Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sermon: "Rock of Ages: Resurrection", Isaiah 65:17-19, 23-25/Luke 24:1-12 (April 21, 2019--Easter Sunday)

(This sermon is the last in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)


Over the past six weeks of Lent, we’ve explored all the different things that stones can teach us about our faith. We talked about the pitfalls of wanting to be in control and how fighting God’s sovereignty is like a softer stone trying to scratch a diamond. We discussed how God’s faithfulness doesn’t lift us up and away from our problems but keeps us going in the midst of them, like standing on a submerged rock to keep from drowning. We considered the stones NOT thrown—how we can build the kingdom of God here on earth if we choose to lay down our weapons and use them as building blocks, instead. We gave thanks that commitment to God can make us feel like we’ve come home, and we realized how important it is to surround ourselves with reminders of that commitment, whether in the form of massive stone monuments or in a holy meal or sacred font. On Palm Sunday, we were challenged by Jesus, as we considered whether WE might be the “stones” that he calls upon to shout out in witness to God. And on Maundy Thursday, we remembered that our brokenness doesn’t keep God from using us to build God’s kingdom—we can still be the rock upon which the Church is built, even when we feel deeply flawed and unworthy.

And finally, today we arrive at Jesus’ tomb with the women and see the stone rolled away. Today, the stone reminds us not of our struggles or our brokenness, but of resurrection. Thanks be to God!

When we read this account year after year, our focus is usually on the absence of Jesus’ body—with good reason. Without that detail, this story would be nothing more than a description of ancient funeral rites. But this year, my attention is drawn to the stone that was rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. Admittedly, I’ve had rocks on the brain for the past six weeks, so perhaps this isn’t particularly surprising, and maybe I’m a little bit predisposed to this particular focus. But it strikes me that this detail wasn’t included by accident. I believe that God’s full plan for the resurrection wouldn’t be complete without the stone being rolled away.

See, the stone didn’t NEED to be moved in order for Jesus to return from death. John’s gospel assures us that closed and locked doors present no obstacle to the risen Christ,[1] so surely an open tomb was an unnecessary flourish—at least, as far as Jesus was concerned. It would have been a far more…efficient miracle without it. Why, then, was the stone rolled away?

I think the answer is pretty obvious, if you think about it: the stone was rolled away for the benefit of those who were seeking Jesus. With the stone removed, the women were able to see and experience FOR THEMSELVES that he wasn’t there. It gave them the evidence they needed to remember and believe what he had taught them. It transformed the resurrection from unsubstantiated hearsay into reality for them. All this, in turn, gave them the confidence to share their new knowledge with others. In giving them firsthand experience of God’s triumph over sin and death, it drew them into the story. Because the stone was rolled away, we realize that the resurrection isn’t just about Jesus after all. It’s about us, too.

Easter is about more than the miracle of a man being raised from the dead. If that were the only thing that mattered, all the gospels would have ended there. Instead, each of them ends by focusing on those closest to Jesus, describing their reactions to the news and what they did next. The entire point of the resurrection is that IT WAS FOR US, and if we ignore that part of the narrative, we’re deliberately misunderstanding this immense gift that God offers on Easter morning.

The true resurrection lies not in the reanimation of a body, but the restoration of a relationship. In this light, the rolled-away stone becomes a symbol of how all barriers between humanity and the divine have been removed by God’s triumphant victory over death. There, standing with the women and gazing into the unobstructed tomb, we too can see for ourselves that absolutely nothing stands between us and God anymore—not our humanity, not our frailty, not our deaths, not our sin—nothing.

Because the stone is gone, we don’t just KNOW the truth of God’s love for us, WE CAN SEE IT. Because the stone is gone, we understand that resurrection is more than just an impressive party trick—it’s a new beginning. Because the stone is gone, we’re able to enter the tomb, touch the linens, speak to angels, and become a part of our own salvation story. Because the stone is gone, the empty tomb becomes a blank canvas on which God begins to paint the boundless possibility for those redeemed by God—which is to say, all of humanity.

I say possibility, because although we celebrate that particular empty tomb from so many years ago, the work of the resurrection isn’t confined to that moment in time. The reality of our restored relationship is that God has redeemed our yesterday, today, and tomorrow so that our lives can be transformed going forward. Just as the women at the tomb were rebuked because they were looking for the living among the dead, we should rebuke ourselves for seeking resurrection in the past instead of the future.

Listen to these words from Isaiah with Easter ears: “I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice forever in what I’m creating, because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy and her people as a source of gladness…”[2] The prophet originally wrote these words about the promised restoration of Israel, but even today they serve to reveal God’s priorities to us: God’s in the business of new life and creation. God isn’t interested in what has been but is deeply invested in what will be. God has rolled away the stone so that the path ahead is wide open to us—resurrection isn’t the culmination of our faith, but a new beginning.

In the open and empty tomb, God has given us new and renewed life, forever and ever. If, then, we’re celebrating not just a past event but all future resurrections, our approach to Easter ought to shift a bit. The stone has been rolled away; nothing is standing between us and God, and the path ahead is wide open…so what comes next? Where do we go from here? What do we choose to do with this opportunity? God is still working, and like the women at the tomb, WE’RE invited to be a part of the ongoing resurrection of humanity by embodying Jesus’ teachings, preaching the Good News, and working to bring about God’s Kingdom here and now.

What would it look like to create a world where the wolf and the lamb graze together and no one hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain? What do we need to change about our attitudes towards others in order to shape this future? How is God’s promise of resurrection calling us to treat those with different perspectives, different politics, different faiths, different nationalities? The stone is no longer standing between us and God…how can we roll the stone away from between each other in the name of resurrection?

Being reconciled to God doesn’t mean that we’ll automatically make the right choices. Sometimes, we try to roll that stone right back in front of the tomb, because resurrection is hard work. We don’t—and won’t—always remember to work towards the Kingdom. Even with the proof of resurrection staring us in the face, humanity will find a way to deny it. The apostles didn’t believe the women who brought them news of the resurrection, even though they’d been taught the same things. Peter didn’t understand what was happening, even when he saw the empty tomb with his own eyes. On this very morning, bombers attacked churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, even as worshipers were gathering to celebrate God’s promise of new life. Every day, we deny the needs of others in the name of self-preservation and fear, even though it was only three days ago that Jesus instructed us on no uncertain terms to love one another. Just because God has removed the obstacles between us doesn’t mean that we’re always willing to accept the resurrection that lies beyond them.

But that’s the most beautiful part of resurrection: it’s not something that you have one chance to get right. It’s not an opportunity that you risk missing if you’re not paying enough attention at the right time. Since God’s promise of new life is ongoing from now until eternity, resurrection is something that’s ALWAYS available to us, even after the countless missteps and mistakes that we’re each bound to make. Whether you can see it or not, all the barriers to God HAVE been removed…you can love and be loved by God no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how many times you’ve missed the meaning of the empty tomb. But if I might make a humble suggestion…now’s the perfect time to try looking again. The stone has been rolled away; resurrection is upon us! Thanks be to God!

I want to leave you with the words of Jan Richardson, from her poem, “Seen”: 

“You had not imagined
that something so empty
could fill you
to overflowing,

and now you carry
the knowledge
like an awful treasure
or like a child
that roots itself
beneath your heart:

how the emptiness
will bear forth
a new world
that you cannot fathom
but on whose edge
you stand.

So why do you linger?
You have seen,
and so you are
already blessed.
You have been seen,
and so you are
the blessing.

There is no other word
you need.
There is simply
to go
and tell.
There is simply
to begin.”[3] 

Together, let us lean into the life of possibility that an absent stone, an empty tomb, and an eternal resurrection has opened for us. Alleluia! Amen.


[1] John 20:19.
[2] Isaiah 17-18, CEB.
[3] ©Jan Richardson.

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