An Easter sermon prepared for First Presbyterian Church Apopka. Primary text: Mark 16:1-8.
They were probably up before the sun, fixing a meal for themselves and maybe something for the others. After all, they wanted to get an early start. They’d gone out to the night before to get what they needed – spices and such – just as soon as the sabbath was over.
I suspect they were probably tempted to cheat a bit. After all, these women had followed Jesus as closely as the men we call the disciples, maybe even listening a little more closely. And Jesus had a habit of not quite following the letter of the law. He had gathered food, healed people, forgiven them of their sins… all on the Sabbath.
Sometimes, it seemed he did these things to spite the leaders – the scribes and teachers- who spent a lot of their time arguing every tiny nuance of the law. But because the women knew his heart, they knew it was also to help show people how to move past the letter of the law and toward the God who gave the law.
So, maybe these women had done their prayers to end shabbot as the sun dropped below the horizon. Or maybe they started a wee bit early. It’s a mystery.
It is a pretty safe bet that they had been chatting since the time they rose- and as they gathered their cloaks and picked up the spices they had purchased. It wouldn’t have been the excited chatter they had shared on other mornings, the mornings after Jesus had healed lepers or that poor woman who had been bleeding for years. And not the snappy sort of chatter that comes when the resources and hands are too few to feed and care for the huge crowds that had gathered.
No, they would have been talking somberly, quietly, perhaps between silent tears, mostly about the details of the work of the day. They were going to finish what they had started on Friday. They were headed to the tomb. Mark did share one of the big details that came up in conversation:
Who will roll away the stone for us?
The big heavy stone that had been placed in front of the tomb was meant to keep away any mischief makers. The powers that be were concerned that some among Jesus’ followers might try to convince others that the prophecy was true- that Jesus would rise from the dead- by removing his body and hiding it away somewhere. Or perhaps a naysayer might do the same, only to reveal the truth later and further shame any of the believers who would be gullible enough to think Jesus had told the truth about who he was, and what God had planned to do.
Who could roll away the stone?
Judas hadn’t shown up last night. No surprise. But neither had Peter. Word was that Peter had actually denied knowing Jesus. Had denied being one of his followers. I can see them shaking their heads, saying a prayer for both men. But Peter…He had loved Jesus so deeply, trusted him with so much. Grief and a tendency to speak before thinking everything through, well, he needed their prayers now more than ever.
And the rest of the men just didn’t seem to be themselves. Even Mary’s James and John, the Sons of Thunder, seemed to be at a loss over what to do next. It’s probably just as well the women had left this morning… give them some space.
But still – who would roll away the stone?
Perhaps the Roman soldiers who had been assigned guard duty would have pity on them. They understood the importance of honoring the dead, even if their rituals were not the same. And Pilate had already allowed them to do more for Jesus’ body than they had imagined… Perhaps, now that the frenzy of the last few days had calmed, they would be willing to help.
When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
Of all the things these women expected… yeah… not this.
Where was the stone? Who was this guy?
More importantly, where was Jesus?
They had come steeled for the pain of grief, sorrow, and loss. They were no strangers to death, these women; they knew what how it smelled, what it felt like. But death was gone. Jesus was gone. In their place, a man in a white robe?
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Did they shake their heads, closing their eyes, only to open them once again to this unexpected vision? How long did it take for fear to settle into confusion, then cautious optimism, then hope that became joy?
The stone was gone. Death was gone.
Jesus was on the loose!
And isn’t that just like Jesus?
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the Easter story… and read it… But a couple of years ago, for some reason, this business about the stone was the detail that grabbed me. Perhaps, it’s one of those little throwaways that we fly past on the way to the He is Risen’s and He is risen, indeed’s of Easter Sunday. Or maybe it was just the first time in a while I had heard Mark’s account. Regardless, I heard it with fresh ears, and it hit me.
Isn’t that just like Jesus?
Doing exactly what he promised.
And isn’t that just like humanity?
Not really hearing what Jesus said. Not really understanding what Jesus is doing.
You see, the work was done on Friday, right about the time Jesus said, “It is finished.”
That was the end of his day. The day in which he endured the awful truth of our human capacity for evil. It was the end of his human life. And it was the end of our Godless life.
In that moment, nonviolent resistance beat capital punishment, dignity overshadowed dehumanizing taunts, forgiveness took the steam out of hatred and fear, and love won, once and for all.
For all people.
For all time.
What happened between Christ’s moment of victory and the moment the women were confused by the missing stone? It’s a mystery.
What matters is that the stone was gone.
Taken care of.
Just like our distance from the God who loved us enough to send forgiveness and grace incarnate.
Which makes me wonder…
What stones do I worry about that God’s already moved?
What deaths do we mourn that are actually precursors to new life?
What aspects of our hearts, our lives, our world are ready and waiting for this living, breathing body of Christ to engage them with joy and energy?
All while we carry on… gathering tools that we don’t really need, denying our connection to the mess or looking for someone else clever enough and strong enough to move an obstacle that doesn’t really matter any more.
Christ is risen!
He has redeemed all the things we have buried.
The stone has been moved.
That means Jesus has a head start, and if we’re going to catch up we need to drop our burial spices, hike up our robes and get moving!