Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it.
(Preached on Sunday, April 16, 2017)
Although best known as the author of Anne of the Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery was also a poet. The title poem in her volume of verse, The Watchman, takes Matthew’s account of the fear-stricken guards at Jesus’ tomb as its inspiration. In this poem, Maximus, one of the soldiers stationed at the tomb, returns to his beloved Claudia after that first Easter morning. He tells her:
I care no more for glory; all desire
For honor and for strife is gone from me,
All eagerness for war. I only care
To help and save bruised beings, and to give
Some comfort to the weak and suffering …
Scorn me not for this weakness; it will pass –
Surely ‘twill pass in time and I shall be
Maximus strong and valiant once again,
Forgetting that slain god. And yet … and yet …
He looked as one who could not be forgot!
When Matthew describes Easter beginning with an earthquake he is not talking about a little shake, rattle, and roll. The resurrection of Jesus is a shaking of our known world by a great, cataclysmic act of God. The whole world shook and the foundations of what is, of what can be, were rocked. Matthew tells us an angel descended from heaven, the earth shook and the massive stone sealing Jesus in the tomb of death was rolled back and the angel took a seat on it in triumph. The angel then told the women not to be afraid and turned to the soldiers guarding the tomb and told them to be very afraid. For everything had changed for both the women and the soldiers. All their old assumptions about how the world worked, who was on top and who was in charge and what was the ultimate result of life, all of it had changed.
The world is still grappling with this reality, trying to understand it and make sense of it. And it is hard. Because resurrection cannot be “explained” and because the world still looks like a Good Friday world, filled with torture and pain, tears and death. We live in a world in which what’s dead stays that way. We live in a world where what Caesar and his legions declare to be is the order of the day. It is a world where we drop more and more and larger and larger bombs because we are told that is the way to security. We live in a world where we are told that our economy cannot afford to pay every worker a living wage while prices go up and CEO salaries remain stratospheric. We live in a world that seems unable to provide basic health care for all. It is a world where people still lose their jobs for no fault of theirs; where people still contract cancer; where marriages still fail. The world is still in the tight death-grip of the “facts.” All that lives, dies.
That’s why Matthew shakes the ground! Because as true as all that is, it does not capture the WHOLE truth. The world around us believes that death and destruction have the final word. As a result that world runs on cynicism, despair, and resignation: the Titanic is going down, its every man, woman, and child for himself, grab what you can, get yours and enjoy it, because it’s all going to end in oblivion!
But Easter brings God into the story – which brings hope and power and love and meaning. Easter is not really about the resuscitation of a dead body or the immortality of the soul, some divine spark that endures after the end. Easter is all about God! That is why there is an earthquake, and an angel shining like lightning. Easter is an earthquake with doors shaken off tombs and dead people walking the streets, the stone rolled away by the ruckus and an impudent angel sitting on it. Now, a new world is offered to us, a new world shaken by the power of a God determined that death shall not be stronger than life.
On Good Friday, on the cross, the world did all it could to Jesus. The powers of this earth put Jesus to death on that cross. The powers of empire, the powers of domination and control, the powers of greed, the powers of fear and jealousy, the powers of falsehood and narrow-mindedness, the powers of manipulation and “how can we take advantage of the little guy and squeeze out more and more for us,” the powers of human sin; they all found a focus on the cross and they hung Jesus there to die. And they thought they had won and taken care of one more threat to the status quo.
They thought they had taken care of his radical social justice message. This Jesus who had proclaimed: “Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the poor, the gentle, and the merciful.” This Jesus who had stunned his listeners by asserting: “Love your enemies, pray for those who abuse you.” This Jesus who had relaxed in the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, and went on to say that many of them would stand in the presence of God long before those self-righteous people on display at synagogue and temple. This Jesus who told parables about a generous welcome home given to a prodigal son, and challenged us to a new way of loving others through his story about a Samaritan who helped a Jew mugged and left beaten by the side of the road. This Jesus who insisted that we cannot worship both God and money, and who declared that the truly great people are those who put themselves last. Crucifixion was the inevitable, predictable result of saying the things Jesus said, and doing the things Jesus did. This is what the world always does to people who threaten the status quo of the world.
But at Easter God did all God could to the world. And the earth shook. On Easter God inserted a new fact. God took the cruel cross and made it the means of triumph. God took the worst the world could do – all our death-dealing doings – and led them out toward life. And the earth shook. A new world is thereby offered to us. Jesus came back to forgive the very disciples who had forsaken him. The world is about forgiveness, as it turns out, not vengeance. And the earth shook. Jesus greets the women on the way from the tomb and they grasp his feet and they can see the nail prints. The world is about life, as it turns out, not death. And the earth shook.
On Easter God raised up Jesus of Nazareth – God did it. Jesus did not raise himself, he was raised. God said a momentous YES to Jesus, to this obscure Galilean prophet, and validated everything Jesus was and did in his life and ministry and death. If he had just died on the cross, we could look at his life as a beautiful tragedy. Because he has been raised, we can look at every aspect of his life as vindicated in a way no other life has ever been. God is at work, death is defeated, and everything Jesus said and did is true.
Of course, none of this is easy. To say God is at work, even when others don’t see it, even when you’re not sure you see it, is no easy matter. The wonderful writer, Mary Gordon, has written: “For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story.” That is why the women ran from the tomb with a mixture of fear and joy. Because the earth had shaken under their feet and perhaps … perhaps the world was different. And lo, and behold, as they went, they met Jesus. But they could not hold onto him, for he sent them on with the message that they and all his followers should go to Galilee, where they will see him again.
Everyone knows the Hallelujah Chorus. It is perhaps the most familiar and popular piece of Christian choral music of all time. But there is another chorus from Handel’s Messiah that is much less famous and much less satisfying. In fact, it is actually a frustrating chorus for listeners. It is titled And With His Stripes We Are Healed. What makes this chorus frustrating is that the end of it doesn’t sound like the end. At the end, you feel like the music is pushing you on, you feel like you should keep going, but the chorus is over. The reason is that it ends on a dominant chord. We are conditioned to music that has a dominant chord as its next-to-last-chord, and a tonic chord as its last chord, so we expect the dominant chord to lead us into a tonic chord. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t sound right or feel right. It feels like we should keep going. A tonic chord says, “The end.” A dominant chord pushes us on into a next step.
That’s what Easter is. It is the beginning, not the end. It is a dominant chord, not a tonic chord. It pushes us on into the new life that is ours right now, giving us power for the living of these days and the promise for all of our tomorrows.
You don’t have to see God at work in order for God to be at work. You don’t have to leave a tomb convinced that Jesus is raised in order for Jesus to be raised. You don’t even have to leave church on Easter Day feeling like a new person in order for God to be, right now, making you into someone new. But the truth is: Jesus is risen! God has won! Death is defeated! And Love, mercy, grace, acceptance, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword or a gun. The world is different. The Easter Earthquake has changed it all!