(Luke 24: 1-12)
There is a place in the vast expanse of the universe that has within it, quite literally, nothing. No planets, no stars, no renegade asteroid. Nothing. A massive void, nearly a billion light-years in diameter. For the record, one light year is the distance light travels in a year; roughly six trillion miles. Multiply that by a billion, and that’s the size of this void in our universe.
Now I have no way of comprehending something that big. But you know what’s even harder? Comprehending something that big with nothing in it. I mean, how is that even possible? Surely the scientists missed a lone planet or star, right? It’s got to have something in there. And yet, the data is conclusive: this billion-light year void way out in space is 100% empty.
How do you think something that empty feels? It’s an odd question – we don’t typically think of space in terms of feelings. But what does a billion light year void in our universe feel like? What kind of words come to mind – Cold? Alone? Hopeless? Isolated? What would it feel like to be right in the middle of a cosmic heap of nothing?
Empty space. An empty tomb. A universe of nothing. A tomb of nothing.
“Perplexed” is the word Luke uses to describe the emptiness the women feel when they enter the tomb on Easter morning. Perplexed. Because it’s not what they expected to find there. They expect a body, because that is what you find in tombs. A tomb without a body in it is….well, it’s just empty space, isn’t it? They expect to find the body of Jesus there and, as is their custom, anoint that body with the spices they brought. Instead, they find the stone rolled away and an empty tomb.
How do you think Mary Magdalene feels in the midst of this nothingness – that agonizing sting when a loved one dies; when the space someone close to you used to occupy is now vacant? She is in the middle of a week-long period of mourning, as is their custom. They all are. And now, just three days removed, she has come to the tomb, armed with those spices; the ritual of her faith being the only thing filling the void. She expects to find Jesus’ body there. And what does she find instead? Nothing. Just a pile of empty burial cloths.
We all encounter “massive voids” at some point in life, and we know all too well what it feels like: the abandoned space when things that used to be are no more. It happens when we give our heart to someone who doesn’t give theirs back. It happens when we practice and practice and practice, and still don’t make the team. It happens when we wake up the day after being let go from our job wondering what in the world we’re going to do. It happens when everything seems to always work against us. It happens when everything changes, and yet nothing ever seems to change.
We try, of course, to convince ourselves that the emptiness is not there. We do this because the world you and I live in does not always look kindly upon empty things. So we try and tell ourselves and others, Everything is fine, just fine. We’ve managed real well since the funeral. Oh, we have plenty in the bank account. No, no, we’re not depressed. Mom and Dad – they’re getting along great. We’re not anxious one bit about life after our youngest graduates. We’re fine. Just fine.
Except at some level, we’re not. Because even our most well-crafted and well-intentioned responses and rituals cannot fill the emptiness. These huge cold spots; massive voids. Coming to the tomb and finding no body there. How does that make you feel?
They were perplexed, scripture tells us. Do ya think?! This is not what happens! From the time they were tiny children, from that moment when they first understood the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death, they knew the harsh and iron-clad truth of it all: tombs have bodies in them. So yes, they were perplexed, and certainly other things. Confused. Discombobulated. Terrified. When the gospel of Matthew talks about an “earthquake” at the tomb on Easter morning, it very well could’ve been the earthquake going off in Mary’s mind!
Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear before them. More perplexing; more confusion! Don’t you see? From the minute these women set foot on that sacred ground, from the minute they peered inside the empty tomb, they were stepping into uncharted territory. There’s no manual for this, no previous experience to guide their way.
The question those men asked; posed in the context of billions of light years of emptiness for women still trying to make sense of an empty tomb. The question they asked:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Why were they looking for the living among the dead? Better yet, was it even the living they were looking for? They had come to the tomb that morning to anoint a body, three days dead. And yet the shiny guys asked them why they were looking there for the living. Is it possible that those women did not fully understand what they were looking for that Easter morning? Is it possible that we don’t, either?
So why, friends? Why? Why do we come to this place, on this Easter Sunday? Is it because we’re supposed to – put on our Easter Sunday best, gather with family, walk through these doors, celebrate the resurrection, sing with conviction Jesus Christ Is Risen Today? Is it just because this is what we do?
Yes – but I’d like to think it’s more than that. I’d like to think that we, like Mary and the others, have this deep longing, this insatiable need, to have the massive void filled. Because we were not created to live in emptiness. We long to find life in places where there once was only death.
For the past six Sundays, through this Lenten sermon journey we’ve been on together, we’ve asked ourselves what it is we are prepared to die to: Pride. Greed. Apathy. Fear. Envy. Power. These things deserve to die, because they are things that get in between us and God, get in between us and each other.
But if this day has anything to say to us, friends, it is that it is not enough to simply die to something. We also need something to live for. The massive void longs to be filled. So after these six weeks of asking what we are prepared to die to, on this Easter morning we now ask: are we prepared to live? Are we prepared to live?
It sounds like a simple question. It is anything but. For living, real living, is not as easy as it might seem. Especially in this world of ours, this Good Friday world; a world that embraces death, embraces the void. Sees the worst come out in people. Broken systems that work against the common good, divides growing wider and wider, failed and unfulfilled promises. Life in a Good Friday world.
So what, people of God, what does it look like to live as Easter people in a Good Friday world?
I want to suggest to you this morning – and I know this is going to seem a strange parallel but just work with me here – I want to suggest to you that it looks something like this picture I once saw in a Sports Illustrated magazine. Voted one of the top 100 sports photos of all time. The picture was taken in the closing seconds of Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. The prominent focus of the picture is the back of superstar Michael Jordan, that familiar 23 on his jersey. He’s attempting a shot: his right arm extended, basketball hanging in mid-air, the goal off in the distance a bit, the clock above the goal showing 6.6 seconds left in the game.
Now, looking back at the picture, we know what’s going to happen. We know the ball’s going to go in; that the shot will clinch the win and eventually help them clinch their first ever world championship. We know what’s going to happen. But in the moment that camera shutter clicks, none of that has happened yet. And so we are stuck in the moment. The ball is frozen in mid-air. The basket is empty – it is a massive void of nothing. And you feel the weight of that nothingness as you look at the sea of people in the stands behind the basket, all kinds of people. They all look lost in the void – all eyes on the ball in the air, mouths wide open, arms tucked in, hands clenched, some even held in prayer. Like those women at the tomb, they are all lost in that billion-light year emptiness.
All except for one. If you look closely, you can see in the picture this one boy, around ten years old, roughly six people to the right of the right corner of the backboard. He’s wearing a black cap and he has on a black Bulls jersey over a white t-shirt. He’s hard to find at first, but when you finally see him it’s hard not to. That’s because while everyone else is looking so lost in the empty void, this ten-year old kid is the only one – the only one – whose arms are already raised in celebration, his face lit up in joy, as if the basketball has already gone in. Because for him, it has. For him, the emptiness has been filled.
That’s what it’s like to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. That is how we prepare to live. We celebrate and live into that which the world does not yet know has come to pass. Where most see emptiness, we see fulfillment. Where most see absence, we see the greatest presence. Where most see pain and suffering and brokenness with no end in sight, we see the beginnings of God’s transformative work.
And our whole purpose as Easter people is to not just enjoy our own resurrection celebration and keep it to ourselves, but to go out into our Good Friday world and, with God’s help, make God’s kingdom on earth a reality in the here and now, with our love, with our fearlessness, with our work for justice and with our compassion – so it is not just our arms raised in celebration.
Why does anyone look for the living among the dead? He is not there, people. He is risen. He is risen indeed!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.