Meeting Them, Jesus Said, “Rejoice!”

 The angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus Who was crucified.  He is not here; for He is risen, as He said.  Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”                      Matthew 28:5-6

In a small town in medieval Germany, Franz was rounding a corner and bumped into Death.  The two of them drew back in shock, but Franz recovered immediately, ran home, collected some clothes and set off, determined to reach the city of Mainz by nightfall, where he could get lost among the crowds in that city.  Meanwhile a passerby noticed the look of confusion on Death’s face, and asked him what the problem was.  “I did not expect to see Franz here today,” said Death, “because I had an appointment with him this evening in Mainz!”

As we wait through the Coronavirus quarantine, I often think of this story.  Although the date and place of Death’s visit may be changed, even the quarantine will not prevent the appointment which Death has with us.  We are just as vulnerable whether in the assumed safety of being isolated from each other, or after we finally re-expose ourselves to each other at the end of the confinement.

We can’t escape Death.  We know it.  We know that for each of us, we also will one day appear in the obituary column.  Death is so commonplace that we have come to think of it as “natural,” as natural as birth, as sure as “death and taxes” as the saying goes.

And we fear it.  Despite how careless a person may seem about death, it represents the ultimate of helplessness.  No matter how strong, powerful, in control one may be in life, one cannot move even a single eyelash hair in Death.  When the line is slowly drawn closer and closer to Death, whether in sickness, or in terror, or in accident, or in a loved one’s suffering, the battle and even the rage against Death surfaces.

No matter how arrogant one may be about Death, we also deeply realize not only what it does to us, but also its effect to those around us.  Death destroys everything: relationships, plans, hopes, dreams, futures, and so much more.  There is just emptiness staring back at us.  Look at those followers of Jesus huddled together on the day after Jesus’ death:

there were the fearful, hunched together behind locked doors, wondering who might face Death next;

there were those burdened by guilt – those who had run and left Jesus to face the ordeal by Himself, Peter who denied Jesus despite being warned, John who left Peter alone and vulnerable in the courtyard while he merely watched the trial without lifting a voice in protest;

there were the broken and grieving – Jesus’ mother and the other women whose worlds were torn to shreds in the midst of injustice and loss;

there were the lonely – Mary Magdalene and those whose foundation of hope, acceptance, forgiveness was turned to dust, the promises and comfort of Jesus which evaporated into nothingness;

there were the searching and struggling who now faced the depth of life emptied of any value or content, no longer having the prospect of the abundant life Jesus had promised.

This is Death in all of its dishonor.  It is the result of rebellion against the Creator, Who is the Source of all life.  It is the future which faces every human, as St Paul put It, “…through one man sin entered the world, and Death through sin, and thus Death spread to all men, because all have sinned” (Roman 5:12).

But on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, something was wrong – it just didn’t fit.  When Jesus died, there was a great earthquake, which we can imagine echoed the breaking of God’s heart.  But Matthew records a second upheaval on this day – what could that mean?  What could have shaken Creation for a second time?  It was not just that an angel showed up, since there were many appearances of angels which were not accompanied by such movement of the earth, instead it was like a rising bubble, the surfacing of an event which gave the basis for the angel’s message.  Paul described it in Romans 8[:19-22]:

The earnest expectation of Creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God, for Creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him Who subjected it in hope; because Creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole Creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.

The angel had an announcement of something so profound that the whole of Creation was shaken to its core: “you seek Jesus Who was crucified.  He is not here; for He is risen, as He had foretold.”  Death had met its match and in the words of John Donne:

Death be not proud – though some have called you
Mighty and dreadful, you are not so!
For those whom you think you overthrow
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One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, you shall die.

[Paraphrase of “Death be not proud” “Holy Sonnet X”  John Donne]

Something has happened, the likes of which never happened before.  Oh, yes there have been many religions which had in their traditions the idea of coming back from the dead, but those were merely myths.  None had any sense of eye-witness reality.  None had to demonstrate proof of the concrete reality as Jesus did by eating food in front of His disciples.  None had to directly confront skeptics with a Body which had unmistakably been tortured and executed, which now stood before them in fully restored life, as Jesus did with Thomas.  The earthquake demonstrated the complete disruption to what had been the closed system of death.  The light of Life had unquestionably shattered the darkness of death.

Think of all the changes which would be required by the Resurrection!  The fearful would discover the empty threat of Death [I Corinthians 15:56].  The guilty would find the forgiveness which would banish the power of past failures, sins, rebellions “as far as the east is from the west” [Psalm 103:12].  The broken and grieving would uncover the fountain of life which wells up into eternity [John 4:14; Isaiah 42:3].  The lonely would find eternal fellowship with God Himself {John 6:37; Luke 23:43].  And the searching and struggling would be shown “what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the Glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” [Ephesians 1:18-20].

It is no surprise then that the angel would encourage the women to discover for their own lives the truth of this Creation-changing event – “Come and see!”; and then to “Go!” – “Go back into life with the profound change of outlook, confidence, and determination which this brings to every aspect, deed and thought which fills your days; and then burst out in terrific excitement at this news of such earth-disrupting power by sharing it with others who need to hear of the earthquake, the upheaval which can happen in their lives as well.”

I can’t imagine the women not tripping over themselves in their rush to bring hope, joy, freedom, and richness of life to the disciples who plainly were in need of such Good News.  Despite their enthusiasm, the task would be much harder than one might expect.  As we read in the other Gospels, the disciples have all sorts of reasons – excuses – not to believe such life- and outlook-transforming news.  The women would experience the frustration of seeing rejected such a wonderful answer to all which the followers of Jesus were struggling with, those disciples who were still on the other side of the resurrection.  What the women could give to those people, and yet how helpless they must have felt.

But our Lord had an answer for them.  As they went, Jesus Himself came to them and the first word He said was not “Greetings!” but “Rejoice!”  Actually that is very significant!  We also can leave here today all excited by the tidings of the messenger who has come before us today, ready to declare the news of how all creation has been rocked by the Resurrection of Jesus.  And far too often we can be knocked back by the same opposition and disbelief which the disciples had, which is understandable in those who still live on the other side of the Resurrection.  In fact even more discouraging can be the reaction of the guards who were there for the whole experience of the angel, and yet  who returned to the chief priests, intent on preventing anyone else from finding out about such Good News.

So Jesus’ first words to these tidings-bearers is “Rejoice!”  What He is doing is getting focus back on just what it is they bear, something of such enormous joy which stands despite whatever reaction will be faced.  Their task is not to argue, but simply to rejoice, and in that joy; to share.  And then to realize that as they fulfill His command to “Go and tell,” He will be with them just as He has been all along since the open tomb.

Jesus does that for us today as well.  Here at His Table, here at the Good News of the empty tomb, our Lord comes to us to show to us as well that He is with us.  Here is the Body broken on the Cross, the Blood poured out for our sakes, but more, this is also the Risen Christ Himself Who greets us as well.  Here is all the joy, confidence, the mighty power of God, the triumph of life, the forgiveness of sins, the release of guilt, the riches of the Glory, the inheritance of the saints, and so much more, all concentrated in the presence of our Lord, the Victor over Life and Death, the Champion of eternity, the Disruptor – or rather the Restorer – of all Creation.

A most wonderful statement is found in the First Lesson (Acts 10:34–43).  As Peter recounts this Good News to Cornelius, he begins with the statement, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.”  Indeed, all which Jesus has done is offered to each of us, no matter who or what we are, no matter what lies in our past.  As we submit to His risen Lordship over life here and for eternity, all these blessings, promises and future are indeed ours.

So come, let us celebrate, as Jesus is present now, and here says to us, “Rejoice!”

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