Two Tombs, One Faith
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 4, 2021
Readings: John 20:1-18; John 11:38-44
Easter is an emotional time at the best of times. There's nothing that evokes a sense of the power of God and the joy of our faith quite like Easter. It is a time when we celebrate together often in great numbers, hear magnificent music, and experience these beautiful flowers together. I realised as I was preparing this message that it has actually been two whole years since we last gathered for that kind of a celebration. This is Easter COVID 2.0. Because of that I've reminisced about Easters past: singing the Hallelujah chorus, meeting friends for coffee, planning what to wear on this magnificent day, listening to a glorious message, and hearing wonderful prayers.
I must admit the emotion of it all seized me this week. I thought about when I was a boy in Bermuda, and we used to have a sunrise service at Albouy’s Point on Hamilton Harbour. We would gather there before the dawn, and people would wear big bonnets with flowers on them. Everyone was dressed in their finery and children had flowers and eggs with them. As the sun rose and shone on the azure blue waters of Hamilton Harbour we sang “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”. Then we went home, we went to church and sang it again.
Those are emotional moments. As Helen Keller once said, "Beautiful things reside in the heart." This whole lead up to Easter has been an emotional one hasn't it? We've looked at Jesus weeping over Lazarus, seen him coming down from the Mount of Olives and weeping over Jerusalem. On Good Friday we have experienced the Passion of Jesus Christ suffering for our sins and giving of himself for us. Passion, emotion, tears. If we're honest, we come to this Easter with deep emotions; deep longing for change; deep remorse for things lost; deep memories of people who we’ve lost. I have even observed people crying when they're receiving their vaccines. Crying because of the release that it has given them, and a sense of hope. I must admit I’ve had a lump in my throat every time I've realised that a family member, or a colleague received a vaccine. This is an emotional time. But Easter is more than an emotion. It's more than a feeling, worship, or celebration. It's about an historic moment. A moment of such importance, such singular power that it changes everything. A moment when Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.
Throughout history many great things have been recorded. Some even go back to when Plato wrote his Republic in the 4th Century before Christ, or the building of the Great Wall of China in that same century. We might go to the 4th Century after Christ when Alaric invaded Rome and turned the Roman Empire on its end or the discoveries of Marie Curie and Radium in the 19th Century. We might think of the Moon Landing in 1969 in the 20th Century, and that becomes a seminal moment of focus, and reminds Leafs fans that was two years after they last won the Stanley Cup!
This year we have a historic moment. This is not a year we're going to forget. The vaccines that we're getting are not something that we're ever going to take lightly. But none of this compares to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed everything. It was an act of God, doing something beyond what our minds can conjure; beyond what our imagination can grasp.
I want to look at the power of that moment by examining two tombs. The first of these tombs is what I call the Tomb of Anticipation. It was the tomb of Lazarus. The last passage read from our scripture this morning, but nevertheless the one that preceded the resurrection of Jesus. Fascinating.
Three weeks ago, I told the story of Martha and Mary coming to Jesus and Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” while weeping over the death of Lazarus. I saved this passage today for today because in that moment when Jesus raised Lazarus there was anticipation, the prediction of everything else that would follow. Jesus goes up to the tomb of his dead friend, who we had been told had been there days, and Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”
The people were horrified that he would do such a thing, but they obeyed his command. He then prayed, and this is important. "Father I thank you for having heard me.” Then in a loud voice he says, "Lazarus, come out!" Lazarus came out of the tomb, and undressed himself from the cloths that he had been bound and buried in. This was a moment where we saw the power of God giving life to the dead. It was a moment that was based on the will of Jesus. He pleads to his father to do something about his friend Lazarus. It shows the power – the Almighty Power of God to raise Lazarus.
It is not like the resurrection of Jesus. It was to give, and breathe life into this dead body, but it did not have the impact that Jesus had precisely because Jesus was not Lazarus. Jesus was the Son of the Living God. Jesus was the new Adam. Jesus was us!
This was therefore not a matter of chance. The resurrection of Jesus that was foretold with the resurrection of Lazarus. It was a foretaste of everything to come. If you look at the ministry and the life of Jesus, he always talked about the fact that on the third day he would rise again. He predicted this in Matthew 17 verse 22. When he said, "If I am betrayed, I will still rise on the third day."
In Luke Chapter 9 he says, "I will be killed, and I will be persecuted, but on the third day I will rise from the dead.”
In the Gospel of John in Chapter 2 he says, "This temple" meaning his body "might be killed, but on the third day I will rise from the dead." He even talks about Jonah and being in a tomb for three days, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, but he would rise from that. Jesus conveyed many messages, and he understood from scriptures that we've looked at already over this Lenten period, that the resurrection from the dead would occur. Jesus knew this, and it's important because there are some who believe in what in Greek theatre is known as the deus ex machina.
Now I know it's a complicated Latin word, but it just means the "God of the Machine." It goes back to Greek plays when they would lower a body, or they would lower a being representing God who would then put the story right and fix everything, Arriving at the end like an exclamation point.
The great writer JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings and was a deeply devout Christian disagreed with this Greek notion. For Tolkein the resurrection of Jesus was not just an appearance by God who puts everything right. This was an integral part of the whole life, and ministry of Jesus from beginning to end.” He described it in these words: "but this story of the resurrection has entered history. The birth of Christ," and he uses the word “eucatastrophe”, which means a recurring role of humanity's history. He goes on, “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the inner consistency of reality.” For Tolkein, the Resurrection is not a myth of God appearing as in a Greek story by making happy endings. The Resurrection is the result of an entire ministry of Jesus of Nazareth whose mission was to save, redeem, and give eternal life to humanity.
Everything Jesus said, everything he did was ultimately pointing to the resurrection. Whether it was his victory over evil; healing the blind; identifying with sinners; raising Jairus' daughter; raising Lazarus; or condemning injustice and racism. Every part of Jesus' ministry, including the cross, ultimately leads to the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the affirmation of all that he promised. Those disciples recognized that scripture had been fulfilled when he appeared to them.
Lazarus was an anticipation of the next tomb – the Tomb of Jesus of Actualization – the Tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. We have read the story of Mary going to pay her respects at the tomb. I’m sure some people will take flowers to a tomb in memory of their loved one today. I know Rev. Lori will be doing that for her mother. It is an important thing to do. Mary was going to do that, but the stone in front of the tomb was gone so she reached out to Peter and the beloved disciple and they go rushing around. They want to go in and see everything. They are excited, but they don't know what happened. Mary – and this is significant – stays; emotional, weeping, and then something amazing happens.
A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful time with some of the preaching students at Emmanuel College. We had an hour together talking about many different things under the leadership of Professor Kim Cragg. They asked me questions about things like, for example, headlines that I might use, or how I choose a story. Anyway, I don't want to bore you with that, but they did say that I seem to put quite a lot of emphasis on sermon titles as a way of grasping people’s attention.
I said, “Well yes, I do.” And I thought about a conversation I had with an Acadia student that I've never forgotten. We were talking about the same issue. The Acadia student suggested to me that a really good sermon title would be “The Greatest Sermon of All Time”.
I said, “You know, I have a real problem with this. I'd have to live up to it for one thing. If I'm going to make such a great claim, I'd better have the best sermon of all time, right? Well, Mary says something way more powerful than that. She says to the disciples "I have seen the Lord." She had an encounter with Jesus after the disciples had fled. Mary stayed behind weeping and Jesus appears to her. She thought he was the gardener, and only realised he wasn't when he said "Mary."
In that moment history was fulfilled. Jesus had said in the Lazarus event, “Those who believe in me, though they die yet shall they live." Jesus embodied that. Jesus made this possible. The one who proclaimed that truth was raised from the dead. If there's an emotion this Easter that should grasp us, it is the emotion of joy.
Tolkien once wrote this: "The good news is joy. Joy has overcome the wall of the world.” Joy has overcome the barriers of doubt is what he's saying. Joy triumphs over the things that hold us back the most. This Easter that victory of the Risen Jesus, that encounter with Mary when she said: “I have seen the Lord”, this is our joy. This is our hope. We may not sing Hallelujah together, and it breaks my heart that we can't. You might not have the scent of the flowers in your own noses. We might not have the bond of fellowship and love, but this we have. We have a living Lord, and this living Lord is our joy.
This Easter may this be your reality. Two tombs, one faith, great joy. Amen.