Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)
You are here this morning because Jesus Christ has defeated death.
Easter is not about bunnies and chocolate, duckies and egg hunts. It's not a celebration of spring and the new life of nature's usual cycle of rebirth. It's not just a time to put on your best outfit and do a traditional family thing. Easter is easter, because it is the resurrection of our Lord. We are here today because Jesus laid down his life, and Jesus took back his life again, leaving sin and death in the dust. Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)
I've noticed that at funerals, there's usually a story. The story that the mourners tell, sometimes over and over, about what led up to the loved one's death. “We were eating dinner, and he was having chest pains...” or “We had just come to the hospital when mom suddenly took a turn for the worse.” It seems to be part of the grieving process, to walk through it all, how we got to this point, standing at the funeral home with the other mourners.
I wonder if the women were doing the same on their way to Jesus' tomb that morning.... rehearsing the events of his death. How he was arrested in the garden Thursday evening. A quick trial before the Jews and then the Romans, and suddenly they were taking him outside of the city to crucify him. How he suffered. His poigniant words, “Father forgive them”, “Woman, behold your son”, “It is finished”. Most of it probably didn't make much sense to them. And it all happened so fast.
There was no time for a proper burial, but at least they owed him that much. Who knows what they would have done if that nice rich man didn't donate a new tomb for Jesus – what was his name? Oh yes, Joseph.
Now that the Sabbath was over, they'd take some spices and do all the customary things they do at Jewish burials. Jesus certainly deserved that much. It was the least they could do.
And as they approached the place, strange things happened. The very ground shook. But this was no ordinary earthquake. This was an emissary from Heaven sent down with an important assignment of his own. He beat the women to the tomb.
The guards were still there, but the very sight of this heavenly herald – as bright as lightning and white as snow – well, they trembled in such fear at the sight and fell over as good as dead. Yes, the living became as dead men because a dead man was about to come to life.
And this angel - this powerful and spectacular being had a mission. He rolled the stone away. Like rolling out the red carpet for an even more noble guest, this stone couldn't stand in the way anymore than death itself could. And then, as if to show further disdain for the grave that now lay defeated, he sat on the stone as you'd flop down on a comfy sofa. Death has no more fear. Death has no more sting.
But the angel also has a story – a message – he's got a word to proclaim to these sad and confused and no doubt amazed women now before him. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” For good measure, he even shows them the place they laid the body, now quite empty.
Just like he said! See, Jesus knew this would happen. He intended for it. This was the plan, always, even from the foundation of the world. He spoke plainly about all this to his disciples, who simply didn't want to hear it, and couldn't seem to believe it. Neither did these women, or they wouldn't have expected to come see a dead body, but a living Jesus.
“Just as he said.” Things are always just like Jesus says, whether we believe them or not. Even when they seem as unbelievable as rising from the dead. In fact Christ's resurrection is a sign that shows you can always trust his word, believe in him, for things are always just as he says.
When he says “your sins are forgiven”, they are, even if you don't feel like they are. When he says, “I am with you always”, he is, even when it seems like he's abandoned you. When he says, “He who believes in me will live, even though he die.” - those are words we can take to heart. Those are words to hang your hat on, no, to put your very life on. They are words more powerful than death, because he is more powerful than death.
And yet he still has time for his people. He's defeated the greatest enemy ever, and he's not going to Disneyland. He's greeting the women. He's planning to see the brothers. That he even calls them brothers after they by and large abandoned him... And he tells them, “Do not be afraid”.
Do not be afraid. You can see why they might be afraid. They'd just experienced an earthquake. They've seen an angel from heaven. They've been told that someone dead has come back to life. And now they see him, and he is – alive! None of this comports with everyday experience. None of this is what they had planned on their day's agenda. But here they are, and Jesus meets and greets them, alive, in the flesh. And he too says, “Do not be afraid”.
He would say the same to us. Do not be afraid, for your sins are forgiven. Do not be afraid, for sin's wages are paid in full. Do not be afraid, for death is lain waste. He looked it in the eye, and didn't even blink. He set forth, headlong into death's dark valley. There he faced and grappled with all the dark demons of fear and uncertainty, grief and shame, sorrow and loss that ever were or ever would be. There, in that knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred contest to end all contests, Jesus was willing destroyed, and in do doing, destroyed the foe.
He took on the final force that swallows up all men, even the grave itself, and he, Jesus swallowed it instead. His victory is so complete, so thorough, so perfect – that death has nothing more to say. Not only for him, but for all who are in him. Jesus is victorious over death. And his victory, dear Christian, is yours.
Easter, then, is a sort of an anti-funeral. Rather than telling the story of how a loved one departed, we get to bask in the glory of his restoration. We won't shed any tears over death's undoing, but maybe a few tears of joy at Christ's triumph over it. Here is not the end, the goodbye, the farewell. Here is the new beginning, the new life, the eighth day of creation – that is ours in Christ. And this resurrection changes our funerals from pure grief, to grief that has hope. No shallow and schmalzy “celebration of life” for us, rather a Christian departs under the proclamation of victory and life in Christ, who is our life.
And yet, here we are, still surrounded by a world of death. Wars still rage. Enemies seethe. Innocents are slaughtered. Pain lingers. Sorrows still remain. Even we, the people of Christ, are not immune to the sufferings of life in this sin-scarred world. Even we, Christians, are not exempt from that day when we too must face the final foe of death. Some of you here today will probably not be here next Easter. And that's only a bearable thought because of Christ's resurrection. Do not be afraid. Jesus has won the victory.
His resurrection is also your resurrection. We are united with him in a death like his, and united with him in a resurrection like his. Buried and raised with him in Baptism. Death can't touch him. And death can't have you, because you belong to him. Oh, your body may die, and your loved ones will miss you. But the Living One has made you a promise. And what he says is always true, “just as he said.” You will live.
Christ is Risen! (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)
It is just as he said. It's always just as he says.