The  Undisputed Fact

On  Friday, we remembered the truth of the Crucifixion.  “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the  world, is dead!” Nobody denied that. It was an accepted, undisputed  fact.

His  disciples accepted that fact. They went into hiding, in fact, lest they be  caught up in a Roman sweep of Jesus’ associates who might stir up trouble around  this miscarriage of Roman justice.

Joseph  of Arimathea and Nicodemus accepted that fact. They saw to it that his body was  carefully and lovingly placed in Joseph’s newly hewn tomb. They had hastily  prepared it in a preliminary way for its final laying to rest which was to take  place on the day following the Sabbath.

The  Jewish authorities accepted that fact. They even appealed to Pilate for a guard  to be set “lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He  has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27:64) They knew he was dead, and they intended to keep him that  way!

Pilate  accepted that fact after a centurion had confirmed it. He authorized those who  wanted to set a guard to make the tomb as secure as  possible.

Women  who had been close to Jesus accepted that fact. “The women who had come with  him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid,” Luke  tells us. (Luke 23:55) Today we find them going to the tomb “taking the  spices they had prepared.” They did not question what they were about to do.  They were going to tend a corpse. Their only question was “who will roll away  the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark  16:3)

Oh,  yes! The one undisputed fact of the Friday previous was this: “Jesus Christ, Son  of God, Savior of the world, is dead!” Cold, harsh, cruel, bleak death!  Nobody disputed that fact on that dark day.

You  believed that, did you not? Did any one here go home, saying to yourself, “I  don’t really believe he was dead at all. I think it was a hoax … or a mere  coma … or a misrepresentation of the facts … or an event that could be  explained in some way other than death”? I suspect not!

The  Days of Mourning Are Turning to ………..

Sundown  came. The Day of Sorrows ended. The Sabbath came. Did Jesus’ friends attend  synagogue services? We do not know. The priests presided at temple services. The  elders and scribes and the whole council that delivered Jesus to Pilate did what  all pious Jews were required to do on the Sabbath … especially on that  Sabbath (“for that Sabbath was a high day”). (John 19:31) Things were quiet. He who had threatened to disrupt the peace of that day was safely in the grave. Pilate, with hands washed of the whole affair, probably rested quietly, glad to be assured that the public life in Jerusalem was safely in the hands of Roman authority again after the recent commotion.

Sundown  came again. The Sabbath was over. The women were again permitted to work. They  quickly prepared spices for the final preservation of Jesus’ body to complete  that which Joseph and Nicodemus had begun. The sun rose in the sky on that third  day, but it did not rise in the hearts of the disciples or the women whose feet  were so unhappily making their way to the grave of him whom they loved, asking  among themselves how the huge stone rolled before the grave might be  moved.

What  have you been doing since that agonizingly piercing declaration Friday  evening that “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the world, is dead!”?  Have you been wondering what could possibly come next, now that Jesus was safely  laid in the tomb? Have you been filled with the sorrow that filled the hearts of  the women of whom our text speaks? Have you questioned, even for one single,  solitary moment what you were going to celebrate today?

In  fact, if I am correct, the days before this have been filled with preparations  for celebration! I know that men and women have been busy preparing this  sanctuary with a variety of signs and symbols, suggestions of various kinds that  this is a great and wonderful day. The black drape over the cross was replaced.  The paraments in the chancel have been changed, signifying that this is a day to  celebrate beyond all days.

In  your homes Easter eggs have been colored and children have already discovered  their hiding places. The Easter meal has been in preparation, perhaps for  several days. Everything has been put in order so that the meal is served  properly and punctually for the family gathering. Easter clothing, purchased  earlier, has been laid out in festive preparation for the occasion. All has been  made ready for that glorious cry, “He is risen! He is risen  indeed! Alleluia!”

The  darkness in which the Good Friday service ended has been broken by the light  of  Easter. How wonderfully the  declaration that “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the world, is dead”  has been superceded by an even louder cry, “He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” as this service began.

The  Disputed Fact

Dare  I suggest, without offending the sensibilities of those who have been so busily  engaged in these multitudinous preparations, that this would have all been  perceived as meaninglessly nonsensical foolishness to the disciples who were  sequestered behind locked doors this morning? Is it impertinent of me to tell  you that the women who had prepared the spices with which to anoint the body of  Jesus were not, in the least, lamenting this journey as a bothersome  interruption in their preparation of a meal celebrating a risen Christ? Would it  be out of place to follow the guard into the city to report the inexplicable  event they had just experienced, only to receive a bribe as they were instructed  to “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we  were asleep,'” being assured that the chief priests and the elders would  cover for them if the governor gave them any trouble over their malfeasance of  duty? (Matthew 28:11-15)

I  trust you will not find it disrespectful of me to propose a complete lack of any  such preparations – nor any will to make such preparations – for the Great  Festival on the part of those of whom we hear in today’s Gospel reading. The  angels were the only ones who knew what was going to happen, what had happened,  and what they were to report to those coming to anoint the corpse of Jesus with  spices. None of the others had the faintest inkling of the news that was about  to rock their world.

Easter  came as a complete surprise!

The  angels, in the most delicate manner they could muster, reminded the women that “while he was still in Galilee, [he had told them] that the Son of Man must  be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day  rise.” At the time, though, this had made no sense whatever. Nor did it now,  for that matter. After all, they were not coming to the tomb to find out if his  words had proved true or not. They had come to the tomb to complete the  appropriate preparations for the permanent resting place of a corpse. They  remembered the words, once reminded, but it still made no  sense.

Nor  could the eleven and all the rest to whom the women reported this most  unexpected turn of events comprehend that Christ was risen from the dead. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Still, Peter, accompanied by John according to his account, felt it  necessary to either confirm or refute this silly report of the women. So he /  they ran to the tomb, only to find things as the women had reported. The face  cloth was lying apart by itself, neatly folded, and the burial bandages simply  fallen in as though Jesus had risen right through them. Even at that, “as yet  they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”  (John 20:5-9)

The  resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a total surprise! Once dead, always dead.  That was their experience. And they knew as an undisputed fact that Jesus had  been dead! Not even the words of Jesus spoken earlier had broken into their  consciousness on a level like this.

Surprise!  Surprise! Surprise! It is virtually impossible for us to re-create the kind of  surprise this turn of events sprang on these first discoverers of the empty  tomb! There was no sense to it. It surpassed anything they had ever dreamt of,  much less believed when Jesus had spoken of it to them, much less having ever  experienced it on the level they now encountered!

For,  you see, one does not ever prepare for a surprise. If one prepares for  it, it is no longer a surprise! On occasion people set up false expectations for  those whom they want to surprise, but the false expectations are only a decoy  for the real surprise! It is a surprise only if / when one does not expect it  … has no idea that it is about to happen … is caught completely off-guard by  the event. The resurrection was a surprise of the highest sort to those of whom  our text speaks!

Not  everyone believed this had happened, of course. The disciples and those with  them were themselves beset by uncertainties at first, for it, as we say today,  was enough to “blow their minds.” It certainly was a “disputed fact” in the  minds of those who had master-minded his death. They had to create suspicions  about its veracity. We have already noted that the guards were paid to lie about  what they had experienced.

That  was only one of many attempts through the ages to dispute what happened on that  day. If one is devoted to explaining away the unexplainable, of course, one can  dispute that which occurred on that day in endless numbers of ways. Surprises of  this sort are entirely unacceptable to those who are determined to give an  account for and rationalize any and all unexplainable things on an assumption  that the universe and everything in it has an invulnerable order about it.  Nothing can change that order “from the outside,” as it were, and we certainly  cannot replicate that which happened on that day. In the orders of this world,  surprises are only explicable things to be understood upon further  research.

The  Surprising Thing About the Surprise is the Surprising Nature of the  Surprise!

None  of those who experienced this surprising turn of events when the one whom they  claimed as their Lord and Master had passed through the gates of death, only to  return again in a very recognizable form, could make much sense out of all this  at the time. The surprise was so great that they did not know what to do with  such a stunning upheaval of all that they could possibly have  expected.

They  clearly knew he was the one with whom they had walked and talked, though. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see. For a  spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38,  39) “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  and he took it and ate before them.” (Luke 24:41, 42) “Put your finger  here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not  disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27)

It  was only on the day of Pentecost that some of this began coming together into a  coherent way of re-ordering their understanding of the world. “Hear these  words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and  wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know  – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of  God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up,  loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by  it…This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts  2:22-24, 32) Witness it they did! With power! They and those around them and  after them turned the world upside down with the news that death had, against  all human odds, been surprisingly turned upside down and inside out. And if  death was turned upside down and inside out, who knows what else can be turned  upside down and inside out?

The  Easter Challenge

Do  you see now why, in the beginning, we took such pains to rehearse all our  anticipations and preparations from Good Friday to this day? Today came as no  surprise whatever to those of us gathered here this morning. We would have been  outraged, in fact, had we come here only to be told that nothing new was to be  reported; the grave was secure once again after all final attention had been  given to Jesus’ body; go home, satisfied that nothing more can be done in behalf  of Jesus of Nazareth! What a fury that would have raised within us! What  indignation would be heaped upon anyone with that kind of Easter message.

Yet,  can you even remotely conceive of the full surprise Easter engendered among  those who first encountered Jesus as risen from the dead? We have been so  predisposed to receive this astonishing news as though it were an expectation  that it is all but impossible to put ourselves even momentarily into the shoes  of those whose only expectation on that first Easter was to visit a grave. That  which none of his contemporaries expected on this morning over two thousand  years ago is precisely that which we expected when we came here. We could  not prepare for a surprise, because there was no surprise to be sprung on us. We  knew all along what we were coming here to celebrate.

That  is not all bad, of course, for in Christ’s resurrection the divine confirmation  took place that his death healed the self-inflicted wounds of our transgressions  (Isaiah 53:3-8); his self-giving brought all creation back into the harmony God  intended from the beginning (Colossians 1:15-20); his resurrected life raises  hope in a forlorn and weary world (Romans 8:18-21) … all that and more – much,  much more! We need to hear that affirmed regularly lest we fall off into  despair.

That  is why every Sunday is considered a “little Easter,” for every Sunday this good  news is proclaimed, set forth before us in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy  Spirit, the name joined to our name in our baptism. Every Sunday is a renewed  opportunity to sit with the two disciples in Emmaus who recognized the risen  Lord “when he was at table with them, [and] took the bread and blessed and  broke it and gave it to them.” Their eyes were opened to recognize the  resurrected one then as our eyes are opened today when the bread is placed into  our hands with the words, “the body of Christ, for you,” and the wine is raised  to our lips with the words, “the blood of Christ, for you.” Every Sunday he  explains himself to us through the same divine word he used to explain himself  to those men before they sat at that table, causing our hearts, as theirs did,  to “burn within us while he opened to us the Scripture.” (Luke 24:28-32)  Every Sunday he comes to us – surprises us, if you will – with a word of hope in  the midst of our distraught lives, with a word of promise that burns through the  weariness that envelops this world.

Easter  brings two things (among many, to be sure) of extreme importance that we must  rehearse regularly.

The  first is that God can and does bring life out of the darkest moments of our  dying as he brought new life to the grave of Jesus. We all die many times over,  you know – out of shame, guilt, hopelessness, despair, seemingly irreconcilably  broken relationships, distress of body and soul; and on and on. Ah, yes, there  are many dyings before our final one. But there is a God who can and does raise  life in the midst of those dyings long before he raises us out of the grave of  our final earthly death. We need to be constantly aware of that. You have  undoubtedly experienced some of those little resurrections already in your life  – and there are more to come. Our assurance of those resurrections, however,  depends on this one resurrection that broke the power of the grave with finality  on that first Easter morning. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is  futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) Because of  that which we celebrate this day, no grave is so final, no death so absolute  that it cannot be broken apart by the God of Life whose Spirit hovers over and  around us like a protecting guardian. “The sting of death is sin, and the  power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through  our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56, 57)

The  second is this: You never know just how or when or where that life-giving Spirit  that breathed new life into the body of Jesus in the grave will break into your  life in a fashion you least expect. This is not to promise a check in the mail  when the bills are due and your bank account is empty. It is not to promise an  extraordinary burst of energy just when age has been taking its toll on you. Nor  is it a promise that there will never be a bump in the road of your life. It is a promise, though, that God will come out of nowhere as a  broadside to your life on occasion; that in the darkest of times you will find  unexpected strength and a will beyond anything you can imagine now; that God,  who raised Jesus from the dead, will burst open the barrage of little deaths  that you encounter in life with a force that will astonish  you.

The  world around us bombards us with promises that it can never keep while it begs  us to believe those promises. It has no surprise other than this: All its  glowing and seductive promises end without fail in the  grave.

It  is there, though, – in the grave – where God pulls his biggest surprise of all!  The risen Christ takes us by our hand in that dark tomb where we die with him in  our baptism and he gives us a life that is the light of humankind shining in the  darkness … the light that no darkness can overcome. (John 1:4, 5) If the grave  could not hold him, then it cannot hold us, either – not in this  world or in the next. That is why we must regularly return to this empty tomb  … to find here the surprise of all surprises … and to constantly keep the surprise a surprise!

In  the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A Message  from  Pastor, Hubert Beck brought to you by  Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas.  For prayer or more information, contact  Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected].  A Pass it On  Project

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