Tomb, thou shalt not hold Him longer;
Death is strong, but Life is stronger;
Stronger than the dark, the light;
Stronger than the wrong, the right;
Faith and Hope triumphant say,
Christ will rise on Easter Day.
A friend told me about a young minister in Kentucky and a funeral director who asked him to do a graveside service for a homeless man who died with no known family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a new cemetery way out in the country, and this man would be one of the first people buried there.
My friend says the young minister got lost on the way, confused by the winding country roads. Like most men he refused to stop and ask directions. When he finally arrived he was an hour late. As he pulled up he saw the backhoe and the open grave, but no hearse anywhere. The digging crew was sitting off to the side eating lunch, so he apologized to the workers for being so late and stepped to the side of the open grave.
The vault’s lid was already in place, so he assured the workers he wouldn’t hold them up for long . . . but, seeing as no one else was around, would they stand with him while he did the proper thing.
So the workers gathered around the grave and stood silently, as he poured out his heart and soul. He talked all about “looking forward to a brighter tomorrow” and “the glory that is coming.” When he finished, all the workers said, “Amen” and “Praise God.” The young minister thanked the men and began walking to his car. As he was opening the car door, he heard one of the men say to another, “Man. I ain’t NEVER seen nothin’ like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for thirty years!”(1)
This young minister isn’t the only one who sometimes gets confused at the grave. The empty tomb of Easter has the same effect on many of us. We can understand how Holy Week ends but it is harder to wrap our minds around how Easter morning begins. During Holy Week the authorities are angry and fed-up with Jesus. After taking all they can stand from this populist preacher they decide something has to be done to silence him. He is arrested, put on trial for crimes against the state and put to death as an insurrectionist. That we can understand. We may not like it, but we understand it. History is full of some very similar stories. But when it comes to Easter, we have a much harder time understanding the the tomb isn’t really a tomb because there is no body buried there. Unfortunately it’s a very human act to get rid of a trouble maker, especially if his message makes you squirm. But it’s a very other worldly and divine act that this same trouble maker should rise from the dead as the Savior of the world. How are we to understand such a thing?
I can still recall a geography lesson from elementary school in which we learned that the southernmost point of Africa is a place which for centuries has experienced tremendous storms. For many years no one even knew what lay beyond that cape, for no ship attempting to round that point had ever returned to tell the tale. Among the ancients it was known as the “Cape of Storms,” and for good reason. But then in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama, successfully sailed around that very point and found beyond the wild storms, a great calm sea, and beyond that, the shores of India. The name of that cape was changed from the Cape of Storms to the Cape of Good Hope.
Until Jesus Christ rose from the dead, death had been the cape of storms on which all hope had been wrecked. No one knew what lay beyond that point until, on Easter morning, God gave us the victory of Jesus over our this last great enemy. Suddenly, like those ancient explorers, we can see beyond the storm of death to the hope of heaven and eternal life with the Father. More than that, we dare to believe that we will experience in our own human lives exactly what the Son of God experienced in his, for the risen Christ says to us, “Because I live, you shall live also.” This is the heart of the Easter faith.(2)
Sure, it’s a hard thing to wrap our heads around the empty tomb and to accept the promise that one day our tombs will be empty as well. But this is exactly what we are promised today. The great barrier of death has been breached. We tried to kill Jesus but God would not let that injustice stand. Instead, God raised him from the dead and turned the cross, an instrument of torture and death, into the great symbol of life and hope. This morning, as a result of the empty tomb, all of our lives count for something because we are promised our lives don’t end when this life comes to an end. I have said this before and I will say it again – the good news of Easter is literally the reason I can get out of bed each morning. It is the meaning of my life. Like C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Rabbi David Wolpe, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells an ancient Jewish parable about unborn twin children lying together in the womb. One believes that there is a world beyond the womb ‘where people walk upright, where there are mountains and oceans, a sky filled with stars.’ The other unborn twin can barely contain his contempt for such foolish ideas. Suddenly the “dreamer” of the twins is forced through the birth canal leaving behind the only way of life he has known. The remaining twin is saddened, convinced that a great catastrophe has befallen his brother. However, outside the womb the parents are rejoicing. For what the brother, left behind in the womb, has just witnessed is not death but birth. This, Wolpe reminds us, is a classic view of the life beyond the grave – a birth into a world that we on Earth can only try to imagine. The Easter message is that we have an older brother who has traveled beyond the tomb, down the birth canal of eternity and has returned to assure us that God is love, and there is a place prepared for any who will accept this Good News. Whether your name is Mark or Mary, Peter, or even Judas, Christ came into the world to save sinners, to save you. As incredible as it may sound, this gift is yours for the taking. Won’t you accept this good news for your life today?(3)
Let us pray. Dear Lord, “Let every man and woman count himself immortal. Let him catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let him say not merely, ‘Christ is risen,’ but ‘I shall rise.’”4 Amen.