God Moves Out Of The Tomb

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 24: 1-12)

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

That’s the question the visitors asked the women at the tomb on Easter morning.  And I’ve been rolling that question around in my head all week, thinking about this moment we are in right now, this Easter reality we live in every day; all that we have been journeying toward for the past week, for the past forty days, for a lifetime, really….

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It’s an odd question, isn’t it?  Only Luke has the visitors at the tomb saying it.  In John they say “Why are you weeping,” which is a reasonable thing to ask when you see someone crying.  In Matthew and Mark the first words are “Don’t be afraid,” which is probably a good thing to lead with given current circumstances and present company.

Those responses make more sense.  But this: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Such a strange way to start a conversation – if for no other reason than it was not the living they were looking for that morning; not in the least.  They had given up on that already.  The women came to the tomb that morning to anoint the body of Jesus – the three-day dead body of Jesus.  They fully expected to find a body there, because that is what you find in tombs.  As our former Gilchrist speaker Anna Carter-Florence once said, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?”[1]

“Why do you look for the living among the dead.”  That’s the question we are greeted with on this Easter morning.  It the day Christians around the globe celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But more than that – it is the culmination of God’s good work carried out through a living, breathing human being who walked this earth and did more to demonstrate and embody the grace, love and mercy of God than anyone before or anyone after.  Easter is that moment when God declares, through the rising of the morning sun and a rolled-away stone, that death will not have the final word.  It is, as noted theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, “God weeping with us so that we may someday laugh with God.”[2]

It is the crescendo in the final act of God’s movement.  And we’ve been talking about God moving throughout Lent, all the ways God moves in and among and through us.  God moving in the desert, God moving past all obstacles, God moving over the fence, God moving in grace, God moving us to pour out ourselves, and God moving in ways we may not want. 

And on this day we celebrate and give praise to our living, resurrected, moving God.  We put on our Sunday best, we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen today” at the top of our lungs, we hear the story that never grows old.  And through it all we proclaim with heart and soul and voice the truth we embrace in times of joy and cling to in times of need:  He is not here.  He is risen.  God has left the building!  God has moved out of the tomb!

But if we listen in the midst of loud trumpet blasts and joyful singing, if we listen through the hallelujahs and he-is-risens, we still hear that question, echoing deep within the recesses of our hearts, that place where our greatest hopes and worst fears collide.  We hear it in the voice of a world growing more accustomed to fake news than good news.  We hear it in the cries of the suffering who long to be made whole.  We hear it whispered and we hear it screamed all around us:

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

It was not just the women that question was directed to, was it?  We are Easter people, we are heirs of this great resurrection hope; we are offspring of a God so powerful that death itself could not keep God down.  God has moved out of the tomb!

But have we?  Have we moved out of our tombs?  Not tombs in caskets buried six feet under or urns with ashes interred in a columbarium niche.  No, I’m talking about the tombs we shut ourselves in while we are still living – have we moved out of those?

Moved out as the women who came that morning to anoint Jesus’ body.  Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, puts it this way:

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James and the other unnamed women do what needs to be done, regardless of their own loss and sorrow. They push through. They keep going. They care for others. They show up again and again and again. They polish the silver and put the linen cloth on the table. They take home the napkins, wash and return them, even though no one notices. They procure and prepare spices, get up at dawn and head to the tomb. The eleven disciples are shut in and in shock as the women do the hard work that death, and love, requires.[3]

Those women were the first to come out of their tombs of grief and sorrow in order to do the hard work of love.

I think of Peter who ran to the tomb – ran, not walked.  Ran even though he was undoubtedly bearing the heavy, heavy weight and burden of guilt and shame that came from denying days before that he even knew Jesus.  Ran to the tomb even though others who heard the women that morning thought it nothing more than an “idle tale” or – more closely to the original Greek – “pure garbage.”  Peter came out of his tomb of guilt and shame so that he could do the hard work of love.

And I think of others who would follow Jesus in the years to come in the early church; even though they never knew him but only heard of him; even though the powers-that-be did not make it easy for them.  I think of those who came out of their tombs of uncertainty and obstacles and fears to follow Jesus, to form this thing we call church, and do the hard work of love.

On this Easter Sunday, as we celebrate a God who moved out of the tomb, as we hear stories of those who did the same, the question that rests on us as Easter people is quite simple, sisters and brothers: have we?  Have we moved out of the tombs that hold us back from experiencing the fullness of God’s resurrection power?

Because the truth of the matter is that, all things considered, we prefer our tombs.  We tend to the corpses of long-dead ideas and ideals.  We cling to tired, old visions of ourselves and our churches, as if through our clinging they might suddenly come back to life again.  We grasp too tightly onto our loved ones, refusing to allow them to change and grow, preferring them as we’ve always known then.  We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, precisely because it is all we know.  It feels safe, familiar.  It feels like something we can control, even though we cannot.

And so we take our hopes and dreams – and seal them up in tombs of guilt and shame.

We take love of neighbor and love of self – and seal them up in tombs of isolation and loneliness and inadequacy.

We take grace and mercy and forgiveness – and seal those up in tombs of fear and scarcity and anxiety.

And the Living God calls us out of every last one of them. 

And calls us out of them not so we’ll never feel their sting again or somehow be immune to them.  Not so we think the strength of our faith is dependent on how much we can repress or deny them.  God calls us out of our tombs so that they no longer have power over us – because our power comes from the One who led the way out of the tomb in the first place.  Out into the bright warmth and light of the morning sun, out where we and everyone around us can see, perhaps for the first time, who we are and whose we are – and that because of that we are never alone.

Years ago in a small church fellowship hall, an Alcoholics Anonymous group had their weekly meetings.  The members had gathered there once a week for many years; they knew each other, they counted each other as close friends.  Sometimes their meetings resembled more social hour than group support, but nevertheless they shared deeply their lives; all the hurt and pain, the guilt and shame and regret, they shared it openly with each other.

And then one day a young man in his early twenties walked into the meeting.  It was his first one.  With much effort he announced that he had been sober for four days before he relapsed.  He was in great distress, shut tight in his tomb of shame and fear and inadequacy and loneliness, and he wondered if he would ever be able to get out of it.

There was a long period of silence after he spoke.  Finally a voice across the way said, “Son, I’ve been sober for 35 years.  And I’m still scared – still grieving what I’ve lost and scared of losing what I haven’t lost already.  Thank you for helping me remember who I am and why I’m here.”

And then, looking around at the others, he continued and said, “You know, I am a member of a society.  It’s called the White Knuckle Society.  Grabbing, gripping, holding on by my fingernails every day of my life.  Anybody else here a member?”  Slowly every hand in the room went up.  And the old man said, “Son, this is the White Knuckle Society.  And you are most welcome here, for this is where darkness turns to light.  This is where hope has a home.”[4]

Truth is, we have a meeting of the White Knuckle Society every Sunday morning right here.  Some of us are sick, some are lonely, some are depressed.  Some of us are dealing with families that need more than we can give.  Our parents may be growing weak.  Our children may be having trouble at school.  Our job may be phased out and we have no idea what we’ll do next.   We may be experiencing violence in our homes and don’t yet have the courage to seek help.  We may have sinned deeply and wonder if we can ever be forgiven.  We may look at the deep brokenness and pain that’s happening in our country and around our world right now and wonder when and if it will ever end.

Come out of your tombs, people of God.  Come out!  Come out of all in your life that seeks to shut you in or cut you off, come out!  Come out of anything and everything that holds you back, that keep you from moving forward.  Come out of the tombs that try to convince you that you are not loved, that you are not enough, that you are alone, that you are a failure, that it’s your fault.  Come out!  Come out of the tombs that seek to separate you from the One who has come out already, and so much wants you to follow his lead.

Come out and feel the warmth of the morning sun after days of despair.  Come out and experience the joy of women with good news to share; come out and run with Peter to see the truth of this day: He is not here.  He is risen.  God has left the building.  God has moved out of the tomb.

People of the Living God, on this Easter Sunday and every single day – come out!

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.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1576
[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God.
[3] http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1102135377571&ca=3970d1f1-4b6d-4acb-9ce3-8a6fd3364a11
[4] As shared by Trish Senterfitt in her sermon “The Shelter, Nurture and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God,” given in March 1998 at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.