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The Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord

Sermon Theme: Easter with Eyes Washed Open

You don’t live with one foot in the grave, you live with one foot already out of it, because your Death has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus as we learn in Mark 16:1-8. Only in his cross and empty tomb can you find the ground that God puts under your feet. In other words, you’re free to celebrate “Easter with eyes washed open.”

I’m told that in some cultures, mothers wake up their children on Easter morning by washing their eyes, so they can see the world more clearly in light of the resurrection. That’s a marvelous work of mercy, and an even more beautiful confession of faith. On the first Easter, for those women who had the guts and the grace to stay by the cross on Friday and three days later the guts and the grace to come to the tomb, there were no mothers to wash their eyes awake, if they even slept at all. Rather their tear-soaked eyes only seemed to cloud their vision. Because what they had seen, they didn’t like, but their uncertainty and fear of what would come next is what really got them. I mean, can you blame them? On Saturday morning, they had watched the sun come up in what was for the first time ever a Christ-less world, and it doesn’t get any more hopeless than that. The last verse of Mark 15 says, “[They] saw where he was laid.” A lifeless body taken down from a cross, hastily wrapped in linen, and deposited in a tomb. And that’s that; we know how this story ends ever since Adam and Eve ate that fruit in the Garden. Because, as we all know, death is what it is. So, as they made their early morning march, all doom and gloom to the tomb, all they can think to talk about are the practicalities, they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” They were worried and troubled by all sorts of things that, it turns out, had already been taken care of – sound familiar? What they expected to find there was a body – and along with it a heart-rending, and tear-filled closing of the most marvelous chapter of their lives. Jesus was gone. (You know it’s real when you start talking about your loved one in the past tense). We loved him, we followed him, we thought he was setting us free, it really seemed like God was doing something, but that was then. Best to leave it in the past and learn to move on. These are the very best thoughts the humans have come up with when it comes to things like loss and death – the kind of thinking that goes something like this: don’t cry because it’s over, smile that it happened. But those women would have no time for bumper sticker psychology on that Sunday morning, because a whole new reality was about to hit them like a ton of bricks…or like one really big stone that had been rolled away. The women were hoping to find a body onto which they could unload their spices. Little did they expect to find a place for unloading the guilt of their sin and the ugliness of their death. When it comes to death, as we all know, it is what it is…until it isn’t.

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. Now what’s this?! An empty tomb is, at best, cause for questioning, and at worst is the most dreadful kind of insult-to-injury news of all – why couldn’t they just let Jesus rest in peace?! All these thoughts swirling the women’s heads, who can make sense of it? They didn’t have a preacher yet, but they were soon to get one – one who would proclaim the first and greatest Easter sermon the world could ever hear. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” The angel’s word to the women was not a command – tell fearful people to stop being fearful, what do you think is going to happen? No, this was a promise. You have nothing to be alarmed about! Here’s why – He’s risen! By the way, the angel knew the person in question; Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. Now isn’t that something? On Easter Sunday we can’t seem to get away from Good Friday! Jesus is and will forever remain the crucified yet living Lord. The good news of Easter is not just that a dead man came back to life, but that the One who had been crucified as the perfect payment for all of our sins came through, not undone by being forsaken by God in our place but walked out of his tomb alive again. When Jesus and death met; it was death that was changed. Not just for Jesus, but for you. That’s clearly what Paul was aiming at in the second reading: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. If Easter is just a metaphor for new life blooming in Spring, or just a story for our community to gather around – a story that speaks nothing of eternal realities but only concerns itself with mortal life for which death is the end, or a meta-narrative that somehow tries, in vain, to recast death as a natural part of life or to suggest that death was ever part of any one of God’s plans for the humans – then I’ll be the first to say it and the first one out the door – let’s just leave. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Do you see what that means? If Jesus is still dead, we live to die. Since Jesus is alive, we die to live. The risen Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, not the lastfruits, which means that there’s a whole lot more coming in the way of resurrection and life – including you, dear Christian; including your loved one who fell asleep in Jesus.

Now feels like a good time to push pause and check in on how you’re doing. You started this whole thing with a very loud and confident, “He is risen indeed!” But maybe at this point, you’re like those ladies walking up to an open and empty tomb with things like faith and fear wrestling within you for the upper hand. It’s an inescapable truth that there will always be those who think that Easter is just too good to be true. But today I’ll ask you to be gentle with those people, because sometimes they’re us. Maybe it’s too good to be true, because you’ve lost someone you love, and through faith in the risen Christ you think you know about them – that they’re doing better than OK with their Savior – but there’s always this gnawing feeling that you really don’t know anything about them at all. Maybe it’s too good to be true because you’re a sinner. I’m not telling tales out of school here, you all are more than ready to stand up before God and assembly and confess it, and you know what sinners deserve – the wages of sin is death. Maybe it’s too good to be true, because you’re honest enough with yourself that you can only fool yourself for so long. Sure, it’s all sweetness and light on Easter Sunday, and we can talk big and sing loud, but deep down you’re sure you know that your guilt and shame and fear are waiting in the dark corners to jump out and consume you all over again. This is why I think it’s wildly comforting to see the types of people to whom the good news of Easter is first announced in the gospels. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus and the life it promises comes first to whom? To the people who are scared, guilty, ashamed, afraid, uncertain, and sometimes, downright unbelieving. The good news of Easter Sunday is that the promise of resurrection and life in Christ comes even to people like that…and even to people like us. This promise comes to people like us who are tempted to think that maybe I’ve finally done it and out-sinned God’s grace; to assume that my loved one’s death was just too final of a thing for Christ’s resurrecting word; to look at my life and say that I’m at the end of my rope and I’ve got nothing – well, perfect! You have a God who creates only out of nothing, and being nothing doesn’t make you nothing; that makes you Jesus’ cup of tea. His resurrection proves it. Jesus came to re-create you in his image. He came to give you his life in place of your death. And when it comes to sin? Buckle up – repent and believe the gospel because Jesus forgives more sins than you’ve got. The humans use all their time raising objections; meanwhile God gets busy raising the dead. This is how it is: Only the sinners can be forgiven, only the empty can be filled; only the dead can be resurrected, and only the nothing-but-given-to can be brought into the everlasting glory of seeing their Savior face to face.

And if, after all that, you’re still tempted to think that this promise is too good to be true, or maybe you wouldn’t go that far, it could be true but certainly for someone else, allow me to point out one small detail in Mark’s telling of the Easter gospel that, I think, will open up a whole new world for us. After the angel had told the women all the amazing things we just talked about – “Don’t be alarmed…He has risen!” Jesus is alive and you have nothing to fear! “He is not here!” Death can’t hold him, and it won’t hold you either! After declaring the beautiful Easter gospel, the messenger said to the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Did you catch it? “Go tell his disciples and Peter.” The disciple who had denied his Lord three times is singled out – not for a shaming rebuke, but for an absolution and an extra dose of resurrection certainty. Peter had denied his Lord, but Jesus would not deny Peter. It’s as though he wanted to say straight to this one disciple – Peter, you’re still mine. The blessing and promise of Easter are universal, but it’s also personal. When you get home this afternoon, find a quiet five minutes, and open your Bible to Mark 16. Read these verses. Read them again, and again, and I’ll challenge you not to get at least a little choked up as you insert your name there, and hear the Easter comfort Jesus has for you. Go tell the disciples, and Matt, that his death is defeated, that his sins are paid for. Grace has a way of overflowing, of spilling over the edges, and running into the lowest places where it’s needed most.

That’s still how Jesus goes about the business of raising the dead – with a promise from one sinner’s lips to another sinner’s ear. This word that breaks in to our self-made prison of guilt and shame and fear doesn’t just describe our situation accurately; it creates a new reality. You couldn’t come away from any of the Holy Week services we came through without hearing this truth impressed upon you in stunning clarity – Jesus died for the sins of the world, and you’re in the world, so what do you think that says about your sin? We’re inclined to think about this as a sort of equation – Given: Jesus died for the sins of the world. Given: You’re in the world. Therefore, be it resolved that Jesus must’ve died for your sins, too! The logic on that one checks out, but this is no geometry proof, this is eternal life we’re talking about here! And isn’t it always the case the devil will always try to stick his nose in there to make you doubt and despair that this word could ever be for you. So, Jesus is going to do for you what he did for those women at the tomb: he’ll send you a preacher to give voice to a promise that echoes from the empty tomb and has the full authority of the risen Christ behind it: I forgive you all your sins. The promise of the gospel is universal in scope, but individual in application. In his great letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that all who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death – true enough. But then a hand comes your way, cupping some water and pouring it on you in the name, and just like that, it’s like you’re baked in a cake with Jesus, and just like you can’t tell where the sugar stops and the flour starts in a cake, your identity is so tied up with Christ Jesus that when God looks at you, he can hardly tell where Jesus stops and you start. Christ gave his body and shed his blood for the sins of the world, that’s gospel, and the really good news is that he attaches it with a promise to simple bread and wine with a two-word guarantee that will knock your socks off: for you. The living and life-giving Christ now lives in you; and that right there is your ticket to the resurrection. Jesus was only raised once, but this is how on this side of heaven, the continually dead are being continually raised – every Holy Baptism, every word of Absolution, every Holy Communion is a little resurrection. Jesus is life-giving, we are life-receiving, and this is hilariously good news.

And, as is always the case with Jesus, he gives you everything and then gives you more. ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” I’m going to suggest something radical – I think we should change the opening antiphonal greeting for Easter morning. If we took our opening antiphonal response from Mark, it might not be “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!” but rather, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee,” and you’d respond, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee indeed!” That one doesn’t seem to slap as much but let me tell you why it should. Jesus isn’t just concerned with the where and when of a meet-up with his disciples. He has risen from the dead; his biggest promise of all has been fulfilled – one promise kept, and another one’s on its way. “He is going ahead of you,” too. Where? Your Jesus is going ahead of you into death, through resurrection, into life immortal, and glory imperishable, and guess what? He’s taking you with him! And now? Now you live – set free in every direction to live with eyes washed open to see your God, yourself, and your world more clearly in the light of the resurrection. Does God think you’re worth bothering with? Look at the full cross on Friday and empty tomb on Sunday to see how far he’ll go to make you his own. Does your sin defile you and are you tempted to think it defines you? Leave those sins in the empty tomb – there’s more than enough room, and I can assure you, Jesus is not using it. Bury your despair because Forgiveness himself has walked out of his tomb alive. Are you crippled by the fear of death? Let the nail-pierced hands of the living One take that away from you, too. We don’t deny death; that would be crazy. We defy death; that’s Christian. You don’t live with one foot in the grave, you live with one foot already out of it, because your Death has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus. Only in his cross and empty tomb can you find the ground that God puts under your feet. In him you’re set free from sin, from the devil’s accusation, from Satan’s control, from death and hell forever. In other words, you’re free to celebrate Easter with eyes washed open. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

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