Today is a joyous day. We light the Christ candle again, and shout “Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed!” We sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” with bells ringing out the good news. We are surrounded by flowers and bright outfits and family and friends. It is Easter after all.
But for a moment, I want to be led by the Scripture we read this morning. I want to remember what that first Easter was like. Before the true end to the story was fully known. Before the creation of this institution, the church, that has more than two billion people attached to it. Before the Easter feasts and the Easter bonnets and the Easter flowers.
I want to remember that first Easter morning as told in the gospel of Mark, because it pokes at us about our lives and our faith and what Easter really means.
This sermon was first titled “The Empty Tomb.” For only in Mark’s Easter reading (at least what we think is the original ending, stopping at verse 8) do we not get an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. In Mark, truly the empty tomb is the symbol, front and center. And yes, we do have that messenger, that ‘young man,’ the one who seems to know everything, the one who informs them of the good news of Jesus being alive, the one who gives them a mission—to tell the other disciples, to go to Galilee, and to meet Jesus there.
But let’s hit the rewind button. Let’s wake up with Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, in the early hours before it is light. For Jesus had been quickly buried as the Sabbath approached, and only now, only when the sun peaked above the horizon, could they, dared they, make the journey into the place where tombs were.
I imagine that Mary, and Mary, and Salome, might not have gotten much sleep since that horrible afternoon. I imagine that they were dressed and had gathered all the supplies they needed to perform the final act of love, anointing the body with spices. Nowadays we are very removed from this ritual. But not so many years ago, when death occurred in the home, the family would wash and dress their loved one and put them in the front parlor, where they could be surrounded by those grieving for them, before they were placed in a coffin and buried.
So the women, faces blotched, eyes red and swollen from crying, set off on that journey that no one wants to make. And as I thought about them heading toward the place where they had laid the body of Jesus, I kept hearing, “Empty.”
Empty: That was what the women were feeling as they trudged up the hill to the tomb.
Empty: all their dreams, all their hopes, all their future erased in blood and hate and agony.
Empty: Hearts hurting with that gnawing ache of losing one you love
Empty: Lungs seemingly smaller and unable to fully catch a breath, leaving you winded
Empty: Minds muddled with memories of conversations, or haunted by snapshots of looks, or the magical thinking of “What if…” or “Only if..”
Empty: What more could they do, but lovingly touch him, anoint him with ointment and spices and tears. It was the last thing, before they continued with their now empty lives.
And as they rounded the bend, or came over the hill, or approached that place of dread, they worried about how they were going to open the tomb, roll the stone away from the entrance, get to be with Jesus, that they so desperately wanted to do, and yet that they so desperately wanted to avoid.
But the stone was already rolled away. And they entered the tomb and
Empty—it was an empty tomb.
I imagine gasps and cries, and the sound of dropped containers hitting the ground. I imagine the first flash of alarm “Where have they taken his body?” and then the panic of fear as they realized that although the tomb was empty of Jesus, there was someone else there! Someone who talked like an angel “Do not be alarmed.” Someone who had the answers to all their questions. What had happened. Who to tell. Where to go.
In Mark, there is no meeting in the garden, no resurrection appearance, no joy at feeling, or knowing, or believing that Jesus is truly alive again.
In Mark, there is nothing but confusion, and the raw jolt of one more thing denied, and running away from the emptiness. And telling no one.
Haven’t we had times in our lives like that? When we are so exhausted by life, by hardship, by grief, by illness, by physical toil, by disappointment, by hopelessness, by all those things that are dark about being human. Empty is a good term for that. Empty, hollowed out, spent, dead.
Empty. We see it as something bad, like an empty glass.
Empty. Maybe God can see it as something good. Something to be filled. Something to amaze. Something to shock us out of our disillusioned stance that we know how the world works, we know how it all turns out, we know.
The empty tomb says: you don’t know all. The empty tomb says: I, God, have a bigger plan. The empty tomb says: nothing is impossible, not even resurrection.
I find so much comfort that right at that moment when all seems darkest, right at that moment when the emptiness seems to have won, we find ourselves shockingly at an empty tomb.
Right at that moment, there is the message, “he is not here, he is alive, go and tell the other disciples.”
In our emptiness, God speaks a new word. Into our emptiness God proclaims that there will be life again, there will be hope again, there will be breath again.
In Mark, the women tell no one, but somehow we know the story. The emptiness of the original ending of Mark hangs there, stark and miserable and all too real. And we have to make a choice. We can continue in the emptiness. Or we can hope, we can listen, we can follow, we can tell, we can find ourselves with the resurrected Jesus.
The Easter message is meant for those who are empty. And the Easter message is meant to combat the emptiness of our world. The Easter message is more than shouts of joy, more than songs raised in praise, more than all the trappings of color and the warmth of good feelings. The Easter message is deeper than that. For it proclaims:
Whenever we feel like a pile of bones, God can breathe new life into us.
Whenever we think that we have come to the end of the road, God lays down a new pathway.
Whenever we are just going through the motions, because what difference does it make anyway—God calls us to take up the work, the mission, the dream of what this world could be like, what we could be like.
I think we all can imagine being those women, those disciples haltingly moving toward the finality of death. Empty.
Today, we are challenged, we are charged with becoming the messengers that share the news “Jesus has been raised. He is not here.” Life will never be the same.
How else will an empty world learn of the news?
How else will empty hearts feel the love of God?
How else will empty lives be filled?
May God grant us the strength, May Jesus walk by our side, May the Spirit inflame our hearts, Today and every day.
May it be so. Alleluia! Amen.