In Mark’s Gospel, verse 8 of chapter 16 is traditionally considered to be the original ending of the Gospel, with verses 9 through 20 added a bit later by scribes as a post-script. But if you look at verse 8, it seems like an odd way to end the account of Jesus’ resurrection, doesn’t is? After the women find Jesus’ empty tomb, Mark says that, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
So, Mark’s Gospel leaves us wondering what this empty tomb means. However, perhaps this is not such an odd ending when we think about it. Is not the question of what the empty tomb means still relevant in our own time? Don’t we and those around us still struggle with this event? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? What does all this mean? The women grappled with this question in their trembling fear and astonishment, and so do we.
In fact, this Sunday of the empty tomb comes as the first day in the new week following what was a whirlwind week. After weeks of telling his disciples what would happen to him in Jerusalem, last Sunday Jesus entered the city to shouts of praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” While in the city, Jesus cleansed the temple, his “Father’s house.” Then, on Thursday, Jesus ate his last supper with his disciples, giving them the bread and cup of the new covenant in his body and blood. Then, late Thursday night and early Friday morning he was arrested, tried, and convicted. Then, on Friday afternoon he was crucified and died, sealing the covenant with his body and blood. And then he was taken down from the cross and buried in the new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, with a large stone rolled across the tomb to seal him in it before the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday.
Yes, this was a busy week for Jesus. In six days he was very active as he prepared for the final event on the cross on Friday. For six days he was working in the city, preparing for his cross. And then on that sixth day, everything was completed as he gave up his body and poured out his blood for you, for your sins. The sinless Son of God fulfilled God’s will, was obedient to the Law, and then took God’s wrath for your sins upon himself and suffered forsakenness and death for you, crying out the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and finally “It is finished,” because his work of reconciling sinners to God was complete. And then he was laid in the tomb for the Sabbath rest.
So, Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation was completed on the sixth day, then he rested in the tomb on the seventh day. It’s like in the very beginning, in Genesis, when God called all things into existence. For six days He created through His Word, speaking everything into existence, with His Spirit then ordering all things, hovering over the surface of the waters. And on the sixth day, God created man and woman in His image. And then His work was done; it was finished. He rested on the seventh day after He saw that His creation was very good.
When God rested on the seventh day in His initial creation of all things, everything was perfect. He had created all things, there was no decay or death in the world, because there was no sin and rebellion. He had created man and woman and placed them in the Garden of Eden so that He could walk in their midst and provide them all that they needed. Everything was as it should be; humanity dwelling with each other, with God, and with creation in perfect communion.
But, Adam and Eve – God’s creations – rebelled against His rule. They disobeyed His holy will and brought sin into the world, which brought death as a tagalong. Because where sin is, there is death, since sinful humanity can not live in the presence of a holy God. And so, through Adam and Eve’s sin, humanity – their descendants (that is to say, “us”) – were condemned to death apart from the living Lord God. This sin introduced a separation between humanity and God and among humanity; it also marred the rest of creation since decay and death entered into it.
Thus, things were no longer perfect or “very good” as God had made them. And we see the results of this sin and separation today. We see many things in the world that should not be. We see them on the news, read about them, experience them, and even perpetrate them. We are born into a state of rebellion against God because we are descendants of Adam and Eve, who started this rebellion with their sin.
But, God promised that one day He would undue this rebellion. He promised a Savior who would come to defeat sin, death, and the devil. This Savior would therefore reconcile humanity to God and humanity to itself, as well as restore all creation. Throughout human history God gathered together a people for Himself, a people of this promise, the Church. He named this Church “Israel” after the Old Testament patriarch Jacob who had wrestled with the pre-incarnate Word of God and was renamed “Israel” himself, meaning “he wrestles with God.”
For God’s Word can be difficult to handle. It doesn’t always make sense to our human reason; we struggle with it, we wrestle with it, but ultimately – like Jacob – we are subdued by it and placed under its authority as God calls us into His Church. In the Old Testament Church of Israel, God gathered together His people around His promise of the coming Savior. Their faith rested in the hope of the promised Christ who would come to save his people from their sins.
And then, in the fullness of time, this Christ our Savior came. He was born to the virgin Mary, a humble baby in human flesh. This eternal Word of God – the one through whom the Father spoke all things into existence – became flesh and dwelt among us. Who knew that within this veil of flesh and blood was the eternal, almighty Lord God? Jesus Christ, this Emmanuel or “God with us,” had come to fulfill God’s promises. God’s Word came in person to save His own creation.
Jesus Christ is the Word through whom the Father created all things in the beginning in six days. And on this final, Passion week this Word in the flesh began the recreation and restoration of all things through himself in six days, culminating in his death on the cross. Then, he rested in the tomb. It is finished, and it is very good.
For on the first day of the new week, the eighth day, as the sun had just risen, he rose from this rest as he rose from the dead. Death could not contain him, our sins could not keep him down, the devil was not victorious over him. No, instead, Jesus was victorious and defeated sin, death, and the devil – for you. So, he was no longer in the tomb when the three women came to anoint his dead body with spices for burial. On their way to the tomb they met someone they did not expect, an angel who said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
“Go, tell others that Jesus has risen.” This is the message of the angel to us. This is the Good News, the Gospel. This is what we proclaim to all people, just as did the Apostle Paul, because this is the message of first importance: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”… and that he appeared to his disciples (1 Corinthians 15:3ff). All that the Old Testament pointed to concerning the crucified and risen Christ led up to this last week. Christ came in the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scriptures, he came to save us from our sins and from our captivity to sin, death, and the devil. He came to win the victory for us. So what does the empty tomb of Jesus mean? It means that he has reconciled us to God, to each other, and to creation itself.
This is Good News, because God has done all this for us through Jesus the Christ, His Son, His Word, purely because of His grace and mercy. We didn’t earn this salvation, it was given to us. We are all sinners. I am a sinner. Our sins deserve eternal death and separation from God. But, God in His infinite mercy has given His Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us of all our sins. It’s a gift, an inheritance given to us through the death and resurrection of Christ.
And so on this Easter morning, this first day of the new week, the eighth day, we proclaim and receive this message of first importance, that “Christ has risen. He has risen indeed. Alleluia!” I am here not to tell you what you need to do to be saved, but instead to tell you what Christ has already done for your salvation. It’s past tense; “it is finished.” So, I proclaim to you the message of first importance, that Christ died for your sins in accordance with the Scriptures and then rose on the third day, and that you have been baptized into his death and resurrection and so have been made – by the very Word of God – into God’s children, redeemed from eternal death and brought instead into eternal life.
You are part of something new that is coming into this world. You are Christ’s body, and he has promised to be with you. And so He is. As part of his inauguration of the new creation through his body and blood, he dwells with you, his people of the promise – his Church – through Word and Sacrament.
You have His Word as it is proclaimed to you and as it is poured over you in the waters of Baptism. And in the Lord’s Supper, veiled in bread and wine, you have his body and blood, just as he himself in all his glory as of the only begotten Son of God was veiled in flesh and blood in his incarnation. The Lord continues to be with us in the midst of His Church.
So, it’s been a busy week, but now the week is over and a new day is here. It’s the day of the resurrection. This is the day of the Lord that he has made for us as he gives us His salvation from sin and death that comes to us through his death and resurrection. Indeed, we have this each Lord’s Day and, indeed, every day.
And what is this salvation that we now have as God’s people? Is it to die and go to heaven? Well, partly, but that’s not all. For our ultimate Christian hope is the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We are people made of flesh and blood, and Christ is returning to raise up our bodies and reunite our souls with them. And this is not a hope in the sense that maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t. No, this is a sure hope, because its fulfillment rests on God and not on us, and it is grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as Christ died and was raised, so too will the Lord raise us up after death when he returns for us on the Last Day, and your baptism is God’s personal pledge to you of this.
So, ultimately, you and the rest of the holy Christian Church will be brought into the presence of the Lord in the new creation to live forever. It will then be as God intended in the beginning: God Himself dwelling directly in the midst of His creatures, no longer mediated through Word and Sacrament. Sin, death, and the devil will be no more. They have already been defeated on the cross and the empty tomb and so although they are still battling against us here in this life, they’re on the losing side of history and will be removed forever when Christ returns.
And so on this morning when we are celebrating that first Easter morning, the promise of God through Christ is as fresh today as it was then, for it is the eternal Gospel, knitting together the Church of all times – both the Old and New Testaments – and all places and all languages and all ethnicities together in one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism. We are all one in Jesus Christ. He is the Word through whom God created all things in the beginning with the Holy Spirit, and he is the incarnate Word through whom God is redeeming and restoring all things with the Holy Spirit. Our Triune God is redeeming the creation that He made, and that includes you.
And this victory of Christ for you was first heralded by the angel and continues to be heralded by all the Church as we proclaim the message of first importance: “He has risen.” He has risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.
(Image: Las Santas Mujeres ante la tumba de Cristo, 1346, from Monasterio de Pedralbes, Barcelona. Ferrer Bassa – Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6628573 )