(John 20: 1-18)
I’m wondering this morning if you have ever lost something that was so precious and dear to you, so cherished that you did not think you would be able to live without it; and how you’d give anything – anything – to have it back? Have you ever missed something like that so badly?
Because I’m telling you, as I stood outside the tomb that morning all those years ago, I was drowning in my loss. They had taken my Lord and my savior, and I did not know where they had put him. It was all I could think about. He was all I could think about. I had lost Jesus once already on the cross. And now, gazing into an empty tomb, I realized that I had lost him all over again.
Rising out of bed long before sunrise and going to the tomb that morning was the last thing I wanted to do. You understand, don’t you? If I had my druthers, I would’ve stayed in bed all day long. Hiding like a recluse from the new day – a day that would do nothing but remind me, excruciatingly so, all that had happened in just three days: Jesus captured and tried and executed as a criminal; put to death by the Roman empire and all those who greet the power of love and justice with contempt and hate.
I had been forced to face his death alone because everyone else ran away. I stood my ground. I was there when he breathed his last; I was there when they sealed him in that cold dark cave, entombing not just him but all the hope and light and love that he was to us, that he was to me. I had been there for every bit of it, and now I just wanted to stay away from it all.
So no, it was not at all what I wanted to do that morning; to go and anoint his dead body, as is our Jewish custom. But I did it anyway. I did it for him; only for him. Even in his death, I still walked where he led. And so as I made my way along that winding path with the new day sun peeking around rock and trees, I prepared for the onslaught on my senses – the smell of decay, the sight of decomposing flesh, the sound of silence that finds its home in graves. All reminding me of the unforgiving truth that I was still very much coming to grips with – that Jesus, my teacher and preacher, my Lord and Savior, my master and friend, was dead.
And how ironic, sadly so, that it was only in his death that we were finally able to see the fullness of his life. See it in a way we had not seen before, even though we had seen it all. Jesus, filling the jars with new wine at the wedding, wine that was even better than what was in them before, saving the best till last. Jesus, healing the centurion’s son and the crippled man, and in so doing showing us that God’s love is truly meant for everyone. Jesus, feeding the thousands of hungry with an abundance we never even knew we had; walking on water and lifting Peter right out of his very failure. Jesus, giving sight to one who had never seen before, and exposing as blind those who had made such a great pretense of seeing. Jesus, walking up to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, a tomb not all that different from the one I was walking to now, and somehow bringing life out of death, Lazarus walking out, burial cloths falling off. All of it, grace upon grace upon grace!
It is a heavy heart that leads you to the tomb of the one you loved. But trust me – it is a heavier heart still when you get there and find the tomb empty.
Empty! What does one do with an empty tomb? What does one do when they lose someone all over again?
They have taken my Lord and my savior, and I don’t know where they put him.
Loss can sometimes feel like a frequent companion on the journey, can it not? The empty tombs of our own making. Loss of a loved one. Loss of innocence. Loss of a relationship, a job. Loss of what is familiar and comfortable; loss of a sense of what is trustworthy and true, loss of peace and hope and love.
Loss creates in us a void that is near impossible to fill on it’s own. That is why we loved Jesus so; because he came to fill that void. And he did – until he, too, was lost to us.
So lost was I in that moment that the only thing I knew to do was to go back where I came from. I went back and told the others, and they come running to the tomb with me to see what I had seen – or not seen, as it were. Peter, and the “other disciple,” the one who ran faster than the rest of us. So fast that apparently John could not remember his name when he wrote his gospel! Funny, isn’t it, how we all seem to go our own pace on the journey that leads to the empty tomb. Some take more time; others cannot get there fast enough. But in the end we’re all there together, looking in at what is noticeably not there anymore.
They see it all – the moved stone, the open tomb, the folded burial cloths. One of them says he believes – but what, exactly? What does he believe? He doesn’t say, he just runs away, so excited. Me? I am as lost as ever.
And that is when the gardener finds me. Finds me all alone, finds me weeping my eyes out. And this gardener asks me what’s wrong. He asks me who I am looking for. So I tell him, as I’ve told them all what seems like a million times:
They have taken my Lord and my Savior, and I don’t know where they put him.
And I ask this gardener, beg him practically, that if he is the one who has taken my Jesus, if he has put his body somewhere, to just let me know where, so I can go with my ointment and anoint his body and be done with it. Just grant this one favor, please. One small grace so I can have some closure and entomb Jesus in my heart for good.
He just looks at me, for what seems like forever. And then he speaks, one word:
And that is the moment when I find all I had ever been looking for. Not lost, but found. Not dead, but alive!
Tell the others, he says to me. And so I do. I run back – again – and tell everyone that I have seen the risen Lord! Seen him with my own two eyes; heard him with my own two ears. Jesus – not lost, but found. Not dead, but alive! I tell them all, and they listen to me. And they go and tell others the story. And those others tell even more. And it keeps going and going. It keeps going to this very day – in fact, that’s why we are here this morning, we are still telling the story I first told all those years ago. The story of a man crucified and a stone moved and an empty tomb and folded burial cloths, and a gardener who was no gardener and Jesus calling me by name and being alive all over again.
What was lost is found, and what was found finds us so lost. That’s how I see it. Because we all are lost in some way, are we not? Every last one of us, just trying to figure out who we are, what we’re here for, what this life, this wonderful, precious, amazing-gift-of-a-life means. Trying to make sense of a world that is lost, a world where jars are running on empty, and human bodies are broken, and stomachs are hungry, and thirst goes unquenched, and hearts ache for love.
That is why Jesus came out of his grave, a grave that simply could not hold him in one moment longer. He came to find us and tell us that we are no longer lost, that love – real, radical love – can never die.
They say this day, this morning is a miracle. And it is. But do you know the real miracle of Easter? It is not that Jesus walked out of a tomb. It is not that one man defied death. True, those are amazing things, but they are not the whole story. They can never be. Too often we fashion Easter into an event confined to a single day on the calendar, we make it into a holiday, an occasion for dressing up and gathering together and reveling in this glorious moment of victory and triumph – and then the next day, everything goes back to the way it was before.
But Easter is about more than one day, more than one man walking out of a tomb. It is about Jesus, resurrected, calling us out of our tombs, tombs we fashion ourselves and so willingly shut ourselves in. Calling us out of our decaying hearts and wilting spirits; calling us out into the sunshined warmth of newness of life!
Calling us by name, so that the radical love he talked about and lived out and died for and rose for can be our radical love. The kind of love that transcends the greatest power or the most devastating pain or the biggest bomb. The kind of love that heals all brokenness if we just let it, if we can learn to trust it, if we can learn to trust him. The kind of love that proclaims for all to hear that our joyous Easter celebration is not meant for just one day, but every single day that breath fills our lungs and compassion stirs our hearts, so that together we may never cease in the holy work of building God’s kingdom on earth.
That, my friends, is the miracle of Easter. Love truly has changed our world. It may be hard to see it, I know. These are dark times we are living in. But believe me when I say that I once stared straight into the pitch-black darkness of a tomb on this very morning. I looked and looked in there, and I found nothing for us. Nothing!
Because what was lost is found. What was dead is alive. Love – radical, transformative love – is here. Alive again. Alive for us. Alive – forever!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s Easter 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.