Preached on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021 at United Reformed Church of Clifton
In our Scripture lesson this morning, we meet a group of women who have come to care for Jesus’ body. There are at least 5 or 6 of them, although Luke only names three. As women always do, they have gathered in support of one another as they give tender care, one last time, to Jesus, whom they have come to love and follow.
Who are these women? Luke tells us their names are Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James. Interestingly they are those who have been with Jesus from the beginning. Luke first introduces us to them towards the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 8:1-3.
“The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”
Now I want you to notice several things about these women. First, they were just as much Jesus’ disciples as the 12 apostles. Like the 12, they had been with him from the beginning. They had seen him heal and listened to him preach. They were very familiar with all of his words and teachings.
Second, they were some of those whom Jesus had healed. Luke tells that Jesus had cured Mary Magdalene of seven demons. And she wasn’t the only one; some the other women had experienced also his healing touch.
Third, these women made it their job to take care of Jesus and his disciples. They made sure that they had food, clothing and lodging as they travelled around the countryside. To do this they had to be wealthy. Indeed, Joanna was married Chuza, King Herod’s steward. To give a modern example, Chuza held a position analogous to that of Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, Like Ron Klain, Chuza managed the daily details of Herod’s household. As such he would have been rich and powerful, and Joanna, who undoubtedly came from a proud and wealthy family, would have had the wherewithal and opportunity to provide financial support to Jesus.
Fourth, these women stayed with Jesus even when others abandoned him. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and the 11 with the exception of John abandoned him at his crucifixion. These women however followed Jesus all the way to the end of his life. from the moment he was arrested until the moment that his body was laid in the tomb. They stood at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying. They were also present when Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus in the tomb and made plans to return in two days to take care of Jesus’ body (See Luke 23:55-56) They were faithful to Jesus when everyone else failed him. Eaton S. Barret, describes their devotion in a wonderful poem about Mary Magdalene:
It was not she who with traitorous kiss her Master stung,
Not she who denied Him with unfaithful tongue.
She, when Apostles fled, could dangers brave,
Last at the Cross, and earliest at the grave.
(Eaton S. Barrett, “Woman”, published 1810)
It was this devotion that brought the women to the tomb at early dawn. As they had served Jesus in life so they wanted to serve him one more time in death.
Interestingly the phrase “early dawn” literally means “deep dawn.” The word for deep is βαθέως which is where we get our word “bathysphere” a diving vessel used to probe the depths of the sea. Deep dawn has a poetic feel to it, suggesting there is something mysterious about the dawn. At deep dawn you can hear the birds singing, and smell the freshness of the day but you can’t see very far for the sky is still leaden and the sun has yet to appear. Deep dawn is a transitional period, neither night nor day. That is where we find these women, caught between the eons of BC, before Christ, and AD, the year of our Lord. What they are about to experience will change their lives and the very history of the world.
When they get to the tomb, the find the stone rolled away and the body gone. Can you imagine how they felt? Luke says they were perplexed. “Did we come to the right tomb? Has someone stolen Jesus; body in order to abuse it and degrade it?” That perplexity soon gives way to terror when two men in dazzling clothes appear to them. Craig Koester comments,
“That first Easter morning is not all alleulias and joys. It includes perplexity (v 4); terror (v5), reminiscence (v 8), disbelief (v 11) “and amazement (v 12).” (Working Preacher NL Podcast 449: Resurrection, April 4, 2021)
And that’s good news for us. You may have come here this morning filled with doubts. You may have come only to fulfill a family obligation or honor a tradition. But that’s okay. The first Easter people didn’t get it either. And yet something happened to them. And who knows? Maybe something will happen to you. Maybe you will begin to doubt your doubts and open yourself to another possibility. Or maybe not and even that is okay. You’re still welcome here.
In response to the women’s perplexity and terror the angels asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
At first glance this seems like a pretty inane question. I can imagine the women replying: “Well, we are in a graveyard after all. Duh! Jesus is dead. We’re not looking for the living among the dead. We’re looking for the dead among the dead, because the one fact we know is that death is real.” They had no reason to believe that Jesus was alive. They were just trying to get through a difficult time, the best way they knew how.
Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, comments,
We know what to do with grief and despair. We have a place for it. We have rituals that surround it…
[That is why the women were there that morning. They were practicing the healing rituals of grief, doing what women have always done, lovingly caring for each other as they cared for the body of their loved one.
We know what to do with grief and despair.] Hope, however, is much harder to come by.
The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve. They wanted to be left alone in despair. But instead there were given a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and abundant love. (NY Times, April 2, 2021, Opinion | The Unsettling Power of Easter – The New York Times (nytimes.com))
What brought them from despair to hope was the power of reminiscence. The angel continued speaking to the women, “Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee.”
Now these women had many things they could have remembered. Mary Magdalene could remember the moment that Jesus restored her to sanity. Joanna had been there when he fed the 5,000. They even could remember the time a little over week ago that when Jesus brought Lazarus from the dead. But the angel does not tell them to remember miracles as if that is the answer to their perplexity. The angel tells him to remember what Jesus said. Specifically, they are to remember what Jesus said about his own death and resurrection. Three times in the gospel of Luke Jesus had predicted that he would be handed over to sinners and be crucified, an on the third day rise again and the angel repeats these word to the women now.
When we are faced with perplexing situations we don’t need new experiences to figure it out; we need old words. Have you ever had a time when you couldn’t figure something out? Perhaps a strained relationship with a friend or a family member? But then you remember something they said, something that didn’t make any sense at the time but now proves to be the key you have been searching for all along. At that moment something clicks and suddenly it all makes sense. That’s what’s happening here.
These women had spent the last two days puzzling over what went wrong. It seemed that the three years following and caring for Jesus had been a waste. They had bet their lives on a dream that would never come true. It all seemed so senseless and they couldn’t figure it out.
But then they remembered the words of Jesus and something clicked. “Oh, that’s what he was trying to tell us. That’s why kept quoting strange scriptural prophesies about a suffering Messiah. These last three days had not been the unraveling of God’s plan, but the fulfillment. Jesus was meant to die, but he was also meant to be resurrected. Oh now we get it.“
And that is how it is with us. There comes a time when we realize the enormity of God’s plan in Jesus. It ended not death but in resurrection, not in defeat but victory. As the Apostle Paul exclaimed. “Death has been swallowed up in victory! Oh death, where is thy victory! O grave, where is thy sting!” they had a new message of hope to bring. And so they returned to the 12 and shared with them the hope they had received. This Easter we are called to join them in their mission.
Let me close, by once again quoting Esau McCaulley.
The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women (and us) to return to the same world that crucified Jesus and to share with the world that gift of hope.
As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal will be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. The source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. With that healing we can take up the work that Jesus gave us to do—showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. With that we healing we can take up the ever-present offer to begin again in the power of the resurrection. (slightly altered from McCaulley, op cit.)