Two Empty Tombs
I want to thank those who have given so generously of their time this Easter season, from the Stations of the Cross to this morning. Volunteers are the lifeblood of a congregation, and we are gifted with many volunteers.
It is Easter morning! And it’s not snowing!
I hope and pray that the joy of Easter is in your heart this day and will remain so all days.
On Easter we celebrate the empty tomb, and rightfully so.
This Easter morning, I want us to think about not just one, but two empty tombs – the empty tomb of Jesus, of course, but also the empty tomb of Lazarus.
Listen as we read from the gospel of John and then the gospel of Matthew.
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;
26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.
39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.
42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Our texts for this morning are both located in cemeteries. The first – the raising of Lazarus and his empty tomb – is very public and dramatic. The second – the empty tomb of Jesus – is initially seen by only a few people.
Both these events seemed improbable to the initial witnesses, but they were not impossible. They were both unexpected by those who were there, but were not unlikely in the plan of God. They were both hard for some people to believe, but they happened.
There are a several powerful elements in the story of Lazarus.
First, the raising of Lazarus was more public, but still some could not believe.
This is one of the problems with evidence, which some determine they must have before they can come to faith – people see what they want to see. Evidence is not always as objective and obvious as we believe it to be. Evidence is often something people use to confirm what they already believe.
Faith is something determined by a choice that is free will and does not need to be convinced by overwhelming evidence that would, actually, not require any faith.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard coined the phrase leap of faith, as he recognized that in spite of logic and evidence, some things never become totally obvious and that at some point, we have to take the leap of faith into what we will believe.
Second, the power over death forever changes the power structures of the world.
The raising of Lazarus is about Jesus, and it is a story that tells us that the world has some problems with someone who has power over death. What happens if we don’t have to be afraid of death? What happens if we don’t believe that death is the end?
It’s bad news for those who want to control the world and the destiny of people.
It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the chief priests and the Pharisees to call a meeting of the Sanhedrin. It was at that meeting that Caiaphas, the high priest, said, you do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish (John 11:47-50).
Those men who gathered together and decided that Jesus must die were aware that if you take away people’s fear of death you can no longer control them. And isn’t fear of death the weapon of choice for the tyrants of the world?
If one is not afraid of death there is no limit to what one can do, including calling to account those tyrants who seek to control the world and the lives of those of us living in it.
The power over life and death tells us who is really in control. It’s not the person with the armies and the weaponry, but the one who gives people the courage to offer up their own lives.
Third, there is resurrection in this life.
I’ve always thought verses 39 – take away the stone, and 44 – take off the grave clothes and let him go a bit odd. If you can resurrect a person to life from death, can’t you just wave away the stone and the grave clothes? Why go to the trouble of having others perform those tasks?
I think Jesus wanted those who rolled away the stone and the grave clothes to see the remnants of death up close and personal. I think he wanted them to get close to death as a reminder of the thin veil that exists for all of us between life and death.
The raising of Lazarus, and Jesus is prophetic of our own rising. People stand at tombs with many hopes, primarily that there is something after death and that they will see their loved ones again.
As Christ has risen, so too will you rise. And you will rise in this life and defeat what seeks to break down your life.
But there is also something metaphorical at that moment as well – you can experience resurrection in this life, before physical death. The reality is this – many people have died time and time again, long before their physical death. They die a spiritual and emotional death. They experience a death of hope and love. There are many types of death that we experience in this life, but just as those grave clothes fell away from Lazarus as evidence of his resurrection from death so too can we experience resurrection in this life.
The empty tombs are a challenge to death. There will be a resurrection. But there is a resurrection in this life as well. We are raised from the depths of our fears and failures, our struggles and our despair.
Fourth, both empty tombs are an invitation to faith.
Both empty tombs raise the same question – will we believe? The empty tombs pose the great question – what do you think of this? What will you make of these empty tombs?
Receive the hope that comes from Christ, and may that hope bear you through all of life’s struggles and difficulties.
And when you draw your final breath in this life, know that you will awaken in eternity, bidden there and welcomed by Christ, whose resurrection becomes our resurrection.