He is not here; for he has been raised.
Usually a person isn’t so happy to truck themselves all that way to see somebody and find they aren’t there.
The Great Vigil of Easter | Matthew 28:1-10
Those four words: “He is not here” are among our favorite words as Christians. Probably more than for Mary who was apparently half afraid / half ecstatic. Talk about confusion. It says “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy”. Who can blame her for not knowing how to feel! She’s full of fear and joy!
But for us, those words: “He is not here” speak to the knowledge we already know. We know he isn’t in that tomb. We know what’s happening. So we aren’t afraid.
Part of me feels like we’re at the movie theater, the lights are down and the movie has us on the edge of our seats. And as the scene changes, we see who’s on the other side of the door, but the character in the movie hasn’t a clue. And in the midst of this tense moment, someone’s shouting at the screen (it could be me) “don’t open the door!” The anticipation has that fear and joy in it. But for us, it’s also mixed with knowledge. We know why this is happening. We know the story.
Even those who haven’t read Matthew before know that Jesus was raised. Even if the entire world didn’t spoil that ending, we have Wikipedia to do that.
But it isn’t spoiled, is it? This is our moment of joy after a dark few days.
The Longest Night
We gathered Thursday night to remember the Last Supper and to wash feet. But the story we tell doesn’t end with Jesus and the disciples going to bed. It keeps going through the night. A harrowing night with a confrontation in the garden, arrest, and early morning trial for Jesus.
They must have told the Passover story around their table that night. The same one we heard Thursday about Passover preparation. That they roast the lamb and while it’s cooking, they need to pack their bags and gird their loins so that when they eat, they must be ready to move, because we won’t know when the Passover will come and the Exodus will begin.
They heard this story at the beginning of the longest night of their lives. A night in which an angel of death visits them and kills the innocent Messiah. The story of Maundy Thursday and the Passion on Good Friday sort of run together like one continuous story. Which, of course it is.
Probably because it is all one day, really. The Judean people measured their days from sundown to sundown, so the first of the three days began Thursday night. The second day at sundown Friday. Tonight, the third day.
This long night, morning, and afternoon has been for many, including Paul, the centerpiece of our faith. Or part one of two. First day: death. Third day: resurrection!
This is our story.
And for the millions of Christians throughout the world who gathered to remember on Thursday and Friday, it is a long, long weekend. A time of death and destruction. Like reading a story where the bad guys win, the Yankees claim another world series, and the same guy has won Jeopardy for 100 years straight.
We left here Friday afternoon hearing a really bad story. Goliath defeating David. Sauron getting the hobbits. Charlie Brown getting his kite stuck in a tree again.
That’s why those words: “He is not here” are so good. It means the dark days are over.
In Light and Darkness
The fact that our darkest time comes in broad daylight and the return of the light comes in the dark of night shouldn’t be lost on us.
For our dark days continue. They aren’t gone forever. Death isn’t banished for good and the light of the world hasn’t overcome all of the darkness.
We have fear and joy today because we have lives to live. Because we have bills we’re not sure how we’ll pay and a risen Christ to celebrate. Just like we have anxiety and happiness. At the same time.
I’ve been thinking all week about a time in my life when my anxiety was highest, stress was impossible to endure and yet our family was happy. A time we still talk about. I really struggled with how I was supposed to feel then and I think that’s a lot of how I feel now. With this text and with our world. Conflicted. Full of fear and joy.
Challenged in broad daylight with jobs and satisfaction and relationships and all of these complicated entanglements which all made more sense a week ago. (At least a week ago in the metaphorical sense. You know, before Holy Week. Which could, for you be a month ago, 6 months, a year.)
“He is not here” changes all that. All that certainty disordered is becoming an ordered uncertainty. Where God fulfills that promise of love and yet it comes in a new way. A way that changes everything.
Don’t Forget the Women
A late college professor of mine opened my heart to the gospel in a new way, telling our class two decades ago that we must never forget that the first Easter sermon was preached by a woman.
And not just any woman. A woman the church would later defame, claiming she bears a low status and deriding her for it. One whose part is constantly reduced and discounted. And who bears the same name as Jesus’s mother.
We must never forget that Easter sermon because it bears the nature of the kin-dom come. Like the manifestation of the new thing God is doing in raising Jesus from the dead. Like the dark skies coming in the middle of the day only to bring forth the light in our darkness.
And just like the woman who anointed Jesus for burial on Wednesday, pouring the costly ointment on Jesus’s head, who Jesus says is the gospel in action: to be remembered every time we gather!
“He is not here” are the words we long to hear when we know better. Words which surprise and unsettle us with their generosity, hope, faith, and love.
That God has something else up that divine sleeve.
Not death. Not anymore. New life. Another chance.
And a new vision of the kin-dom. In ordered uncertainty.
The sort of thing in which an overwhelming sense of fear and joy sounds about right.