A colleague of mine in St. Paul had cancer when he was a teenager. He was about 15 or 16 when he had both legs amputated. For several years, as he went through treatments and rehabilitation, the only future he could imagine was one that included death. And when he finally got a clean bill of health, and the cancer was gone, and the rehab was over, he was free to live his life, and to expect to have a full, healthy, complete life. And it was frightening. At that point, it was almost more frightening than the cancer had been in the first place. At least with the cancer,
there was some certainty, even if that certainty included the very real possibility of death. But this was a different kind of fear. It was the fear of a future wide open, a future with possibilities previously unimagined, a future in which death was not the determining factor.
Is it possible that this was what those women at the tomb experienced? They went to the tomb expecting to find death. As women in the ancient world, they would in fact have been well-acquainted with death. Women who didn’t die themselves in childbirth were responsible for tending to those who had. When there was a body to be prepared for burial, the women were usually the ones to deal with it. That’s what these women were doing there at the tomb in the first place, carrying spices to anoint the body of Jesus. Probably frankincense and myrrh, as a matter of fact. This was not the first body they had anointed, and it would not be the last. So these women knew what to expect from a future that held death. They knew what to expect from a tomb.
Being a citizen of the 21st century in America, you may not be as acquainted with death as were Salome and the Marys and the other women of Jesus’ time. You probably know death best when it happens in sterile environments like hospitals; when it is laid out in funeral homes; when it is tempered and tamed by medicine and science. Honestly, I pray that your acquaintance with literal death in general would be fleeting and brief. But for all that we in our culture try to hold death at bay, for all that we control it and manage it and even try to ignore it, I think that we are ever-aware of death, in all its manifestations. I think that we are ever conscious of death’s patient vigil in the world.
All of us have a tomb to which we are carrying spices. What is it that you see when you bend down to look into the tomb? What is it that is holding you back from a future that is wide open? Maybe it is not death precisely. Maybe it is something else, some subset of death, something that is holding you back. Each of us carries something to that tomb, something that we use to anoint the body of our hopes and dreams, the future that we have given up for dead because the past holds us captive, just as surely as death does. What is it? Shame, guilt, pride? Maybe you have been told that you are not good enough. maybe you have heard that you are not deserving. Maybe you believe that you dream too big, or that your hopes are improper. Maybe it really is literally death that holds you back. A family history, a diagnosis, addiction, mental illness. These things all weigh us down like the spices that those women carried to the tomb.
In the book of John, it says that the spices they carried to the tomb weighed about a hundred pounds. What is the weight of what you carry to the tomb? The women who came to the tomb that Easter morning 2000 years ago carried their burden of spices to anoint the body of the dead. They came to the tomb prepared for a future that was tied down by the past, they came to usher in a future in which death had the last word, and their hopes and dreams had ended at the foot of a cross.
And the tomb was empty.
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. You are looking for death. We’re having none of that today. He has been raised; he is not here.” And they fled in terror.
Take a moment to imagine. What would your life be like if, when you bent down to look into the tomb, what if it were empty? Whatever it is that filled that tomb, whatever spectre of death or pain or anger has been dictating your future, is gone. Whatever you have carried to the tomb, the hurts of the past, the bitterness and recriminations of lost love and broken relationships, the fear of illness or injury, all that you have wrapped up in that hundred pound bundle of spices,
you can drop it,
because it is not needed.
There is no anointing the body of death.
Life is what reigns here today.
What would you do if, instead of being bound by the past, instead of your “what’s next” being dictated by the little deaths of history, what if instead, you were free? Really free to move forward into life, into life lived abundantly, not constrained by the pain of the past, not fettered by the future of death,
How scared would you be? Would you run away, would you flee in terror and amazement? Would you say nothing to no one? I think it would be tempting. Because, for all the pain and sadness, for all that death looms, at least now we know what to expect.
But if the tomb is empty,
if the tomb is empty,
then God is loose in the world!
And nothing is ever the same again!
Those women found an empty tomb, and they fled in terror and amazement, but they also took something with them that they had not brought with their spices.
They took a promise.
“He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.”
They had a promise.
A promise that, while the future was blown wide open, they did not step into it alone. Jesus was going ahead of them, right back to the beginning of the story, back to where they first saw him, coming up out of the river Jordan, as the heavens were torn open.
Right back to the first verse of the book of Mark, where the writer tells us that this is “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And there in Galilee, we will find Jesus, doing just what Jesus has been doing all along: healing the sick, casting out demons, ticking off the authorities, and calling disciples.
That is the promise that Benjamin is being baptized into this morning. In the waters of baptism he will be called to die, so that he can live a life in which death no longer matters.
It is the promise that you are invited to carry away from the tomb with you today.
You are free, and freedom, real freedom, can be frightening. It can be overwhelming to receive the news that the cancer is not going to kill you. That you are going to live a full life. That you have a future. It can be overwhelming to imagine how you can live when the debts and burdens of the past
are not weighing you down; when the hopes and dreams of the future are not lying dead in the tomb.
It can be overwhelming.
But you are not alone.
God is loose in the world!
God is going ahead of you, to Galilee and beyond.
Mark’s story doesn’t tell us about the risen Christ. But if you want to know what the risen Christ looks like, you have only to look at ministry of Jesus in Galilee. If you want to know what the risen Christ looks like, you will see him anywhere and everywhere that you see the Kingdom of God breaking in. Anywhere and everywhere that you see healing and reconciliation, anywhere and everywhere that you see unjust and exploitative systems being undone, anywhere and everywhere that you see disciples following in the footsteps of Christ, breaking down boundaries, meeting people where they are, and carrying their burdens for them. The risen Christ is busy, through the hands and feet of the people of God, leading people to the empty tomb, taking their bundles of pain and misery and throwing them away, showing them the new future. It is a frightening prospect, a future unfettered by death. It is a frightening prospect to think that God is loose in the world, because it means that nothing is ever going to be the same again. But that is the story that you are invited into.
Death does not have the last word.
God has the last word.
And that Word,
the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, is going ahead of you.