Easter: Earth-Shaking and Earth-Shattering

Easter: Earth-Shaking and Earth-Shattering

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“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…”

Even though we here in Austin live along the Balcones Fault Line, detectable earthquakes are pretty much a rarity in this part of Texas. Other parts of the world are not so fortunate. You probably remember the earthquake near Japan a few years ago. Its magnitude was over 9 on the Richter scale, and it spawned a monstrous tsunami and near-catastrophic destruction to a nuclear power plant.

The damage and loss of life that often occur in earthquakes remind us of the world-shattering, life-changing effects of such a seismic event. And it also causes us to consider the fact that St. Matthew—in his gospel alone—records not just one, but two earthquakes related to the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first is described in chapter 27. There Matthew writes, upon Jesus’ death, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’”

The second earthquake is described for us in less dramatic fashion in our lesson for today, as Matthew says simply, “and suddenly, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone…”

It is clear that in both the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has done something that will shake up the world, change the course of history, and turn our lives inside out. How can one describe Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from death, after all, if not as “earth-shaking”? And why? First of all, because no one expects God to become a human being! And they certainly don’t expect God to suffer—much less die—for the sins of those He created. Most radically of all, the dead don’t come back to life! Because apart from Jesus, no one has ever been resurrected!

Yes, there have been a few taken directly to heaven by God without experiencing the usual death—Enoch and Elijah, for example. And there were several people raised to life by Jesus during His ministry to demonstrate His compassion and divine power—such as the widow’s son at Nain, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus. But those individuals all died again, later on.

We also have those in our own day who are brought back to life for a time, as doctors and nurses lube up the paddles, place them on a body, shout “Clear!” and shock life back into a person whose heart has stopped. But this is not a resurrection—only a temporary restoration. These persons will die again. Not so for Jesus. His resurrection was a rebirth unto eternal life, such that He will never die again, and will live forever.

This is what Jesus promises to you and me, who have been baptized into His death and given the gift of faith! That, trusting in His redeeming death for our sins, after our own deaths, we will be raised, to live with Him, eternally! This is incredibly earth-shaking, and maybe even earth-shattering, because it is so contrary to our experience of life and death, where we do not see that yet happening to others. Yet isn’t that what faith entails, trusting things not yet apparent, not yet realized?

Think of how faith and trust work in your relationships with others. When they follow a pattern of being reliable, keeping their commitments to you—and you to them—a level of trust develops. We begin to have confidence that we can count on them to do what they have promised. Our faith in them grows, until we trust them with more and more significant things—driving a car, caring for your children, perhaps even risking your heart in marriage.

But when that trust is breached, when promises and commitments are not kept, when responsibilities given are not fulfilled, the relationship is damaged. If it’s a rare occurrence, or if the breach is not too severe, or if the issue is not highly significant, the damage may be minor. But if violations happen often, are on something very important, or result in some catastrophic outcome, the relationship may be irreparably harmed.

God has never violated or broken the promises He has revealed to us in His scriptures through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles. He has fulfilled the prophecies, kept His Word, and continues to sustain us each and every day. You would think with a track record such as that, more people would come to faith and remain in faith. Accepting the forgiveness offered in Christ’s atoning crucifixion and the eternal life promised in His resurrection shouldn’t be so hard to accept.

But it is, and not just because it goes against what we see daily. In part, it’s also because accepting those promises means we’re committed to a relationship with God, and that comes with certain obligations, like admitting our own faults, accepting our place in humility, and surrendering our autonomy to His greater authority.

Martin Luther wrote, “this article of the resurrection of our Lord, has suffered and still suffers the most opposition and is the most difficult to believe…because nothing so contradicts experience as this does. For our eyes see that all the world is swept away by death and dies. Emperors and kings, high and low, young and old, and in a word, all the children of men, one after the other, are laid in the grave and buried.”

Luther continues: “Hence it is difficult to believe that man, who dies and perishes, is to live again—that his body, reduced to dust and ashes in fire, water and soil, are to be gathered again—and that his soul is again to live in the same body in which it lived before, and that he is to have the same eyes, ears, hands and feet, except that the body, together with its members, is to have a different manner of existence. That,” says Dr. Luther, “is difficult to believe.” (What Luther Says; A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, Concordia: St. Louis, 1959, p. 1217)

We might say it is not just difficult to believe in the resurrection, but nearly impossible to believe—in Jesus’ resurrection; in our loved ones’; or in ours! Such a concept; such an outrageous promise—the possibility that life can continue beyond death—shakes and shatters our existence!

Yet, that is the message of the Scriptures, and the message of the angel to those first witnesses at the tomb. He calls Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, saying, “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.’” And the angel ends by saying, “This is my message for you.”

Matthew tells us they went “quickly, with fear and great joy,” and ran to tell the disciples. A strange combination of emotions, wouldn’t you say? The women went quickly, as the angel commanded, but with fear, and great joy. How do you go with fear, but also with great joy?

They go joyfully, in spite of their fear, because their world had been turned upside down, and they believed, while still struggling with belief. Jesus had been dead, but now the angel says He’s alive?!

Thank God that Jesus then met them Himself, and bid them not be afraid, for that must’ve helped them to come to grips with the reality of His resurrection. Eventually, they went and told the disciples that Jesus had been raised.

Though our lives are still, to this day, shaken by Jesus’ death and resurrection; though we and all humanity continues to wrestle with the fact of resurrection, Jesus comes to us today, and bids us, “Do not be afraid—but go, and tell others that I am alive, and they will see me!” Most of us haven’t bargained for that, even on Easter Day. We get up on Easter morning, most of us—but not all—excited to go witness such a fine church festival. There’s no better day in the church year, than Easter! No wonder so many folks show up on Easter. If you’re only going to go one Sunday a year, surely it’s got to be Easter! There’s a great procession, and all the beautiful lilies, and brass and choir, and hand-bells, and an Easter Egg hunt, and a delicious breakfast—what’s not to like about Easter?

Well, we don’t like the part about being reminded of our sinfulness, our selfishness, and our greed. We don’t like hearing about our ongoing rebellion against faithful participation in worship and in study of the Bible. We don’t want to be challenged about our lack of financial support of the church, because we think religion is a pay-as-you-go proposition, and the fact is, we don’t often go, so we don’t often pay—or pay much, or help much.

We particularly want to avoid the tough news about just how rotten we are, how much we need regular confession and absolution, need a reminder of our connection to Christ’s death in our baptism, need the preaching of Law and Gospel, and need to receive the body and blood of Jesus for our faith, forgiveness, and hope. We live in the illusion that we can be free-agent Christians; flying solo, beholden to no one, not even God. We delude ourselves into thinking it’s somehow possible to be a Christian apart from gathering together with other Christians.

And we certainly don’t want the preacher telling us to go, and tell others! That would mean we’d have to interact with other people about our faith. We’d have to risk embarrassment, criticism, perhaps even sanction. Why lay that burden on us, on Easter Sunday, Pastor? Why? Because God gives us that task. The Scriptures tell us that the expected response to Jesus’ crucifixion and miraculous resurrection is to go and tell others! First the angel of the Lord says “Go and tell…”, and then Jesus Himself says, “Go and tell…” And so, preachers who strive to preach God’s Word, instead of telling their hearers how wonderful their daily life will be if they just think and work positively enough at it, are repeating the Lord’s message. All who have heard and all who have witnessed Jesus risen from death are to go, and spread the good news, that Jesus Christ is risen today!

St. Peter is one of the first to affirm that, as he preaches a sermon to Gentiles, telling them, “we are witnesses to all that Jesus did both in Judea and in Jerusalem; they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…and He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one…” Similarly, this Easter Sunday, we are being called to be witnesses, as well. You and I are being called to not leave church the same as we came in.

We are here to be changed, by the presence of our risen Lord and Savior. Changed to live new lives, raised with Christ to set our minds not on earthly things, but on the things of the kingdom of God. Not the least of these is living in the power of the resurrection, being new beings, in Christ. We are to live, not hesitantly, or fearfully, or living less than God has created us to be—but living boldly, and courageously. We are to live Christ-like lives; lives full of the hope that is in us, because Jesus lives.

And yes, we are to be ready to be His witnesses, to Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth. Going, telling, and reminding others that Jesus, who was crucified, dead and buried, is alive. We have been raised with Him to live new lives, here and now, in this moment, today!

How does this happen? How are we transformed? How can we humble, shy Lutherans ever hope to be like our Ethiopian brothers and sisters, returning home from all-day worship services on fire for telling others in our villages that life can be new, in Jesus Christ?

Going back to those earthquakes in Japan, remember the worry that those affected nuclear power plants might have their nuclear cores exposed, and radiation would spread throughout the land? That would have been a horrible outcome, but it’s a fitting image of how the earthquake that is the death and resurrection of Jesus can break through our hard external shell.

The death and resurrection of Jesus ought to release the power that’s contained in our inner core, so that radiating out from us is not harmful radiation, but the glowing good news that Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Jesus’ risen presence abides in us, in all who have been baptized into His death and resurrection; in each of us who have received the gift of His presence in Word and Sacrament. His powerful presence is in the core of our being. Yet it is often held back and held in by our exterior being—our fear, our embarrassment, our hesitation to let His presence change our lives, and change us, so that we go and share Him with others!

The after-shocks of His death and resurrection continue to shake us, though, and pound on our hard-external shell. The earth still quakes beneath us, as we run to the tomb this Easter Sunday, and fall down before the Risen Jesus, and worship Him.

Changed by His presence, transformed by His resurrection, and shaken to the core of our being by the living Jesus—the power of Christ in us will leak out. It will lead us to spread the good news. We will be His witnesses; we will go and tell others that Jesus has been raised from the dead—that all can see and believe in Him, all can receive forgiveness of sins through His name, all can be raised with Him who is Lord of life and death!

In the very next verses of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends us forth, giving the whole Church its mission statement: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the close of the age!” The Risen Lord is with you! The Risen Lord is in you! Go, therefore, in His peace, His love, His power, and His name.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!