Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 28: 1-10)
Every morning, it happened. Every morning the sun would rise over the face of the earth, the light creeping across the ground. Every day, dawn would make itself known all over again and greet another day, just like it had done the day before, just like it had done every day throughout time.
They say that this is the way it happened on that particular morning. They were making their way through the day’s new light to the tomb – the women, that is – making their way to anoint the body of a friend who had been put to death just three days before. It was their custom; and in the midst of difficult circumstances, customs are often all you have to hang on to. We have to figure they were lost in grief, going through the motions, as we tend to do when we’re trying to wrap our heads and our hearts around something so seemingly final as death.
We picture them reaching the tomb when their thoughts, their customs, their “going-through-the-motions” were suddenly and forever interrupted by an earthquake that descended on them; the ground beneath their feet shaking violently as if the whole earth was crying out. We imagine them clutching their jars of ointment with one hand and grabbing a rock or tree with the other.
And as the quake subsides we see them watch in disbelief as an angel rolls away the huge stone covering the opening of the tomb; and then, almost as if to make a point, sits on it. We see the Roman guards, put there by the religious authorities, shaken still. And then the angel, who looks like lighting we are told, tells the women not to be afraid, that they won’t find Jesus there because tombs are for dead people and Jesus isn’t one of them anymore. And as quickly as he comes, he is gone.
We see the women dropping their jars to the ground, because it isn’t like they need them anymore; and we watch as they run fast and furious down the trail back home. And somewhere along the way we see them run into none other than Jesus himself, appearing out of nowhere, offering up a cheerful “Greetings!” We watch as they bow at his feet and can only imagine what is going through their minds. And we hear Jesus tell the women to go and tell the others. Which they do. Even to this very day, they are still telling it.
This is the story of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a story that transcends any words written on a piece of paper; it is larger than a single event in time. It is a story that, along with his birth, defines the very essence of who we are as followers of Jesus. Despite how we might define ourselves, despite how society might seek to define us. It is this event, the resurrection, that forever tells us who and whose we are – Easter people.
And because of that, this is not a story we view from a distance. No, we take part in the story ourselves: walking alongside those women, walking with them as they make their way to the tomb expecting to find death. We, too, are shaken by the earthquake, the moved stone. We, too, hear the words of the angel; we stumble upon Jesus and we bow at his feet. We experience the joy of this morning and the truth that lives on to this very day: that Jesus Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!
But that is not the sum of Easter for us. Our Easter story is about more than just the presence of joy. Such great joy as the joy we find on this day does not come out of a vacuum; it comes because of all that comes before it; captured beautifully in our passage today in the earthquake.
Because we know, do we not, that this earthquake is more than just the shaking of the ground. It is the shaking of the very foundations of our collective lives, and it has a profound impact on us. It shakes those women, waking them up from their grief-induced slumber. It shakes the guards at the tomb too – and while we’re not exactly sure what “becoming like dead men” means, one thing we do know is that we don’t hear a thing from them again.
One way or another, Easter shakes us.
It was John Calvin who once observed that, in the Easter story, the women and men experience the same earthquake but in very different ways. The men – the guards – experience it as fear: fear so strong that it holds them captive and literally keeps them from participating in the Easter story any further. The women, on the other hand, experience it as the greatest of joys; and because of that they are the ones who see the angel, they are the ones who see the risen Jesus, they are the ones who run to tell the others.
The same earthquake – the same foundation-shaking event – experienced as both fear and joy. Which one holds the most sway over your life, I wonder? When the unthinkable, impossible, unimaginable occurs, are you bound more by fear or are you freed in joy?
Truth be told, life is a little bit of both, is it not – fear and joy? So much of our life is defined by the fear around us: fear of the other, fear of change, fear of violence, fear of not being enough, fear of not knowing what comes next. We live in a culture saturated with all kinds of fear.
But in the words of one theologian, “It is a sign of disordered relationship if all you have is fear.” That’s why we need the other thing the Easter earthquake brings: and that is joy. Joy that frees us from that which has bound us for far too long, joy that enables us to see with our own eyes the impossible made possible, our wildest dreams and hopes coming to fruition right here and now.
Our Easter reality elicits both fear and joy in us because life elicits both fear and joy. Or what President of Union Theological Seminary in New York Serene Jones describes as “trauma and grace.” Listen to how she puts it:
To mourn and to wonder, that is what the spirit yearns for when it stands in the midst of trauma and breathes in the truth of grace. There is a space in us that carries deep loss and yet remains open and new.
And here’s the great part:
Poised here, she writes, we always wait to be dragged from despair into light. And the cross narrates for us, again and again, two paradoxical stories about who we are: God’s inevitably broken children, and God’s constantly renewed beloved. We remain these two things in the juxtaposed tension of everyday life.
So we are both broken and renewed. We experience both trauma and grace. We are creatures of both fear and joy. We are shaken to our core so that we “become like dead men;” and we are shaken in such a way that we experience the fullness of resurrection glory.
It is a paradox, this “juxtaposed tension of everyday life” – and thanks be to God for that. Thanks be to God that our Jesus has walked right in the heart of that very tension, right where we walk every day of our lives; showing us the way through it all, showing us the way through the devastation of Good Friday to the impossible joy of an empty tomb.
And so the question for us on this day and every day, people of God, is this: what do we expect from this Easter earthquake? Are we like those women at first, expecting death? Are we like the guards, expecting nothing to change? Are we like all of those who didn’t even bother to make the trip that day, lost in grief and fear and resigned to the lie that is death itself?
See, that’s why it takes an earthquake to bring us to our senses, to wake us from our slumber. It takes an earthquake to shake the very foundations on which we stand and in which we live. It takes an earthquake to categorically change the narrative we have subscribed to for far too long; a narrative that tells us that tombs stay shut, that nothing will ever change, that death always gets the last word.
My God, we’ve got such a better story to tell! Our story is a story about how death does not last forever, how love is always greater than fear, how joy can fill our hearts when we see what is right there in front of us. Our story proclaims the power of resurrection in our lives and the truth of it all: that Jesus Christ is risen. And our story is one the world desperately wants and needs to hear.
And that is what gets us through. That’s what gives us hope when hope seems in short order; that is what empowers us to work for change when change is needed, that is what enables us to sit in the despair and the darkness and still see the faint, persistent hint of light. That is Easter Sunday for us, this day and always.
So friends, hear this: Jesus Christ is Risen. He is alive! May that never stop shaking us up.
In the name of 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.
 A quote from former Duke Chapel Dean and Methodist minister William Willimon.
 Serene Jones, Trauma + Grace, pg. 161-163.