The Empty Tomb – Easter – April 20, 2014 – Matthew 28: 1 – 10

There is a story of a boy who told his parents that he didn’t like going to church on Easter because we read the same story every year. That’s true. We read the same story every year because it is central to our faith as Christians. However, we read it every year from a different Gospel in a rotation. This year, we read the Easter story according to the Gospel of Matthew.

The story starts on the first dawn of the first day of the week after the Sabbath, which was a Sunday. The Sabbath lasts Friday night through Saturday night. Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross before the Sabbath started and placed in the tomb. The women could not prepare His body for a proper burial during the Sabbath, so they return Sunday morning to prepare His body with herbs and spices.

Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went down to look at the tomb. According to the details of the other Gospels, the other Mary in this story is the mother of James. The women went down to the tomb to sit vigil, to look at the tomb, to watch it, to observe it.

When the women arrived, there was suddenly an earthquake when the angel of the Lord descended from Heaven. The angel went to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on the tombstone. This earthquake mirrors the earthquake that happened on Friday at the hour when Jesus died on the cross (Matt 27: 51). The gates of Heaven had been opened when Jesus died. Now the angel descends from Heaven to meet the women.

It is odd that Matthew says there was an earthquake, because no other story of the angel of the Lord coming to earth and no other Gospel mentions an earthquake. Other stories about the angel of the Lord also don’t mention the angel’s appearance, but Matthew and John include the details. The angel appeared as bright as lightning; the Greek says the angel was gleaming. His clothes were bright white, as bright as snow.

The men standing guard outside the tomb shook with fear and became like dead men. The Greek word for earthquake is the same word used to describe the men’s shaking. They shook like earthquakes and fell down as dead men. They must have passed out, maybe hit their heads in the fall and lay there. I am reminded of the contemporary Christian song by Mercy Me. Mercy Me imagines meeting Jesus and asks, “Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall?” These poor men fell at just the sight of the angel – surely, they would one day kneel before the Lord.

The angel speaks to the women, saying, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” The angel’s words should be familiar to us readers of Matthew and Luke. The angel of the Lord also told Mary and Joseph to not be afraid for the role in birthing and rearing the Son of God (Matt 1:20 & Luke 1:30). The angel’s words are not meant to be a command. The words spoken to Mary, the mother of Jesus, Joseph, and now Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Mother of James, (apparently, the angel likes to talk to women named Mary); the words were meant to be comforting, soothing words, like the words of a parent telling a child not to be scared.

The angel also tells the women that they should have expected Jesus to not be there, because He told them He would be raised from the dead. Five times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells the Disciples that He will be raised from the dead (Matt 16: 21, 17:9, 17:23, 20:19 & 26:32). The women should have expected Him to be raised from the dead. Perhaps they did expect Jesus to be raised from the dead, but their grief had caused them to question when and how and where. Perhaps they knew Jesus would have been raised from the dead and they were just going down to the tomb to see if they were right. Jesus had told them that He would be raised from the dead on the third day.

We notice that the angel appeared to the women and rolled away the stone after they had gotten there. The angel hadn’t rolled away the stone when Jesus was risen. The women hadn’t seen Jesus walk out of the tomb. The angel rolled away the stone so the women could enter and see that it was empty and Jesus was not there. The tomb did not need to be opened for Jesus; it needed to be opened for the women to enter.

Seeing that the tomb was in fact empty, the women follow the angel’s instructions and run to tell the Disciples the news. Matthew tells us that the women were “afraid yet filled with joy”. Matthew doesn’t say what the women were afraid of. Were they afraid the Disciples wouldn’t believe them? Were they afraid of meeting Jesus when they arrived in Galilee? Either way, the angel’s comforting words did not abate their fear.

As the women ran toward the Disciples, Jesus suddenly appeared to them and said, “Greetings.” The women went to Jesus, fell at His feet, and worshipped Him. Their answer to Mercy Me’s question was they would fall to their knees, not stand in His presence. Jesus repeats the angel’s message, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell the Disciples to go to Galilee; I will see them there.”

We’ve all experienced death and resurrection in some way. Something within us or around us dies and we bury it in a tomb in our hearts. We bury many things. A lost love, failed marriage, lost pregnancy or child, lost spouse or parent, lost job, house fire, lost fertility, cancer, addiction, chronic illness, an accident. I can’t begin to name all the things we bury in a tomb in our hearts. Sometimes our hearts become full because we have buried too many things. For all the things we bury in our hearts, there is an angel waiting to come roll away the tombstone and empty the grave.

Resurrection isn’t something we’re just waiting to follow our death. We are assured of resurrection to eternal life after we die. We can also trust in resurrection in this life. No matter what we experience that may seem to be the end of our hope we can trust in resurrection. We need only ask for God to empty the tombs of our hearts and resurrect what has died.

I have experienced so much resurrection in this life I could spend 20 minutes telling you how I have experienced new life. I know you have too. Perhaps a second chance at love and marriage, eternal life for our loved ones, a new career opportunity, a new home, a new sense of self, recovery, well-being, health, peace. For anything that has died, that we’ve buried, there is new life in resurrection by the power and love of God.

It is not enough to believe what the Bible tells us about Jesus’ resurrection. If we just believe what the Bible says about Jesus, we are bound to stray from our faith. Our experience of resurrection is what feeds our faith and keeps us turning to God during difficult times. We trust in the resurrection so we turn to God trusting that if God was powerful enough to raise Jesus from the tomb surely God is powerful enough to raise us up from wherever we seek Him.

I know resurrection is true and the kingdom of God is at hand. Resurrection is what compels me to do what I do. I know that whatever comes at me that seems it will defeat me there is new life beyond it. You have experienced it or you wouldn’t be here today. Think about it. And, give thanks to God for all the ways He has empty the tombs of your hearts and raised you up to new life. Give thanks for His continued presence and goodness. Resurrection reveals the width and depth and height of God’s love and length He will go to so that we will always and in all things have new life.

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