This is a day for celebrating. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve been dealing with, for this moment, the rock of COVID-19 has been rolled away and here we are again together at long last! God’s light and love has once again led us out of our closed off places, ending the long season of isolation we have endured and drawing us together to celebrate—in a very real and present way—the triumph of life over death, grace over law, the arrival of light and the ending of darkness.
We celebrate the reality that life rises again–today, in 2021—in much the same way that Mary and the disciples celebrated their astonishing realization that Jesus—even though they had seen him crucified, dead, and buried—Jesus was alive. All four of the Gospels tell the story of the resurrection of Jesus, of course, because it is the heart of the Christian message. But I like the way John tells it best because in his gospel, it’s all about relationship and the restoration of hope. Hope for Mary. Hope for the disciples. Hope for the world. Hope for us and those we love.
After the shocking tragedy of Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples and followers of Jesus were heartsick and devastated. Everything they’d believed in, everything they’d been working for these last three years, it all seems to have come crashing down. Jesus had been saying fairly frequently lately that he would be going where they could not go, but no one took him literally—they didn’t really understand what he was telling them. And when the soldiers came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane, surely once the magistrates heard Jesus’ side of the story, he would be released, and all would be well. Anyone could tell he was a good man who loved God and didn’t wish anyone any harm. None of them could have imagined that Jesus—their beloved friend and teacher–would die the cruel death of a disgraced criminal, hung on a cross next to two unrepentant thieves.
They must have been asking themselves how things could end this way. Were they wrong from the start to have followed this man? Was the hope they’d felt surging in their hearts, the faith that quickened when they listened to his teachings, had all that just been a pipe dream, an empty promise? Had they been fooling themselves, hearing what they wanted to hear, hoping that this well-meaning man was their savior, the true and living son of God? Where did they go wrong?
And now they themselves were in hiding, in fear for their own lives as followers of Jesus. And so early in the morning, before first light, Mary took a basket of spices and went to the tomb in the cave where Jesus was buried. On the way she was worried about how she would get in—the stone blocking the entrance was large and heavy, impossible for her to move. But when she reached the site, she saw the stone was rolled away. Something else unexpected—it was all too real and too painful—and she stood there weeping. When she glanced into the tomb, she didn’t see the body of Jesus lying there—instead she saw two angels, one sitting at the head and one at the foot of the burial bed. But Jesus wasn’t there.
The angels asked, ‘Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Mary was confused, upset, distraught—she didn’t know what to expect in this whole nightmare experience, but she certainly didn’t think Jesus body would be missing. Or two angels would be sitting in his place. Did she know they were angels? We can’t be sure. The scripture tells us they were all in white. Had she recognized them as angels she might have begun to wonder whether there was more going on here than she realized. In the moment, her pain may have been too great for her to hope.
She turned and saw a man behind her, and thought he was the gardener. He asked her why she was crying, and she repeated what she’d said to the angels—and she added a plea to him personally, saying, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and get him.” And then we hear from the mouth of Jesus, one of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture: “He said to her, “Mary.”
And he says to us, “Pat”, “Charlotte”, “Tom”, “Janice.” For every single one of us, tight into our confusion and upset, our stress and our busyness, our emotional exhaustion and overwork, the tender, clear voice of Christ softly calls our name, inviting us to recognize his presence and stop for a moment’s peace. And slowly, as our hearts and minds begin to calm, we can see that our current condition, whatever it may be—of worry, hurt, sadness, despair—that is not the end of the story. With God there are only happy endings—in fact, not real endings at all, but rather an eternal life of relationship and reconciliation, beauty, love, and grace.
Our verse from chapter 12 of Isaiah is the last line of a hymn at a crucial point in the book. As you may remember from our study, the whole book alternates between difficult stories of God’s anger and judgment and uplifting and joyful stories of God’s promise of renewal. More than anything, we learn, God wants to be in relationship with his children, enabling us all to live peaceful, loving lives together. The verse from this hymn ends the first part of Isaiah on a hopeful, even joyful note. The Lord will not stay angry forever. His blessing and favor will once again return to his children. “Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,” Isaiah says, “for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
The time of judgment and turmoil has been a difficult season, Isaiah says, but it is not the end of the story. God has something good in store.
Many of Isaiah’s prophecies came true over the years. In fact, archeologists and researchers studying the site of Jesus’ burial found much evidence of warring conquests and disruptions and takeovers in the city of Jerusalem in the centuries following Jesus’s death. One hundred years after Jesus died, the Roman emperor had a temple built over this tomb, essentially claiming the sacred site for Rome. That temple was demolished by Constantine’s representatives two centuries on, and yet another church erected. Then that church was destroyed by another warring group around the year 1000 and then rebuilt in the 11th century. Through the years, it seems there’s been little rest for the city of God.
In 2016, a team of researchers was given permission to unseal—for 60 hours–the tomb believed to have belonged to Jesus. This brief exploration limited what they could do but it also preserved the ancient artifacts and protected them from exposure to the elements. The tomb is now enshrined in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (sep-ool-ker) in Jerusalem’s Old City. The burial bed has been covered over since at least the 1500s with marble to protect the original surface and prevent eager pilgrims from breaking off pieces of the original rock and taking them home as souvenirs.
When the marble was removed by the researchers, at first it appeared there was only fill material underneath. But as they continued their work, they discovered another marble slab below, with a cross carved into its top. By the time the tomb had to be sealed once again, they had uncovered the entire, original limestone burial bed that was believed to be in Jesus’ tomb. They discovered it was fully intact. The lead archeologist was quoted as saying his knees were shaking in that moment—he was touched and profoundly moved by this finding. They had looked back into history and found evidence that the beliefs were true—with nothing, so far, to refute them. And we too can look back across our own lives and easily see the evidence that God has been faithful and good, guiding and true, through all the chapters of our own lives, whether they brought us pain or joy.
Easter tells us, perhaps better than any other moment of the Christian year, that when God is part of our story, there is always reason to hope. Especially when we’re in the middle of a heartbreaking time, when we’re struggling and exhausted, crabby and worn out and dejected—that’s the time to take a breath, to rest our minds, to say a prayer. That dark night of the soul is just a temporary condition—like Mary’s weeping outside the tomb, maybe just moments before Christ calls our name and everything changes.
As Richard Foster says, our God “is indeed the God of the good future.” That is the story of Easter. New hope, continuing life, beauty and joy everlasting. That’s where we’re headed with God. Jesus showed us in living color that the death of the body doesn’t change the life of the soul that is joined with God for all time—what better news could there be than that?
In closing, I’d like to share a lovely poem from Joyce Rupp. It’s called Sunday Prayer.
source of inner power
restorer of tombed vitality
giver of graced gusto
you who have been raised
from the cold stone of death
come and resurrect me
from my own entombment
repair what has weakened
in my spiritual endeavors
revive my mildewed
lift up my waning hope
when I wail with the world’s pain
restore my sense of oneness
with all of your creation
refresh my daily call
to embrace the sacred
to find you in every gesture
that dances with your heart
push back the stone
untomb my generosity
renew my dedication
raise up my dilapidated dreams
restore my ancient union
resuscitate my burning desire
re-establish my priorities
so you become the Center
of all I am and all I do.
- OT Isaiah 12: 6
- NT John 20: 11-18
- Joyce Rupp: