Not an Empty Tomb, but the Risen Jesus

[This message was proclaimed on Easter sunrise, April 4, 2021, outdoors at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 24:1-12. It was not recorded or taped.]

“Cemetery Residents Returning.” I collect funny headlines. This one came from the Albany Times-Union 16 years ago. Really? Cemetery residents are dead. They don’t get time out for good behavior. We go to cemeteries to honor the dead.

I like to visit cemeteries. I grew up in greater Los Angeles, which has a well-known cemetery named Forest Lawn (not the one in Buffalo). Forest Lawn in Rochester is a beach with beautiful views of sunsets over Lake Ontario. I know the other Forest Lawn, the renowned cemetery in Glendale, CA. When I was dating the woman, who is now my wife, I took her on dates to a cemetery, Forest Lawn. The rolling hills are perfectly green. There is statuary art everywhere. And it is a really cheap date. Since moving to this area, I have become fond of visiting Mt. Hope Cemetery. I like to walk the trails in any season, especially fall, and visit the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, two American heroes of mine. When out of town friends visit us, I generally take them to Mt. Hope Cemetery. If they can’t handle that, they won’t visit again. At Mt. Hope Cemetery there are some above ground buildings, family mausoleums or crypts, in which people are buried. They are secured. One cannot enter them unless they are opened in advance. Now let’s say you have a friend or relative buried in one of those. You go to visit on a beautiful sunny spring day and see the gated door is open. You look in and where your friend was once laid in death is empty. What is your first thought?

Exactly. You aren’t thinking resurrection, but that someone broke in and stole the body. That is not good news. Contrary to thousands of sermons preached over the centuries, the empty tomb is not good news. I read an article days ago in a great national newspaper that said the empty tomb made all the difference. I beg to differ. In every Easter account in the New Testament—and we have four, each with a different perspective; no two identical in the reporting—there is doubt and disbelief. No one of the first disciples left an empty tomb declaring good news; not the women and not the men. In Matthew they were afraid. In Mark they were trembling and bewildered. In John, Mary Magdalene speaks for all of them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” In Luke, before us now, the women who were first at the tomb were perplexed. They didn’t go to the tomb for a resurrection, but to say their final goodbye to Jesus, whom they saw killed on a cross two days before. When Peter got to the tomb, he too found it empty and was puzzled as he walked away.

The turning point was never an empty tomb. The women walk to a borrowed tomb where the dead body of Jesus was laid two days ago. They are grieving. Their hearts are still broken from seeing him die a humiliating, excruciating death They bring burial spices, an act of homage, a simple gesture of dignity. A large tablet shaped stone was rolled over the opening to that tomb two days ago. It had two purposes: to keep grave robbers out and keep the smell of a decaying body in. They arrive early in the morning and are stunned to see the massive stone rolled back. They take a peek inside. The body is gone. Easter joy? No, deeper grieving. Insult is added to injury. Salt is poured in an open wound.

Two messengers sent by God are there. One speaks. They jump out of their skin and back into their skin. “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Does anyone have an answer for that piercing question? I think not. Does anyone of them dare say a word? No. The messenger continues, “He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Well, of course. He did say that, didn’t he? They go to the men. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

An empty tomb isn’t that hard to believe. Graves get ransacked and robbed, then and now. What is hard to believe is that one who was killed on a bloody cross is walking around greeting his old friends a few days later.

Many years ago there was a kind man on TV named Mr. Rogers. My daughters watched him just about every afternoon. Before that, there was a morning show for children called Captain Kangaroo. I watched him when I was a child. Their TV shows overlapped by some years, so there were some children who watched Captain Kangaroo in the morning and Mr. Rogers in the afternoon. One boy watched both. When it was announced that Captain Kangaroo would visit Mr. Rogers, that boy was beside himself with excitement. The boy’s family was all gathered around the TV for this historic moment. The adults were spellbound. After about a minute, they realized that the boy had left the room. His mother was puzzled and went to his room and asked, “Are you feeling OK? Is something wrong?” The boy said, “It’s too good. It’s just too good.”

When the risen Jesus stood in their presence and spoke to them, it was just too good. Too good to believe. That same Jesus walks into walks into our lives. Our good news is not that the tomb is empty. Our good news is that the tomb couldn’t hold him. Our good news is not that Jesus’ body is missing. Our good news is that Jesus is risen and walking among us. Living among us and in us. Our faith isn’t about what isn’t there, but who is here. Our faith is not about subtraction, but addition. Not division, but multiplication. We don’t worship an empty tomb; we worship the risen Christ. Christ is risen. Morning has broken. New life has begun.

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