Easter Sunday Sermon| Rolf D. Preus| Mark 16:1-8| April 8, 2012
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?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away; for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples; and Peter; that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. St. Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday brings more people to church than any other Christian holiday. Folks who ordinarily have other things to do on Sunday mornings find their way to church on Easter. I suppose there are religious and social reasons for that. Perhaps the fellow who doesn’t really want to listen to a sermon or participate in the liturgy and hymns figures that once a year wouldn’t hurt. So he goes. There’s also the fact that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a major event to celebrate. It’s right up there with his birth. As a matter of fact, Christians celebrated Easter as a holiday long before they celebrated Christmas. It has always been a time of joy. Lent is a time of solemn repentance. We leave the Hallelujahs and the Gloria in Excelsis out of the services. Then, on Easter Sunday, joy returns as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
But the first reaction to the Easter message was fear. The shepherds outside of Bethlehem were afraid when they saw the angel, but after hearing the Christmas gospel they quickly went to see Jesus and they praised and glorified God for what they had seen. The women who went to anoint Jesus’ body also heard good news from an angel. But this Easter gospel did not bring to them the joy that the Christmas gospel had brought to the shepherds. After hearing it they were troubled. They were afraid. They had been looking for death. When they heard words of life they couldn’t take them in. They were filled with fear.
They saw Jesus suffer. The two Marys watched the crucifixion from a distance. They saw Jesus die. They went with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body to be buried. But they did not have the time to anoint the body properly because the sunset would occur shortly and then the Sabbath would begin. This is why they went to the tomb again early on Sunday morning at first light. They had rested on the Sabbath, as the law required them to do. They came to show respect in death to the man who had been shamed in life.
Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples; and Peter; that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.
Right after instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus told his disciples that they would all be scattered like sheep and would deny him when the time came for him to suffer. He said, “But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:28) Peter and the other disciples were too busy defending themselves and denying that they would ever deny him to pay attention to this promise. So Jesus told the women to remind the disciples, especially Peter, of the words he spoke.
Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection several times. But his disciples couldn’t take it in. The women heard the gospel from the angel, but they couldn’t take it in. The word of God is powerful – by it the heavens and the earth were made out of nothing – but at times it appears that it isn’t powerful enough to break through the unbelief that so calluses the human heart.
Maybe unbelief isn’t the nicest word to use, but it’s accurate. The reason the women were afraid is because they didn’t believe what the angel said. The reason the disciples were huddled in fear behind locked doors on the evening of that day is because they didn’t believe the words the women said. And nobody believed the words that Jesus said.
Consider the implications of this! Jesus had just won the battle of the ages. He had faced the Prince of Darkness and had vanquished him. Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane. By insisting on doing the Father’s will, not his own, he chose to drink the cup of all human sin, suffering, and damnation. And he did. He drank it down to its bitter dregs. The devil that led our human parents into eating the fruit did his best to prevent Jesus from drinking that cup. But he could not prevent him. Jesus drank and so overturned the verdict of condemnation on those who ate. The whole human race was set free from sin and forgiven.
But nobody believed it. The women’s hearts were focused in on themselves – on their personal grief – and so they could not take in the joy of Easter when it was clearly and emphatically spoken to them. The men didn’t believe it either.
The words of the angel were the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always in, with, and under the words of the gospel. “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here.” You don’t find Jesus by looking in the grave where dead people lie. And you don’t find Jesus by looking for him in your heart where doubts and fears combine to drown out everything God says. You find Jesus in the words that the Holy Spirit speaks to you, that is, the words of the gospel that tell you that the One who died for you is risen from the dead.
The words that we hear do bring us joy. The reason the women were afraid after hearing the words is not that the words of the angel were powerless to bring them joy. The words of the gospel are inherently powerful. St. Paul calls the gospel that we hear the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) The words of the gospel bring the dead to life. The reason the women were afraid is because they did not listen. The reason the disciples did not believe is because they did not listen. The reason we go to church and go home and have no joy or peace is because we don’t listen. We are too busy looking inward to see how we feel and judging what is true by how we feel. It’s hard to look in two different directions at the same time. It’s hard to listen to God while looking inside ourselves.
The Lutheran Church in Minnesota and North Dakota has been strongly influenced by a theological movement known as Pietism. Pietists downplay the importance of the pure teaching and emphasize the experience of faith. They focus in on faith as a phenomenon. What is it? What is the difference between true and false faith? How can I know if my faith is genuine? And as they examine their faith, they look inside of themselves for assurance that they will not find within. In fact, they are looking away from the very thing they are seeking. If you really want the assurance of faith you must look away from your faith to its true source. You must look to the objective, reliable, utterly dependable gospel and sacraments of Christ.
Don’t look inside yourself for the true faith. You are not the source of the true faith. God’s word is. If you want faith you must look to faith’s source. Listen to what God says. Ignore what your heart says. Ignore your feelings. Looking within ourselves in search of the joy and peace of Easter, we may find instead the very things that bring us anxiety, fear, and doubt.
We should not base our faith on how we feel today or any other day. We should not base our faith on how pure our faith is. Rather, we confess that our faith is weak. It is weakened by sins. It is like a dimly burning wick. It is like a bruised reed that hangs together by a thread. The Bible tells us that Jesus doesn’t quench that flame or break off that reed. (Isaiah 42:3) He doesn’t condemn us for our faith’s weakness. How often he chided his disciples for their lack of faith. But he never did it in anger or in judgment, but always in love and encouragement. He always speaks words that elicit faith. The angel at the tomb spoke words to bring about faith.
The women were afraid. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. They heard the gospel. But they listened instead to their hearts. Their hearts were set on death. They had come into the tomb to anoint a dead body and their hearts were devoted to that task – a loving task to be sure – for they loved Jesus very much.
Jesus had delivered Mary Magdalene from demon possession. Tradition has it that she had also been a prostitute set free from her sinful life by Jesus. In any case, she had good reason to love Jesus and to want to show him respect and devotion after he suffered so cruelly at the hands of the Romans. So she did what her loving heart told her to do.
Now compare, if you will, your loving heart to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which is more important? Your love? Or God’s love? This is what it really comes down to. The women showed love. But it was misguided, falsely informed, and based on a falsehood. They wanted to anoint a dead body. Had they found a dead body, the world would have remained trapped in sin and death and nobody would have found peace with God. Their hearts were set on death. They came to anoint a dead body and their hearts were in that task and they closed their ears to the joyful news of Easter.
Learn from them. Learn from their mistake. Forget about what you are feeling, as if it is so important. Don’t base your faith on what’s inside of you. Don’t look at your fears, or your troubles, or your sins. Don’t look at you. Instead, listen to the gospel. This same Jesus who suffered on the cross for your sins is alive. He is risen, as he said. That’s what God’s angel, God’s messenger, says.
What does this mean? It means that everything Jesus says is true. It means that God accepted the ransom that Jesus paid for our freedom. It means that all of our sins are forgiven. It means that we who trust in him will rise to eternal life on the last day. We will be reunited with the Christians who have gone before us and we will be perfectly conformed to the image of God who is Christ. This will bring us endless and perfect joy. This is the gospel truth, brothers and sisters in Christ. It isn’t true because you feel this truth inside. It is true because Jesus said so, and his resurrection confirms that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.