home Google, "boxer after fight pictures." Those are tame compared to what the women expected Death to have left behind. The shroud of death was wrapped around their hearts choking them.
One of Alexander Pope's Pastorals is titled Daphne. It is an ode to the tragic death of a much loved woman. "Let nature change, let heaven and earth deplore, fair Daphne's dead, and love is no more!" "Fair Daphne's dead, and beauty is no more!" "Now Daphne's dead, and pleasure is no more!" "Fair Daphne's dead, and sweetness is no more!" "Fair Daphne's dead, and music is no more!" That's the wretchedness and misery that enshrouds the hearts and souls of these women. Death is very real, very near and casts it's pall over all. It was irreversible and it was here.
If Death be here for you too, then dawn's arrival will be welcomed and relieving. See how Isaiah describes it in sensory terms: Since Death is swallowed up you can dine on rich food and aged wine. Since Death is swallowed forever tears are wiped and reproach removed. Here's how Paul says it, "As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive." Paul explains in Romans 4:25: "Christ was delivered over to death for our sins and has been raised for our justification." This is the Gospel in a nutshell. This is Good Friday and Easter morning. Christ was handed over by enemies, friends, and even His Father for our sins. Who's the "our" here? The "our" is you, me, him, her, all people in all times. It has to be that because Jesus carried away the sins of the world; He was a wrath removing sacrifice not just for the sins of believers, says John, but the sins of the world.
So the suffering, dying, and damning that is Good Friday is for our sins. What about the resurrection of the dead Jesus? It's for our justification says Paul. Who's the our there? Just me, just you, just us? Nope whomever the "our" Jesus was delivered over in place of is the same "our" He was raised to life for the justification of. That's what Paul says. No, wonder, that angel could send those women scurrying from the tomb to Jesus' unbelieving disciples. The great facts of Good Friday/Easter - that Jesus was betrayed to death for our transgressions and raised to life for our justification - can be proclaimed, are to be proclaimed to all because the objective facts of Rom. 4:25 is the only way you get to the subjective faith of the next verse: "Therefore having been justified out of faith, we have peace with God."
Follow that order. The women come to the tomb expecting darkness, death, and decomposition not believing anything but their Daphne is dead, dead, dead. But what do they find? An open grave, not a battered, bruised, beaten body but a young man, dressed in a festal white robe. And he was bearing the good news that Jesus who had been delivered over to death for the sins of the world had been raised to life proving that the debt of sin had been completely paid off. This changed everything. No longer could Satan, conscience, or others play the law card confronting them with this or that unkept law of God. The living Jesus had kept all of God's laws perfectly. No longer could Satan send the Grim Reaper creeping around their back door clutching a balance due notice. This risen Jesus is proof positive the balance was paid in full. "Alleluia" i.e. "Praise ye the Lord!"
But how do we go beyond Easter with "alleluia" on our lips? How might we die saying that ancient Hebrew word of praise? In our text the women didn't even make it out of the tomb with it. More about that later. For now, know that the darkness of Death that comes upon all men has in the words of the 7th century Collect been "overcome" by God through the Son and "opened the gate of everlasting life to us." In the words of the 16th century Christmas hymn, "The angel guards the gates [to Paradise] no more." You have an all access pass in Jesus' name.
Paul calls the risen Jesus, "The firstfruits of them that sleep." The firstfruits of a harvest guarantee the rest of the harvest. You know that. When you see the first tomato go ripe, you know that means all the other tomatoes are going to ripen for harvest. Paul also makes the equation: "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." All come out of their graves, the sea gives up all her dead. The resurrection of all flesh is guaranteed in Christ, but not all are raised to life. Some are raised to living death, think Zombies. Those baptized into Christ are raised to splash around in a stream of living water which is their Baptism; those who've despised their Baptism in life; those who've lived outside of it till death, are raised to forever drown in a lake of fire. But why do so many of the baptized live, act, fret as if their heading for a burning lake rather than a living stream?
We are to have at least as much hope in the resurrection as the pagan emperor Titus did. A Jewish rabbi relates that when Titus returned home from destroying Jerusalem in 71 A.D. he left his 10th legion behind in case the enemy dead did rise (Epstein, Judaism, 111). But the shroud of death that covers all is constantly flapping about us. Our physical bodies either through age or illness ever remind us that "You're only dancing on the earth for a short while." And our conscience convicts us that we don't live in Christ as He empowers us to. That's why 2 little words from our text take us beyond the darkness of death, beyond even the dawn of this new day, beyond what we could ever even imagine. Those two words? "And Peter". "But go, tell His disciples and Peter. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.'"
Though the disciples had cowardly fled from Jesus, He still refers to them as disciples. That's more than enough Good News to get you through your darkest day of failure, of deserting the faith you hold in Jesus. But there's more. The angel adds "and Peter." Tell Peter the one who promised though all the other disciples fall away, he never would. Tell Peter, the who said he would die rather deny his Lord. Tell Peter, the one who said, "I know not the Man." Tell Peter, the one who cursed himself with an oath that he didn't know Jesus at all. On the authority of those two little words, "And Peter", I can tell you that though you have denied your Lord by breaking hundreds of promises to do better; though you have thrown your Jesus under the bus by thousands of sinful deeds, words, and lusts; though you have damned yourself by curses, I am to tell you that Jesus was delivered over to death for your sins, and raised again for your justification. I am to tell you: Easter is for you. If the women are sent to the cowardly disciples and especially to denying Peter with the Good News of Easter I can be sent to you.
But what about the women? We know from the other accounts that the women eventually did tell the disciples that Jesus had risen, but what are we to make of "trembling", "bewildered" and "afraid"? These 3 words are found in Mark's Gospel in response to healings, miracles, and predictions of Jesus' suffering and death. These words bespeak of how deep the darkness they came with and how sudden and bright the light was. The main verb in the sentence is "And they fled from the tomb." The next clause explains why they fled using an imperfect verb "because they were having" 2 things: "trembling" and literally "ecstasy." The last clause uses another imperfect verb to explain why had these 2 things: "Because they were fearing." We don't have such responses because the Good News of resurrection is Old News to us. We're not as in touch with what Scripture calls "the last enemy", Death, so we don't experience trembling, confusion, and fear that comes from certain defeat by death suddenly turning into our victory.
If however today the certainty of our death and judgement is turned by Jesus' resurrection into eternal life, forgiven sin, and removed guilt, well, that's a whole nother world, isn't it? We're like cicadas who expected to come out of the dark dirt where we've been buried for the past 17 years to live our 2-6 weeks as winged wonders in light, only to find we're going to live forever in the light and our time in the dark dirt but a soon-forgotten breath on a glass. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of Our Lord (20190421); Mark 16: 1-8