Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! If you plan on coming back here over the course of the next six weeks, you better get used to that refrain, because we will be saying it throughout the Easter season. Have you ever wondered why? Why do we offer each other this verbal challenge and response on Easter and in the weeks following? Is it a secret password to get in the door? Is it a test to see if you are a genuine Lutheran or not? No. It’s a memory device. It’s a tool to help us remember the fact on which our faith is built: Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world on Good Friday, but three days later he rose to life. It might be the most joyful phrase a Christian could ever speak. That being said, did you speak those words out of pure, unadulterated joy this morning or was it more a cold indifference? Or maybe, did you hope that mouthing those words would serve the same purpose as your nice clothes and fake smile: to cover up a bitter, or sad, or unbelieving heart? In all honesty, if it’s up to us, there’s no reason to rejoice this morning: tomorrow we go back to work, the bills still need to be paid, our diseases won’t magically go away, our families won’t suddenly become picture perfect, and sooner or later we will die. But today is not about us, it’s about Christ; and Christ is risen! And remembering that fact will fill our lives with real, genuine joy every day. Of course, if we forget, we will have nothing but sadness.
Early Easter morning, some women remembered Jesus…they remembered that he had been cruelly beaten, whipped, tortured, and crucified on Good Friday. And they took action. They came to his tomb to finish embalming his dead body. They were fully expecting to find a lifeless corpse in a sealed tomb. But they found the opposite: the tomb was open and empty. Understandably, they were wondering about this. But they shouldn’t have wondered, they should have remembered that Jesus had told them that he must die at the hands of evil men but that he would rise again on the third day. They should have connected the words Jesus had spoken to the reality before their eyes. (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33; Luke 9:21-22) But they didn’t…they forgot. They were acting like Jesus’ words were one thing, a spiritual, otherworldly thing – and reality was something completely different. So Jesus sent heavenly messengers to help them make the connection: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember while he still told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’
When Jesus had first spoken these words, he knew that they would be hard to remember and even harder to believe, so he said listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. (Luke 9:44) Clearly they didn’t listen carefully enough, because they all forgot Jesus’ words and because they forgot they were definitely NOT joyful. They were instead fearful, doubting and despairing. When Jesus was arrested, they ran. When he was crucified, they were nowhere to be found. Saturday and Sunday they were hidden behind locked doors out of fear that the same people who murdered Jesus would come after them. (John 20:19) Even after the women reported what they had seen – or more accurately, what they had not seen – they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. And really, who can blame them. It’s not a recent discovery that dead people don’t ordinarily come back to life.
The great irony is that while Jesus’ disciples had forgotten Jesus’ words, Jesus’ words had been seared onto the memories of his enemies. They went to Pilate and said sir…we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first. (Matthew 27:63-64) Isn’t that sad? Jesus’ enemies remembered Jesus’ words and tried to lock him in the tomb. His friends, who should have known better, forgot and locked themselves in a coffin of their own out of fear and sadness.
What about us? Do we sometimes forget that Jesus is risen and instead live as though he were still rotting away in a tomb? Or, just as bad, do we – who have been united with Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism – live as though we were still dead in sin and unbelief? Because the two go hand in hand – if deep down we think Christ is still dead, then we will live like it. What does that look like? Well, if the only time you hear the Gospel is Christmas and Easter, you are living like Jesus is still dead. If you think you can reject Jesus’ rightful claim as Lord of your life but still expect him to save your soul, Jesus is dead to you. If you live like this world – and what this world can offer – is all there is and death is the end, Jesus is dead to you. (You’re making the same mistake as the disciples – not connecting Jesus’ words to reality!) If you think you can find Jesus apart from his Word and sacraments, Jesus is dead to you. If guilt and shame and sadness and fear of judgment still rule in your heart you are living like Jesus is still dead. If those things ring true for you, it’s no wonder that life seems sad – you really have no reason to be joyful because you have forgotten the one fact that changes everything: Jesus is not dead; he’s risen!
Bu let’s pretend, for one awful moment, that Jesus is still dead. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) If Jesus is still dead, then you’re wasting your time here this morning, you might as well still be sleeping or hunting for Easter eggs or sipping a mimosa somewhere – because nothing I say matters. If Jesus is still dead, there was no need for you to please your mother by coming to church – because it’s all a lie anyway. But worst of all, if Jesus is still dead, you are still in your sins – every single evil thing you’ve ever thought, said or done – is still on your record and God will still judge you and damn you to hell for them.
And Paul goes even further: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:19) If Jesus is still dead, then we would have good reason to be gloomy and miserable. Even beyond the fact that life in this world is sad and challenging and depressing for everyone – it would be especially miserable for Christians because we’ve clung to a false hope of a better future, we’ve sacrificed and carried a cross in the expectation that it would be followed by glory, we’ve given our time and money and energy to support the proclamation of a message that is nothing more than a very elaborate hoax. If Jesus is still dead then we really should be mourning today because there is no forgiveness, no joy, and no hope of heaven.
But did you catch the word in Luke’s Gospel that gives us hope? Seemed…their words seemed like nonsense. The empty tomb seemed like nonsense, but it wasn’t. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s not an elaborate hoax. It is historical, verifiable, proven fact – those women, Peter, even Jesus’ enemies are eye-witnesses of the fact. (Matthew 28:11-15) And this fact relates directly to our reality here in 2019. Paul says Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20) That strange word firstfruits is important. It means that while Jesus was the first person in history to rise from the dead – and stay alive forever – so there will be more to follow. You know you when you open a Kleenex box that first one can be almost impossible to get out? Well, Jesus’ resurrection was the first, the difficult one, the rest, in comparison will be easy. Everyone who is united to Jesus through faith will follow him out of the grave like tissues out of the box. (And yes, I sincerely hope that you think of the resurrection every time you open a Kleenex box, especially if you doing it to wipe away tears of sadness.)
And so, while the women and the disciples were sad when they forgot; when Jesus led them to remember, then they were filled with joy. Jesus reminded the women through the angels and the disciples through the women. And when the disciples connected Jesus’ words to reality, they remembered that Jesus had said, right at the beginning of his ministry: destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. They thought he meant the temple building at the time, but the temple he had spoken of was his body…and after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. (John 2:19, 21-22) And this profound connection changed their lives. Not only did their sadness turn to joy but it even led them to risk and sacrifice their lives to spread this news throughout the world. (And it’s a well-established fact that people don’t die for something they know to be a lie!)
I suppose we might think that it would be a lot easier to connect the Word of God to our personal reality if Jesus appeared to us today – if he was standing right here before our eyes. But don’t forget: Jesus didn’t appear to those women or to his disciples either, at least, not right away. What did he do? He sent angels – messengers – to remind them what he had said. Jesus still sends messengers to help the world remember his words; the clearest and most trustworthy is right here: the Holy Bible. Over 2000 years later it is still preaching the same exact message as those angels. No, it doesn’t give us all the answers we might like to have, it doesn’t clear up every mystery: when Jesus returned to life, how he got out of a sealed tomb, where he was before he appeared to anyone – but our faith and joy are not based on details we don’t know, but on the single glorious fact: he is not here; he has risen!
We know that after the disciples saw Jesus’ words become reality before their eyes they wanted to remember everything else he had said, too. (Apparently when someone says he’s going to rise from the dead and then does it, his words gain importance! In fact, that’s why Luke wrote his Gospel. (Luke 1:1-4)) What else does Jesus want us to remember by having it preserved until the end of time in his Word? Well, he wants us to be certain that this miserable life is not all there is: if we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:5) And he wants that certainty to take root in our reality right now: Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2) And there are more…many more things Jesus wants us to remember so that our joy never ends. Too many things to remember today. There are enough things that we could spend every day of our lives until the end of time studying the Bible and not exhaust the things Jesus wants us to remember. In fact, that’s why we gather every Sunday (and, contrary to what many people seem to think, not just on Christmas and Easter!)…to savor this Easter joy year-round.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because the joy of Jesus’ resurrection is the only thing that can overcome the gloom and depression of being sinful people in a sinful world that is not and will never get any better. This joy is the only thing that will never change – not if you lose your job, your home, your health, a loved one…not even when you face death yourself. Because you are here today, the devil is going to work overtime to kill your joy by wiping your memory of Jesus’ words and works, by undermining your faith, by trying to convince you that these are just words in a church that have nothing to do with your reality out there. But he can only do that if you go along with him, if you cut yourself off from Jesus by despising his Word and sacraments; if you set your heart on earthly things rather than things above; if you leave here and continue to live as if Jesus were still dead.
But if you’re tired of dragging your way through life sad and miserable and hopeless, if you want the joy of this day to last, if you want the deep, unshakable certainty that no trial or tragedy of life can destroy, then take advantage of every opportunity God gives to help you remember and never forget this: He is not here; he has risen! Alleluia! Amen.