Once you start looking through the lens of Easter, everything looks tilted God-ward. Blessings to you all as we approach Easter again.
A Seismic Shift
A Sermon on Matthew 27:50-28:20
Easter—The Resurrection of the Lord
“Okay,” Pilate agreed with the chief priests and Pharisees. “Take a guard. Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.” Something had stirred up their fears. They realized that Jesus might be even more dangerous to them dead than alive! Was this an afterthought, or did the Good Friday earthquake shake them up as it had the executioners?
Something certainly had shaken them up. On Saturday the religious leaders hurried to see Pontius Pilate. Notice: it was the Sabbath, and it was unlawful to visit Pilate on the Sabbath, and unlawful at any time to go into his house. Their anxiety was so great that they were willing to break the very Sabbath law that they condemned Jesus for breaking. “Jesus may be dead,” they told Pilate, “but he said he would be raised to life three days later. His disciples might go steal his body, then spread a rumor that he has been raised. This lie would be even worse than the first one. That tomb’s got to stay shut,” they insisted. “You’ve got to make sure that nobody and no thing opens it!” In other words, they needed that tomb to be earthquake proof.
I recently learned that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, one of the New Testament era books that didn’t make it into the Bible, pictures the sealing of the tomb. It says that the religious authorities all joined the guards in keeping watch over the tomb, and that they put not just one, but seven seals on it. Seven—the perfect number—and it was like multiple locks on a door: deadbolts, chains, sliding bars, like multiple barriers to keep somebody out, or else keep somebody else in. All eyes were on that tomb.
As Sunday dawned there was nothing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could do but look. They were helpless. Matthew highlights their helplessness because he says not a word about them bringing spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ body. He says they just came to look. Look. Remember. Cry. Maybe start finding a way to move on.
It had been beautiful while it lasted: the dream of the kingdom of heaven. Healing. Hope. Life as God intended. Why did Jesus have to die? Why did he have to be crushed? Seems like the world is always tilted in favor of the powerful. The ones with the money win. The ones with the weapons win. They always seem to get what they want. Dreamers like Jesus are a threat to people’s empires. The lowly don’t want to stay in their place when a dreamer like Jesus catches their imaginations. Dreamers threaten stability. Dreamers are troublemakers. They must die. This world seems inevitably slanted, skewed, shifted towards darkness, towards pain, sickness, death. Sometimes it seems that only the darkness is really real. Light is a temporary illusion. Death always wins.
Nobody was going to open that grave that Sunday morning, and especially not these empty-handed women. But they could look and remember. Suddenly the ground started rocking and shifting beneath their feet. Another earthquake, a big one on the Richter scale! And at that moment, God’s shining angel descended, rolled back the stone, and sat on it like a conqueror. The guards trembled with terror, fainted dead away. The shocked women were also frightened, but they kept their wits about them, and heard the angel say what angels always say when they bring God’s message: “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here. He has been raised just as he said. Come see where he lay. Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you. There you will see him.’” Afraid and joyful at the same time, they hurried off.
Matthew wants us to understand that the death and resurrection of Jesus was an earthquaking, earthshaking event. It was a seismic shift. The very ground those women stood on tilted in the other direction. God had turned things upside down, inside out. This wasn’t the end; only the beginning. Jesus wasn’t dead, but alive, and moving ahead of them into the future. He met them on the way and repeated the message. “Rejoice!” he said, and “don’t be afraid.” The living Lord called the weak and fearful to courage and joy.
See what has happened here? The ones who supposedly had the power were paralyzed—rendered powerless. The fearless were struck with fear. Stopped dead. So much for all their security measures! And the fearful ones who had no power got the courage and the power to run towards a new future, a future with Jesus in it.
No, that tomb certainly was not earthquake-proof. No, tombs certainly are not God-proof. “I’m going to open your graves and breathe new life into you,” God had promised the lifeless ones through the prophet Ezekiel centuries before. Dem bones gonna rise again with a great shaking and a rattling! And here it was happening! Quaking and shaking on Friday, the ground opened. God opened the graves of the saints, and they were set free. After Jesus rose, reports Matthew, many of the faithful saw these saints. God shakes the earth! The first shock came on Friday when Jesus died. The second came on Sunday after God raised him from the dead. God shakes the universe, and now everything tilts in the other direction, it shifts the other way, in the direction of life and hope and love and peace and joy.
God even chose to spread the Easter news in an upside down, inside out kind of way. God gave the resurrection news to women. God told them to testify. The risen Lord appeared to women first. Why is that so important? It wasn’t just because women were powerless in that society. They were also voiceless. People thought women’s witness was unreliable. You couldn’t trust what women said, and so they were forbidden from testifying in court. If God wanted the world to believe the Easter message, why did God give it to women?
God did that deliberately. The upside down way is the gospel way. God shakes everything up. He shifts it the other way. What was the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the weak, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the persecuted….” It’s not the rich, the powerful, the influential but the poor, the powerless and the suffering that receive the gospel. The least ones. What’s the last thing he said in his last great teaching in Matthew 25? Whatever you do or don’t do to the least ones, you do or don’t do to me. With God, the exalted are humbled and the humbled exalted. The last are first and the first are last. The fearful receive courage and the sorrowing receive joy. The dead don’t stay dead!
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection shook the whole universe, and now everything is tilted towards life, towards life and hope and peace. Christ has won the victory. He is let loose. He is at large. He is out there and in here doing just what he did then: healing the sick. Setting sinners free. Inviting the lowly to dream big. Raising the dead. The outsiders don’t stay outside when Jesus is around. The sick don’t stay sick when Jesus is around. The dead don’t stay dead when Jesus is around.
The women hurried to tell the good news, which, of course, was bad news to the authorities. When the guards reported to the authorities, they tried to stuff what had been let loose back into the tomb. They tried to shift things back the other way. “Listen,” they told their informers. “We’ll pay you big money to spread the story that Jesus’ disciples came and stole the body while you were asleep. Don’t worry: we’ll keep you out of trouble with your superiors.” And so false witnesses told people that Jesus’ resurrection was a sham. A lie.
But the women who loved Jesus, and soon the men, too, began telling the truth. They went to Galilee. The heard him call them to action. They trusted him to be with them always and forever. And as a result, Christ’s body grew, and his people took great risks for him. They even accepted death when necessary. Why? Because they knew that everything tilts towards Easter. Jesus’ story didn’t stop in the tomb. Neither did theirs. No tomb is God-proof. Because Christ lives, his people can face tomorrow. They can face life, and death, and life everlasting.
God moves. Christ is alive. The earth quakes, and the dark powers quake. They tremble in fear. The powers of darkness are hereby put on notice: now hear this, powers of darkness and powers of death. Be afraid. Be very afraid! Be afraid, all you forces of evil and every kind of oppression! Be afraid, unholy empires! Be afraid, sickness! Be afraid death! Tremble before the risen Lord, for Easter is an earthquake. You are going to be undone!
But hear this good news, all you sick, all you sinners, all you poor and needy, all you who mourn, all you dying: Don’t you be afraid! No, don’t be afraid! Christ is alive, and you, too shall tremble, tremble, tremble—with joy!
Thanks be to God!