by David Baer, April 5, 2015
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
“The road ends here.” I saw those words emblazoned on the edge of the basketball court as I was watching the NCAA men’s basketball semifinals last night. Playing in these two games were the Final Four teams that emerged from a whole month of play, and last night Wisconsin and Duke earned their places in the championship. It was the end of the road for their opponents, Michigan State and Kentucky. But the road ends for everybody, one way or another, tomorrow night. All their efforts have been aimed at that destination, the championship game. The road ends here.
So much of our lives are aimed at this or that destination. Students are aimed toward graduation. Engaged couples are aimed toward their wedding. Maybe right now you’re aimed at finding a new job or planning a vacation. Some of these destinations are up to us, and some aren’t, and some destinations lie somewhere in between. A relationship that used to be at the center of your life comes to an end—for the right reasons, for the wrong reasons—it hurts all the same. A choice that didn’t seem to matter at the time becomes a terrible split in your story, marking your life with a “before” and an “after.” Sitting at the bedside of a loved one in their final hours is a time aimed at a destination too—marked with sadness, helplessness, maybe anger. Not every destination is a place we want to be, but we find ourselves going there just the same.
That first Easter morning, as day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph were on their way to the tomb of Jesus. They were coming, our story says, to see the tomb. Out of all Jesus’ friends, these women were the strongest and most courageous. When Jesus was arrested, the male disciples fled. Peter denied him three times. Only the women, including these two, had followed him to the end, standing and watching from a distance as Jesus hung from the cross and finally breathed his last. These women, and all their sisters in first-century Palestine, were tough. They took care of the sick. They washed and anointed the bodies of the dead. With a grim and bitter determination, they stared death in the face and dealt with its consequences. And now these two, Mary and Mary, were coming to see the tomb.
The tomb was their destination. The sealed cave was closure. It was going to be a period at the end of the last sentence in the story of Jesus’ life. They had followed him. They had loved him. They had believed in him. When he fed hungry crowds and healed the sick and restored the dead to life, they saw a fresh and astounding new future coming into the world. But now Jesus’ life was over, and with it any hope that the miracles he worked could be anything more than a pleasing spectacle on the way to the grave. So they had come to see the tomb, to face up to its ugly reality with all the honesty and grit they could muster.
All of us arrive at the tomb. It’s our destination too. Some of us, like Mary and Mary, have stood at the resting place of a loved one this past year. Some of us have struggled with chronic illness, with fragile bodies that no longer work they way they’re meant to. Or we’ve seen cherished relationships with people who were once dear to us falter and die, from misunderstandings, from neglect, from something terrible and mysterious that came from within us but overpowered us to unmake all the good things we thought we wanted. Or some of you, I know, who are tenderhearted and compassionate people struggling to help a friend bear these burdens have come to feel for yourselves just how inexorably crushing and debilitating and irreducible those burdens are. Death is not just the cessation of physical life. It’s the force that creeps backward in time from that final moment, the force that’s present in everything that diminishes or limits us. And when we feel the pull of that force, we know we’ve arrived at the tomb.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus is that the Son of God entered the tomb that all of us are destined for. Jesus went to the cross by choice, out of love, so that we are never alone in our suffering. When you are grieving for someone you love, remember that Jesus too wept when his friend died. When your body is failing you, remember that Jesus endured hunger and pain, and that he gasped for breath as his life came to an end. And—how about this?—when you’re feeling most alone and abandoned, even by God, remember that Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If part of death’s power is the power to isolate us, to weaken and break the links that hold us in relationship with others, to make us think that when we hurt we’re all alone, then Jesus’ death is the beginning of good news. Because Jesus died, we are never alone, even in our God-forsakenness. We all come to the tomb, it’s true. Jesus has been to the tomb already…
… but he’s no longer there. And this was what astounded the women who had made the tomb their destination that first Easter. The stone had been rolled away, the guards had been overcome with fear, and there was no Jesus—just an angel messenger with a job for them to do. Come and see where Jesus ought to be, he said. See that he’s not here. Then go and tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. The tomb was supposed to be their destination. Instead it became a rest stop, a signpost, a turning point in a journey that was just beginning. The road does not end here. Mary and Mary haven’t arrived at their destination. They’ve just started on their way.
They’re on their way on a journey that begins in confusion. They left the tomb feeling both fear and great joy. They hadn’t yet seen Jesus, and there could be any number of reasons why the tomb was empty. When those guards who passed out from fear finally woke up and slunk back to tell the news to their masters in Jerusalem, the authorities spread the story that Jesus’ body had been stolen. They empty tomb means Jesus is not where he’s supposed to be, nothing more. An empty tomb is an opening, an invitation, a mystery, a possibility of good news. It isn’t proof, and it doesn’t give Jesus back to them. But the women leave the tomb to do what the angel said. They’re hopeful, they want it to be true, and so they embrace their task.
And it is as they are on their way that they finally meet Jesus. “Greetings,” he says… and that’s one way to translate the Greek word. It’s like our word “hello.” But the literal meaning of the word Jesus speaks is, “Rejoice.” The women fall down and grasp his feet—he’s real, he’s no ghost, no apparition, no hallucination. Now hope has become reality. Doubt has melted away into joy. Jesus is alive! He repeats to them the angel’s message: “Go and tell the disciples. I will meet you in Galilee.” They’ve seen Jesus, not at their original destination, not where they had meant to stop, but while they were on their way.
Jesus isn’t going to be found at a destination. He’s not in the tomb, though he’s been there to share our death. He’s not standing around waiting outside, either. Jesus is up and on his way to Galilee, because the life of resurrection is not a destination but a journey. And when he meets the disciples in Galilee, it will only be to send them on their way once again to tell the good news, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach. If you want to find the risen Jesus, you can’t stand still, because you can only find him when you’re on your way from the empty tomb to the place he calls you to go.
Whatever dark and fearful place might be your destination right now, may you find that Jesus has already been there and emptied it of its power. May you discover there, not a destination that brings your journey to an end, but God’s signpost pointing to greater things. The good news of Easter, the good news of resurrection, is that the road does not end here, in our tombs of alienation, guilt, sin, and death. Instead, the tomb is open to a new beginning, to a new journey, and Jesus is waiting to meet us on the way.
And so, as Easter people, let us say with joy, “Christ is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”