After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
Happy Easter! I have two stories to share with you this morning, and I hope by the end of this sermon at least two things are apparent: the Resurrected Jesus is calling us to himself, and in calling us to him, he then sends us out.
So, the first story…
I grew up on the far end of Rutherford County in Middle Tennessee. We were well outside the city limits, but still close enough to make it into town for a quick run to the grocery store if needed.
If it tells you anything, it wouldn’t have surprised us to look out our front window and see someone riding their horse down the street.
Thankfully, there were a few kids my age in our small subdivision. We loved to play football and baseball together; we’d play in the creek at the end of the street, or ride bikes up the rolling hills of our neighborhood.
But there was a rule that was not to be broken. You gotta be home when the streetlights come on. Now, my parents weren’t authoritarian when it came to this rule, but I can’t say the same for my friends’ parents. For Josh, one of my buddies, this might as well have been the 11th commandment.
I wasn’t as much worried about getting in trouble if I got home a little late, I just wasn’t that crazy about the dark. There’s something unsettling about the night, a lot of things could be out there hiding. Your imagination can quickly run wild, especially if you hear a dog bark or a tree limb break.
And so, when the sun was beginning to set over the hills to the west it was a race back home with my friends. Sometimes with a little fear and trembling, especially if we had to grab our bikes and fly down the hill to our street at record pace to make it in time.
But what makes a race so much fun when you’re doing it with others, is that the thrill of adventure can somehow transform fear into joy, and terror into delight.
What Jesus Could’ve Done
You know, I’ve wondered a lot about what that first Easter morning must have been like as the sun rose the eastern hills of Jerusalem, over the Mount of Olives, and then bathed its rays into the Holy City below.
It is quite amazing to see what the gospel writers say about that morning, but also what they left unsaid. In none of the four gospels are we told what it looked like when Jesus rose from the grave; no descriptions of him taking his second, first breath (you might say); nor are we told if he laughed or cried, or what he said as he sat up.
My imagination runs wild thinking about what could’ve happened that morning. What does one do with a new, resurrected body? What do you do after defeating sin, death, and the devil?
Honestly, there’s a part of me that wishes he had gone straight to the chief priests and the Sanhedrin and said, “How do you like me now?” Or he could’ve woken up Pontius Pilate from his sleep saying, “I told you my kingdom was not of this world.” Or, at the very least, he could’ve walked into the Temple Courts and utterly shocked the crowds with his presence.
But he does none of that.
By the time Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb at daybreak, he’s not there. Instead, the earth trembles and quakes, and these two women see an angel who rolls back the stone and sits on it—what an odd and terrifying sight.
But then what comes out of the angel’s mouth is eerily similar to what was said to the shepherds at the announcement of Jesus’ birth, “Do not be afraid.” Rather than continuing, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel could’ve easily said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
If it wasn’t shocking enough for the women at the tomb that morning to hear that their Lord was somehow alive, it was also baffling that he intended to meet them in Galilee.
Jesus had no time for settling scores with those who put him to death. As he said in an earlier passage: if they haven’t listened to Moses and the Prophets, “they will not be convinced when someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Instead, the angel (and then Jesus himself) tells the women—who are now the newly minted apostles to the apostles—to round everyone up and head to Galilee because Jesus will meet them there.
But the way I read it, it sounds more like Jesus is saying, “I’ll race you back home.”
Go to Galilee
You see, Jerusalem may have been the Holy City, it may have been the most important place in all of Judaism, but it wasn’t home for Jesus or his disciples. Home was about a 100-mile walk north, far away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.
It was in Galilee that Jesus grew up, it’s where he called his disciples and promised that if they’d drop their nets, they’d one day fish for people. It’s along those rolling hills that surround the Sea of Galilee that he taught and fed thousands of people over his three years of ministry.
Jerusalem may have been where Jesus died, but Galilee is where he lived.
By summoning the disciples back home, Jesus is bringing them out of the darkness (their sorrow and shame) that they had been plunged into over the past few days. Jesus knows a new day—a new age, in fact—has dawned on human history, though the others are still oblivious.
It is the women’s job to tell his friends that the streetlights are flickering and it’s time to go home, but not because the darkness is about to come, but light (and more light and more light) for the sun of righteousness has arisen—and this light will never be extinguished.
He is summoning them back together; resuming the fellowship that was so beautifully lived out at the Last Supper only to be shattered in the garden when he was arrested. Jesus is telling them, “I have not forgotten you. Even though you’ve deserted and denied me, it is you that I want to see. So come quickly to Galilee.”
For the Gospel writer Matthew, the way of the disciple is one who walks with Jesus on this road home. In fact, Jesus is the path and the final destination, he is the fellow traveler and the home that we long for.
Holy Fire in Jerusalem
So, now for the second story…
Every year on the night before Easter, 10,000 people squeeze into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Within the walls of this one church (tradition says) is the hill on which Jesus was crucified, and what many have claimed to be the tomb in which his body was laid. They have since built a large, monumental structure within this vast church over the spot of the tomb.
The faithful gather in this place on the Easter Vigil to see the miracle of the Holy Fire. Its origins go back some eleven-hundred years; it was first recorded by a French monk in 876.
The vigil begins in the dark, as the crowd stands silently around the monumental tomb, and then enters the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, in procession behind a long line of priests robed in black.
He then walks into the monumental tomb with unlit candles in both hands, and they have ensured that no matches are in the tomb. If the unlit candles are ever to be lit, it will have to be God who lights them.
Everyone then waits patiently. Five minutes go by, then ten, and then suddenly from an open hole in the structure, you can see an arm stick out with a candle ablaze. The place erupts in cheers and celebration.
It is pure mayhem as people try to light their candles with the flame that came straight from heaven. In just a few short minutes the whole church looks as if it is on fire as 10,000 candles are lit, and church bells ring from every corner of the building.
The faithful then pour out into the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem with their candles held high. They will go into the different sections of the Holy City, sharing the light of Christ with anyone they meet.
But it doesn’t end in Jerusalem. The flame is then taken by car and plane to different countries around the world, where Christians there pass the flame around in their own communities. Within a few short hours, Christians in places like Egypt, Ethiopia, Bulgaria, and even war-torn countries like Ukraine are passing the flame from door to door.
A friend of mine grew up in Greece while her father was deployed there, and she recalls when the Holy Fire would arrive in their town late at night and the flame would spread, beginning with the households in the valley, and it would make its way up the hills until the whole town was glowing.
The light of Easter, even today, is taken from Jerusalem and into people’s homes around the world. I can’t help but think that this is the modern equivalent of Jesus saying, “I’ll race you to Galilee. I’ll race you to your home, with your family and friends, among your neighbors and co-workers, where the mundane routines of life take place BECAUSE THAT is where I long to be.”
The writer Mark Clavier says that evangelism is convincing people to come home. That’s what the church is; but more than anything else, that’s what Jesus is. He is the light that has come into the world, he is the Lamb that was slain, and he is the great conqueror of death who overcame the grave. He is priest, prophet, and king…but in all these titles may we never forget that he is our home.
So you don’t have to go to Jerusalem, our Lord wants to meet us here. He’s shown us that to be extraordinary people of the resurrection, you must be okay with the place you find yourself.
It’s right here that God wants to use us, he wants nothing more than to shine his glorious light in our lives through the people we interact with on a daily basis in our very own Galilee.
In taking Jesus seriously about his desire to be among us, where we already are, we can then be sent out like the women at the tomb, bearers of God’s resurrection light, and you never know what may come of it. One light in a village can transform into the entire hillside glowing in the flame of God’s love.
In some mysterious way, Jesus calls us to himself in order to send us out for his glory.
But to my friends who are struggling this morning, those who are wearied by this life: whenever you doubt that call, when the darkness of this world begins to wrap around you when you feel like there is no hope, when news of violence or fear take hold, I pray that somehow, someway you see a light flicker, or the flame of a candle, and hear the angel’s words to the women at the tomb afresh: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…now go, he will meet you back home.”
For ultimately, the Risen and Reigning Jesus is the path and the destination for all who hope in him. I dare you to race him back home, to the depths of your heart, for he has promised to meet us most especially there.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Easter Sunday. Year A. Matthew 28:1-10. Dale Bruner’s Matthew vol. 2. Pic of the Holy Fire.