The women walk, bearing the heavy spices and oils to anoint Jesus’ body. According to Luke, the last words they heard from Jesus were, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And then, empty.
Mark says the last thing heard from Jesus’ lips was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” followed by a loud, anguished cry.
But whether you go by Mark or Luke, or Matthew or John, the result is the same. Empty.
The disciples scatter, the women observe from afar, the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross, limp and lifeless, carried hurriedly as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was beginning by Joseph of Arimathea and placed in a tomb. The stone was placed over it. Everyone went home.
As a really young student pastor, I was called to go to the home of a man whose wife was sick and in the hospital, not expected to live. As we visited over coffee and pastries at his little kitchen table, he kept saying the hardest part of coming home at night from the hospital was the empty house. “It is not the same without her here,” he said, “It’s just empty, almost like there might as well be no furniture here, really. I just sit awake at night. Just so empty.”
Kim and I are what you call “empty nesters” now, which as you know means the little birds have flown away, one to Tokyo and one to Memphis. We heard and said all the positive things. Now we are going to be able to drop everything and go where we want when we want. Now I can watch what I want on television, complete control of the remote. Now we can eat what we want, instead of accommodating other people. No more picking up after them. The laundry is reduced by half, really, more than half. Freedom. Liberation.
But the truth is, when we walked into the house after returning from the airport to send our boy to Tokyo and his sister wasn’t there waiting for us, the full force of that phrase hit us in the gut – empty nest. And it was months before I could walk by their rooms, their empty rooms, without a lump catching in my throat.
We’re better now, by the way. We’ve found the good in the empty nest, not least of which is more time with one another. And when Caleb gently floated the idea that in Japanese culture, when a couple has a baby they move in with one set of parents for the first several years of the baby’s life, and if he and Ryoko had a baby in the US, would that apply, we said, “This ain’t Japan.” So we’re getting used to it.
And yet, when our daughter is coming home, we are overcome with excitement; and when we video-chat with our son from around the world, we relish the connection, and long for more, to be able to embrace.
Imagine these women, arms tired from bearing the spices, preparing to do the one thing they can do to perhaps stave off this feeling of emptiness. They see the stone rolled away, look inside, and…empty.
An empty tomb does not mean anything other than the body is not there. The women, far from shouting, “Alleluia! He is risen!” instead are, says Luke, “perplexed.” Can it get worse than the cries from the cross, the final breath, the death of their Lord, the death of their dreams? Apparently so. Now, even the tomb is empty. Now they do not have the benefit of this final consolation – seeing his body, tending his wounds, caring for him this one last time. The tomb, even the tomb, is empty.
This is the place, the place where the bottom they thought they had reached was pulled out from under them, staring at the emptiness of the tomb – this is the place where something happens to them, where grace reaches into that emptiness in the form of two men, dressed, as Luke says, in dazzling clothes.
But as if often the case, grace doesn’t appear to them as grace at all. Now they are no longer perplexed, but terrified. They bow their faces to the ground in fear. Notice how, on this Easter Day we are more than halfway through the story and the only emotions we have felt are perplexity and terror.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” ask the men. And they don’t wait for the answer: “he is not here. He is risen. Remember what he said.”
It is only as they are reminded to remember, it is only as they recall the teaching of Jesus, that their perplexity and terror flee away, and they go and tell. The power of this Easter story is not in the empty tomb or the dazzling white clothes – the only thing those bring ultimately is confusion and fear. The power of the story is in the remembering. “Remember what he said to you.”
It is in this act of remembrance that they are finally able to see. It is in remembering that their emptiness is filled.
I have on more than one occasion visited with a person who is suffering from severe dementia. Those of you who have experienced this will know that it can be a frustrating time of reintroducing yourself to the one you care about, engaging in circling conversations filled with repetitive questions and confusing answers. But more than once, I watch the perplexity and terror fall from the faces of those who suffer as we begin praying the Lord’s Prayer, or reading Psalm 23, or saying the Apostles’ Creed. Emptiness is filled. Memory, those deep grooves formed in the soul in weekly worship, the years lived in the hearing of the old, old story; the memory restores them, even if for a moment, and they are part of that great company of all the faithful of every time and place, a community of memory.
When you find yourself in the place of emptiness longing for life, it is memory that ushers in the Risen One.
The women are not told to go to Galilee, but to remember what he said in Galilee – that the Messiah would suffer and die and on the third day rise again. As soon as they remember, it is Easter. He has yet to appear to them, but it is Easter, because they remember. “It is the kind of memory that doesn’t live in the past, but propels them to the future.”
There are times when we don’t remember – when pain or grief or the pressures of living propel us not to the future, but to the past, robbing us of our ability to remember well, and we commence to hunting for Jesus’ dead body.
One particular Lent and Easter was especially difficult for me for me; for lots of reasons it was one of those classic church worker Lent/Easter seasons, where we all trudged around the church offices counting down not to the joy of Easter, but to having it over with. Fatigue is what I remember most. It was one of those years when I grew weary of bunnies and eggs and flowers, and was tempted to respond to the greeting, “Christ is risen today!,” with “What do you know?” Not good.
Of course the pastor is not allowed to say that, so I took it out on my family. At the time we just had one child, and he was three or four. He commanded a lot of attention and energy that I did not have to give during those weeks. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and two Easter Services were coming and I was not ready for any of them. Finally, Holy Saturday arrived, the day before Easter, and I was studying at home when my son came in, wanting to go outside on what was a beautiful Saturday and play. He was persistent, pleading even, tugging at me, and I finally semi lost it, snatched him up, and took him to his mother. I said, “I can’t handle him right now – – you know its Easter, right?” This was a rhetorical question, but it received an answer.
“Yes,” she said, “and it will be Easter whether the sermon is perfect or not. It doesn’t depend on you. But he,” pointing to the boy, “he does.
She was not dressed in dazzling white clothes, and I don’t think for a moment that she saw herself as a messenger of the Risen Lord at that moment – but she was. I was poking around in my sermon preparation like a graveyard, hunting for the body of a long-dead Jesus, and all along, he was alive, and the signs were all around, including the magnificent three year old gift tugging at my sleeve.
Christ the Lord is Risen today! Not yesterday, but today. We do not need to linger at whatever graves we may have found ourselves poking around in. If you are empty, looking around the tomb for some sign of life, be on the lookout for signs of God’s dazzling grace. It is surely there, if we believe what we say we believe, it is surely there, set loose in the world. And if you know someone in that place, you may be for them the messenger of that dazzling grace, sent by God to whisper in their ear, “Remember.” We all need to hear it. The world needs to hear it. “Remember what he said. Remember what he said.” Lift your voices, do not be afraid to be dazzling heralds of God.
He is risen!
He is risen, church!
He is risen, world!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.
Preached Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016