April 20th, a Sermon for Holy Saturday 2019

“Amazed at what had happened” (Luke 23.50-24.12)

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

“Amazed at what had happened”

This service begins in the darkness of the sealed tomb. The open, empty tomb still awaits us later, at the point where we will celebrate the resurrection. But what is striking is that for the Easter moment, Luke only presents us with the empty tomb. We don’t meet the resurrected Jesus until later in the story, on the road to Emmaus. And since this week we have been sitting with Luke’s passion narrative in real time, we will confine ourselves to the story as Luke tells it, allowing the tension to build as he unveils the story in its own time.

Luke, it seems, wants us to avoid skipping to the end of the story, hiding ourselves in the security of the happy ending without first going on the journey.
And the way he constructs the narrative seems to acknowledge that the journey is a hard one. Sitting with Jesus in the darkness is not what we want to do. Unlike John’s Gospel, where the figures around the Cross are portrayed as close enough for Jesus to speak to, in Luke’s Gospel we are told that the women disciples all “stood at distance, watching”. And that was still closer than the male disciples, who had deserted him as long ago as Gethsemane.

But it is important to sit in the darkness because this is what Christ has come for. If we too easily gloss over his suffering and death and leap too swiftly to the resurrection, we are likely to belittle the experience of human suffering. And if we do that, we are likely to miss the saving power of Jesus in our own lives.

And Christians have, rightly, been accused of belittling the sufferings of the world. We can fob people off with the comfortable assurance of life after death and fail to attend to their very real present needs, both spiritual and physical. We imagine that we can comfort the bereaved by telling them their loved one has ‘gone to a better place’ and that they will see them again, as though their feelings of grief are invalid and unworthy, perhaps even demonstrating a lack of faith.

These days when Jesus was dead matter because Jesus does not fob off the suffering of the world. He inhabits it. If we cannot sit with Jesus in his suffering and death, he sits with us in ours. In fact, this is precisely what he came for: to be a light in the darkness, to take our sins upon himself, to suffer for us and to die our death. Only if we first sit with Christ in the sealed tomb can we be amazed at what happens when we find the empty tomb. Only then can we recognise, as the prayer of baptism puts it, that “we are buried with him in his death” in order that we might share in his resurrection.
Only if we are buried with Christ in his death is there any hope of an end to suffering and death. Jesus, our good shepherd, came to walk with us through the valley of death so that we might fear no evil. He is always present with us, to share our lot and to transform our fate. Suffering is not a sign that God has forsaken us, but rather that he is with us with the power to save, the power of his Cross. When we are buried with Christ in his death, everything we fear, everything that could destroy us is dead. And we, to our amazement, can live.

The whole of the passion narrative that Luke has laid before us is a love unknown that subverts everything we think we know about the way the world works. And now, the fact that Jesus shares our tomb, and we his, mean that death itself turns out only to be death of our condemnation and guilt, but resurrection for him – and us.
Seen through the story of the Cross and the sealed tomb, the empty tomb becomes am experience of extraordinary power that leaves us ‘amazed at what has happened.’ The transformation is complete and utter.

For one thing, it is empowering to the weak. If we have not already got that message from the dying figure of Christ, we have it reinforced now: the very women whom we had last met standing at a distance watching him dying are the first witnesses of the empty tomb. Women in first century Judah were not considered reliable witnesses. They were not allowed to give evidence in court. Everyone knew that they were inclined to gossip and fanciful nonsense. No wonder the disciples thought their story was just ‘an idle tale’. Everyone knew that women were not to be taken seriously. Well Jesus took them seriously all right! One of the many unexpected twists in the plot is that Jesus chose, for his first witnesses, the very people whose evidence the world disregarded. The last have become first, the disregarded are the highly regarded, and the voiceless have been entrusted with the greatest message of all, the Gospel: “Christ is risen!”

And slowly, but surely over the next few chapters of Luke’s Gospel, that transformative effect takes hold of those who come to witness the resurrection, those who are amazed at what has happened. And by the end we are left in no doubt that we too can become witnesses of the resurrection and have our own experience of that transformative effect, that we too can be “amazed at what has happened.”
There are many forms of darkness which Jesus inhabits in these brief hours in the tomb. It is not just physical suffering and death. It is the forces of the world that are beyond our control, the world of Pilate and Herod and the Armed Man. It is the forces of our own minds, believing that the darkness is greater than the light and persuading us to abandon hope. And it is the self-condemnation that ultimately destroys us.
There are, of course, many forms of condemnation in this world. We see it played out in so many ways: on social media, in the school playground, in politics, even in Church. But there is none so crippling as the condemnation we speak over ourselves in the dread silence of our own hearts. Perhaps that is where the tomb of Jesus still lies dead within us, the last place we dare not sit or look into. But “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.”

How true that is. We don’t need God to tell us we are condemned. The world tells us that already – and we have already told ourselves that we are condemned. And we believe it. And in one sense we are right to believe it. We are not adequate. We cannot save ourselves or give ourselves life. We cannot even live up our own expectations. Reason and logic tell us we should abandon hope, that we are right to believe in our own condemnation.

But the empty tomb tells us that we shouldn’t believe it anymore. Rather, we should be amazed at what has happened and believe instead in the Son of God who saves the world, who has taken our condemnation, sin and death upon himself. The old condemned us, died and was buried in that sealed tomb. But we are reborn. Death has lost its sting. The grave has lost its victory, amazed at what has happened. For those who believe can be transformed, transformed from the last to the first, from the disregarded into the highly regarded, from the voiceless into those entrusted with the greatest message of all: “Christ is risen!”