The Signs of Hope and Life
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 12, 2020
(COVID-19 Pandemic, Week 5)
Matthew 28: 1-10 (NIV)
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Easter feels all wrong this year. I delayed pulling the kids’ Easter baskets down from the attic. I kept thinking to myself, “It’s just wrong to have chocolate bunnies and egg hunts when we can’t even go to church and celebrate the Resurrection together.” Y’all. I’ve never not been in church on Easter Sunday morning. I know the same is true for many of you as well.
You know, Ken and I have this recurring conversation nearly every year. Holy Week comes around and we begin trying to prepare our Easter sermons. And like every Sunday, we want to prepare a special and powerful message. But the thing about Easter is, it is a powerful message, but it’s also the same story each year. And so, every year, Ken and I have this discussion about how we are going to try this year to make the Easter sermon unique and special from all the years prior.
We didn’t have that conversation this year. I think we both realized that a unique message this Easter was not going to be a problem. But still, the internal processing continued as I considered Easter in light of a global pandemic. I’ve been trying for the last three weeks to figure out what sort of Easter message there is to offer when we are physically separated and bombarded with the daily reality of significant illness and death in the face of this coronavirus. As I moved through Holy Week this week, all I could think was, “What do I say on Easter when it doesn’t feel like Easter at all? How do we celebrate life at a time like this?” Unlike every Easter before, today I just feel like I’m standing at the tomb. I don’t feel so much that I am celebrating new life, but instead just looking in at an empty tomb.
I wonder what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were thinking that first Easter morning when they got to the tomb. What were their feelings when they saw that it was empty? By the time Jesus’ body had been placed in that tomb on Friday, it was dark, and too late to prepare his body for burial in the usual way. Sabbath observance had begun for the Jewish people and would last until nightfall the next night. The full burial rite for Jesus had to wait until after the observance of Sabbath and the next light of day. That’s why the women were out at dawn that morning. With spices and oil, they headed to Jesus’ burial place, certainly not expecting anything unusual.
How scary it must have felt to arrive at the tomb and to feel the ground begin shaking violently beneath their feet. How frightening it must have been when the stone covering the tomb began to roll away and an angel of the Lord appeared before them in what looked like flashes of lightning. I’ve lived through a few of very minor earthquakes. Even those are pretty unsettling when you’re in the midst of it. And of course, we are all pretty used to lightning and thunder, and so unless there is some sort of dire warning associated with a passing storm, we usually don’t think much about it. But for my little Owen, lightning and thunder still scare him. If he is in a room by himself in the house and sees lightning or hears thunder, he will run through the house in a panic until he finds Ken or me. And he doesn’t calm down until we reassure him that there is nothing to be afraid of and everything will be okay.
The unfamiliar can be scary. The unexpected can be downright frightening. I have a sneaking suspicion that at the moment when that stone rolled away to show an empty tomb, the two Marys were not rejoicing, they were petrified. And the angel of the Lord pretty much confirms this when he says, “Do not be afraid.” So that’s where I want to sit for a minute this Easter morning; not at the announcement that Jesus has risen, not at the moment the women encounter Jesus on their way to share the news with the disciples. Today, we are at the empty tomb, and maybe a little bit afraid or perhaps even totally petrified. But what we are experiencing and what we are feeling does not change the fact that the tomb is empty.
I think that what our world needs more than anything right now is the promise of new life. The promise that comes with Easter. But the reality is that uncertainty still grips us; the fear is still too raw in our lives. We’re kind of in this place where the empty tomb is before us but the realization of new life hasn’t quite registered. I feel a bit like that’s the reality of the other 364 days of every year that aren’t Easter. We know of God’s promise of new life, but we don’t much think about it, or really celebrate it except on Easter Sunday. And here we are on Easter Sunday, not much feeling like celebrating. But the empty tomb in unquestionably before us. In all truth, that’s just one sign among many that God puts before us every single today to remind us that he is the God of hope, and grace, and love, and life!
This is what I want us to all realize today. All the signs are there. Even with all the uncertainty in which we are living. God is still at work. Despite the fact that this Easter is very different from any we have ever experienced, new life still breaks forth, today and every day. God is still working in this world every single moment to fulfill his great promises and to offer abundant life to all people. The signs of God’s work are everywhere, and sometimes maybe even in scary or unexpected places.
Many of you are probably familiar with that great quote from Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, a word of reassurance from his mother than he once shared with the world. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he said, “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” There is hope in the helpers serving in this coronavirus. The doctors and nurses and first responders and grocers and pharmacists who are putting themselves on the front lines every day. That is a sign for us. But there are other signs, too, all around us. Not just on Easter, but every day, God in Christ Jesus places in our midst signs of promise and new life. 2000 years ago, that sign was an empty tomb. Today, it might be a neighbor delivering food to an at-risk or elderly person. It might be a coronavirus survivor donating plasma in the hopes of saving another’s life. Whatever it may be, we can look for the signs of life that God puts right before our eyes. And while we may not feel much like celebrating right now, we can proclaim the truth of all that we see, the signs of life that are ever before us.
He is not here.
He is risen.
Look for the signs of new life; the signs of life are everywhere!
The tomb is empty! Praise be to God!