“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).
How simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel. A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often. I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.
He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic. Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock. Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor. Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis. He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.
I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.
As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship. Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one. Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level. Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here. In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”
A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant. Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden
, p. 159).
There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.” The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross. Death is real. Tragedies happen. Evil stalks the earth. The cross brings us to the tomb.
We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places. In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands. Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did! The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning! The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death. The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope. This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.
Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly. It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside. It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny. It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness). Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ. Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word. It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark. The dawn breaks on His rising.
The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9). He is with us in triumphant glory. In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle. He meets us and is with us!
Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!