The Tomb is Empty

This has been an anxious week; one might say it has been unnerving. I have no doubt you can relate. You carefully endeavor to balance all the demands of your life in a landscape we have not known before. You engage your best adaptation of time-tested regiments and routines in the hope that you will make your way to the next day, if not the next obstacle, with as few major detours as is possible. And then something happens, generally at the worst possible moment, and everything is sent spinning.

This week that something for me was peanut butter. Did you know peanut butter is full of trans-fats? Well, it is, I heard it on NPR, so it has to be true. That means over the course of my life I have eaten, what, maybe a ton of trans-fat. But it wasn’t a concern for personal health that derailed my week; rather it made me freshly aware as the primary meal preparer of the family that the choices I make have consequences.

It sent me in a tale-spin. If peanut butter isn’t my friend what is? Tuna turned its back on me with its unfriendly relationship to dolphins. Lunch meat long ago abandoned me when I learned it is the polite term for reprocessed hotdogs, which is the polite term for slaughterhouse floor sweepings. I could go with cheese, but there is the whole sodium and cholesterol conundrum. I have plenty of options, but are they healthy, nutritious, the builders of strong bones and teeth? I am low on vegetables and getting mighty close to retrying that bag of wax flavored frozen vegetable I bought shortly after frozen vegetables were invented! I simply don’t know what to do.

Of course, I do have those chickens…

I have a history with anxiety. By the time I was three I had refined worrying to a fine art. My mother still cringes at any “What if” question. But I have discovered it is not my fault, it is genetic, so my parents own the blame there. I feared for a time one of my son’s might follow in my footsteps. For time it seemed probable, like the morning we were crossing the Alameda bridge on our way to preschool and a sweet little voice from the back seat asked, “Daddy, what if they forgot the bolts on this bridge and it breaks and we all die?”

See? Even there. We do all we can to take care of things, look after those we love. And NPR announces peanut butter is going to kill us all. Its always something. Do you remember Y2K? I guess those people who stashed all the MREs are getting the last laugh.
I joke, but the cold truth is that our lives, even in the best of times, are shot through with anxiety about all kinds of things. And now, as we find our orderly routines ripped apart and plans turned into so much dust in the spring wind, those anxieties seem to have shifted into a whole new gear. Once I worried a computer virus would crash my computer and now I’d take that in a heartbeat.

So, I invite you to spend some time thinking about the story we will hear Sunday, on Easter. I invite you to open yourself and all you carry to that gift.

Mary Magdalene rose before dawn to go to the tomb to prepare the body of her beloved Jesus. What a dark night it must have been, what a cold walk to that cave. Silence broken only by the sound of sandals and tears on the stone. A procession of a shattered heart. I imagine she found comfort in the task at hand. At least there was this thing she could do to honor him. So she walked, alone in her anxious thoughts, trying her best to simply hold it together and keep the tormenting demons of anxiety and fear at bay. Then the unthinkable, the stone was rolled back and the body gone. “Oh God, no! Not this, please, no more!”

Life has a way of slapping you in the face and sending you reeling. We make our way, follow our routines and wham! Out of nowhere our knees are knocked out from under us. I know you understand; we have each cried out “Oh God no!” when our closets of anxious shadows suddenly are flung open and small voices fill our heads: “Daddy, what if…?”

I imagine the upper room. Thin lines of morning light cut through the chilled dusty air. The table is cold and empty. Scattered here and there are the disciples, like so many piles of discarded rags. They don’t speak, there is nothing left to say. They hardly move, crippled by grief and fear. The first light of dawn announces another day to be endured and with it come the haunting shadows of “what if.” Suddenly the door flies open – Mary rushes in – “The tomb,” she cries out, “is empty!”

The tomb is empty.

Our faith is impossible to explain. We believe in the unbelievable, speak of the indescribable, and witness to something we have never seen. The world looks in the tomb and sees a void. We look and see the fullness of God’s love.

I have been thinking about those followers of Jesus and the anxious, fearful shadows that must have beset them following the crucifixion, the horror they endured.

I think of Mary, trudging to the grave, no doubt completely dreading what lay within. That cold tomb was for her a dark void, the dead end of a lost dream. There was a time when I worked as a police chaplain. I remember escorting families to the morgue and witnessing the horror of nightmares realized. It is easy to imagine that is where Mary and the others were that Easter morning. But thank God, that is not where the story ends.

Our faith is not about emptiness, or dead ends. It is not about broken dreams, dashed hopes, or isolated lives. It is not about fearful questions of “what if…”. Our faith is about the love and faithfulness of God that fills the void and turns the world on its ear. The tomb is empty because all of creation is filled with God’s love. Christ is risen! And you can’t explain it, it makes no sense at all, but it is God’s truth!
A man I use to know was a prisoner at a German concentration camp. He was Dutch and I knew him as the father of a friend. He spoke only once to me about it. He told me of the day of his liberation. He described it as a day of numb disbelief, of wandering around in a daze. In the course of that day he came upon a young soldier, a boy he called him – broke down with heaving shoulders and huge sobs. A kid, and this was just too heavy for him to bear. Dr. Ten-Zythoff wondered what to do. For a long time he just stood and stared. Finally, he sat down on the ground and embraced him. He told him that horrible as it was, it wasn’t the end. “God,” he said, “will not allow this to stand as the end. We have to hold out hope that something like that is not the final sentence of anyone’s life.”

The tomb is empty. The void is filled.

There are people who have trouble with that central belief of the Christian church. I know this. I tell myself that if Christ were not risen, why even show up? If Christ were not raised, then what is the point? I know that there are people who have difficulty with this. They say, “I wish I could believe, but I can’t.” I understand that and I understand them.

Either he rose, or he didn’t rise. Jesus either got up from the dead, or he didn’t. It really comes down to that. If he didn’t, this piece I am writing is just a nice distraction, but there’s not much power behind it. Yet I know that he did, and it makes all the difference in the world.

The tomb is empty.

Friends, the empty tomb is the Word of the Lord. There are a lot of times when we say that it’s the word of the Lord, and it’s really my word or your word or someone else’s word; but this, I believe, is the Word of the Lord. This is maybe, ultimately, the only Word of the Lord that undergirds all the others. The earth shakes. Doors blow off the tombs. A dead man gets up.

We are children of a faithful God. The tomb is empty.