Monday, April 13, 2009

Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 for Easter, the Resurrection of Our Lord. "He Will Swallow Up Death Forever."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! We’re here this Easter morn because we believe that death isn’t the end. We’re here because there’s One who has truly conquered death, as witnessed by the women at the tomb, the twelve apostles, more than 500 disciples at one time, His unbelieving brother James, and lastly Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the church, later known as Paul. We’re here to celebrate how Jesus has conquered death for us, for we live on in this hope and promise. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Easter is God’s answer to our greatest enemy. For death is the great leveler of mankind. Death steals from our joy; it robs us of those we love; it leaves life and ambition unfinished and incomplete. Death spares none, and makes no distinction between the rich or poor, the young or old, no language, tribe or people. No one is unaffected by this common enemy, and so this message of the Resurrection is for all. Today we celebrate that Death has met its end in Christ Jesus. But we realize that death isn’t easily ignored or forgotten.

The women that came to the tomb that morning were proof of this, and proof of how large death looms in our minds. They came to the tomb with spices to anoint the corpse, so that it wouldn’t smell. They were expecting Him to remain dead; not to find their Risen Lord. The hope of the resurrection was lost for them. But so deep was their love for their Rabbi, that they underwent this fearful and risky journey to the tomb. Did they know about the guard set on the tomb and the seal? They knew the great stone was too large for them to move. Love compelled them to honor His body, even in death, by anointing Him properly for burial. For one so dearly loved in life, this was the least they could do for Him in death. Love endured past death.

Their love was mixed with sorrow over the fresh memories of Jesus’ terrible death on the cross, but they also failed to remember His promises. Death loomed large in their minds, and doubt and fear had weakened their faith. The grave had swallowed up their faith and the memory of Jesus’ promised resurrection so that they expected to find a dead body. For them, death had become greater than life. Had they believed Jesus’ words, they should’ve been waiting with joyful expectation to see Him alive, in Galilee, where He had told them they should find Him (Mk. 14:28). They wouldn’t have come to the empty tomb with spices, they would’ve been watching for Him in Galilee, for their joyful reunion! But again, they couldn’t see past His death.

How about us? Has the joy of the resurrection taken hold of our lives? Do we live as though death is the end and mourn as those who have no hope? Believers in Jesus have been promised a resurrection like His. But do we live as though we expect to find a corpse in the tomb? As if we had lost the hope of the resurrection? Do we regard loved ones who’ve died in the Lord as lost to us? Or do we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come? Do we live our lives with the resurrection joy, and with the knowledge that how we believe here in this life has eternal consequences? For there are eternal consequences to how we believe. For the unbelieving and the unrepentant, the resurrection will not be a joyful thing, because their bodies too will be raised, but for punishment, not blessedness.

So how shall we live then? We live with the Easter joy that death is not the end, and that by faith in Christ there waits for us the resurrection of the body, to the blessedness of our Father. We live with the knowledge that all who wait on the Lord will be glad and rejoice in His salvation. For He’ll swallow up death forever. To live with the joy of the resurrection is to know that “the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken” (Is. 25:8). Having this joy, we know that when our loved ones die in the Lord, they’ll have their tears wiped away and sorrow will be no more. Living with Easter joy is knowing that He’ll swallow up death forever. Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

The yawning mouth of the tomb had swallowed Jesus into three days of darkness. And so this darkness of death loomed over the imagination of the disciples, and it really seemed as if death had swallowed up life, and that there was no coming back. But Jesus had used a marvelous image to prophesy His resurrection. He spoke of a seed, a single grain of wheat, falling into the earth and dying. The mouth of the tomb swallowed Jesus, that single “grain of wheat that [fell] into the earth and die[d]” (John 12:24). He was that single grain that died, then germinated into new life that burst forth from the tomb, rending the power of death; releasing its captives. Every time you see concrete blocks on the sidewalk split and upturned by a tree, think of the power of a tiny seed and the life contained in it. As a seed germinates in the ground, it splits open the dead hull and thrusts forward to the light. No stone, no seal, no guard set over the tomb—not even Satan himself could keep Jesus in the grave.

Jesus’ body, buried in the tomb, swallowed by death, was the hidden dynamite that would explode death from the inside out. “In a strange and dreadful strife, life and death contended. The victory remained with life, the reign of death was ended. Holy Scripture plainly sa[ys], Death is swallowed up by death, its sting is lost forever. Alleluia! (LSB 458:4)” Christ swallowed up death by His death on the cross and burial in the tomb. Though it seemed as though the grave had been the victor, and this is what the ladies who came to the tomb expected to find, death had met its conqueror. One who couldn’t be kept in the grave, but burst from the spiced tomb as He rose to His heavenly way (LSB 604).

So imagine the surprise of the women when they arrived at the tomb. It’s not hard to understand their alarm and astonishment that the tomb was opened, and a young man in a bright, white robe was seated there. How would you react if you went to the newly buried grave of your family member to lay flowers there, and found the grave dug up and empty? You might very well demand to know where they had taken the body of your loved one! Even though they’re dead, the body is still precious to you. This is how the women felt. But they were more alarmed and astonished when the angel told them that “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.”

This news was too great and wonderful for them to process. Still fearful and uncertain of what all this meant, they fled from the tomb in trembling and astonishment. Sure they knew Jesus was no ordinary boy from Nazareth, but that He had just risen from three days of death?!? Could it be true? It was one thing to see Him raise others from the dead, but Himself? Clearly they weren’t expecting this. But it was true! Not long and they would see Him with their own eyes! Jesus of Nazareth, the same son of Mary who’d been buried in that tomb, had risen. His crucifixion had been part of that strange and dreadful strife as death and life contended. What they’d taken for defeat was in reality great victory! This was a necessary part of God’s plan to save us. Jesus said that He laid down His life of His own accord, no one took it from Him—and that He had the power to take it up again (John 10:18). This is precisely what He did that Sunday morning. His death on the cross had been necessary, to take our sin to His grave.

Is our response of equal amazement? Do we refuse to believe what seems too good to be true? Does death still cast fear and a dark shadow over our lives, so that we tremble when we face it? Or is the resurrection joy taking hold in your life? Do you begin to see that it was no accident that eternity was written on our hearts (Eccles. 3:11)? That the wholesome unfulfilled longings we have and the fact that our love endures beyond the death of someone we love—that these point us beyond this life? That we really can be raised from the dead, just as Jesus was? By faith in Jesus, sorrow isn’t the end. Jesus’ resurrection ensures that He’ll swallow up death forever, and that one day there’ll be uninterrupted joy and peace, as the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He’ll take away” (Is. 25:8). This is no wishful thinking or rosy-glassed optimism, for hundreds of eyewitnesses saw Jesus alive from His tomb. They were just as astonished and disbelieving at first as we would’ve been.

There was even a special word of comfort from the angel, who said, “Go and tell the disciples, and Peter, that he is going before you to Galilee.” Why was Peter especially mentioned? One preacher put it this way: “Peter is especially named and the command given to announce the resurrection of Christ to him so that he would not possibly think that since His denial was the greatest of all the disciples’ [denials], he thus would have to be totally expelled from God’s grace; rather, the worse Peter’s denial made the situation, the more richly God allows him to be comforted after his repentance, to the extent that He specifically commands that the resurrection of His Son be proclaimed to Peter as a testimony to all repentant sinners of the marvelous, incomprehensible kindness of God. All this is done in order that one may not be led to think—even though he has already repented—that his sins are too great, or that he may not receive the benefits of Christ’s resurrection.” This special comfort is for us too, that we’ll know that if Jesus forgave even such a denial from His trusted friend, that He’ll also forgive us.

It’s because of the incomprehensible kindness of God, because of the triumphant power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that we poor sinners can share in the benefits of His resurrection. Though death makes no distinction, and ruthlessly takes one and all, Christ has swallowed up death in His victorious life. So that we won’t become the nameless victims of death, Christ has called us and made us His own in baptism. Our fears and doubts may now be swallowed up by life. And His love for us will endure past death, so that when we fall like wheat into the earth, His resurrection power will live in us. Then we will sprout forth with His new life in us. Death will have been swallowed up forever, and God Himself will wipe away our tears. Then hope will have become reality in Christ. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Why is the Easter message universal?
2. Who were the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection? How many were there? (1 Cor. 15:1-11)
3. How had death overshadowed the faith and hope of the women that came to the tomb? What should they have been looking for? (see Mark 14:28)
4. How has the joy of the resurrection grasped your life? How does it affect your outlook on life? On death, both of loved ones, and your own?
5. How did death get swallowed up in victory? Was that how it appeared at first? (Is. 25:8; John 12:24)
6. Do we sometimes think that this Easter news is too good to be true? How does that doubt express itself?
7. What special comfort is given for those who are doubtful whether they too can share in the benefits of the Resurrection?

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