No Stone and No Body
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.
As many of you know Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy Pharisee who gave his family tomb as the place for Jesus to be buried. Well, it seems that someone pulled him aside and said, “Joseph that was such a beautiful, costly, hand-hewn tomb. Why on earth would you give it to someone else to be buried in? Joseph just smiled. “Why not? He only needed it for the weekend.”
Of course, such an apocryphal story could only be imagined in hindsight. And therein lies our challenge on Easter morning. We come to this story and hear it knowing the rest of the story; knowing that Jesus in not there but risen as he said; knowing that he will soon appear to Mary Magdalene and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and to the disciples gathered in that room behind locked doors.
At my grandson’s home there is a recording of seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers—many will know this inning because of the famous Jose Bautista bat-flip. The Jays won that game and the series. This recording has been enjoyed a number of times by my grandson and his father because they know the outcome. In some ways this is how we read the Easter story—the stone on the grave got flipped out of the way. The right guy won.
But Blue Jay baseball fans will know that it was a very different experience watching the game as it unfolded. I know that it is virtually impossible to imagine what it was like for these women on their way to the tomb that Easter morning. Try as we might we cannot expunge from our minds the rest of the story. Even so, I invite you to try. I remind you that this is no sporting event. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women are about to witness the first indications of the glorious outcome of the cosmos-changing event; the initial evidenced pointing to the result of the event that is the very hinge of history.
These women are on their way to complete the burial rituals for their friend Jesus. They have the spices and perfumes in hand for anointing his, they thought, lifeless body. They had observed the Sabbath and now at first light on the first day of the week they were on their way to the tomb. Imagine their surprise, shock, and wonder when they discover that the stone has been moved from the entrance of the tomb and the body was not there. What were they witnessing? They certainly did not conclude that Jesus had risen. But here at the tomb—no stone and no body we are confronted with first indications that something unusual has happened.
Even after the angel’s message—“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”—I can’t imagine that they would know what this means. This is an event that has never occurred before. How could they possibly imagine its import? They had to experience Jesus risen from the dead to know. Here it is slowly dawning upon them. The words Jesus had explicitly taught them—“and on the third day rise again”—are beginning to impress their meaning on their minds.
Rev. Timothy Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In an Easter sermon he wrote, “As a young Christian, I had come up through mainline churches, I was a religion major at a secular university, and this is what I was told about the resurrection fairly often: That after Jesus’ death his disciples “experienced his presence.” … The stories of the resurrections themselves, were literalistic, symbolic representations of higher spiritual truths.:” He went on to note that, “The resurrection was not preached in the early church as a symbolic representation of wonderful higher spiritual truths like, “We must always keep hope.” The resurrection was preached as a hard, bare, terribly irritating paradigm-shattering, horribly inconvenient but impossible to dismiss fact.”
This paradigm-shattering reality is what these women are on the threshold of experiencing. The stone is moved and the body isn’t there. The truth of what happened here is only beginning to dawn on these followers of Jesus. I think this is the experience of many. We start with some idea of this resurrection story and then over time as the person of the risen Christ looms before us we see more in this story. Its actuality presses upon us. The body is not there. Our Lord is risen and very much in possession of his body.
Many of you will know the hymn Because He Lives. In that hymn is the line, “An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives!” With all due respect to the author this is not quite correct. The empty grave does not prove anything about what happened to Jesus. These women discover no stone and no body and, at first, conclude that someone stole the body not that Jesus is risen. It isn’t the empty grave that proves that Jesus lives—it is the other way around. It is the living Jesus who shows us why his particular grave is empty. It would be more accurate to sing, “An empty grave is there because my Saviour lives!”
A few weeks ago I shared with you the scripture passage that I read as part of graveside (or chapel) committal service. It is Philippians 3:21 “He (Jesus) will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” The clear witness of the scripture is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave and through faith in him we look forward to the same transformation.
You may have heard or read of the proliferation of the dying and rising gods of the Mediterranean world. Some scholars make much of this suggesting them as a link to understating this biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection; suggesting it as another instance of a “dying and rising god” motif. As if Christians were trying to say our hero is as good as yours.
All over the Mediterranean there indeed were dying and rising gods, but none of them were actual historical figures, let alone “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” We have stories in our culture about those who defy death—think of the vampire television series and their ilk or of the super hero shows. Dying and rising gods were a dime a dozen; they came and went every year with the cycle of plant life. No one, absolutely no one, expected to see such a thing happen to a real person. When the women come to the tomb and find the stone and body gone they are thinking stolen body not resurrection. And even when the women suggest otherwise according to the angel’s message the disciples consider it nonsense.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a category of event hitherto for unknown in human history. It is in a category by itself. It is little wonder that these first followers of Jesus found it challenging to embrace as our Lord pressed it upon their consciousness as he met with them. It is little wonder that people today find the story hard to embrace even among those who have heard it often. But the event is not self-interpreting. So he rose bodily from the dead. Even if we accept that fact questions remain; what does it mean and does it have anything to do with me?
A few moment ago I said to you that when the women came to the tomb and find no stone and no body they witness the first indications of the glorious outcome of the cosmos-changing event. The resurrection is the outcome of what happened on Good Friday. The meaning of the resurrection is understood only through the prism of the crucifixion of our Lord on the cross. To know the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus we must come again to the foot of the cross.
I draw you attention to Matthew’s crucifixion account of the moment Jesus died. “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (Matthew 27:50-53)
Notice the three verbs in this account of the earthquake. In the Greek there is a triple passive—it has even been called “the great triple passive”—the rocks were split, the graves were opened, and the bodies of the dead were raised. There is a powerful sense here of a directing intelligence and a mighty arm at work in these phenomena. These rocks were not splitting by themselves. God is doing this. If Satan believed himself to be in control on that hill outside Jerusalem, his enjoyment must have been short-lived. God the Father and God the Son are in charge of the entire operation; the amazing signs described in Matthew’s gospel are intended to demonstrate this fact.
The evangelist is telling us that here in the most vivid arresting way possible that the centre of history is focused on Calvary’s hill. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is earthshaking in the truest sense of the word. The course of the world is interrupted here. Things will never again be as they were before, and in the eclipse as well as the in the earthquake and the splitting of rocks, God calls forth his whole creation as witness to his divine intervention. The universe is wrenched off its axis and sent spinning in another direction. The turn of the ages took place at the cross.
According to the gospel we live in the prison house of sin—sin essentially being humanity tell God to buzz off. Our sinful state can only mean God’s condemnation—we can’t fix it from inside the prison whatever our best efforts. Someone from outside the prison had to enter the prison to set us free of its bondage. This is what occurs at the cross—God absorbs the condemnation for sin in himself.
In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he said that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) In this same letter we find that great chapter on the resurrection where Paul tells us the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in light of the cross. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.* (1 Corinthians 15:20) Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruit of what was accomplished at the cross. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the glorious outcome of that epoch turning event of the cross. God’s promised new age has begun at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus is the first instance of life in this new age; the age the New Testament refers to as the age to come. (Mark 10:30)
“What does all this have to do with me,” we might ask. Think for a moment of you own life and history. Think of it the way you usually think about it; you had these parents and this childhood and you grew up to be this kind of person and now you are older than you were and eventually you will be older still and sooner or later your life will draw to a close and you will die. Now, you will notice in this kind of thinking the movement is always from the past through the present into the future. What I do today is influenced by what happened yesterday, and what I do today will have an effect on what will happen tomorrow.
But what if that were changed? Suppose instead of looking at the future by way of the past and present, we began to judge and evaluate the past and present by the future, that is, by what God will do in the future. This is exactly what happened on the hill outside Jerusalem as Jesus draws his last breaths. The age to come is invading the old age with a power that shakes the foundation of the world—the first fruit being our Lord raised from the dead. And as these women come to the tomb that resurrection morning they are the first to witness the debris of that earth shaking.
The stone is rolled away and all that remains are the grave clothes. As we have walked there with them and observe what they did we are invited to believe the angel’s message. “He is not here, but has risen.”