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The Easter Promise ©

On Sunday they had entered Jerusalem in triumph.  On Friday, they were imprisoned by defeat.  The fog of despair and hopelessness settled in.  Thus the Easter story opens.  “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). They did not go to the tomb expecting to encounter a risen Savior.  Neither do we.  They had seen the bars of death slam shut.  So have we.  The stone had been rolled in place.  They went wrapped tightly by the chains of defeat to anoint the body of their dead leader.  So certain were they of Jesus’ death, of his imprisonment within the walls of the tomb, that even when an angel appeared to them to share the news of liberation they were not initially joyful but disbelieving.  They had been convinced of the finality of the message:  ‘Jesus Defeated!’  And in his defeat they knew their own imprisonment to the forces of darkness and despair. It is so easy to be casually critical of those early followers of Jesus.  One wants to think, “if only I had been there, I would have believed the scriptures.  I would have recognized that Jesus was the Savior who would free us.  I would have believed in his resurrection.”  Yet we are not so different from those first followers.  It is all too easy to become imprisoned by defeat and despair.  The harsh reality of life is that we all know or will experience fog settling in, the bars slamming shut, the chains enfolding us.  We know what it is like to walk a cemetery road. There is a powerful witness of this reality in Joyce Rebeta-Burditt’s novel The Cracker Factory.  A woman named Cassie writes her brother Bob about her husband leaving her.  “He looked at me one night and said, ‘Cassie, you’re a loser.’  Bob,” writes Cassie, “when I stand on Judgment Day to hear myself condemned to hell, it will be no more devastating and irrevocable than Charlie’s ‘You’re a loser.’  Forever defective.  Forever doomed.  No hope at all” (Taken from Have I Told You Lately by Joe Harding, p. 68). Let me call him Jim, but it could be Sue or Olivia or Tom.  An achiever in school, driven by the success ethic, he climbed the pinnacle of success in earning power and career status.  In his mid-forties, despite a reasonably sound marriage and fine children, he gazes in examination at his life and finds it consumed by the pursuit of money, pleasure, and power.  Devoid of deeper purpose and higher values, the emptiness of what has driven him cascades over him and the fog settles in.  The bars of the rat race prison slam shut around him.  Does it sound familiar? Easter morning greets us walking a cemetery road.  The simple line from the opening of the Easter story speaks volumes about the reality of life we all experience. “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). We may speak of springtime and glory in the blooming of flowers; we may celebrate the coming of the Easter bunny and frolic in the search for eggs; but the Easter news is a peeling of the bells of triumph.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake” (Matthew 28:2). In the Bible an earthquake is always a sign of God’s presence.  “An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2).   And where does this happen?  At the very place of imprisonment; at the epicenter of defeat.  From now on no death and no defeat need be final.  Despair as a condition of human existence is disenthroned.  Trudging tomb-ward in defeat we encounter God’s messenger ringing out the proclamation, “He is not here; for he has been raised!” (Matthew 28:6). About a decade ago I had the high privilege of getting to know on an intimate level one of the great Christian saints of our time.  Many of you will remember that Father Martin Jenco was an Iranian hostage for years.  He told how the terrorists would move him at night, bound in tape and stuffed in the undercarriage of a truck.  He even recalled privately how he feared he would suffocate because his mouth was taped shut and often he was suffering from congestion and had trouble breathing through his nose.  But he shared that when he was taken from the tomb like compartment under the truck and the tape removed he would say to himself in Latin, “He is risen from the dead, hallelujah, hallelujah!” (Story shared by Father Martin Jenco with the author at Asbury United Methodist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas). Our Easter dawns when we too receive this announcement of victory.  Easter comes upon us when the ground shakes and God is present with us in triumphant power.  So much of life can be spent, even for believing Christians, in the hopelessness of defeat, imprisoned by past hurts and failures, chained by regrets and grief.  Easter dawns, Easter really comes, when we begin to believe, really believe, that with the help and presence of God in the risen Savior, stones are moved and bars ripped open. Jesus rises as a Colossus astride the world’s defeat and despair.  Death is not final.  That stone he has moved, once for all!  The chains of fear are broken.  Life is not futile and failure is not fatal.  He meets us on the road of living and speaks, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10). When you and I traverse the rubble of our lives, the past mistakes, the broken promises, the shattered dreams; it is this message that God proclaims to us through the resurrection of Jesus.  The Easter victory does not end in the graveyard.  Scholars are quick to note that in Matthew’s gospel the encounter at the tomb is not the climax.  The risen Christ is present when the women hear and obey with joy the angel’s word of command. “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:8-10). Do you catch the import?  Where is Jesus with them in liberating power?  On the road, in the midst of life, he intersects the women and us too.  This is the Easter promise of the triumphant Christ!  In joy and worship we are invited to liberated living, to embrace the promise.  This is not some sugar-coated pill or cosmetic dressing of new clothes but a freedom in his presence, which will take us through and beyond death, failure and futility.  The Savior’s promise of verse ten that “they will see me” is a promise that we will see him. Christ the Lord has risen indeed!  May the joy and hope of Easter be yours!