It is early in the morning, on the first day of the week. We who are gathered here in the early dawn of this morning know the story so well that we are unlikely to be astounded by what happens next. It is difficult for us this morning to feel the same feelings as the first disciples did on the morning of the resurrection: not because we do not believe in it; not because the resurrection does not fill our hearts with joy and gladness; not because it does not lead us (each time we contemplate it) into a deeper longing to serve Our Lord; nor because it does not convict us to repentance and to the changing of our ways – but because it does not surprise us anymore. Many of us have known the good news of the resurrection for the whole of our lives, we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday as we gather together in our various churches for worship. The resurrection challenges us, but it does not surprise us.
If you have read C.S. Lewis’ little book, “Surprised by Joy” you will know what I mean. The great author, Lewis, recounts the story of his journey to faith (when he was a young man), a literal journey which took place on a Red London Bus on the way from his home to London Zoo. He describes how thinking seriously about the Christian faith, he got on the bus as an agnostic – and in his mind on that bus something mysterious and extraordinary happened which changed his life forever – and he arrived at his destination, at London Zoo, utterly convinced of the reality of God, and of the resurrection of his Son, Christ Jesus Our Lord. Surprised by Joy.
So we need to work especially hard on this Easter Day to clear our minds of the pre-conceived ideas which we bring to our Gospel reading this morning. We must put out of our mind all of the anticipation which we have felt during the forty days of Lent – we must put those things which have prepared us for today, out of our minds for just a few moments, and instead focus on a group of women who make their way – as darkness eases and the dawn breaks through – towards the tomb of a rich man named Joseph from Arimathea. (Because unlike us now, they did know the events which were about to discover had already unfolded.) All that they have believed, all that they have invested in over the last few years, has come crashing down to nothing.
After slowly journeying with Jesus, the final acts of his life came to an end so quickly. The one who these women had given their lives to is now dead. In just a few short days he went from being heralded with palm branches as he entered Jerusalem as a hero, to being rejected by the crowds, accused and condemned to death, and then nailed to a cross. Now, these women, in the dull light of a new day venture to the tomb of Joseph where Jesus’ body is laid. In the reflection on this event in Luke’s Gospel, (the one which we have just heard,) these women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James and the other women) come to the tomb ready to anoint him and prepare him for his final burial. They come as mourners to see the tomb, to be as close as they can be to the body of Jesus – just wanting to be there to pour out their sorrow in as much peace and quietness as possible. As they walk towards the tomb they realise that all of the power which had been caught up in the life of Jesus, and which had been strong enough to give them dignity and hope in a society where women were only slightly better than slaves – that all of this power had now gone, it had died with Jesus. What they had experienced in him, was now a mere interval in the powerlessness of their own lives. And now as they approach the tomb, the writers of the Gospel of Luke describe for us, not a surprise of joy, but a surprise of deep horror, uncertainty and bewilderment.
But as they peer into the empty tomb, uncertain of what it all means, two angels – in dazzling white appear, “why do you look for the living among the dead,” they say, “he is not here he has risen.” For these Jewish followers of Jesus, the arrival of the angels is simply another pointer in a long Jewish tradition of angels who point out that amazing things are happening. Just as angels heralded the birth of Jesus, so these angels herald his resurrection. And these radiant angels, these messengers of God, are signs – pointers – like great flashing neon lights – saying that all that is taking place are the deliberate and careful actions of God himself. The God who remained apparently silent on Good Friday is having the final word now. It did not take angels to get Jesus out of the tomb, he wasn’t a trapped prisoner behind that stone, needing to be released by the power of those outside. The tomb is already empty, Jesus is already out there – and even though these women did not realise it, he is already on his way to Galilee to meet them as he had promised. So the power dynamics are no longer quiet as the women had thought. All is not lost, wasted or abandoned. Just in case anyone does not get the message, the angels entrust to these women (seen as being untrustworthy in their own society) the greatest task of any Christian in the life of the Church – the angels give these women the first opportunity to be witnesses to their friends that the love of God is alive, that Jesus is alive. “Go quickly and tell his friends,” says the angel to the women “‘he has been raised from the dead, he is going to Galilee, and there you will see him.’”
The women arrived in weakness, as if the world was ending, but they left with the news that what they thought was going on was wrong. In the resurrection of Jesus we find the final word of the God who remained apparently silent on Good Friday. God is answering the taunts of the man who hung next to Jesus on the Cross. God is answering the unspoken questions of Jesus’ followers – these women, the disciples huddled up in a room for fear of those around them. And more than that God is answering the spoken question of Jesus himself on the cross; and in all of this God says, “Whether it felt like it or not — I have not forsaken any of you.”
The wonderful news of Easter is that God has indeed had the final word, that all in the end will be well, despite how it seemed yesterday, or seems today, or even how it will be tomorrow. In the end God will have the final word. When the women went to the tomb on the first Easter morning it appeared to them that the dynamics of power had changed so dramatically. It can feel like that for us sometimes as well. But if the writers of Luke’s Gospel were here with us this morning, they would say simply to us: “not everything is as it appears.” The power of God’s love, seen so supremely in Jesus, can never be destroyed – not even death can hold it down. Which is why Christians around the world today, in their many different cultures, and contexts, and styles and denominations will sing the great ‘alleluia’ of our faith. Because God’s final word in Jesus, means that everything, in the end, will be well.
That message of hope is not just for a special week or a special day, it is for every week and every day, as we strive to live as disciples of Christ. Be surprised, be renewed, be joyful. Hear the good news as if you have never heard it before. And share it with others. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!