MATTHEW 28:1-10

March 31, 2013


Play Audio


            Being a pastor I have presided at many a funeral service, and if a committal service follows the memorial service, I usually ride over to the cemetery with the funeral director.   If it's my first time meeting the funeral director, I ask him on the way over to the cemetery, "What was one of the strangest things you have witnessed at a funeral?" and let me tell you, funeral directors have a lot of great stories.  Among all the funeral stories I have heard from funeral directors over the years, here's my favorite. 

            A United Methodist pastor was asked to conduct a graveside service for a member of his church, and since the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church the pastor rode with the funeral director in the funeral coach.  By the way, that's the term now for the hearse nowadays.  It's "the coach."

            The only trouble, however, was the pastor was coming down with flu and by the time they arrived at the cemetery, the flu had invaded the pastor completely.  Feverish and sick, he made it through the service, but he was starting to look like most flu victims, like death warmed over.

            As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the coach.  The coach had curtains over the windows, and the coffin was gone, and nobody would see him.  The pastor thought it was a good idea and promptly fell asleep.

            He awoke when the vehicle stopped.  Taking a few minutes to fully awaken, he slowly sat up and drew the side curtain to see where he was.  He was face to face with a gas station attendant, who was surprised and shocked to see a body in the back of the coach staring back at him.

            With all the color drained out of him and his eyes as wide as saucers, the gas pump flew into the air, and the attendant ran on shaky legs back into the gas station, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain the whole situation.

            I bet that's how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning must have felt.  They had to have run on shaky legs back to the disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement, and this Easter we will look at the Easter story from Matthew's perspective.   Turn in your bible to the 28th chapter of Matthew's gospel and follow along as I read.


            After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of The Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!"  And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.  Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."


            As we unpack this story, I want us to note the three things the two Marys were asked to do.  Two of those requests came from the impressive looking angel at the tomb, and the other thing came from the risen Jesus.  Ready?  Let's do some unpacking.

            First, the angel asked the two women to believe.  In so doing, the angel reminds the two Marys of the promise of Jesus, he confronts them with the empty tomb, and tells them they will soon see the risen Jesus for themselves.  So request number one: believe in the resurrection.

            The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, laid out four great mysteries of life.  Maybe you remember them.

            The first mystery: How did we get from nothing to something?  It is the riddle of creation.

            The second mystery: How did we get from matter to life?  It is the riddle of existence.

            The third mystery: How did we get from life to mind?  It is the riddle of consciousness.

            The fourth mystery: How do we get from death to life?  It is the riddle of the resurrection.

            He goes on to say that we do not fully understand creation, the Big Bang Theory and all that stuff, but we take it for granted.  We do not fully understand our existence, but we take it for granted.  We do not fully understand consciousness, but we, too, take it for granted.  Neither do we fully understand resurrection, but he says that is impossible to take it for granted.  Why?  Because, unlike the others, we haven't experienced it yet.  We know we are part of the created order.  We know we exist.  We are conscious most of the time, not always during sermons, but we are most other times.  The resurrection, however, doesn't that require our dying before we can experience it, know it for sure?

            Well, no. You see there is that little saying of the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of Philippians about his wanting to experience the power of the resurrection on this side of the grave.  Is that possible, to experience the power of the resurrection on both sides of the grave, actually to experience the power of the resurrection, right now, right here in Bellevue, Nebraska?

            A guy named Bill Ritter recalls his family sitting around the piano singing different songs, and how his father, now deceased, always wanted his mother to play, "Beautiful Isle of Somewhere."  By the way, that was President William McKinley's favorite hymn.  You might want to check it out of You Tube.  It has been recorded by a number of folk, Ferlin Huskie, Eddie Arnold, Jo Stafford.  Written in 1897 the lyrics read as follows:


            Somewhere the sun is shining,

            Somewhere the songbirds dwell,

            Hush, then, thy sad repining,

            God lives and all is well.


            Then, when Ritter's mother got to the refrain, his father would tilt back his head and sing, especially if he'd had a couple of adult beverages, these words:


            Somewhere. Somewhere.

            Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.

            Land of the free where we'll dwell with thee.

            Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.


            Which, by the way, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim rewrote into that beautiful tune and lyric for the musical West Side Story:


            There's a place for us,

            A time and place for us,

            Peace and quiet and open air,

            Wait for us,



            Both songs are memorable.  Both songs are beautiful.  Both songs talk about a promised future.  Which Christ offers.  Make no mistake about that, but notice, once again, what the messenger at the tomb said to the women when they came looking for the body.  He said, "Go quickly and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them ... (where?) ... in Galilee."  And where was Galilee?  Galilee was the place where the disciples had spent virtually all their lives.  Galilee was where they had worked and sweated, laughed and loved, met and mated.  Galilee was where they had spent day after day with Jesus.  And now they were being told that Galilee was where they would experience Jesus again "in the power of his resurrection."  Which means that the very first Easter hymn could well have been "I'll Be Seeing You In All the Old Familiar Places."  We can experience the power of the resurrection on both sides of the grave.  Believe it.  Believe it.

            So first, the angel asked the women to believe in the resurrection.  Second, the angel asked them to share the good news of the resurrection.  He said, "Go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead." 

            There's an old folk legend that says, scattered throughout the earth, there are twenty-eight people on whom the future of the world depends, and these twenty-eight people don't know who they are.  That is to say, you could be one of them.  According to the old legend I could be one of them, and the actions of these twenty-eight determine whether the world will continue or not.[1]

            What if that were true?  What if you were one of the twenty-eight?  Of course, the future's in God's hands, not ours, but what if the legend were true?  What if God had chosen you for this incredible task?  I bet you are thinking, "Yeah, well God would never choose anyone like me for something that important.  I'm nothing special."

            Well, neither were the two women who journeyed to the tomb at O-Dark-Thirty.

In the eyes of the average person on the street, they were no-count, low-brow, without-clout women, and one of them, Mary Magdalene, of exceedingly questionable character.  If you wanted to get the word out about the resurrection you certainly would not choose Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” as your first and best witnesses.  In that highly, highly, highly patriarchal society, it was a claim that almost guaranteed the rejection of the resurrection to most.  Yet their sharing their experience at the tomb grabbed the attention, grabbed the hearts, of those who had heard Jesus.

            The average person on the street would not have chosen these two women to share the good news of the resurrection.  But God did.  God did.  And God chooses unlikely, unqualified people like you and me to do the same. 

            And finally, in addition to the angel's asking the women to believe, and to share, Jesus asked the women to rejoice.  See that word, "Greetings!" in the ninth verse?  It comes from the Greek word Chairete.  It was the normal greeting of the day, but the word literally meant "Rejoice!" 

            Let's put this sermon to bed.  Reach back with me to the days of Candid Camera when Allen Funt was running around filming people reacting to events that were as strange as they were staged.  I remember one scene, filmed at a perfectly ordinary table in a perfectly ordinary lunchroom.  The only thing that was not perfectly ordinary was the flower that was sitting in the vase on the table.  Someone would sit down and start drinking his water, or Pepsi, or iced tea and, when he would set the glass down between sips, the flower would rear up from its vase, arch completely over, and start inhaling the man's drink.

            But because what was happening did not fit anybody's conception of reality, each diner to a person, man or woman, cast a few furtive glances to make sure that nobody had seen this strange occurrence, and then moved to another table, trying to look as if nothing had happened.

            It was a silly little scene in a silly little show, but it was as sad as it was silly.  For a very small miracle happened when a flower bowed its wild and lovely head and commenced to drink.  And the response of all who saw it was to switch tables.

            In the run-of-the-mill lunchrooms of our lives, flowers do not drink from Pepsi glasses.  Neither do dead men vacate graves.  But, my friends, in a world where God and not Allen Funt does the staging, let's not discount anything.  And whatever you do, do not walk away ... do not run away ... do not look away ... do not shy away ... and, especially, do not turn away from whatever miracles may be at hand.  Instead, rejoice.  Rejoice.  Amen.

[1] Wear Clean Underwear by Rhonda Abrams, Villard, New York, 1999, p. 169.