Jean Vandergrift tells this story:
A brand-new pastor began at his first congregation. Within that first week, two members died. In the next week, there were two more! In his first month, he had presided over eight memorial services. Consequently, his time had been greatly limited and his sermon preparation took the toll. So he simply preached that first Sunday’s sermon over and over again across the next three Sundays.
Well, the leadership of the congregation sought out the Regional Minister to complain. “What should we do? This new pastor has used the same sermon four times in a row!”
The Regional Minister was indeed surprised, but after a moment asked them what the sermon was about. The members puzzled over this simple question. They hemmed and hawed, but they really couldn’t remember.
The Regional Minister then declared, “Let him use it one more time.”
Friends, the Easter story is a sermon that God preaches to us, over and over and over again. Oh, it’s not that we don’t exactly remember the story—we know about Jesus and how he was put to death on a cross by a powerful Empire. We may remember that one of his very own friends betrayed him and another friend, out of plain and simple fear, swore that he didn’t know him when events started to take a turn for the worst. In Sunday school, we may have been told about a stone being rolled away from the tomb that first Easter day and how Jesus appeared where you’d least expect him—right there strolling the grounds like a gardener musing over his azalea bushes. Yes, we remember the story, but why do we go through all the extra effort to make the yearly pilgrimage to church on Easter Sunday? Why go to all this effort with the lilies and alleluias, the festive flourishes of trumpet, trombone, and triumphant chorus, the jubilant banners and the Easter egg hunt? Why do we get the kids dressed, their teeth brushed and their hair combed, and our own best selves presentable and out of the house before 10:30 am just to hear the story again and again?
Several years ago, around this time of year, a reporter called me. It wasn’t my first time being interviewed, but I dreaded the call. He was interviewing new pastors about Easter. Recovering from a nasty cold and being pressed for time, I was reluctant to speak to him. Furthermore, believe it or not, I am a tad shy—at least around the press. But a question arose within me, if I had to give a 30-second sound bite on what Easter is about—what exactly would I say? What would I say to someone whose only experience of Easter is chocolate bunnies, marshmallow peeps, cheap plastic grass, and an inflatable vinyl rabbit at the local mall? What is it that keeps generation after generation of folk coming to church on Easter morning every year—and some at the very crack of dawn for sunrise services?
When Mary Magdalene looks in the tomb of her teacher and friend, what she experiences is a promise kept by God which both en-courages her and terrifies her. Within her, and within just moments, she experienced two simultaneous, paradoxical feelings… like holding both happiness and sorrow, confusion and clarity, pain and pleasure together. We don’t need to speculate about Magdalene’s past experiences or her relationship with Jesus to see that she had cast all of her tomorrows upon this man from Galilee. And when all of her tomorrows hung sadly from a cross, she stayed until the very last breath and then returned in the morning to do what love and custom required, to anoint her friend’s body and to grieve.
What do you think she was thinking on the way to that tomb? Certainly she was sad; perhaps she was bitter, maybe even a little angry with the Abba, the God, to which Jesus always prayed. Probably the last thing that she expected was to find what she found—a void that was not a void, a reality that went beyond her expectations. It was a promise fulfilled a hope that was honored, and a truth so palpable that she could grab hold of it and weep for joy.
We understand promises. A promise kept is money in the bank—or so the saying goes. If that’s the case, then most of us are struggling just to keep a minimum daily balance. Jonathan Swift, that great satirist, commented that promises and pie-crusts are meant to be broken. Yet, Jesus is a promise kept by God in the fullness of time. The resurrection is the punch line of the human story that God declares over and over and over again. We crawl up onto God’s lap wanting to hear the story one more time, to be reminded that some things can be counted on, that some things are eternal, and that some things don’t have to make perfect sense and be overanalyzed to speak to our deepest hungers as human beings
We human beings yearn, like Mary, to touch the emptiness of all our varied and vicious graves and know that there is a fullness there that transcends our fingers and our numbness. We yearn, like Mary, to lay our hands against that hefty rock of all our yesterdays and all of our heavy regrets and push clear thru to the other side to freedom. We come wanting to believe in our hearts and minds that God’s angels will walk before us in whatever tomb that we find ourselves, knowing that our fears will be allayed in the presence of One who has seen the other side and urges us to take the next step of faith.
In a world where broken promises, broken words, broken diplomacy, and broken hearts are the inevitable by-product of a broken humanity, God’s promise to transform our human brokenness is really good news. But it is only Good News if we can believe that amidst all of our empty promises to one another, amidst all of the pain and hurt that we willingly and unwillingly inflict on ourselves, each other, and this fragile world, a loving and capable God reaches down into our regret, our sin and sorrow and offers us forgiveness and the chance for human beings to live again in a new and different way. If we can trust that… if we can hold onto hope for that… then we can muster courage for another day.
Of all the gospel writers, the writer that we call Matthew goes to extra lengths to assert to his audience that Jesus Christ was indeed physically resurrected from the tomb that first Easter morning. He goes to extra lengths to show that guards were stationed outside the tomb as a pre-emptive ploy by Pilate to keep the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body and then claiming for their King a resurrection that had formerly been the prerogative of Emperors alone. Matthew’s version reads like a Hollywood script complete with earthquake at the moment that great stone was rolled away.
But even guards will shake and become like dead men in the face of just one of God’s angels daring to roll back those stones which are deemed immoveable. We do not need forensic evidence or an eyewitness account to understand the fear and awe that Mary felt upon peering into that empty tomb or the fact that the guards stood with their mouths gaping like the puppets they were. We have only to look at our own experience and that of the world around us to find ourselves nodding to the truth of the story.
There are times when our own awareness of ourselves breaks open and we become conscious of the meaningless scripts that we have played, the empty addictions that grip us, and the control we wield to the detriment of others. There are times when the rock of our defenses collapses and we stand trembling with fear. At these moments, we may struggle to stand sentry over our hearts, to keep guard over our human vulnerability, to keep a resurrection from happening. But if we can befriend our weakness, then God has a chance to meet us in our brokenness and raise us to new life.
In those moments, it is as if the very ground we stand on shifts and reverberates. “Do not be afraid,” says an angel of the Lord to Joseph, as he considers whether to marry the pregnant Mary. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says as he greets us in the midst of our decisions, our helplessness, and our mixed motives. “Do not be afraid; I am going on ahead and I will meet you there.”
What character do you most identify with this morning? Are you, like Pilate, frantically reinforcing the guards in a futile effort to block every change in your life or the life of your family? Or are you squinting, like Mary, thru tears to see any new possibility for yourself or those whom you love? Maybe you are the angel who visits the deep, dark, and desperate caverns of the world, offering a message of hope to those inside. Wherever you find yourself this Easter morning, I pray that you can see beyond the cross to a new horizon. For God’s promise in Jesus is our promise too. Because when he lives in us and moves us, we can rise to new heights and need not fear the tombs and challenges of this world. Because this is God’s promise, and because this promise was realized in Jesus and with Jesus, we can take courage for a new day, a brighter day, and brighter tomorrow.
And in a world of broken and empty promises, God is a promise we can all count on, whether we are feeling more guarded than angelic, more anxious than eager, whether running from the tomb, or running toward resurrection.
Thanks be to God.
 Jean H. Vandergrift, “A promise kept,” June 8, 2003, University Christian Church Web Site, scn.org.