The Empty Tomb
A man was blissfully driving along the highway, when he saw the Easter Bunny hopping across the middle of the road. He swerved to avoid hitting the Bunny, but unfortunately the rabbit jumped in front of his car and was hit. The basket of eggs went flying all over the place. Candy, too. The driver, being a sensitive man as well as an animal lover, pulled over to the side of the road, and got out to see what had become of the Bunny carrying the basket. Much to his dismay, the colorful Bunny was dead.
The driver felt guilty and began to cry.
A woman driving down the same highway saw the man crying on the side of the road and pulled over. She stepped out of her car and asked the man what was wrong. ”I feel terrible,” he explained, ”I accidentally hit the Easter Bunny and killed it. There may not be an Easter because me. What should I do? ”The woman told the man not to worry. She knew exactly what to do.
She went to her car trunk, and pulled out a spray can. She walked over to the limp, dead Bunny, and sprayed the entire contents of the can onto the little furry animal. Miraculously, the Easter Bunny came to back life, jumped up, picked up the spilled eggs and candy, waved its paw at the two humans and hopped on down the road.
50 yards away the Easter Bunny stopped, turned around, waved and hopped on down the road another 50 yards, turned, waved hopped another 50 yards and waved again!! The man was astonished. He couldn’t figure out what could possibly be in that woman’s spray can. He said to the woman, ”What in heaven’s name is in your spray can?”
The woman turned the can around so that the man could read the label. It said: ”Hair spray. Restores life to your dead hair. Adds permanent wave.”
The Christian faith has nothing to do with Easter bunnies, flowers, and candy. It begins with emptiness, an empty tomb, with no body there. The empty tomb is the central story in the four gospels.
Let’s look at each of them.
From Matthew 28– Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who is not precisely identified, come to the burial site of Jesus at dawn after the Sabbath. There’s a violent earthquake and an angel appears. There are guards at the tomb. We don’t know how many. We infer that the guards have been placed there by the Jewish authorities. The guard (s) shake with fear. The angel says to the women: “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He is risen from the dead and is going before you in Galilee. There you will see him.” And the women leave the site with a mixture of fear and joy.
From Mark 16– When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. (Note here there are three women, not two as in Matthew.) On the way to the tomb they are asking each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they get there the stone which is very large has already been rolled away. Upon entering the tomb they find a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. They are alarmed. The young man counsels them: “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’.”
Luke’s account in Luke24– On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women take the spices they have prepared and go to the tomb. They find that the stone has been rolled aside. When they enter they don’t find the body of Jesus. While they are wondering about this, two men in clothes that gleam like lightning appear before them. Frightened, they fall to the ground. The two men chide them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
The women return to give this account to the eleven disciples. Only eleven now. Judas has met an untimely end. They tell the story to the eleven and “others.” And now Luke identifies the first visitors to the tomb. It is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. How many women are we talking about here…we don’t know but perhaps 5 or 10?
And our story in Luke concludes with these words: But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. They didn’t believe this story primarily because these were women telling it. Women, not credible witnesses. How odd of God to choose women to witness and report the most important event in human history. And remember this: women were last at the cross and first at the tomb.
And now John 20 Again it’s early on the first day of the week.
While it is still dark Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty. Just Mary Magdalene. Nobody else. The stone has been rolled away. There are no guards or angels there. She hurries to Simon Peter and a second disciple — the one Jesus loved, (he’s not identified by name so we have to guess that perhaps this is John), and she tells them “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple dash for the tomb. The other disciple outruns Peter and reaches the tomb first. He bends over only to find strips of cloth scattered about . Then Peter arrives, goes into the tomb, He sees the strips of linen lying there as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen strips. The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, goes inside. We are told that he sees and believes. And to help us understand what he believes, John editorializes here that they still did not understand Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. So what exactly he believed is open to speculation.
Now a couple things about these four stories. They are all different in some respects, different in who comes to the tomb first, how many there are, and what they find when they get there. If you were trying to convince the world of something, the first thing you would do is to make sure you had your story straight. That’s not here. So the story tellers in the gospel aren’t aiming for consistency in detail. They are telling to story as it has been passed on to them by those first witnesses.
Here’s an example. Four of you are standing on the corner of a busy intersection. A car runs a red light and there is a collision. The police arrive and take your statements. How fast was the car going? How many people were in the cars that collided? Your stories would have similarities, but also have differences. You saw the same accident but with different eyes.
So the story of the empty tomb is reported to us by four different sets of eyes. This is what the witnesses saw. This is what they remembered. The resurrection stories aren’t written to convince the world what happened. Some say because they lack consistency they lack believability To my way of thinking, because they lack consistency they are more believable.
In all the anti Christian polemic of the first century no one ever claimed the body was there. To be sure, some charged that the disciples had stolen the body and reburied it someplace else. Some claimed that Jesus was drugged, woke up, and walked away. Some claimed that the Romans stole the body to keep the tomb from becoming a martyr’s site. But no one seemed to doubt that the tomb was empty.
This empty place is the first site and symbol of Christian faith, an absence rather than a presence, and with that space and absence comes a sense that the world is not exactly as we imagine it. For all its laws and patterns, the world still has its surprises.
Who could have guessed that a community of bold and daring followers would emerge from this ragtag group of confused and vascillating disciples. Who would have guessed that a man who was staked up to die would beome the center of a world-wide religion. Who would have guessed that the power of this message lives on today.
I was asked about a month ago by our presbytery to become the liason between our presbytery and a new start-up Presbyterian church called the Evangelical Arabic Church. It’s pastor is a man named Estawri Hajeek. When I was first asked, I thought, “I don’t need one more thing. My plate is full.” But because I was asked by our Presbytery Pastor, Brad Munroe, whom I greatly admire, I said “OK.” As you will see as this story unwinds, it is often what we don’t want to do that God reveals himself to us.
In 2006 Estwari was pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Bagdad with 800 in worship each Sunday.
One day he was set upon by a band of terrorists. He was dragged out of his car, beaten, left to bleed and die in the street. For a long time no one would come to his aid for the fear of snipers. Finally two courageous men who did not know who he was picked him up and took him to the hospital. He recovered and because his life was in danger, he fled to Beruit. The United Nations offered him political asylum so he could live in Lebanon. There he met his wife Silva, and continued his ministry.
After 5 years of living in Lebanon he received a phone call telling him they would be moving to Phoenix. He didn’t have a choice. This is where the UN was placing him. He and his wife came here without friends, family or a job.
Where do you go when you are in dire need? The church! He found Bethany Presbyterian Church which is located at 35th and Northern. He began a relationship with the pastor and congregation.
He got a job in a factory as a machine operator, $8 an hour, 14-16 hour a day shifts. This a man with a civil engineering degree and seminary degree. In their free time he and his wife gradually began recruiting others for a new church, the Evangelical Arabic Church in Phoenix.
Silva, his wife, has a seminary degree and hopes to be ordained someday. It’s a rarity for an Arab woman in the middle east, even the Presbyterian church, to be ordained.
They both are involved in the ministry, worship, classes, Bible study, pastoral care. He supports his wife and little daughter by being a teacher’s aide at Sweetwater Elementary School. They drive their personal van each Sunday to pick up members who have no other way of getting to church. They get no salary, no mileage. Now, don’t those of you on our personal committee get any ideas from this story!
Barbara and I had the great honor last Sunday of attending their worship service. It was very much like our Palm Sunday service, children and adults parading around the sanctuary, waving olive branches, not palm branches, olive! And singinging “Hosanna Loud Hosanna.” Except in Arabic.
Estwari and his wife Silva are people whose witness could make even a preacher believe. Countless people have suffered and struggled and died for Jesus, absolutely certain that the resurrection of Christ is a historical fact. Tradition says ten of the original apostles died as martyrs for Christ, as did the Apostle Paul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of early Christians died in the Roman arena and in prisons for their faith. Down through the centuries, thousands more have died for Jesus because they believed the resurrection is true. Even today, people suffer persecution because they have faith that Christ rose from the dead. An isolated group may give up their lives for a cult leader, but Christian martyrs have died in many lands, for nearly 2,000 years, believing Jesus conquered death to give them eternal life.
Listen, I tell you great good news. The tomb is empty. The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed.