Monday 25 March 2024

The Empty Tomb

A Sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Easter Sunday 31 March 2024 11.00am

Daniel 7.9-14  
Mark 15.47-16.8a

There are some days
          when it can seem as if death has had the last word.
We live in a world where death, and terror, and oppression
          seem constantly to get the last word on life,
          and it is, truly, deeply depressing.
And after all, none of us are getting out of this alive,
          and for much of our time here
                   we are party to the desires of others
                   to make life far less than it could and should be.
People kill people, people terrorise people, people bully people.
          And it has always been so.
But what are we to do?
          How are we to respond to the darkness of our world?
Denial and business-as-usual can only get us so far,
          and yet reality is too hard to face
          for any sustained period of time.
So what is the path through this valley of death?
          How are we to negotiate these treacherous waters of chaos?
Well, it seems to me that for much of the time,
          both as individuals and as a society,
                    we just stare ever deeper and harder
                   into the murky depths of the tomb.
Our media holds the dark cavern of death before our eyes
          and invites us to look long upon the monsters
                   that inhabit the labyrinthine passages
                   of our darkest fears, and nightmarish dreamings.
The rolling news agenda of analysis and voyeurism
          keeps the darkness alive in our imaginations
          and the light of life dimmed to the point of being extinguished.
It’s the Easter story,
          re-visited in each of our lives,
          day by day, week by week.
We stare death in the face on Friday,
          and we sit in horror and shock on Saturday,
and then on Sunday
          we set out to revisit the grave of all our hopes and dreams.
Like a child who cannot leave alone the scab on their knee,
          we pick away at our pain,
          we subvert our capacity to heal,
          and we scar ourselves further.
We keep going back to the tomb.
This is why terrorism works, of course.
          And this is why the Romans crucified their criminals.
The symbolic murder of the representative few
          kills life in the hearts and souls of the many.
Those who have stood and gazed upon the cross
          cannot rid themselves of the visions of horror that haunt their nights.
Those who have seen videos of beheadings in the desert,
          and read news reports of bombings in airports and subways,
          cannot rid themselves of the terror.
And so we keep going back to the tomb.
We construct a narrative of fear,
          and then we step into that story
          and we live it into being in our lives, and in our world.
We just keep on going back to the tomb.
But here’s a thought:
          What if the greatest force of evil in our world
                   is not fundamentalist Islam,
          what if it’s not warlord dictators or elected warmongers,
                   what it's not even homophobic evangelical Christianity?
What if the greatest force of evil in our world
          is the capacity of human beings to deceive themselves
                   into believing that truth is a lie
                   and that a lie has become the truth?
What if the greatest force of evil in our world
          is how easily we exchange the truth of God for a lie,
          worshipping and serving the creature rather than the creator? (Rom. 1.25)
What I mean by this
          is that we idolize our fears,
                   and we allow them to control our actions,
          and in so doing we make ourselves subservient
                   to something of our own creation.
We convince ourselves that the tomb contains terrors,
          and then we construct our lives around that falsehood.
We live the lie of fear into being,
          and we manifest that fear in our thoughts and our actions.
I’m thinking of the Baptist pastor who said to me
          that he would love to welcome gay people into his church,
          but that he is afraid of being judged by God if he does so.
I’m thinking of the person who seeks to control
          and manipulate others to their will
          because they are deeply afraid of being wrong.
I’m thinking of the person who is afraid to speak out against injustice
          because they are afraid of the consequences
          for themselves and those they love.
I’m thinking of me, and I’m thinking of each of us;
          as we all, in our own ways, allow the terrors of the tomb
          to dictate our thoughts and our actions.
We keep going back to the tomb.
And then, in an attempt to live with ourselves, and our fears, and our guilt,
          we scapegoat those who do not fit our construction of reality.
We put our fears onto the weak and the vulnerable,
          and then we put them out of our camp
          in a desperate attempt to sleep easier in our beds.
Whether it is the scapegoating of those with minority sexuality,
          or those of a different complexion,
                   or those of a different gender,
          or those of a different nationality,
                   or those of a different social standing,
          or those of a different religious belief,
                   or those of a different political opinion....
We take the fears and lies
          that inhabit the sepulchres of our minds
and we place these deceptions onto those who are not like us,
          in a vain attempt to rid ourselves of that which haunts our dreams.
And yet in all of this we miss the simple truth
          that was revealed to Mary, Mary, and Salome
          that first Easter morning:
This is the truth:
The tomb is empty.
          The monsters are not real.
The decomposing corpse
          of our shattered dreams and nightmarish fears is not there.
The tomb, is empty.
The women hadn’t gone to the tomb of the crucified Jesus
          to encounter an empty tomb.
They had gone to pour oils on a dead and broken body,
          as one final act of love and devotion
          to their shattered dreams and crushed hopes.
They knew Jesus to be dead;
          they had seen him die.
They knew him to be in the tomb;
          they had seen him laid there.
They knew that the stone was firmly across the entrance
          and that they would not even have enough strength
          to roll it away to see once again the corpse that lay within.
Yet still they went to the tomb, in despair and fear and futility;
          as we all go, in our own ways,
          to gaze again upon the tomb of our own fears.
But at the tomb of Jesus,
          the women discovered that the tomb itself was a lie.
The stone was rolled away,
          and the dead body they feared to find wasn’t there.
The simple truth that confronted the women
          is the same truth that confronts us:
The tomb is empty.
          Its power is void.
Its deception is exposed,
          and its hold over us is broken.
This is the message of Easter.
But how are we to hear this message?
          How do we take deep within ourselves
                   the revelation of resurrection;
          that offers us a way through the valley of death,
                   and guides us through the waters of chaos?
Mark’s gospel tells us that when the women got to the tomb
          they looked up, and then they looked again (15.4).
It was only on second sight
          that they saw the tomb to be empty.
Like the blind men earlier in Mark’s gospel (8.25, 10.51)
          it was a miracle of seeing that opened their eyes
          to the reality of the new world of the empty tomb.
And we, like the women, need to learn what it is to look again,
          we need to learn to see through the lies
                   and deceptions of death,
          to the truth of new life
                   that lies beyond our mortal expectations.
In our fears and our imaginations the tomb remains filled with horrors,
          and we are prevented from seeing reality
          by the stone of impediment that blocks our sight.
It is only when we are enabled to look again,
          that we can see the stone to have been rolled away,
          and experience the reality of the empty tomb.
But this is not something which we can do for ourselves.
Like the women at the tomb of Jesus,
          we do not have the strength in ourselves
                   to roll away the stone and let in the light
                   that will reveal the cupboard within to be devoid of terror.
The intervention we need in our lives
          is the same as that experienced by the women.
There is nothing we can do to move the stone;
          but by grace, it has already been rolled away for us.
We need only have eyes to see it. [1]
We live our lives out of our narrative of fear and death,
          afraid of the darkness within ourselves,
and yet if only we could have the eyes to see it,
          the doorway to the darkness of our souls has already been opened,
          and the light is streaming in to banish the terrors of the night.
This is an invitation to a radically new way of being human.
It is an invitation to learn to live in an entirely new way,
          where our thoughts and actions are determined
                   not by darkness but by light,
                   not by death but by life.
It is an invitation for us to step across a threshold
          and discover the true life that awaits us
          when we confront our fears and find them groundless.
Maybe we, like the women, need to hear the divine messenger
          telling us to not be afraid.
Maybe we need our own moment of divine encounter,
          to open our eyes to the reality of life reasserted in the face of death.
Maybe we need to meet the risen Christ for ourselves,
          present by his Spirit in the place of our deepest fear,
          speaking words of peace and new life to our troubled souls.
But see what happens to the women next…
Their fears are confounded, and they discover the empty tomb.
          They encounter the messenger who seeks to calm their troubled minds.
And then they are told to leave the tomb,
          and head back to the real world,
          back to Galilee, back to normality,
          to encounter the risen Christ in their homes,
                   in their families and communities.
We are not called to sit and stare at the empty tomb,
          any more than we are called to linger our gaze forever on the cross.
Because new life is for living,
          and if we allow our fears to silence our witness
          to the good news of the empty tomb,
then we simply roll back the stone
          and fill the void once again with the terrors of our imagination.
‘Do not be afraid’, says the messenger,
          ‘Go to Galilee and meet the risen Christ’.
But Mark tells us that the women fled from the tomb, seized by terror,
          and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (15.8).
And there, in its original form, Mark’s gospel ends.
Here, the story stops where Mark intends it to stop,
          and the rhetorical force of the hanging ending is compelling.
Those of us who read Mark’s account of the empty tomb,
          are invited to identify ourselves with the women.
We are invited to see ourselves in their desire to revisit the tomb,
          and to gaze once more on the death of hope.
We are invited to share with them their futility
          in the face of the immovable stone.
And we are invited to look again with them
          and to realise that the tomb of terrors is thrown open
          and revealed to be empty.
But we are also invited to consider what we will do next.
Will we, like the women,
          go from here in silence, struck dumb by our encounter?
Or will we go seeking the risen Christ,
          and meeting him on the way.
New life does not come easily to the world,
          and we do not leave our fears behind us without a struggle.
But there are days when life springs unexpectedly
          from the barren soil of existence,
and hope is reawakened
          in the souls of those who thought faith had long gone.
Death and resurrection,
          brokenness and healing,
marginalisation and empowerment,
          sin and reconciliation,
          injustice and transformation:
All these shape the very pattern of the Christian life. [2]
And our experience of resurrection, healing, empowerment,
          reconciliation and transformation is a pure, unearned gift of God.
But it is also the ultimate test of,
          and the only hope for, a disciple’s faith.
What difference will the empty tomb
          make for us tomorrow, this week, this year?
Where will we face down our fears and find them to be groundless,
          where will we speak words of new life to those trapped in cycles of death,
what opportunities will we take to breathe new life into those we meet,
          knowing that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.
How, I wonder, will Mark’s story of the empty tomb
          find its completion in the narratives of our lives,
as we re-write our own stories
          based on life rather than death.
As Desmond Tutu puts it in his book, ‘An African Prayerbook’
Victory is Ours
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

[1] A quote from Ched Myers et al, Say to this Mountain, p. 206
[2] Say to this Mountain, 209

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