By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 28:1-15
When I was in middle school, my mom used to come home from church, turn on the TV and start preparing Sunday dinner. The TV was tuned in to Oral Roberts. But it wasn’t Roberts’ preaching that my mom really enjoyed. For her, the draw was the music. Every week the Oral Roberts singers performed one piece that seemed, particularly, to feed my mother’s soul while she prepared to feed our family’s hungry tummies. The song’s chorus, based on scripture, was this: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.” 1 John is where we find the scripture verse: “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” I guess my mom needed to hear that reminder each week. The church my dad was pastoring at that time was the most challenging he ever served. During his time there, my dad developed several health issues – borderline glaucoma, high blood pressure, difficulties with his weight and periodic bouts of hives. In addition, during that time my mom’s parents began to decline significantly in health. My grandfather began to have mini-strokes on a frequent basis. They still lived in their little home tucked into the side of a mountain on the outskirts of Johnstown. Their only neighbor in close proximity was a man who was mentally unstable. He dressed like Fidel Castro and marched up and down the mountain “on patrol” with his gun. Gone were the days when my grandfather could tend his grape arbor and pick wild berries off the mountain; so, too, my grandmother’s large gladiola garden withered as they found themselves trapped in their own home, afraid to even venture into their back yard. My mom and her siblings had begun to struggle with the difficult issue of convincing my grandparents it was time to leave the homestead and move in to a small apartment complex for seniors on the other side of town. My mom seemed to silently and stoically bear the burdens of her family’s struggles. But she could not bear to miss that weekly broadcast that sung out the good news: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”
Imagine how those disciples of Jesus must have felt on their way to the tomb on that first Easter morning. Those women bore an enormous burden of grief. Our gospel evangelists don’t really give us much information about the women who followed Jesus. But in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death he concludes by saying that there were many women there, “looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had attended to his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”
Imagine how the women must have felt as they walked together toward the tomb that morning. Imagine how heavy their hearts must have been. They had watched their precious rabbi – the one they loved, the one they served, the one in whom they placed great faith… Well, they had last seen him hanging from a cross; they had heard him cry out those dreadful words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me;” they’d watched him struggling in pain until he drew his last tortured breath. It’s hard to say exactly what inspired them to make the painful journey to the tomb that morning. Luke tells us that the women went to anoint Jesus with burial spices. But Matthew tells us only that they “went to see.” They went to look upon a tomb, a place of death. They could not possibly have been prepared for God to rock their world – quite literally, with an earthquake. God rocked their world and transformed all that was predictable and logical… all that was mournful and broken. God threw it all out the window. God took death and transformed it into life.
Once when I was a young, naïve seminary student I preached a sermon on the call of Abraham entitled “The God of Amazing Possibilities.” I thought it was a pretty good sermon. I felt good about its delivery and planned to let it go at that. But you can imagine my surprise when a young couple in the church pinned me down after worship wanting to know if I could come visit them that week and talk with them about an “impossible” situation going on in their lives. From this long distance vantage point I can remember nothing more of their crisis than that it involved the husband’s mother and her behavior placing a great burden on their marriage. They needed to know, they needed to see and hear that there was the possibility of new life in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Theology, my friends, is meaningless in a vacuum. What really matters is what we do and say to others (and to one another) when we are looking dead-on at a dead end. When push comes to shove, our experience matters; all we really know for sure is what we have known AND SEEN as real in our own lives.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that all of us, any of us, can really only speak with authority of what we’ve experienced for ourselves, what we’ve seen with our own eyes.
The women at the tomb that first Easter morning saw something entirely unexpected. They went there expecting to see the tomb of a dead man. What they saw, however, was an angel and a living, resurrected Lord. What they saw, what they experienced that day, changed their world… and ours. What they saw that morning was that the power of Jesus was greater than any sorrow they’d known up to that point. “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”
But what also catches my interest in this morning’s gospel story is that the women were not the only ones to experience the earthquake, to see the angel of the Lord and to hear his message. The guards heard and saw as well. They, too, experienced the event. And yet their response was quite different. Matthew tells the story with a touch of humor. While Jesus, the dead man, is resurrected, these guards, alive and well, become “like dead men” in the midst of this miraculous event. As the women run obediently to proclaim the good news to Jesus’ disciples, the guards return to the city to give a report of these events to the chief priests. Their response is not one of joyous proclamation; their response is one of fear. They become accomplices; agreeing to a plan devised by the religious leaders, a cunning plan, a cover-up, a great lie, complete with bribery and intimidation.
And that, my friends, is a choice that all of us face. We all (over the course of our lives) come face-to-face with the impossible, the unthinkable, the dreadful, the insurmountable. We see things that we might have never imagined. And for some, the response is to retreat in fear; to intimidate, to manipulate; to counter the miraculous with fake news.
But many of us are here this morning because we have had a very different response. We have seen – and experienced – something different. Faced with the impossible, the unthinkable, the insurmountable, we gather here this morning to defiantly celebrate that we have a Savior who transforms death into new life. We have seen Jesus’ life at work within our lives – as individuals and as a church. We have seen the impossible become possible. We know that we worship a risen Lord because he has turned our despair into hope and our sorrows into joy. We have seen it and experienced it for ourselves. Jesus is the one who can make life burst forth even from places of death and emptiness. We have seen it and we have trusted it enough to keep looking.
And we must trust it enough to go and tell others like those women did so long ago. Some of you here this morning, like those women on that first Easter morning, have seen and experienced remarkable things. I have been blessed to hear some of your stories. People often ask me what I enjoy most about being a pastor. And one of the things I most enjoy, most treasure, is hearing the stories of those who have discovered new life even in places of death and sorrow and loss. In just my three short years here at Trinity, I’ve led some small groups in which we’ve shared those stories, our stories, with one another; stories about our experiences; stories of how God has taken the broken and hopeless places in our lives and resurrected them to new life.
And that is what Easter is about. That morning long ago, those women went to see what they assumed would be a scene of death and despair. And, in a certain sense it was. There was a tomb. Their eyes had not deceived them. That Good Friday horror was real and likely not a feeling they would ever shake. But it wasn’t the end of the story. There was something greater to see: life; new life springing from a place of death.
And that’s what calls us to this place. When we come together, week after week in this place, we celebrate what those women discovered on that morning long ago: that there is the power of life at work in our lives in ways that are greater and more powerful than any of our sorrows.
Not only here, but out there in the world, we are people called to go and tell what we have seen with our own eyes: that the Spirit of the risen Christ at work within us and among us is greater than anything the world can thrust against us. We have seen for ourselves and we know: Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.
My friends, this morning’s resurrection story is a reminder to us that we, too, must go and tell others the good news that there is one who has power to transform even death into new life. Our stories must be shared. We must go and tell so that others can also see: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”
There is a story of a young soldier who lost his legs in battle. Something died within the young man when he found he would never walk again. He lay in his hospital bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. He refused to talk to anyone who tried to help him. He refused to cooperate with doctors or nurses who wanted to help him to adjust.
One day another patient strolled in and sat down on a chair near the bed. He drew a harmonica from his pocket and began to play softly. The patient looked at him for a second, then back to the ceiling. That was all for that day. The next day he came again. For several days he continued to come and to play quietly. One day he said, "Does my playing annoy you?" The patient said, "No, I guess I like it." They talked a little more each day.
One day the harmonica player was in a jovial mood. He played a sprightly tune and began to do a tap dance. The soldier looked on but was apparently unimpressed. "Hey, why don't you smile once and let the world know you're alive!" the dancer said with a friendly smile. But the legless soldier said, "I might as well be dead as in the fix I'm in." "Okay," answered his friend, "so you're dead. But you're not as dead as a fellow who was crucified two thousand years ago, and He came out of it all right." "Oh, it's easy for you to preach," replied the soldier from his bed, "but if you were in my fix, you'd sing a different tune." With this the dancer stood up and said, "I know a two-thousand-year-old resurrection is pretty far in the dim past. So maybe an up-to-date example will help you to believe it can be done." With that he pulled up his trouser legs and the young man in the bed looked and saw two artificial limbs. The tap-dancing fellow with the harmonica knew his pain. He once lay where that young soldier now lay. He had seen and known great sorrow. But he had also seen, experienced for himself, the power of resurrection. He had learned to trust in one who brought new life out of death and despair and sorrow. He had a story to share and an opportunity to go and tell: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”
 Matthew 27:55-56. NRSV.
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