“Approaching the Resurrected Jesus” (Matthew 28:1-10)
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunrise Service
(I reworked the sunrise sermon from 2011.)
What does the Easter story do? What happens when we read it or gather with Christians in church and hear it read? Or we sing it? How do we come to Easter Sunday?
Dispassionately, bored, yawning? [Mocking tone] O wow! Women came to a tomb before sunrise on a Sunday. And surprise of all surprises. It’s empty. Jesus is alive. Woo hoo! Like I haven’t heard this every single year for the last 40 years. Nothing new; been there, done that.
No, not bored. Maybe we come knowingly, ready to shout “AMEN!” in all the right places because we know the story so well. God’s victory over death is our victory. We feel that we own this story. We know it; it is ours. Easter morning is planned celebration void of genuine wonder. We help others be amazed, but we’ve already had that sensation. It’s not new.
Maybe Easter Sunday is like every Sunday, and the resurrection story like every Bible account. We come hoping to meet God. But we aren’t sure we will. We come with an unconvinced optimism. Our faith is colored by spiritual dryness; disappointment; pain, even on Easter Sunday.
Some spiritual seekers come infrequently and are relatively unfamiliar with the Bible. But it is Easter. Here we are. We approach curiously. Is there something for me? Is there anything in the Bible or church that’s worth my time; that could make my life better?
What does the story of Jesus’ resurrection do? What happens in our lives precisely because it is Easter? How we approach has a lot to do with how we answer this question. In the Gospel of Matthew we see two approaches on the morning the tomb was discovered empty. We are invited to enter this story. Which of the two approaches here will be our entry point?
First, we meet the women. Who were Jesus’ women disciples? Luke tells us some of them were women of financial means, the ones who funded the ministry while Jesus and the 12 traveled around preaching and working miracles. They had power, but in the first century, even wealthy women were generally only thought of in terms of their husbands. And most women around Jesus were not wealthy, but instead were poor peasants.
These women loved Jesus. Again, it is Luke who reports that they followed as Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross out to the place of crucifixion. The women walked behind him weeping openly (23:27-28).
These recognized that Jesus was special. Martha, declared him to be the Messiah (John 11). At the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman violated social conventions and came to the table where the men reclined in order to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. Hers was an act of appreciation and worship.
The women Matthew introduces, who came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, were a part of a group of female disciples who supported Jesus, followed Jesus, and worshiped him. We can enter the story and approach Jesus as they do. But there are other characters.
As they approached the tomb, the earth shook violently and an angel from heaven descended rolled back the stone that had sealed it, and sat on the stone. Guards were stationed at the tomb, and when the earth shook, they fell to the ground trembling. The chief priests of the temple and along with them some Pharisees united and approached the Roman governor Pilate to request that the tomb be guarded so that Jesus’ followers would not steal the body and then claim resurrection. Pilate granted this request. The women stealing to the tomb in the early Sunday morning shadows is the very moment the temple leaders anticipated. A couple of days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers show up at the tomb. The battle-hardened soldiers, assigned by Pilate, stand between these Christ-followers, these women, and grave.
What were Roman guards like? Might they have been among those who flogged and mocked Jesus? Or were they part of the unit assigned to the crucifixion? They stand in stark contrast to the women. If women, especially Jewish peasant women, were a picture of powerlessness, mighty soldiers stood for violence, power, and war. They were indifferent to Jesus’ identity and completely opposed to his ideals.
Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek. These soldiers would smash your face. Love your enemies? They were the enemy, and they weren’t going to love you. They were going to stomp on you. The soldiers didn’t ask permission. They took what was theirs and often they would take what was yours, and go ahead, try complaining. To what authority could one complain about abuse from soldiers, which was very common? They were the authorities!
So how do we come on Easter? Do we perceive ourselves to be powerless in our world, dependent on others? Or least, have our lives demonstrated that we align ourselves with the poor and the powerless? We approach as the women did. We know we need the resurrected Christ at the very center of our lives.
Do we possess strength and resources that make us among the people in society with advantages? If we’re honest with ourselves, do we perceive ourselves to be among the powerful in the world? Then we come to Easter Sunday as the soldiers did.
What does the resurrection do; how does our life change today, right now because this happened?
The earth quakes, the angel descends, and the stone is rolled back. Four times, Matthew uses the Greek word Fobos, the root of the English Phobia; fear. Who is afraid? Everyone. The powerless women and those mighty soldiers – both find themselves filled with fear. Matthew writes, “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men” (v.4).
The mighty soldiers “shook” – it’s the same word used to describe the earth quake. First, the earth rumbled, and then the mighty guards trembled. And they became like dead men. They who were entrusted to guard the tomb of the dead themselves became like the dead. And from that point on, they were ignored.
When theses soldiers walked down the street, you moved out of their way. When turned down the lane in your village, you locked up the cottage and prayed for them to pass by. Now, here they are on the ground, trembling, and Matthew promptly loses interest in them.
First century women, even the wealthy ones, lived at the pleasure of men. Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies were dominated by men. But in Matthew, these powerless Jewish women move to the center of the story. The angel, indifferent to the petrified guards, says to the women, “Fear not! Jesus has been raised. Go quickly and tell his disciples. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”
You don’t go to a cemetery thinking you’ll see an angel. How do we handle that? How do we come to worship, by way of habit, or in hopes that we will meet the living God?
Before Jesus was born, an angel told Mary she was going to be the mother of the son of God. She responded with a song of praise. Specifically, she said, “[God] has scattered the proud. … He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). There are the proud, mighty soldiers, cowering, brought low.
The women, followers, of Jesus came on a mission of grief, but now, the angel has given them a mission from God. The divine messenger has chosen of all people these women to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. And they did it! “With fear and great joy, [they] ran to tell the disciples” (28:7).
Both the women and the guard were filled with fear. The illusion of power the guards lived under was shattered when the angel descended and rolled back the stone. The reality of their smallness and their powerlessness before God crushed them. They weren’t ready to tremble before God.
The women knew they needed God, so when God showed up, they didn’t collapse. They trembled. They were afraid. But, they were also ready to listen. It was to them that the message and the mission were given. They were the first preachers of resurrection and I believe this is so because of how they came.
The angel told the women, “Fear not.” They ran from there in great joy. Suddenly on the path, Jesus greeted them. The angel said they would see him, but still it was a surprise. And they were terribly afraid. Fear of God is the right reaction. God is holy. We are sinful. God is divine. We are of earth, profane. God is eternal. Our lives are here today, gone tomorrow. It is right to fear the Lord.
What do we do with that fear? Hide? Run away? The women didn’t do that. They did the only thing one does when one comes before God. They bowed in humble worship.
“[The women] took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10).
If we come to Easter Sunday as people who have heard the story before and as people who own it and as people who can no longer be amazed by the power of God expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, then we cannot ever have the moment these women had.
If we come in our power, we will experience what the guards experienced. We will be knocked down and scared senseless. It might not happen at the Easter sunrise worship service. It might not hit and sink in until Judgment Day. But rest assured, if we come to God from a standpoint of power – like God needs us – we will be made aware of just how powerless and how small we are.
If we come to Easter in humility, and if we come to God in repentant, humble confession, acknowledging our absolute need for Jesus, we will be raised up as they were. We will hear the words, “Fear not.” We will worship in wondrous, awe-struck joy. We will be sent out to tell lost and hurting world that Jesus is alive and salvation is available to all who put their trust in Him.
Hiking through a thick forest up the side of a tall mountain, we come to the clearing at the top. When you come out of the shadow of the trees, with a view of the entire valley below and other mountain ranges in the distance, it takes your breath away. You could walk along complaining about the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down your back, and the ache in your legs from walking four miles up hill. All that complaining would poison you so much, you would not appreciate the spectacular view once you get there. Or, you can enjoy the walk, the beauty of the green forest, the feeling of strength one gets from accomplishing such hike, and the appreciation of nature. The bugs and sweat and fatigue are just part of the journey and the view makes it all worthwhile. The quality of the experience really does hinge on the approach.
On resurrection morning, we meet God when we start out in fear and we start out knowing God doesn’t need us but we desperately need God. No matter how we come - in awe, seeking, bored, or in arrogance, Jesus is raised. Nothing we do affects the story. Furthermore, at the final judgment, nothing we do affects what God’s judgment will be. How we approach it determines how we experience the story. When we come in humility, seeking God, the resurrection begins shaping our lives and we live every day in awe-struck, fearful joy. Every day, the risen Lord says to us, “Fear not. Go and tell.”
That’s the final word this morning. Jesus conquered death. Jesus is alive. He was crucified for the sins of the world and the grave could not hold Him. People need to know. So, come in humility. Rejoice in faith. Then in love, go and tell.