Empty Tombs | Sermon Archives

Empty Tombs



John 5:19-30, 20:1-18, and 2 Corinthians 1:1-11
© Stacey Steck

So, we’ve heard all about the empty tomb. It’s probably the most well-known story in the world. Anybody who knows anything about Christianity, whether they believe it or not, knows about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every Christian tradition, no matter what other differences they may have with any other, affirms the empty tomb. Every Easter morning, we celebrate that empty tomb once again, because it is the central fact of our faith, without which all the rest makes a lot less sense. Sure, Jesus is still worth following even without being raised from the dead, but his resurrection is the sign that death, our very worst enemy, has been defeated, and that gives us our ultimate hope. And that sign of hope is declared in the starkest terms possible by the image of the empty tomb.

And yet, if we are not careful, we run the risk of turning that sign of hope into nothing more than a sign by the side of the road, a kind of historical highway, like the one we have out on 150 that commemorates Samuel McCorkle. Can’t you just see it in engraved in bronze: “Here lay Jesus the Christ, King of the Jews. But he is not here anymore. He is risen.” And people would pull over and have their picture taken with it, maybe put it on Facebook or in a scrapbook sometime, and eat their picnic lunch next to it before moving on to the next curiosity on down the road. Yes, the resurrection was a historical event, but it must be more than a footnote, or even just a chapter of history. It must be the whole story. Perhaps the blame should be placed on us preachers who only read the story of the empty tomb on Easter morning instead of other times of the year too. We may make reference to it during the rest of the year, but we don’t, like Mary, stand before it with our jaws dropped, our eyes wide open, and tears streaming down our faces nearly often enough. And so the memory of the empty tomb retreats further into the annals of history. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a shrine to fixate on either. The empty tomb can’t be the sole object of our religious devotion, but it does deserve to be a sign we carry with us rather than one we simply pass by once a year.

So today, to avoid turning the event of Jesus’ resurrection over to the Holy Land Department of Transportation, let me say something about the empty tomb that might make it stick with you between Eastertides. For that job, I will call upon the Gospel of John, and Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, because each, in their own way, speaks to the empty tomb in additional categories beyond simply history. Before we get to that, however, let’s recall what tombs are for in the first place. The plain fact is that tombs are for holding dead bodies until they decompose into dust. It’s not a pleasant thought, of course, but it is the fate of each one of us. We don’t really do tombs anymore because they take up a lot of real estate, at least the way they are described in the Bible, so maybe the word grave would be a better one to use on Easter, since that’s what we call our burial spaces today. But whether we call them tombs or graves, they are filled with nothing more than death and decomposition, worms and dirt, and maybe some memories and mementos tossed in there too. Graves are an eruption, an interruption, of our lives and of the soil. The best guess anyone has about the origin of the word tomb, is that it goes back to an old Greek word for swell, as in the earth swells up beneath the dead, and creates a mound. And that’s not the way the landscape should look. We can make our graveyards look lovely with trees and paths and flowers, but that is only putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. The hard truth is that tombs are about death.

But cemeteries aren’t the only place we find tombs, are they? There are tombs all around us, tombs inside of us, tombs everywhere full of the same darkness and decay, despair and disappointment as the ones that hold the bodies of the dead. These other tombs hold our spirits, or our dreams, or our hopes. These are the tombs that leave us as the walking dead, or the walking wounded, or as people who have “one foot in the grave,” as the old saying goes. You may have your own stories about being entombed, but let me tell you what one person wrote about such a tomb: “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead.” Yes, those words were written by the Apostle Paul from inside his tomb, from that place of hopelessness created by whatever circumstances led him into his distress. There is no record of just what Paul and his companions were facing that was so dire, but it was clear to him that there was no way out that didn’t involve divine intervention. No amount of their own effort would matter. Sounds like not even MacGyver or the A-Team could have come out alive. You read such a description and it brings to mind people whose cars have rolled down a cliff, or who have been forced to their roofs by the raging waters of a flood. If someone doesn’t come along to save them, they’ll be done for. They have no way to dig their way out of their tombs in which they have been buried alive. Someone else will have to be their salvation, if there is any at all.

Of course, Paul is writing his account after the fact of his distress. He has come out of it alive, and he comes out of it praising “the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” He wants everyone to know that he has been rescued, and expects to be rescued by God again and again. He wants people to know that the stone has been rolled away, not only from Christ’s tomb, but from his tomb as well and that it is now empty. He was as good as dead, but now he is alive, and haven’t we all felt that from time to time, in one way or another. Haven’t we all felt trapped? Haven’t we all felt helpless. Haven’t we all felt hopeless from time to time. You see, there are all kinds of tombs which can hold us. The tomb of grief. The tomb of addiction. The tomb of loneliness, the tomb of chronic pain, the tomb of poverty, the tomb of racial injustice, the tomb of domestic violence, the tomb of depression, the tomb of anxiety, the tomb of broken heartedness. And these are tombs with stones too heavy for us to move by ourselves, and the only way we will get out is by divine intervention, but don’t you know that God is in the divine intervention business? God has been opening tombs like these since the beginning. Cain killed Abel and thought his life would be forfeit, but God left him with a mark that would keep him safe as he wandered the earth. Joseph was left for dead in a pit that might as well have been a tomb, until he was rescued so that God’s plans could proceed. The prophet Jeremiah was thrown into the bottom of a well, another place very much like a real tomb, and yet he was hauled out so that he could continue to proclaim God’s word. The man named Legion, named so because he had so many demons inside of him and who literally lived among the tombs of his town, was found in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus while the demons drowned in their new hosts the pigs. And don’t forget about Lazarus, the man who was literally dead, and literally buried in a tomb, who came out on Jesus’ order. Yes, God is in the resurrection business, and that goes for all of our tombs as well, and not just the famous people from the Bible. It’s true that all those people in the Bible whom God saved went on to die later. But that doesn’t change the fact that they left their tombs to live before they died.

And so we find our first clue as to how to make the empty tomb not just a long ago event, but a characteristic of God in our own time. What does Paul say? “He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again.” We think that God did it once, but God has been doing it all along, and God will continue to do it. What good is Christ raised from the dead if we too are not raised from the dead? Didn’t God do it all for us? And so we must believe that God desires for us the same life Jesus enjoyed after he was raised, a life spent in community with others, a life opening other tombs, a life that looks like the shalom God intended for us from the very beginning. Yes, tombs are still being opened.

And yet, as I mentioned before, though we live again released from our tombs, we will die again. Our bodies wear out; they are perishable. But God seems to have a solution for that too, one that may take a little longer, but one which comes with a promise. Earlier in the Gospel of John, as Jesus is trying to reveal the truth about the kingdom of God, he makes one of his only references to the general resurrection that some of his Jewish compatriots already believed in. “Do not be astonished at this,” he says, “for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Of course, it was statements like this that got Jesus into trouble with the authorities, but it wasn’t so much on the basis of the subject matter itself, but more about who was making the claim. The Pharisees were believers in the resurrection from the dead, but they just weren’t believers in the idea that any old carpenter’s son could make it happen. But here Jesus is making the claim that not only will it certainly happen, but that it will happen soon, and that he will be the one to make it happen. Now, the Pharisees believed that when God was good and ready, and who knew when that would be, the righteous dead would be raised from their graves as a sort of compensation for the persecution they had endured. If you had been faithful and righteous and suffered because of that perseverance, you would be rewarded by God, that’s how they thought about redemption. What is noteworthy about this conversation this morning, as we contemplate the empty tomb again on Easter morning, is the promise that tombs of every kind will be opened when the right time comes, including our real tombs, the ones even God does not rescue us from in the span of our lives. We may indeed get rescued from all kinds of things while we are still alive, but we also get rescued from death, even if the date of the unsealing of our earthly tombs in uncertain. We have something guaranteed to look forward to, a future with God, the down payment for which, the precedent for which, is Jesus’ own resurrection, he who had been faithful, and he who had been righteous, and he who had suffered because of his perseverance. God delivered on the pledge that even the Pharisees believed in, and God will do that for us too, we who hear the voice of the Son of God.

The empty tomb happened a long time ago. But it also happened last year, last month, last week, and maybe even this morning too. And it’s going to happen again and again, until that time when it happens for the final time when we time is fulfilled. It happened for Jesus and it happened for you, didn’t it? How could you be here, how could you believe in God if it hadn’t already happened for you at least once? Yes, God has already opened your tomb to the life we find in Christ, the life of grace and peace, the life of consolation from affliction, the life of generosity, the life of mercy, the life of compassion, the life of knowing that God is looking out for us, even when we don’t deserve it, and even when we can’t imagine a way forward. Yes, the empty tomb is a sign of hope, but it is a living sign, a sign you carry around with you in the resurrection you have already received, the next one you can expect, and the final one to come in the Kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God for empty tombs of all kinds. Amen.