Saturday, March 26, 2016

What the Women Could Not Do

Luke 23:54-24:12
Easter Sunday
March 27, 2016
William G. Carter

It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Happy Easter, church! This is our big day. The music is big, the message is big, the crowds are big. This is the day when God did something never done before. A man crucified as a political criminal of the empire and a religious outcast from Jerusalem was raised from the dead. It turned everything upside down and jump-started the movement that we call “church.”

I was thinking of that at 6:00 this morning, when my wife kissed me goodbye and drove off to play the organ at a sunrise service in the Lackawanna Valley. Only Easter is a big enough day to get some Presbyterians out of bed before dawn – and then to celebrate it with balloons and organ music. I wished her well, quietly grateful that we don’t have a sunrise service over here.

But I recall a sunrise service when I was a teenager. The pastor asked our youth group to put together the service, and then asked me as the youth group president to preach. I don’t recall if he was present, but no matter: I was ready to preach. At 6:00 in the morning, I was going to prove the resurrection actually happened to a group of about twenty bleary-eyed Presbyterians.

It was the first of many occasions when I overshot the mark. Of course they believed the resurrection; why else would they pull themselves out of bed, drive to a farmer’s field overlooking the Susquehanna River, and listen to some kid read from 3x5 cards to argue an event from two thousand years ago actually happened. I could have simply honored the fact they were present, that God raised them out of their comfortable beds. But no, I had to insist it was all true – and then one old duffer lingered behind, and said, “So do you really think it’s all true?”

It is an extraordinary announcement that the church has held through the centuries. Jesus is risen, he is alive. To read the story as Luke tells it, it hardly provides any rational proof. Most of the people in the story are going about their lives as Easter happens, and then they are scratching their heads.

We are told the same women who followed Jesus from Galilee wanted to anoint the body of Jesus. He wasn’t properly buried. The work was rushed, because the Sabbath was near. Some of them observed the place where his body was entombed, so they quickly prepared the necessary spices and ointments. Then, as the Law of God declared, they rested for the Sabbath. Jesus was safe in his tomb, they remained in the place where they were staying.

Luke says they got up at “deep dawn.” That’s his description of the time: “deep dawn” (24:1). Just as soon as they could get moving, they hurried to the tomb. And then follows at least seven different things that they could not do (I made a list).

First, they could not move the big boulder in front of the tomb. It seems they are in such a rush, they hadn’t even thought it about it. When they get to his grave, the stone is rolled away. It has been done for them.

Second, they could not anoint the body of their friend. That’s why they went there, after all. For the pious Jew, a graveyard is considered ritually unclean. But they were going to risk it and take on all the purification rituals afterwards, because they loved their friend Jesus. They wanted to offer him one final act of dignity, and they couldn’t do it.

Third, they could not make any sense of this. It was strange, it was odd. He wasn’t there. The linen cloth that had wrapped him was over here by itself. It was confusing, they couldn’t understand it, and then two men – the approved number of witnesses – appeared in dazzling light. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is risen, he is not here. Remember how he told you?”  

Fourth, they could not avoid his promise of resurrection. If they had forgotten, they would not forget it now. It was so strange, so disorienting. These two men, were they angels? Here they are on level ground, beside these women, telling the truth, that Jesus had died but now was risen.

Fifth, the women could not contain the news of what they saw, heard, and remembered. There was no reason to stay among the dead if Jesus was now among the living. So they run back to the place, knock on the door, and blurt out what they knew – Jesus is alive. We saw him die, but now he is alive.

Sixth, they can’t convince the eleven men of anything. He’s alive. What are you talking about? We know he is risen. Did you see him? No. Did you hear him? No. Did you see the moment when he was raised. No. This is an idle tale, they said. Chit-chat. Silly gossip. Empty words. The eleven remaining disciples were not convinced of anything. There is no proof. Faith is not created in others by hitting them over the heads.

Seventh, the women could not stop Peter from checking out the news for himself. In a strange, open-ended move, Peter jumps up, runs to the opened tomb, pokes in his head, risks defilement himself, and sees the linen cloth, but never hears any angels. He wonders what has happened. It is so much bigger than he ever imagined. He doesn’t have it all figured out yet.

The story is a chain reaction of what the women could not do. The women couldn’t move the boulder. They couldn’t anoint their friend’s body. They couldn’t make any sense of the event. They couldn’t avoid his promise. They couldn’t contain the news. They couldn’t convince the others. They couldn’t restrain Peter, restrict or manage the message. That’s because Easter is never really about us. Easter is about God, and what God has done.

Luke has a marvelous way of telling the story. He leaves some holes in it. The story isn’t air-tight. It is not a logical argument that intends to prove everything. No, it’s the discovery that the stone was moved and the burial shroud is not needed. It’s the question, “Why do you look for the Living One among the dead?” It’s the reminder that everything we have seen about God in the words and work of Jesus has brought to the point of affirming that somehow, the words and work of Jesus are going to continue.

What Luke says about Easter is this: there is a Power beyond our own. The God who makes everything brings Jesus alive again. Nobody can shut down what God intends to do. That’s why the first Easter is awkward, unmanageable, so beyond our control. That’s why Luke will not let us reduce the story and dismiss it. He tells us just enough to remind us that something is afoot.

The writer Frederick Buechner tells about some useful advice he received from a ship’s officer on a Bristish freighter. It was night; the ship was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the officer had been peering into the darkness, looking for the lights of other ships. He told Buechner that the way to see lights on the horizon is not to look straight at the horizon, but to look just above it. You can see the lights better, he said, when you do not try to look at them directly. “Since then,” Buecher writes, “I have learned that it is also the way to see other things.”[1]

Luke tells his Easter story in a way that can create faith. He does not try to contain the resurrection and make it manageable. Rather, he points to what is happening in the margins, around the edges: the surprise on the women’s faces, the shock that Jesus did not stay where he was expected to stay, the bewilderment of eleven frightened disciples, and the impulsive reaction of Peter who runs to the tomb in astonished wonder.

God has done something just out of sight – it’s beyond our expectations, it’s beyond our understanding, it’s even beyond the hope of those astonished women and defeated disciples who had walked with Jesus in the days of his ministry. God raised Jesus from the dead.

Do you know what that means? The prophet who spoke the truth is freed from death to keep speaking. The Savior who healed the sick and restored the outcasts is free to keep working. At the point of his death, Jesus was pronounced “innocent” by the centurion who stood beside the cross (23:47); now in his resurrection, he is vindicated by God.  

Easter means that God keeps working in Jesus Christ. Where there is death, he brings life. Where there is sorrow, he brings joy. It always happens around the edges; rarely when we expect or demand it – and suddenly, life happens again.

So happy Easter, church! This is the day when everything we believe about God is confirmed and enlarged. This is the day that announces it’s OK to still be figuring out your faith, it’s OK to ask big questions, and it’s OK to have big questions asked of you, such as, “Why you are looking for the living among the dead?”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, “The End is Life,” The Magnificent Defeat (New York: HarperCollins, 1966 )79-80.

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