Easter 2020: Empty churches. Empty tomb.
(Matthew 28:1-10 / April 10, 2020)
It’s highly ironic that I am speaking to you this Easter morning from an empty church. I don’t know if there has ever been an Easter in the history of the Christian church where Christians didn’t gather together to celebrate our Savior’s resurrection. That’s not exactly true. We are gathered together this morning, just not in person. But we are together in Spirit. For the same Holy Spirit that dwells in me dwells also in each of you. And so, we’re together. We are together this morning with Jesus Christ.
Jesus once said, “Where two or three gather together in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). That wouldn’t be possible if Jesus were still dead. The great hope that you, I, and every Christian has is that Jesus is alive. And so, even though our churches may be empty this Easter, does it really matter? No! What matters more is that there is an empty tomb.
The women who went to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning didn’t expect to find it empty. They had been with Jesus when he died on the cross and they had watched the men lay his body in the tomb. And so they came carrying spices that morning hoping to finish the burial process that they weren’t able to finish on Good Friday due to the Sabbath the following day. They came to the tomb with spices, and they came to the tomb with hearts full of disappointment.
I imagine that many of us are somewhat disappointed right now. I’m disappointed. I wish I could be together with all of you. I wish we could sing together in a loud voice the great hymns of the resurrection. I wish I could smell the Easter lilies and see the altar decorated more beautifully than it is at any other time of the year. But I can’t, because the church, as you can see, is empty. So, it’s important for me to focus my attention on the empty tomb.
The women arrived at the tomb that morning full of sadness. They left the tomb full of gladness. What a difference a mere three days can make! Right? So remember that when you’re having a bad day. Remember that when you feel that all is lost and there is no hope--that nothing can make you happy again. A whole lot can happen in a matter of days. A whole lot can happen when we realize that Jesus is alive.
To the women’s surprise they noticed that the stone was rolled away and that they soldiers were gone. To their greater surprise an angel spoke to them and set their hearts at rest. He said, “Don’t 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, see the place where he lay” (vv. 5,6).
Every time I hear those words, I imagine myself in the empty tomb. I imagine the flattened stone area where the body of Jesus was laid, and I see his burial clothes left there, but no body. I picture the angel sitting at the place where Jesus’ head would have been, pointing to the shroud that once covered his face. And I can see in my mind’s eye the disbelief on the face of the women. How can things go from being so bad to so good in such a short amount of time?
The answer? Because Jesus was dead and is now alive. Those are two very important words in this text: “was” and “is”. As long as Jesus was dead, there was only emptiness in the women’s hearts. And let me just say, dear brother and sister, that if you live as though Jesus were still dead to you, there will be an empty void in your heart as well. But when we take the truth of Easter--that Jesus is no longer dead; he is alive--and apply that to the present, the void is filled, and we realize that we are no longer alone. Even when the church is empty.
There is a saying going around on Facebook that says something to the effect of “Satan may be rejoicing over the empty churches, until he remembers there is an empty tomb.” So, it’s all about where we put our focus. If Satan focuses on the empty churches, he’s believing a lie. He’s not winning. Jesus has already won--the tomb is empty. In the same way, if you’re focused on the emptiness of your life, you’re telling yourself a lie. You’re forgetting the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore, whatever emptiness you may currently have is only momentary. In heaven it will all be filled. And, perhaps, the better news is that Jesus can even fill the emptiness now. As King David says in Psalm 23, “My cup runneth over.”
Well, he’s talking about his present situation. What was his present situation? He was walking through the shadow of death. So how can his cup be running over? Because God was with him. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” Well, that is a good picture of life, right? So much of life seems to be against us at any given moment. And yet, I don’t need to go through life moping. I can rejoice. My God is not dead; He is alive!
In other words, the word “empty” doesn’t have to be a bad word. We have an empty cross, do we not? That is a good thing! I don’t know if we always capture the symbolism, but the reason many churches have an empty cross hanging in the front is to underscore the truth that Jesus is no longer dead. He was dead (isn’t that what the angel said?), but now he is alive. And that means the devil is conquered. He may be still able to bark. He may even be still able to bite. But he can’t kill. Death has no power over the believer. First Corinthians 15:54: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”.
So, we have an empty church this Easter morning. Well, so what? Who says “empty” always has to be a bad word. An empty cross is a good thing, and an empty grave is a good thing. Full graves, on the other hand, are a bad thing. You think of your loved ones who have died and gone to heaven. Are they in the grave? Their body may still be in the grave, but that is not them. They are in heaven. Their soul, that is, their personhood, is in heaven. And on the Last Day, even their bodies will come out of the grave and be united with their souls in heaven. You see, they were dead, but now they are alive.
That’s good news for you on this Easter morning. I hope you share it with someone who needs to hear it. The disciples certainly needed to hear it that first Easter morning. They were still living as if Jesus was dead. They were still living in the past. And as long as someone lives in the past, their cup will always be half empty.
But the truth is our cups are running over even in the bad times. We just need to remember that Jesus is alive! Like the women who told the disciples, “He was dead, but now he is alive!” None of this, that is happening right now, is taking him by surprise. How could it? He is seated on his throne in heaven reigning as God over all. And because he lives we also will live (John 14:19), not only after death, but we can live right now. “He who has the Son, has [present tense] life” (1 John 5:12). Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
So, enough moping. Get living! Yes, the churches may be empty today, but honestly, big deal. The tomb of Jesus is empty. That’s the big deal. When your heart is empty say to yourself, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” Amen.