Luke 24. 1-11
These are the words of Moses to the people of Israel from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy. Not a typical place to begin an Easter sermon. Moses is about to die. Israel is about to cross over the Jordan into the promises land. It is a time of great uncertainty. There is a sense in the air that God is about to do some new thing. There is an equal sense, expressed by Moses and felt by the people, that they will need to respond.
Moses says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob”.
Life and death.
Blessings and curses.
Next month I will turn 65. I don’t feel that old but I guess, if you do the math, that’s what it works out to be.
For all of those years—all that I can remember, anyway and except for a couple of years when I tried out something else, I have been a Christian—a follower of Jesus.
Counting my time in college and seminary, for 25 of those 65 years I have been a professional Christian—preacher, teacher, pastor or chaplain. People have paid me, in other words, to follow of Jesus and to have a thing or two to say to them about how they might do the same.
So I have studied scripture for many years, read more books than I can count or remember, learned from people who are way smarter than I am, and have passed on what I could to people like you.
All of that is by way of an introduction to a confession I need to make today—my Easter confession, if you will.
Every year during Holy Week I start making preparations for this very morning. Easter is the day, you know. Preachers want to do this well. But while I am thinking about this morning, we are all going through the other days of Holy Week at the same time—the exhilaration of Palm Sunday, the wrenching of Maundy Thursday, the unthinkable of Good Friday, and—if you really let yourself into the story, the emptiness of Saturday when the dream is dead and buried; locked in a tomb behind a great, heavy stone.
Round about Wednesday or Thursday, and certainly into Friday and Saturday, I am pretty much exhausted. Not physically exhausted—the work isn’t that hard, but spiritually exhausted. My faith, such as it ever is, is done in.
Almost every year it’s like this.
I sit down to write out what I might say to you this morning and I find myself identifying much more with the apostles in that upper room than I do with the women who came running from the tomb. This really is, I think to myself, an “idle tale”. I don’t know what it means to believe it. And off and on, I’m not real sure that I do.
Now you might think I’d be a bit afraid to make this confession here—from the pulpit, in church, on Easter morning. But I’m not afraid; and I’ll tell you why.
First, because over the years I’ve heard the same story from many of my clergy colleagues. My experience is not unique. Believing doesn’t get easier just because you read a lot of books. It gets better, often; but not easier.
Second, because I know people sitting in this room this morning who also hear the resurrection story as an idle tale—some even more so than me. So I’m not alone even here. Faith and doubt, questions and hope live side by side here in Mt Vernon—and that is a good thing.
Third, because I know you people. I know your generosity and your patience and your faith—Over the years I have tested the limits of all three. We have learned not to be afraid of each other here in Mt Vernon, and that too, is a good thing.
Finally, and most importantly, perhaps, I’m not afraid because of the Easter story itself. Because sooner or later, every year so far anyway, the story has its way. The “idle tale” draws me back in—not in the sense that it becomes easy to believe; it’s never easy. But in the sense that the story seems, to me at least, just to good to not be true.
The women who loved Jesus best and served him most faithfully come to the tomb at earliest dawn—carrying lamps, perhaps, to light their way. They have come not to witness a resurrection, but to give a final act of service—to properly prepare a body for burial.
But the stone is rolled away.
The tomb is empty.
They are puzzled. “What is this?” they whisper to each other.
Then comes the vision of angels.
Visions don’t happen out in the world, you know. They happen in the heart. And best in hearts broken open by love. It was their broken open hearts, you know, that brought these women to the tomb in the first place; broken open by what they had seen and heard and learned while following Jesus. The vision of angels should not surprise us.
And the angels ask the question—the very question, in fact, that Jesus had been asking; the very question the prophets had been asking all the way back to Moses—“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
“Life and death”, Moses said. Choose life.
“Repent”, Jesus said—turn from death to life.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angels say. “He is not here. Remember? He told you so already.”
What does this mean? They don’t know.
How can this be? They don’t know.
Can they believe—well, this is where things get interesting.
“Remember what he told you”, the angels say.
And they do remember. They remember lots of things. They remember how everything Jesus ever did gave life to someone. Everything he ever said brought life to someone. Everything he promised was life, for them and for everyone.
And they remember that he did say he would rise in three days.
They remember; and something clicks—
Of course he’s not there. As unbelievable as it seems—then and now, how could he be there? How could the tomb hold him? Death cannot constrain life—not his. Of course he’s not there!
You see, I think the women felt the tug of life—there in the tomb, of all places; in the brilliance of that vision of angels. They felt the tug of life. And it was familiar to them. They had seen it before; felt it before.
And life remembered gave birth to faith. Jesus remembered, gave birth to faith.
Faith, as Eric Barreto writes, “is not a matter of knowledge but courage; the courage to believe the unbelievable, to believe in life at the mouth of the tomb, to trust the words Jesus has spoken, though they made little sense then and are still confounding now.”
Faith, don’t you see, isn’t a matter of what you believe—ever. Faith isn’t a matter of what you believe, faith is a matter of who you trust. Those women trusted Jesus—because his words were life to them. Always had been. How could they not be now? His promises were life to them. Aways had been. How could they not be now?
And so they are to us.
Do you feel the tug? Are you remembering today what he said, what he did; how you trusted him in the past?
This remembering turned the disciples from “idle tale” to alleluia! Remembering today does the same for us.
That’s why we don’t seek the living among the dead. Because he is not there.
That’s why we don’t choose fear over trust, hate over love, anxiety over peace.
That’s why we don’t choose the darkness of the tomb—any tomb, over the brilliance of this Easter morning.
We don’t seek the living among the dead.
Because he is not there.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed!