Sunday Night Worship – Easter 2008

“What Do You Do with an Empty Tomb?”

John 20: 1-18

My friend Mike has very strong beliefs. He’s a lawyer who often works pro bono cases; he became a vegetarian even when he still wanted to eat meat, because he decided it was the right thing to do; he is active in his church, organizing Christmas plays and music and children’s Sunday school. In short, he is a person of conviction.

One of Mike’s most passionately-held convictions is this: At the movie theater, after the film, people should not be allowed to talk until they get to their cars.

This one may be right up there with vegetarianism. He absolutely abhors being subjected to the ill-considered, hasty comments of fellow moviegoers who begin jabbering before the credits roll and who prattle on all the way to the lobby. He feels that the only proper response to art – to cinematic revelation – is silence.

Today is a day for silence. It may be hard to hear it, to notice it, to observe it. But it’s true. Easter is all about the grand silence of the empty tomb, the life-transforming and life-giving emptiness of the tomb.

You may not have noticed this in church this morning. We tend to have “issues” with emptiness and with silence. We’d rather rush to restore the altar – swipe down the Good Friday black and swoop in with a truckload of lilies. No time or space for emptiness today!

I got an Easter card in the mail from a friend of mine one recent Easter, and it was sweet and thoughtful and cheery – and completely overdone. It was actually hard to pick out the cross in the picture on the front, festooned as it was in blooms and vines. If I were from another culture or another religion, I might gather from this card that Easter is a celebration of blooms. I might not have even noticed the cross.

Maybe there is something about silence, about that glorious emptiness, that feels too close to death for us. Maybe that’s especially so on Easter, when we celebrate the fact that death has lost its sting. We know it but we’re still trying to believe it – and lilies can seem so much more lively than an empty and silent tomb.

A former student once confided in me that he doesn’t particularly like being in church on Easter morning, that it feels too much like the tomb to him. He pointed out that when the resurrected Jesus starts appearing to people, it is outside – in the garden, fishing on the beach, walking on the road. Because of this, he craves worshipping outside. Outside feels more like Easter. (And there are 20 early rising Humpback hikers and campers who might agree with this.)

Maybe we’re onto something. After all, when the women arrived there that morning, Jesus was not sitting in the tomb, waiting to yell “surprise.” Why do you look for the living among the dead? The resurrected Jesus meets people not in the tomb but out in the world, in their lives – just as Jesus did before the crucifixion. And yet, Mary, the women, and several disciples have to go to the tomb before they can meet Christ anywhere else.

And here we are Easter morning (and night), standing at the gaping, silent mouth of the empty tomb. Faithful, fearful, and with a serious addiction to lilies.

One biblical commentary wonders, if there had been a surveillance camera in the tomb, what would it have recorded? Would it have shown Jesus getting up, neatly folding his burial garments, miraculously moving the stone, and going on his way? Would there have been a sudden burst of light and smoke which, when it subsided, showed a suddenly empty tomb and a missing stone? And do we really think it matters how it happened, rather than why? Do we really think the stone had to be rolled away in order for Jesus to escape death? ( ) What if the stone were moved aside not to let Jesus out, but to let the women in? ( )

Maybe, just maybe, we need that empty tomb more than we know. Maybe we need it more than we need the comfort of the lilies and the joyful noise of our triumphant singing. Maybe the stone was rolled away to invite us in to the awed silence that follows the defeat of death.

Mary Magdalene stands at precisely this spot – the threshold of the tomb – talking to someone she thinks is the gardener. Until she hears her name called. In the echo of the empty tomb, this man makes sudden sense and she hears her name on God’s lips.

I am not saying we should get rid of lilies or magnificent hymns (OK, maybe a few of the lilies). What I am saying is that perhaps the most fitting response to the glory of the empty tomb is silence. Perhaps we ought to wait until we get to the lobby, at least, before we start critiquing this passion film. Perhaps we ought to stand silently in the garden before we cover over the majesty and miracle of that emptiness with lilies and lutes.

If the stone has been pushed aside to let us in, then there is something in the emptiness and the silence that we need. If the stone’s been rolled away to let us in, shouldn’t we stand there quietly for a minute or two and wait to hear our names called?

Come now, to the edge of the garden and listen for what God is saying, echoed in the depths of that tomb. Love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave. God is stronger than death.

Look deeply into the place of death – and see that there is nothing there for us any longer. Don’t be afraid of the silence – it will not deafen you. Or the emptiness – it will not envelope you. The tomb cannot suck you in!

This emptiness of which we are so often afraid is a call home. A call back from the edge of death. The call of a mother gathering her children in for supper. Jesus isn’t in the tomb but we need to see it and experience it to believe it.

My friend Mike may have a point about movie theatres, but I am convinced his dictate is true for Easter. The only proper response to the empty tomb – to divine revelation in the resurrection – is silence and thankfulness and reverence. ( ) And maybe, eventually, a little verbal praise.

Thanks be to God!

(c) Deborah E. Lewis