THE PROMISES OF GOD: 6 FREE AT LAST
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 25: 6-9; John 20:1-18
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
During Lent, we have been looking at the promises of God. We started with the promise to Noah symbolized in the rainbow set in the dark clouds of a storm. Our skies this morning are cloudy still, but regardless of that, today we celebrate the resurrection, God’s promise of a bright new day, of abundant life.
At a certain church the people gathered on Wednesday of Holy Week for an Easter play by their children. A part of the play involved several of the children assembling a cross. The process was not going well because the kids couldn’t get the crosspiece to fit into its notch. One middle school girl was heard to mutter, “This cross is annoying.”
Assuredly so, but it doesn’t end there. Annoying on Wednesday, agonizing on Friday, but not absolute on Sunday. The message of Easter is that not the worst of human sin, not even death itself, has the last word. God has the last word – and that word is love.
The tomb was empty and the message of Easter is that God’s promises come to us through emptiness. I’m not talking about empty promises, that’s what the world gives us. I’m talking about promises of God that come to us through all the emptiness seen and experienced on that first Easter morning.
Did you ever think that as Mary made her way to the tomb early in the morning that she might have seen or maybe walked right by the empty cross? The place where Jesus was buried was not far from the cross, so it was maybe right by the cross that Mary and the disciples had to walk to get to the tomb. They may have tried hard not to look at the cross or even the place where the cross had stood, but it would have been almost impossible for them not to see it. The empty cross or at least the posts on which the cross beams had been placed were still standing.
As Mary woke early that morning she would have had to remind herself that
everything she had seen was not a dream, it was in fact a painful and cruel death. They wouldn’t have taken Jesus off the cross if he wasn’t dead. When they took him down, the soldiers knew he was dead, the bystanders knew he was dead, the religious leaders who wanted him dead knew he was dead, the disciples knew he was dead and Mary knew he was dead.
Mary went to the tomb in the dark and while there the sun and the Son of God both appeared. She goes because of love but does she go to care for Jesus’ body? Why? We aren’t told in this gospel. Does she go to verify her belief or to confirm her worst fears? She finds the stone has been rolled away so she runs to Peter and John. They run to the tomb and see for themselves what Mary had said, Jesus’ body is not there.
Peter and John return home, but Mary lingers unsure, or hoping against hope that something will happen. As Mary waits at the tomb she sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Not, that is, until he calls her by name. It is at this point that the resurrection ceases to be a mystery and becomes an experience.
Isn’t that what Charles Wesley said in his hymn we Methodists love to sing:
He speaks, and listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
(O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, UMH #57)
Do we go to the empty tombs of our lives to verify death or to celebrate victorious resurrection? Do we tell ourselves and others, “It will never work…she will never make it…his ideas are always misguided.” Do we discredit, demolish, and deconstruct? Or do we approach ideas, people, and circumstances in hope, praying for possibilities, and offering our energy to help create new life?
Two of the disciples ran back to town with a hasty conclusion. Mary stayed where she was and the risen Christ cleared her confusion. Will God do anything less for us? There is One who today in love calls each of us by name.
Remember it is here in the Gospel of John that we see the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to new life. When Lazarus comes out of his tomb he is still bound in burial clothes so Jesus told the others to unbind him. Though Lazarus is raised from the dead he will die again. In our passage today, John tells us the burial clothes were left behind in the tomb. The resurrection of Jesus defeats death. It is left behind. It is no longer the end.
Eugene O’Neill wrote a play entitled Lazarus Laughed. In the play one of the townspeople asks Lazarus what it was like to die. Lazarus laughs and says, “there is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.
The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous one wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is the portal through which we move into greater and finer life.”
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “God has destroyed the shroud cast over all people, he has swallowed up death forever.” The death clothes left behind mean that in Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated.
John also notes that the cloth or napkin, which had been on Jesus’ head, was not with the death wrappings but rolled up, or folded in a place by itself. In early Hebrew and other Middle Eastern cultures, when the master of the house was finished with a meal he would wipe his fingers, mouth, and beard on a napkin then wad it up and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. The wadded napkin meant, “I’m done.”
However, if the master got up and folded or rolled his napkin and laid it beside his plate it meant, “I’m not finished. I’m coming back.” The napkin in the tomb was folded. Jesus was coming back. He was not finished with his ministry among the people. In chapter 21 is one of my favorite resurrection stories. Jesus returns to his disciples to feed them breakfast on the beach.
It is a new day and he helps them with their fishing, gives them food to eat, and forgives Peter three times. It is a beautiful story. Jesus is free of all bonds to do his ministry. He frees Peter of all guilt to do his ministry.
Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold me for I am going to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” We are told not to hold on to the old ways of being. We are to reach for something new. Our relationships are to reflect the relationship between God and Christ. We are to live in new ways with each other. We are to mutually support each other as God and Christ support each other.
You say, “That could get me killed.” The theological response to that statement is, “Yup, you’ve got that right. It could kill you. It killed Jesus.” Life just doesn’t continue endlessly. The concept of resurrection is that it is a gift. It’s a gift of new life, life of new dimensions.
In the resurrection, we are made new and held anew by each other. Everything is as at sunrise in the glorious brightness of a whole new created world where love is all. That is why every tear shall be wiped away from every face, and we will all be free at last.
John makes two points very clear. By the resurrection of Christ, death is defeated and Jesus is alive. Christ is free. We are free.
What the resurrection gives us is not tenure in God’s Kingdom, but a tender-tough togetherness which is God’s Kingdom. Christ, who is alive, gives us new life to make new relationships.
Both the cross and the tomb are empty. But Christ is full of life. His spirit is in our midst giving us guidance, healing our hurts, drawing us to God, forgiving us, and opening our eyes to new horizons. Christ is alive. Christ is free, and because he is alive and free, so are we. So, we can say, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH