Text: Matthew 28:1-10
Date: Easter + 4/16/17
At Easter we witness the greatest transfer of power in the history of the world; greater than the American Revolution or any other revolution; greater than the more peaceful transfer of power from one American President to the next. This was a transfer of royal cosmic power to reign and rule over all creation, something only the maddest of men have even contemplated. Martin Luther saw it that way in his Easter hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” He sees the enemy wearing the crown of his reign of sin and death in this world now taken and transformed by God as he writes,
Christ Jesus, God’s own Son, came down,
His people to deliver;
Destroying sin, He took the crown
From death’s pale brow forever:
Stripped of pow’r, no more it reigns;
An empty form alone remains;
It sting is lost forever. Alleluia!
Luther admits that this was no ordinary warfare as between mere nations of the earth, but of the greatest forces behind everything else that happens in this world. This war employed no scud, no tomahawk, no nuclear missiles.
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!
Today we are called again to make the most amazing discovery and sound forth the most earthshaking confession that The Reign of Death is Ended.
It was a strange and dreadful strife. So is Christ’s victory ending the reign of death strange and dreadful because, for all the joy of this day we see that death still plagues us. O my how it plagues us. For it interrupts life and hope. It interrupts when death takes a loved one whether it be by so-called “natural causes” as in old age, or by tragedy and disaster, innocent or not, on the freeway, in the lake or classroom or as a random victim of chemical war. Death reigns among demonic forces of terrorism or tyranny. Yes, death is still real.
But what is death? Does it not intrude even in more seemingly mundane ways as in illness or injury? Is it not behind the death of human relationships? Think not only of murder or suicide but also of divorce or anger or envy. At times it seems hopeless and we cry to God in the words of St. Paul, “wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But remember the very next words of that Epistle, the words of faith even in any strange and dreadful strife, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). Those are the words of an Easter faith. It is Jesus Christ our Lord who delivers us from this body of death!
Fear is a main theme in today’s Easter Gospel. The women were going back to anoint the body of their dead Messiah. As they were going a great earthquake happened. We’re told that they discovered it was the result of an angel of the Lord who came and sat on the stone rolled back from the entrance of the tomb. Further we are told that it was for fear of this angel that even the Roman guards trembled and became like dead men, that is, they either passed out or were stunned. So everyone was afraid.
How many of you are afraid this morning? Probably, right now, not many. But what if you knew and saw and witnessed your Lord suffering and crucified, dead and buried in the past few days. Hope dashed. Faith gone. Ever been there? Can you imagine being one of the women who then saw this angel and being told “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said”?
Then, “Come, see the place where he lay,” that is, that He HAD lain! He’s not there! “Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead….” But wait. I haven’t gone to the seminary. I haven’t been taught how to preach or taken a 13-week course in how to evangelize. I’m supposed to tell others that Jesus is risen from the dead? When’s the last time you told anyone about Jesus’ resurrection? The biggest point is the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
Then Jesus Himself appeared to them. And they worshiped him. And Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid.”
What is it about our fears? Have you ever been afraid to tell anyone that you believe in Jesus? that Jesus actually lives and reigns in the world today? Afraid that you will be made fun of or doubted or considered one of those religious fanatics? Yes, you may. What did those first women think? What did the first disciples think? Yet isn’t it something that, two centuries after these historic events we should have the same doubts? No, we should have the same faith and assurance and conviction.
Today we receive and accept the witness of all those who have gone before us, from the apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John, to centuries of the early church fathers, to Martin Luther, to (let’s see) C.F.W. Walther, Franz Pieper, J.A.O. Preus, Ralph Bohlmann, Al Barry, Robert Kuhn, Gerry Kieschnick, Matthew Harrison, oh, let’s include the more recent imperfect saints, Pastors Otto Frincke, Richard Schlecht and those who followed them. For all our failures, sins and warts, the one thing we have passed on is the magnificent, amazing gospel of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who, through all and whatever has gone before says, “fear not.”
We are bidden not to fear for what else threatens but death? And death has been overcome. The Reign of Death has Ended. This is Easter. This is the feast of victory. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our crucified, risen, living, reigning Lord (Rom 8:39). So let’s run from here not in fear but in wonder and praise. Having been born again by water and the Spirit, having received the living waters of faith, having received the beatific vision of a heavenly eternity, having been promised our own resurrection, having accompanied our Lord through the Great and Holy Week, the joy of palms, the wonder of receiving His body and blood, then the cruel cross, the cold tomb, the three days. But now He lives and reigns to all eternity.
With this faith and joy comes what Luther called “little crosses” though they may not seem so little at times. Our Easter triumph transforms our sufferings into endurance, character and hope. Not fear but hope that does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5). So fear not but rejoice. The reign of death is ended.