March 31, 2013

They Did Not Find the Body (Easter Sunday)

Passage: Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body.*


When you hear the word “Easter”, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Happy? Joyful? Relieved?  It is not unlike Christmas—though Christmas is likely more extensive in its celebration.  Christmas and Easter are high points for Christians and we generally anticipate them as joyful occasion.  We look forward to Easter.  For Canadians it falls in the first weeks of spring; the cold of winter has receded, gardens are soon to be prepared for planting, the amount of daylight is increasing.

And of course when we come to church we know what to expect; “He is risen, He is risen indeed!” the happy refrain is sounded.  According to the Easter story, however, there wasn’t much joy.  There was no high-fiving amidst shouts of, “He is risen”. These first followers of Jesus were puzzled, terrified, unbelieving and deeply perplexed.  We read of three terrified women, a bunch of frightened and grumpy disciples, and a perplexed Peter.  All of this adds up to make the point: what happened on the first Easter was something nobody expected.

Bedrock to all the gospel Easter accounts is that the tomb was empty.  Luke says “when they went in, they did not find the body.*” But the empty tomb is not presented as proof of Jesus resurrection.  Nobody who saw the empty tomb concluded from that fact that Jesus has been raised. Jesus’ resurrection interprets the empty tomb. “They did not find the body”; if you had gone at daybreak with these women you too would be shaken just as they were.  Imagine the shock of finding an empty tomb.  Your question is, “where is the body?”

In these first lines of Luke’s story we encounter people just like us.  They are muddled and afraid but showing up, going to look, still not unable to let go.  Like us these people find a stone rolled away when we thought it was impossible—the body was nowhere to be found.  In these early hours they have yet to understand why it has happened or what is going to happen next.  We find still today when the resurrection of Jesus is announced, as it was to these first visitors to the tomb—he is not here, he has risen—we don’t know what to make of it.  This is not what happens to dead people.  The story still shocks and perplexes.

Many today respond to this perplexity by regarding the Easter story as a kind of spiritual metaphor; a dramatic way of saying “God’s cause continues” or “long live God”.  But to the women who went to the tomb or for the disciples who went to see for themselves this was no metaphor; “they did not find the body.”

1. Thomas à Kempis, is the author of The Imitation of Christ, which is one of the best known Christian books on devotion.  This fifteenth-century author wrote: “God, who is eternal, infinite, supremely mighty, does great and unfathomable things in heaven and in earth, and there is no understanding his wonderful works.  If the works of God could easily be grasped by human understanding they could not be called wonderful or too great for words.”

Easter worship isn’t about celebrating with an easy kind of certainty.  Easter worship confronts us with a world of strange new possibilities; we are asked to be open to God’s future—open to the wonder of all the wonders he has worked.  Easter is not just an arbitrary miracle, some sort of moment when God says, “Look at what amazing things I can do”.  When we stand before the empty tomb and hear the angelic announcement “He is risen,” nothing here fits into our little world-views.  Our world-views keep us looking into the tomb wondering what happened to the body.  Easter explodes all our world-views—every single last one of them—and creates a new one, God’s new one, instead.  We are invited by faith to embrace this wonder—he is not here, he is risen.

Easter begins in apparent nonsense. And what’s more, all things being equal, the Easter message remains nonsense to this day. It’s counter-cultural. It’s counter-intuitive. To the minds of some in our society, thinking about it is counter-productive, too. Why bother with such pre-modern hoo-ha?  Isn’t that backward thinking for 21st century people?

Easter worship challenges us; challenges us to hold open our minds, and our whole life, open to the God who does unexpected things.  Life-transforming things, things you would never have imagined in your wildest dreams.  Paul speaks of God being able “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).  The power by which God can do that is precisely the power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20).

The event of Easter generates its own “world of meaning”; it creates its own meaning most appropriate to it.  It is hard to set aside the world of meaning our world-views ascribe to events.  “They did not find the body”.  Our views ascribe meaning that accounts for Easter in accord with our suppositions about living and dying; grave robbers did they worst; the disciples moved the body; Jesus only swooned on the cross and revived in the cool tomb; the women went to the wrong tomb.  Easter calls us to surrender our categories of life and death to it; to allow this event to generate the world of meaning most appropriate to it.  (Easter season sermons will explore this world of meaning).

2. “They did not find the body,” insists Luke.

Death won’t stop tweets was the headline.  According to a report on social media sites are harnessing technology offering new tools that let you get in one last goodbye after your demise, or even more extensive communications from beyond the grave.  A new crop of start-ups will handle sending prewritten e-mails and posting to Facebook or Twitter once a person dies. (I note they a pre-written).  One company is even toying with a service that tweets just like a specific person after they are gone. “It really allows you to be creative and literally extend the personality you had while alive, in death,” said James Norris, founder of DeathSocial. “It allows you to be able to say those final goodbyes.”

Notwithstanding the help we find in offering final goodbyes; in not leaving unsaid the things we want to say to loved ones—the gospel writers’ account of Easter are so much more than their version of a final tweet from Jesus; as if Jesus were sending message to say that dying isn’t such a bad thing after all. The world of meaning the created by the resurrection of Jesus blows all such ideas to smithereens.

We live in a culture of death.  In Canada we abort those in the womb at a rate of approximately 100,000 per year.  According to the Statistics Canada, during the decade from 2000 to 2009, 491 babies were born alive during abortions and then simply left to die; according to numbers from the Canadian Institute for Health Information another 199 babies were left to die after surviving abortions in 2010 and 2011.  When three Conservative members of Canada’s parliament asked that these deaths be investigated by the RCMP the howls of protest by media and opposition MP’s illustrates the deep roots of this the culture of death.

On June 15, 2012, Justice Lynn Smith of the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that exceptions should be carved out of the existing Criminal Code provision that prevent euthanasia and assisted suicide, particularly section 241’s prohibition on counselling or assisting someone to commit suicide. The judge ruled, contrary to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1993 decision (Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General) and despite the demonstrated expressed will of Parliament, that the Code’s provisions violated equality rights and the rights to life, liberty and the security of the person. The judge determined the existing provisions discriminated, in particular, against persons with physical disabilities who might be unable to commit suicide without assistance. Accordingly, she concluded the state should be required to provide a means to assist those who want to commit suicide but are unable to do so.

Our culture of death shows its character in the myopic focus on the “here-and-now” pursuit of pleasure.  The so-called “sexual revolution” effectively uncoupled sexual activity from the bearing of children.  We have children when we decide or if we decide.  The result has been that we are culturally in a death spiral.  In order to maintain current population levels, demographers estimate the average Canadian woman would need to have 2.1 children in her lifetime.  Canadian women have an average of 1.54 children each.  Couple this with the preference for male children in some sectors in society and the growing trend of sex-selection abortions the picture grows darker.

And of course, everywhere in our world, death is the ultimate weapon of the tyrant.

Everywhere you look the world seeks to make a covenant with death.  Be it the perceived inconvenience or expense of a child being born, the preservation of “quality of life”, the use of the threat of death to grab power and wealth—all these make nice with death.  But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ no covenant is made with death, rather it overthrows death.

Death says we expect to find the body.  In these early hours of Easter the first hint of the magnificence of what has happened has appeared; they could not find the body.  One of the things these first Christians said was part of the world of meaning the resurrection forges is that Jesus is the world’s true sovereign.  Note that the world’s true sovereign does not use death like a tyrant thirsting for power over people; rather he deals death its mortal blow that his people might be free of the fear of death.

Just a few weeks ago I had the privilege to preach the sermon at my father’s funeral service.  In that message with joy I announced: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the announcement that death has been dealt a mortal blow.  It’s over for death.  The resurrection announces that in Christ death has been destroyed.  Death is an enemy to be destroyed not a friend to be danced with; it is not a giant to cower before but a foe to be crushed; not something to make nice with but something that is dispatched to be no more.  When the Bible sees that day when death shall be no more; all of deaths errand boys shall be no more.

They did not find the body.


Margaret Sangster Phippen wrote that in the mid-1950s her father, British clergyman W. E. Sangster, began to notice some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, his throat would soon become unable to swallow.

Sangster threw himself into his work in British home missions, figuring he could still write and he would have even more time for prayer. "Let me stay in the struggle Lord," he pleaded. "I don't mind if I can no longer be a general, but give me just a regiment to lead." He wrote articles and books, and helped organize prayer cells throughout England. "I'm only in the kindergarten of suffering," he told people who pitied him.

Gradually Sangster's legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, "It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, 'He is risen!'—but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout."

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!