April 4, 2010
“Who Will Roll the Stone Away?”
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” Mark 16, 1-3
They didn’t have the time to do a proper job of anointing Christ’s dead body on the day that he died. The law did not permit such work to be done on a Sabbath, and the Sabbath began at sunset on Friday, not long after Jesus died. So they went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning, to show the decent respect for Jesus that had been denied him in the final hours of his life. It was an act of devotion. It was an act of love. They needed to show Jesus their devotion. But they could not anoint his body with spices, unless they entered the tomb, and they couldn’t enter the tomb unless somebody rolled away the stone from the entrance. It was too big and too heavy for them to handle by themselves.
If the stone keeps the dead body of Jesus inside the tomb, the women cannot demonstrate their devotion and love to him. And, of course, neither can anyone else. If the stone keeps the dead body of Jesus inside the tomb, then we are all dead. It was for us that he died. If he stays dead, we stay dead. If he stays dead, he did not did take away our sin. It was our sin that he bore. Now if he took that sin away, he must rise from the dead. If he stays dead in the tomb, locked in the tomb and guarded by a stone nobody can roll away, we stay dead in that tomb with him.
It is touching to see these women on their way to the tomb to do for Jesus what their hearts compelled them to do. Acts of devotion like this are a wonderful testimony to that love which God himself works within his children. The women on the way to the tomb were indeed dear children of God. The piety of the women is in marked contrast to that of the men. The men ran away when Jesus was arrested. They huddled in fear on that first Easter evening. The women showed more courage. They were driven by a love for the One who had loved them. His love had touched them where they lived. He loved them with a pure, gracious, love. He had shown them the meaning of grace, and nobody else had or could. The women’s devotion to Jesus was the precious work in their hearts of Jesus himself. Not even Christ’s public shaming and brutal death could root out of their hearts their love for him. It was more powerful even than the sorrow of death. That is the devotion for which we should pray.
But it isn’t enough. No, it isn’t anywhere near enough. Why not? Because it cannot roll away the stone. If I love Jesus with all my heart, if I devote myself in service to him, if I imitate him in his humble, sacrificial love, in short, if I do all that I can do, even with almighty God helping me to do it, I cannot roll that stone away. It is too heavy for me. It is too big for me. Somebody else will have to do it for me, or I will not be able to show my devotion to Jesus. No, I will instead be trapped in that tomb with him, cold, dead, and powerless. Dead, never to know life or joy or God.
We come to funerals and say words, often without thinking, because we don’t know what to say. We want to express our love and our devotion for the one who has passed away and for those who are grieving. But we really cannot do anything about it. When a loved one dies and you go through the ritual of grieving, tears, embraces, words of comfort, reminiscing over food and drink, and saying goodbye to the friends and relatives that came by to show their support, what do you face when it is all over? You face the same death you faced when the grieving started. When it comes to death, we are helpless. Nothing shows us our helplessness more clearly. Dead is dead and there is nothing that we can do about it.
Folks disguise death and call it something else. Euphemisms for death abound. Since aging leads to death, evidence of age is also covered up. Just think of the time, effort, and money spent on products designed to make folks look younger. But time marches on. We grow older. We look older. Sooner or later we die.
It’s no fun getting old, especially when you lose your ability to do those things you’ve always enjoyed doing. But, it’s either grow old or die young. And then, even if you grow old, you’ll still die. Besides Enoch and Elijah, nobody born in this world has ever left it without dying first. Nobody can roll away the stone. The grave is where we are headed. Folks will mourn our passing and those who grieve for us will receive many words of condolences and support and love. But you finally have to ask yourself the blunt question: What if those dear Christian women had found the Jesus they were looking for? What if they had found the dead Jesus? Of what value would their devotion have had? Just a gesture of love – a futile one at that – for a dead friend.
The Christian faith we confess is not centered in our devotion to God. The heart of our faith is not our love for Jesus. For our devotion and our love and even our faith cannot roll away the stone. Is this to denigrate the many expressions of Christian love and devotion that are recorded in the Bible and throughout the history of the Church? Of course not! Think of how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Jesus praised her act of devotion as even greater than charity for the poor.
The worship of Jesus is a precious thing. What you offer to God here in this place when you come to church is an offering of tremendous value. You listen to God. You take his words to heart. You believe what he says to you. You resolve to live a life of obedience to him. You pray that he imprint his holy image on your heart. You offer him your heartfelt praise and thanksgiving. You put money in the offering plate as a sign of your devotion and love and confidence that he will provide for your every need of body and soul. You give yourself to your God in humble worship. God looks at that worship and he accepts it, and loves it, and regards your praise as a precious treasure to him.
But (may I say this just one more time?) this devotion to Jesus cannot roll away the stone.
You came to church today. You came as a sinner, because you were born a sinner, and so you will die. You came guilty of countless sins, more than you can even name. You haven’t loved as God requires. You haven’t even come close. When God has told you to place him first in your affections, you have rather loved the things of this world and you have served them and you have become guilty of idolatry. You have not loved your neighbor, either. You have loved yourself first and most and for that you deserve the tomb; a tomb locked tight, a tomb whose entrance is blocked forever by a stone you cannot roll away.
But when you came to church today – on the first day of the week – the stone had already been rolled away. God did it. You couldn’t do it.
The message of Easter is not only that God loves you. It is not only that Jesus is gracious and kind and full of compassion for sinners who have failed. The message of Easter is that the Jesus who suffered and died on the cross to bear the sin of the whole world is powerful to save the powerless. The message of Easter is a message of God’s power over death. We died with him on Calvary. We were buried with him in Joseph’s tomb. We were raised with him. We could not roll away the stone. God did it for us. St. Paul says in Romans 6,
As many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection. (Romans 6:3-5)
Our piety and devotion are indeed precious to God. But they are powerless to open the doors of death and make the dead live. This is why we celebrate life as God’s gift. Never do we look to our own powers or piety. We look to God’s gracious and life-giving Gospel and Sacraments. We look to the open tomb and see there the power of God to destroy our death. It was nobody’s faith or love or good intentions that brought Jesus out of death into life. It was Jesus who did it without any help from us. He raised himself from the dead as he promised he would. This is the central miracle of all history. It is greater than the Red Sea crossing. Greater than any of his previous miracles, whether that of feeding thousands of people, stilling a raging storm, or even raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus raised himself from the dead, early on Sunday morning, he opened our tombs for us, he opened our hearts to praise him, and he opened heaven for us when we die. He left there, buried in the tomb, every single sin we’ve ever committed. They are all gone forever. Christ’s resurrection is our absolution. It is God telling us that our sins are forgiven and we stand innocent before him.
We worship God on Sunday mornings and God loves to receive our prayers and our praise. It makes his heart glad to hear the praises of his children. And this is because he loves us. It was the Father’s love that nailed Jesus to the cross, there to suffer death for us all. It was the love of God that put him there to embrace everyone’s death, fully, completely, and effectively, so that he totally destroyed it. Death is swallowed up in death, and the death of the Son of God has utterly destroyed the death we so richly deserved.
The stone is rolled away. But still death looms, he comes closer, and he won’t be denied. He will come and take us all, every single one of us, unless Jesus returns before death can strike us. Perhaps he will. We pray he will whenever we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” But we can only pray. God must answer our prayers and he will do so on his own schedule, not ours. So, maybe death will come and take us.
Let him come. He cannot hurt us. He cannot even make us afraid. The stone is rolled away from our graves. The grave cannot hold us. Our bodies may be destroyed, but death will never even touch us. He will strike at us, and lay claim to us, but he won’t ever touch us. You see, Jesus left him in the tomb. Jesus walked out on his own power. And Jesus belongs to us. This is why death cannot make us afraid. We have met Jesus at the open tomb. Rather, he has met us. And he has given us eternal life. Amen.