The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THAT'S MY STORY, AND I'M STICKIN' TO IT!

Delivered 3/23/08
Text: Matthew 27:62-28:15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A teacher assigned her class the topic, "What I'll be doing during the Easter holiday." All the students began writing, little Johnny in an especially animated and excited way. Soon, he raised his hand. "Teacher, how do you spell 'gun'?"

Puzzled, the teacher said, "G-U-N."

Johnny continued to write even more furiously. Soon, he raised his hand again. "Teacher, how do you spell 'die'?"

Alarmed, the teacher said, "D-I-E...Johnny, just what are you intending to do this Easter?"

"Why, teacher, we gun die Easter eggs." (1)

Carol was the organist at her church. She was an outstanding musician, but she did something no organist should ever do. She overslept on Easter morning and missed the sunrise service. She was so embarrassed. Of course, the minister and the church forgave her. They teased her about it a little, but it was done lovingly and in good fun.

However, the next Easter, her phone rang at 5:00 in the morning. Jolted awake by the loud ringing, she scrambled to answer it. It was the minister, and he said, "Carol, it's Easter morning! The Lord is risen! . . . And I suggest you do the same!"

Yes. It is Easter again. Time to revisit the old, familiar story. The most familiar, of course, is John's version of the resurrection. You will find it in chapter 20, and you can read it this afternoon at home if you like, because I am going to work with Matthew's version instead. No tender encounter in the garden here, Matthew delivers an earthquake. He gives us a big ol' angel - a buff, burly, Arnold Schwarzenegger angel. Strong enough to muscle that hulking stone out of the way and sit on it, without even breaking a sweat. Confronted with this fearsome sight, "the guards shook and became like dead men." Interesting irony. They are deader than the former occupant of the tomb is right now. Matthew gives us power. God power.

As you noticed in our reading, we did not begin the story where you might expect it to begin, not with dawn on Easter Day "while the dew is still on the roses," but rather a little earlier, in that strange, in-between time - the gray, nondescript hours after the cross is empty, but before the tomb is.

The chief priests and the Pharisees come together before Pilate, one last time. They remind the governor of something Jesus once said: "After three days I will rise again."

"Better lock that tomb up tight," they suggest -- shaking padlocks and lengths of chain out of the sleeves of their robes, and dropping them in a great, clanking heap on Pilate's mosaic floor. "We wouldn't want any miracles ruining our little plot now, would we?" (Listen carefully for echoes of Snidely Whiplash here: "Nyah, hah, hah!")

Pilate agrees. "Take a guard," Pilate instructs the chief priests and Pharisees. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how."

"HA!" Matthew just loves the irony of those words. Unlike his two-dimensional, ne'er-do-well villains, Matthew knows what comes next. (And so do we: "You just wait, Pontius P. Your arms are too short to box with God. It won't be long now.")

An aside here. We idolize many things in our culture, but one idol (especially after September 11th) is security. Politicians have made (or attempted to make) entire careers on it. Our efforts at making ourselves secure are about as ineffectual (and at times as comical) as Pilate's soldiers rolling that huge stone in front of the tomb entrance, to prevent the Son of God from strolling out.

In ancient China, the people wanted security against the barbaric hordes to the north, so they built the Great Wall. It was so high they believed no one could climb over it and so thought nothing could break it down. They settled back to enjoy their security. During the first hundred years of the wall's existence, China was invaded three times. Not once did the barbaric hordes break down the wall or climb over it. Each time, they bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right through the gates. The Chinese were so busy relying on walls of stone they forgot to teach integrity to their children."

Integrity seems to have been in short supply back in Jerusalem that day. More about that later.

Now we come to the story that is so familiar. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to finish their grisly task - the embalming process begun on Friday had had to stop because of the interruption of the Sabbath. They knew that it would be guarded by legionnaires not renowned for compassion. Were they hoping the guards would roll the stone away? Did it occur to them that they might not be allowed in to complete their work? What were they thinking? WERE they thinking? Probably not.

Meanwhile, Matthew gives us an explanatory sidebar. He tells us about that earthquake, a seismos (in Greek) which is the same root used a bit later when he says the guards "shook" - they had their own inner earthquakes. A little pun on Matthew's part perhaps? We have the appearance of the incredible white hulk of an angel who takes care of the rolling stone problem as well as the legionnaires, and he is now sitting on the stone like King of the Mountain. The guards were lying on the ground, looking like they had been mugged. What little light of dawn had begun to break through the olive branches and shown into the tomb made it apparent that the Lord's body was missing. And then they heard the voice of this unusual-looking messenger breaking the stillness of the early hour: "Do not be afraid." Right.

"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. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.'"

The frightened visitors began to feel a bit more at ease. Ever so cautiously they inched closer to the entrance of the tomb following the invitation to look inside. Yep. Empty. No doubt there were questions beginning to form in the ladies' minds, but none had taken shape quite yet. In silence they turned to leave and obey their instructions.

As they hustle themselves out of the garden on their informational errand, they meet Jesus. There is no indication in Matthew's account that they fail to recognize Jesus (that comes from the more familiar account in John), just a glad reunion. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.

An aside here. Last Easter I asked if you had ever wondered what Jesus was wearing? After all, his grave clothes were there in the tomb. Did he find an extra pair of coveralls in the gardener's tool shed over by the rakes and the lawn tractor, or what? Last year I told you to ponder it over your Easter dinner, come up with an answer, and report back to me. None of you did!!! So I give you the assignment again. Discuss it at dinner, and let me know.

"Greetings," says Jesus. The Greek word is chairete which literally means "rejoice" but functions here as ordinary language comparable to "Hi there" or, in my native tongue, "Hey, y'all." No big deal. Yeah, it has been a interesting couple of days, but now it's time to get on with business. "Hey y'all." Wow. No doubt the women wanted to stay and talk, but Jesus reiterated the instructions of the angel: "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." So off they go.

Now we come to the part that normally gets dropped from these Easter readings, this brief account of the Roman guards going into the city with the story of the strange events in the garden. In another piece of delicious literary irony, Matthew says they "reported" to the priests what had happened, "reported" being the same Greek word used in previous verses concerning the good news of the resurrection.

OK, priests, we have a problem. How do we handle it? Cash, "a large sum of money," says the text. Here it is, the unholy alliance between the religious, the political, and the military with lots of money thrown in to hatch a lie to further their own purposes. Where, oh, where have we ever seen that before?


The priests tell the soldiers, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' That's your story - stick to it." Are you kidding? Isn't this precisely the story that setting the guard and sealing the tomb were designed to prevent? So the soldiers went along with the plan, which was pretty risky on their part. Even though the priests said they would intervene on the guards' behalf with Governor Pilate, falling asleep on duty was a capital offense, so these fellows were literally putting their life on the line. Isn't it amazing what a man will do for money?

The story concludes, "And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day." But we know very well that, as time went on, the story never really caught on. Despite the incredible leap of faith that was required, that life could actually come from death, people came to believe the story told by the women, even people who are not particularly religious. Gallup polls in America to this day show large majorities, regardless of religious background, saying they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. How amazing is that?

By the way, did you notice the context of the resurrection story in Matthew's account? The preface is the arrangement with Pilate to seal the tomb, and the post script is the arrangement with the guards. Just as Christ's crucifixion was between two unsavory criminals, his resurrection is between two unsavory conspiracies. Perhaps that is Matthew's way of reminding us (if we need a reminder) that even the most powerful and important events in our lives are often surrounded by ugliness.

But the powerful story remains. Every year it comes to us and people continue to flock to hear it. Why? Because the story never changes and the result is that all these questions have the same answer:
  • What is it that gives a widow courage as she stands beside a fresh grave?
  • What is the ultimate hope of the cripple, the amputee, the abused, the burn victim?
  • How can the parents of brain-damaged or physically handicapped children keep from living their entire lives totally and completely depressed?
  • Why would anyone who is blind or deaf or paralyzed be encouraged when they think of the life beyond?
  • How can we see past the martyrdom of some helpless hostage or devoted missionary?
  • Where do the thoughts of a young couple go when they finally recover from the grief of losing their baby?
  • When a family receives the tragic news that a little daughter was found dead or their dad was killed in a plane crash or a son overdosed on drugs, what single truth becomes their whole focus?
  • What is the final answer to pain, mourning, senility, insanity, terminal diseases, sudden calamities, and fatal accidents?


One word: Resurrection!

Easter is about power - God power. What makes this day so incredible is not that we now know there is life after death. We have known that. Most ancient cultures believed that. From the Happy Hunting Grounds to King Tut's tomb to the tiny cemetery attached to the small country church, the notion of the afterlife has been embraced for thousands of years. What happened with Easter is that now we have found the way. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for all who believe.

Years ago, Winston Churchill planned his own funeral, and he did so with the hope of the resurrection and eternal life, in which he firmly believed. And he instructed after the benediction that a bugler positioned high in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral would play "Taps" - the quiet notes that signal the ending of day.

But then came the very dramatic moment that Churchill had also instructed. Another bugler had been placed on the other side of the massive dome - he played "Reveille." A new day has dawned, and it is time to arise. Indeed.

What does Easter mean to you? Teacher, how do you spell gun?

G-U-N.

Teacher, how do you spell live?

L-I-V-E.

Easter means we GUN LIVE. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Amen.

1. From Ralph Milton's RUMORS, a free Internet 'e-zine' for Christians with a sense of humor, 3/16/08

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