The Sermon for Easter
John 20:1–18
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Hoopeston, IL
April 20, 2014; Rev. James T. Batchelor

Christ has risen!  He has risen indeed!  Alleluia!

From an earthly point of view, that first Easter seemed like a day of confusion.  From God’s point of view, everything proceeded according to plan.

Many commentators have complained that it is hard, if not impossible to harmonize the Gospel accounts of the first Easter.  Some people come and meet one angel.  Other people show up and see two angels.  Some of the women who came to the tomb had servants.  Some of the accounts give the names of the servants, some don’t.  In today’s Gospel, Mary met Jesus Himself.  It’s confusion at Jesus’ tomb.  But then, what do you expect when people show up to finish caring for a dead body and it isn’t there?  You expect confusion.

What seems like confusion to the human mind is actually God’s finely tuned plan at work.  As we look through the Bible, we see evidence of God’s perfect timing over and over again.  As people who live in the 21st Century we can look back on the events of history and see God at work in the history of the world.  We can look back into history and see the pattern.  Most of the time, the people who lived through that history didn’t have the opportunity to see the big picture.  It seemed like confusion to them.  In fact, it was God at work.

From the point of view of the people involved, the confusion of Easter began on the evening before Good Friday.  The people who followed Jesus were not able to deal with His constant predictions of suffering, death, and resurrection.  These people believed that Jesus was their savior.  He was also their friend and teacher.  They simply could not wrap their minds around the idea that His death was the very way that He would save them.  So, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, they could not see the plan.  It looked like confusion to them.  In fact, it was God’s finely tuned plan.

The appearance of confusion deepened as Jesus hung on the cross.  How could this happen?  Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah.  How can Jesus be the Messiah while He is hanging up there on the cross?  The truth is that it is Jesus hanging there on the cross that makes Him the Messiah.  Hanging on the cross … earning forgiveness for the sins of the world … that is what the Messiah came to do.  His followers simply didn’t understand that yet.

Then there was the timing of His death.  It was relatively late in the day.  By the time you can obtain an audience with Pilate in order to get permission to take the body off the cross, the Sabbath was almost upon them.  When the Sabbath came, there could be no work … not even the work of placing a body into a tomb.  There was the confusion of a hasty burial in a nearby tomb.  Do the best you can before the sun sets.  We’ll come back and complete the burial when the Sabbath is over.

The seeming confusion of the hasty burial guaranteed that lots of people would be coming and going from the tomb when the Sabbath was over.  These people thought they were coming to finish preparing the body of their friend for burial.  Instead, they ended up becoming witnesses of the empty tomb.  As we look back on the history of these events, we can see that the apparent confusion of the hasty burial was actually God’s finely tuned plan to provide witnesses to the empty tomb.

All four Gospel accounts tell us that Mary Magdalene was among the first to arrive at the empty tomb.  Some of the accounts tell us that Mary had friends with her.  The Holy Spirit inspired John to focus on Mary’s experience at the empty tomb.  As we follow Mary through that first Easter, we see very natural reactions to a supernatural event.

Mary arrived at the tomb while the night was still dark.  Given that this is a dry climate and the celebration of Passover always comes on a full moon, Mary could probably see fairly well as she came to the tomb even in the dark before sunrise.  What she saw was not what she expected.  The stone no longer covered the entrance to the tomb and there was no body in the tomb.  Had someone stolen the body?  Maybe the owner of the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea, had already decided to move the body to a better place.  Who knew?  The last thing Mary expected was that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Given that Mary did not even consider the possibility that Jesus was alive, she did the very natural thing.  She looked for help.  She found Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

Peter and John ran to the tomb.  John was in better shape because he was younger so he got to the tomb first.  Peter arrived while John was trying to decide whether it was a good idea to enter the tomb.  Peter, true to his nature went charging right into the tomb.  John followed.  It was then that they noticed something that added to the confusion.  The body was gone, but the burial clothes were still there.  Who in their right mind takes a dead body out of its clothes before moving it?  It just doesn’t make sense.  From an earthly point of view, things just keep getting weirder and weirder.

Of course, from God’s point of view, things are proceeding according to plan.  The clothes are there without the body because Jesus came back to life and passed through the clothes just as He passed through the walls of the tomb.  Now that Jesus Christ has risen, He is in the state of exaltation … a state where barriers mean nothing to Him.  It makes perfect sense that His clothes are laying neatly folded in the tomb.  He simply passed through them and left them behind when He rose.

The folded clothes were the Gospel to the Apostle John.  The Holy Spirit used them to establish faith.  John saw the clothes.  He remembered all those times when Jesus told him and the other disciples that He would rise on the third day.  Things clicked.  The confusion left.  Today’s Gospel says, “He saw and believed.”  Although Peter didn’t quite believe yet, both Peter and John realized that there was nothing they could do at the empty tomb.  There was really nothing for them to do except go back home in wonder.

Apparently Mary had returned to the tomb with Peter and John.  After they left, she decided to take one last look at the empty space, but when she looked there were angels.  As she saw them through her tears, they asked why she cried.  She told them and then she turned to leave.  As she looked up she saw Jesus, but her tears blurred her vision so that she did not know who He was.  But then He called her name.  At this Mary collapsed in joy.  The accounts in the other Gospels tell us that she fell to the ground and put Jesus’ feet in a hammer lock.  That may be the reason Jesus told her not to cling to Him.

The other Gospels tell us that Mary brought some friends back with her when she came back with Peter and John.  In the Gospel according to Matthew, we read, [Matthew 28:9] “They came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.”  Jesus then told Mary and the other women to share the joy.  “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

The confusion was gone for Mary and the others.  Now she understood that Jesus has risen and He is alive forever more.

The resurrection liberates us from our confusion as well.  All of us were born into the confusion of sin.  We all deserve to spend our eternity suffering in the confusion of hell.  The resurrection means that the work that Jesus Christ did for you on the cross is valid.  Just before Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished!”  The resurrection means that this is a statement of triumph.  Your salvation is finished in the risen Lord.  His promise to you is sure and certain.  Everything that He promised to give to you will come true.

If Christ had not risen, then the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross would be meaningless.  We would still be in our sins.  The confusion of sin would reign.  We would be looking forward to an eternity of punishment.

But Christ has risen.  Our salvation is sure.  We are children of God.  Our eternity is with Christ.

When the end of this age comes, God will remove all evil to hell.  He will create a new heaven and a new earth.  At that time He will raise us just as Jesus rose.  He will reunite our bodies with our souls.  He will clothe us in immortality.  We shall all know the joy that Mary shared as she fell to the ground and wrapped her arms around the feet of her risen savior.  Amen.

Christ has risen!  He has risen indeed!  Alleluia!