Into the Tomb
Like a bell tolling is the phrase "into the tomb" throughout our text. In Greek it's the same 3 words. Translators don't translate them the same because they think sometimes the people are only meaning to go to the place of the tomb not into the tomb. The Holy Spirit knows better. No matter if they go in or not their focus is inside the tomb. Into the tomb goes Mary early. Into the tomb run Peter and John. Into the tomb John outruns Peter. Into the tomb Peter is the first to physically go. Into the tomb was John first but he's the second to physically go. Into the tomb, finally Mary goes with her eyes.
Into the tomb, into the tomb, into the tomb the bell tolls, but who wants to go into the tomb physically? Not Mary. She's the first one there all by herself. But the tomb being opened didn't cause her to cry out, "He is risen!" She thought something was terribly, frighteningly wrong. The open tomb didn't speak of resurrection, of Death defeated, but of grave robbers and desecration.
Into the tomb Mary doesn't even want to go with her eyes the first time. John's the first to do that, but he wants nothing to do with physically going into the tomb. He saw enough with his eyes. The grave linens and the burial cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus head were lying there but you can only see so much from only going into the tomb with your eyes.
Into the tomb Mary can't go even with her eyes; John can go only with his eyes; only Peter dares go into the tomb physically. So are you a Mary, John, or Peter? I'm a Mary. An open grave is not inviting but foreboding. In cemeteries it sometimes happens that the way to the grave for the person you're burying is close to the open grave of another. People always distance themselves from that one open grave rather then the closed ones all about them. No, it's not because they're afraid of falling in. It's because no one wants to look into let alone go into the tomb.
So who will go into the tomb physically? Famous Hollywood tough guy James Cagney knew who. He began his autobiography with this original verse, "'Each man starts with his very first breath/ To devise shrewd means for outwitting death'" (The Stuff of a Lifetime, 70). Into the tomb, into the tomb, into the tomb is a tolling bell some will try anything not to hear. Famous TV evil guy Larry Hagman was so bothered about going into the tomb that he couldn't function. His therapist told him to buy a coffin, put it in his house, and lay in it each day for an hour.
You think that's nuts. Hagman and Cagney were obsessed. No they were as anyone should be outside of Christ. According to Hebrews 2, outside of Christ it is the Devil who has the power of death, and through fear of death, through fear of going into the tomb, the Devil keeps men enslaved all their earthly lives and then for all eternity.
Like a giant vacuum in a kid's movie, like a black hole in science fiction, or like the open mouth of hell in horror movies we're being sucked into the tomb. We dig in our heels; we lean against the suction, we grab for the things of this life. We try to hold on to good things like marriage, family, health to keep from being sucked in. We try things like booze, drugs, sex, money to take our mind away from the thought that we're being sucked into the tomb. But it's to no avail inch by inch we're going.
But even here, those outside of Christ don't necessarily despair. They conclude that the problem is this body that in every case gets old, in some cases gets sick, and in all cases dies. The body is the problem, death releases them from the body, and so that's the end of their troubles. The body going into the tomb is not a problem then; it's a solution. They think all that is necessary to redeem the soul from the power of sin and death is to separate it from the body. Sorry, the problems of sin and death are rooted in your very soul. You go into the tomb without these being overcome and your problems have only just begun.
Into the tomb we're all going. There was one Man born of a woman who didn't have to go into the tomb. It was Jesus. Born of a woman, but without a human father, Jesus had no original sin infecting His soul and no actual sin manifesting itself in His body. So He didn't have to go into the tomb; didn't have to die; didn't have to be buried; didn't have to be sealed in a stone cold tomb. But He did, and He did it for you.
You can sort of get this. You can see how a father could send one son to rescue other sons and daughters even if it cost him his life. But that's not the story. The sons and daughters needing rescue were estranged from their Father. Romans 5 says we were ungodly, enemies of His. Think of someone hurting you and not being sorry for it but still laughing about it. That's us sons and daughters the heavenly Father sent His only beloved Son into the tomb to get. But the only way He could get to us is to live the life we should be living and to die the death we deserve to.
And He did that! All the reasons Death has a legitimate claim on you, Jesus took care of. All the reasons you should go into the tomb and slide all the way into the depths of hell, Jesus took care of. The only reason Jesus died was for you, to pay your bills, once they were paid neither Sin, Death, nor Devil had a claim on Him. That's why those grave cloths are empty. That's why that face cloth is not just unwrapped from Jesus' head but folded neatly. That's why the place where Jesus' lay is a new mercy seat.
All this is Good News but you might not understand any of it because I got ahead of myself. So far I've said no one wants to go into the tomb and yet we will all eventually go into the tomb. The next thing to find out is who will come out of the tomb physically? All will. That's what Jesus says in John 5. All who go into the tomb will one day come out. Doesn't matter how, where, believer, unbeliever all who go into the tomb will come out of it. But that's where the similarity ends. Some will come out of the tomb to everlasting living others to everlasting dying. Some in glorified bodies others as zombies; some will rise shouting Easter joy from fresh pink lips; others will rise coughing and spiting dirt from shriveled ashen lips.
So what's the difference? I said it doesn't matter how you go into the tomb or where you go into the tomb; what matters is who you go into the tomb with. You go into the tomb with Jesus; you come out the way He did. Now we're back to the grave linens, the folded face cloth, and the new mercy seat.
John tells us Jesus was buried after the burial custom of the Jews with about 75 pounds of linen, myrrh, and aloe. They dipped the strips of linen in myrrh and aloe and wrapped each appendage, and then wrapped one big cloth around the whole body and lastly wrapped the head alone in another cloth.
Come into the tomb. See the linens lying there. They aren't unwound. Mary will see that eventually when she sees one angel at the head another at the feet of Jesus. If they were unwound, they'd be scattered; they're not. They are intact in the shape of a body, but sunken because there is no body there. Jesus has risen. The glorified human body Jesus rises with is not bound by space and time. He passed through the grave cloths and through the walls of the tomb even as He will pass through locked doors next Sunday.
Go back into the tomb; see the cloth Mary and John had seen wrapped around Jesus' head. There it is neatly folded. Grave robbers couldn't get a body out of grave linens without unwrapping them and they certainly wouldn't take time to fold a face cloth. The Man who took the time to do that wasn't in a hurry, wasn't scared, wasn't bothered being in the tomb.
You're not done yet. Back into the tomb. God has angels here to punctuate His point. One sits at Jesus' head the other at His feet. Read the description of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. On the lid, which was called the mercy seat, were cherubim on either end. The mercy seat is where the blood of atonement was poured so that God who dwelled above the Ark in a cloud would not see the 10 Commandments kept in the Ark, the Commandments that accused and convicted the Israelites of having broken them.
But the blood of an animal can't really atone for or cover anything, but the blood of God atones for all and covers everything, and that's what Jesus poured out on Calvary's cross, and the Father shows you that He sees this by pointing out that the risen Jesus is the new mercy seat; the place where sinners can go to find their sins atoned for and covered for good.
Go into the tomb with Jesus and you'll come out as He did. How can you go into the tomb with Jesus? By Baptism. Paul says in Romans 6: "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk about in a new life." So how did Jesus walk about after Easter? Was Sin hanging over His head yet to be paid for? No. Was Death waiting to swallow Him? No. Was the Devil threatening Him with un-kept laws? No.
That's how you get to walk about since you're joined to Jesus' death and resurrection by your Baptism. Walk about knowing you will rise through Death's strong bands as easily as Jesus did through the rock walls of the tomb. Walk about no more worried about Sin hanging over your head still needing to be paid for then Jesus was on Easter morning. Walk about certain that the Devil has no more power over those who go into the tomb with Jesus then he has over Jesus.
The Catholics have an expression the "odor of sanctity" which refers to those going into the tomb in a state of grace. Originally it referred to "A heavenly fragrance said to emerge from the tombs of the blessed" (Browser's Dictionary, 278). Into the tomb go, the empty Easter one, and take a deep breath. You'll smell forgiveness not sins, mercy not judgment, life not death. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of our Lord (20140420); John 20: 1-18