The Power of an Empty Tomb: God of surprises.

Although we are in the fall, I thought I would share an Easter story. With all the leaves falling and the days are drawing in, we need a bit of good cheer!

The God of the Bible is always active, always making new, consistently doing a new thing. It is one of the ways God is different from idols, those things we make who do not move, speak, or do anything at all. By contrast, the God whose story is told in the Bible is continuously creating and recreating. It is why God is surprising, the God of surprises.

Of course, not everyone likes surprises. However, a quiet, dependable sure and steady life is what many desire, particularly after the drama of COVID 19. In enjoying quiet, dependable sure and steady life, we feel secure; at least we know where we are. Anyway, even those who profess to like surprises must acknowledge that not all surprises in life are pleasant and welcome, and some surprises come as a shock!

So, recalling that part of John’s Gospel 20.1-18 (please read), we might imagine how it was for Mary Magdalene. She was deeply in love with Jesus. He was the one who had given her back her life, love, and dignity. Yet, she comes on the Sunday after Sabbath to his tomb in the grief that goes with profound bereavement. The one she loved is dead and buried. That is a hard enough reality to bear. But how will she live without him?

(Dear friend, if you are struggling with grief, please check out my book ‘Nothing Good About Grief’ available at Amazon).

Getting back to Mary, who finds her way to the tomb. She expects to find everything as she left it days ago; after all, there are no surprises in death. It is all so predictable and final, except that she finds the tombstone is rolled away. This must have been for her an upsetting experience, a cruel and wounding surprise. She may have been wondering- ‘Can Jesus not be left in peace after all that has been done to him?’ She feels a knife being turned in her wounded heart.

She goes to find Peter. Her first word of witness on Easter Day is of sorrow and anger, and she cries, “They have moved his body! They have taken away the Lord! “It’s scandalous. She speaks in sorrow and burning anger. Her message is bad news indeed.

On hearing this news, Peter and John race to the tomb, with thoughts confused, they may question- “Can this indignity be true? ” When they reach the tomb, they find that Mary’s testimony, unfortunately, is the truth. The grave is empty. Strangely the grave clothes are in their place. Are they not needed anymore? Someone must have moved the body. It is the obvious but bitter explanation.

The Gospel writer says that John is outrun by Peter, nevertheless, goes into the tomb first. Then, says the evangelist, he saw and believed. Believed what? We are not told. However, the evangelist does tell us that they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. This possibility is not available to them, and all they have is an empty tomb, and there may be many reasons for that; grave robbers, a meddling gardener, who knows? So, they go home.

 So far this story, is not much of a good news story- where are the angels and the great hallelujahs? It’s what we latter-day readers expect, but to this point, the text is bleak like it was for Mary and for many in the face of death. What a disappointment this story of Jesus has turned out to be! We are left with emptiness in several senses. But, like the disciples, we are left with a puzzle. 

 So, Mary is weeping and looks deeper into the tomb. John says she saw two angels in white. They ask her why she is weeping. She tells them, “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. ” That is reason enough for tears. She turns away to hide her grief, but she is aware of another standing near in this morning of surprises. It must be the gardener. He asks, “why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

 Perhaps this man has the answer to her cruel puzzle. She replies, “Tell me where you have laid him.” And the man says, “Mary.” this is when she realises that it is the Lord! The calling of her name is the start of Mary’s resurrection because Jesus is not dead and gone. The tomb is empty, and Jesus has come to her in his risen love and grace. Now she has a different testimony. I have seen the Lord in her experience and announcement to the disciples.

This is how John tells the Easter Day story. No one expected this, despite what the ancient scriptures said of God. Easter is a surprise. It is the good news we proclaim today. Both the approaches in John’s witness are essential. Does the empty tomb story matter? Yes, because we are not talking about something in a private otherworldly sphere of inwardness.

 The empty tomb matters because it speaks of the new creation, of that work God is doing with the matter he first created, how he is doing a new thing. Christians proclaim that the tomb is empty, and the new resurrection body is recreated by God. Death is not the end, not even for this vulnerable creation that waits for renewal.

Although scientists today speak of many dimensions, life on other planets and parallel universes. We can hardly imagine what this means, and the Gospel proclaims that here is the work of God, taking our failure, taking the love of Jesus, and from it, bringing forth something new and wonderful. It is a miracle, a work of God. 

Some of our teachers speak of a miracle as an overflowing love at the heart of creation. The love that was in Jesus, even unto death, is met by the endless love of God for his creation and, in the dynamic, new, and beautiful things happen. Death is not the end.

As we have seen, however, the empty tomb is not necessarily good news. It needs setting in a context. That context is God’s work from the beginning, in the creation and the call of Israel, in the coming of Christ and his remarkable life of suffering love, breaking the cycle of sin and violence in his sacrificial death on the cross. It is over this Christ that God speaks the great “Yes” of resurrection. He is let loose again in the world, and Mary and countless others will speak of being restored, healed, renewed by his presence.

God raised Jesus from the dead. For Mary, this means her grief is turned to joy as he calls her name. For Thomas, it means his doubt is turned to faith as he meets the risen Lord in the company of the disciples. For Peter, who denied the Lord, resurrection means being welcomed again by Christ and entrusted with new and vital work. John wants us to understand that resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus. It is God’s work for us.

It means that each act of worship, each gathering at the Lord’s Table, is an encounter with Christ Jesus. It means that far from life being full of boring predictability, there are the surprises of God who raised Jesus from the dead and is ever seeking to make all things new. It means that our death, even the decay of our planet, is not the end, and the tomb of Jesus is empty because God is at work. So, Christ comes to us with grace, forgiveness, love, and laughter. The Lord has risen! He is risen indeed!

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 Paula Rose Parish💕

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A LENT Bible STUDY- Live as disciples who are willing to suffer for Jesus .

The season of Easter preparation (Lent) has a way of keeping any fairy-tale illusions of the Christian life at bay. After celebrating Advent and Christmas with all the festivities involved, we may be tempted to think the Christian faith is just another attempt to enjoy life according to our fantasies.

 But the season of Epiphany opened our eyes to see the gospel story a little deeper than simple dream-fulfilment. We come to see who Jesus is, and who we are in relationship to him. We are then thrust into the season of preparing for Easter, where we must adjust to what we have just seen.

LENT

This is a season of repentance—changing our mind about who we think God is, who we see ourselves to be and how we view our world. Everything has changed now in the light of Christ. Easter preparation calls us into a reorientation that fits the reality we have come to see and know in Christ. This can be a painful but necessary repentance if we are to enter the transformation held out to us in Jesus.

The context of our text today mirrors this journey. After Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida, he then goes to work on opening the eyes of his disciples. Epiphany set the stage. Jesus asked them how other people saw him and they reported some circulating speculations. Some said that maybe he was John the Baptist back from the dead or even better, Elijah. Others simply thought he was one of the prophets. But the great illuminating discovery came when he asked them personally who they thought he was. Peter served as the mouthpiece to the amazing revelation that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

Their eyes were beginning to be healed of spiritual blindness. But like the blind man at Bethsaida who needed Jesus’ hands placed on him twice before fully seeing, the disciples would need further healing before they would see plainly. They may see that Jesus is the Messiah, but they would need to adjust their thinking to fit Jesus’ revelation of how he will fill out the role of Messiah. Easter preparation is underway. This is a painful reorientation for the disciples, and it may hold some painful revelations for us today as well. But as Jesus redefines what it means for him to be the Messiah, we will have to face the fact that this will redefine what it means for us to be his disciples. But once we make it through this section, as painful as it may be, we can take comfort in the fact that the next story Mark records in his Gospel is the Transfiguration, which we covered two weeks ago. The hard work of repentance during the season of Easter preparation leads us into transformation. So, let’s read the text.

Read Mark 8:31-38.

Notice the passage begins with “He then began to teach them.” This was Mark’s way of signalling that Jesus was entering a new level of ministry with the disciples. He was about to give them a much fuller picture of what they were involved in, and it wouldn’t be easy for them to hear.

The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus and they were excited to be part of what God was doing. Even with their ups and downs in following Jesus, they must have had some sense that they had signed up with the right rabbi. This journey was going somewhere great and they didn’t want to miss out on it. But Jesus knew his time with them was short and that his disciples were not prepared for what lay ahead. So, Jesus doesn’t speak a parable, he doesn’t tell a story and he doesn’t sugar-coat his teaching. As Mark records it, “He spoke plainly about this.”

Jesus’ plain speaking involves four things that Jesus “must” go through. In the NIV the word “must” appears twice in this proclamation. Jesus does not leave us with any other options or ways of viewing how he fulfils his calling. There is no plan B , rehearsals or loophole in being the Messiah, and as his disciples did, we often look in vain to find an alternate way of following him. Jesus knew that when the going gets tough, his disciples would be tempted to pack up and go. But there is no going around the word “must.”

Let’s look at the four things Jesus said he must go through. As we survey these four things, keep in mind that as his disciples, we “must” go through these four things as well.”

First, Jesus said he must “suffer many things.” Not only must he suffer, but he must suffer many If there is one thing most of us want to avoid, it is suffering. Especially in the American culture, avoiding suffering seems to be many people’s highest calling. But not so for a disciple of Christ. We trust Jesus in our sufferings, and we know we do not face them alone. Nor do we find our sufferings as working against us. Jesus works in our sufferings to bring about his good purposes. This is good news.

Suffering is unavoidable, but in Jesus, we can see that even our sufferings are adding up to something of immense value. Nothing is wasted. So, instead of trying so hard to avoid suffering and being completely miserable while suffering, we can be thankful for what God is doing in our suffering and take comfort that God is with us.

Second, Jesus said he must “be rejected”—and not by just anyone, but by those of high standing. This also can be a hard Messiah to follow. Surely Jesus should be concerned about his reputation, right? Especially among those who have some influence in our lives. But Jesus leaves his reputation in the hands of his Father. He trusts the Father with his reputation so much that he is free to be the obedient Son even when that means confronting those who may give him a bad name.

 How often do we fear rejection to the point that our reputation becomes our true object of worship? Being a following of Christ is not about protecting our reputations or making a name for ourselves.

If the first two weren’t bad enough, Jesus lowers the boom with the third one—DEATH. Here lies the offense of the gospel. Jesus is a King who dies on a cross. That doesn’t sound like a Messiah worth following.

The last thing Jesus tells the disciples is that he will rise again after his death in three days. Jesus tells them how his suffering, rejection and death will be answered by resurrection. But the disciples didn’t even acknowledge Jesus’ claim. They could not get past the idea that a Messiah and Savior of the world would have anything to do with suffering, rejection or death.

After Jesus sorts out what it will look like for him to be the Messiah, Peter quickly reacts as a disciple who wants nothing to do with it. The cultural expectations of disciples in the ancient Middle East would frown heavily on Peter’s rebuke of Jesus. Disciples were to listen to and learn from their masters and should never correct them. Peter rebuking his teacher not only paints Peter as a hot-headed and bold disciple, but also exposes how shocking was Jesus’ description of how he would fill out the role of Messiah.

The Jewish people’s understanding of what a Messiah would look like in the first century helps shed some light on Peter’s extreme reaction. The picture of a Messiah for the Jewish people would not be associated with any of the scriptures that speak of suffering or death.

It was only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the early Christians understood these scriptures to be speaking about the Messiah. So, when Jesus refers to the Messiah in these terms, it is a radical departure from the mindset of the Jewish people’s view of a Messiah.

Peter’s criticism was meant to be in private, as we are told he “took him aside.” This private reprimand may show Peter’s attempt to protect the image he had of his master rather than publicly disgracing Jesus to the watching crowd. He is still trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, which of course would reflect on his own. Peter’s reaction is no small thing, as the word for rebuke here is the same word used when Jesus exorcised a demon. Peter is mightily struggling to repent of his way of thinking to align with what Jesus just told him. What Peter needs to repent of is his desire to follow himself instead of Jesus. As long as Jesus leads in a way that Peter wants, he was willing to follow. But now that Jesus has turned down a road he doesn’t want to go, he rebukes his master.

Surely Peter is not alone in his response here. How often do we rebuke and resist Jesus when he leads us down roads that require us to die to ourselves in one way or another? It’s a lot easier to follow Jesus when we think suffering is not involved. Are we willing to follow when Jesus leads us to a place where we have to swallow our pride and not hold so tightly to our reputation? In short, how willing are we to die to self in our daily living? Surely Peter is in good company

Jesus has a response to Peter that cuts to the root of his problem: “Get behind me, Satan… You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Peter, who just proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, is now speaking for Satan. Jesus doesn’t let Peter fool himself into thinking that he just misspoke out of a misunderstanding. Peter’s problem is deep, and it runs through all of us. We are often more concerned about our own interests than God’s will—just like Satan. When we resist following where Jesus leads, we are cooperating with the devil. It’s God’s grace and love that causes Jesus to resist our resistance and rebuke our rebukes. He doesn’t let us settle for our self-centred and not-of-God orientations.

Beginning in verse 34, Jesus addresses the disciples as well as the crowd and teaches them what it means to be his disciples. This message is not just for the church, but for the whole world—whether we want to hear it or not. Reality doesn’t move for dissenters. Jesus goes on to talk about a life of denying oneself for the sake of following Jesus. We are called to find our life only in Christ, which will mean we must die to everything else that competes with that allegiance. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls you, he bids you to come and die.”

Much of our culture invades our beliefs and attitudes that Jesus must rebuke and set right for us to follow him. We are so ingrained with the way the world works, that we can be convinced that we are in the right and God must be in the wrong when he leads us away from the cultural landmarks of success and comfort.

Mark tells us the setting of this story took place in the villages around Caesarea Philippi. After King Herod died, his kingdom was divided into three parts and given to his three remaining sons to rule. The northern region, where Caesarea Philippi was located, was given to Phillip the Tetrarch. Caesarea Philippi was an area where political power struggles and games were played. This was not to be the way for Jesus’ followers then, and it is not the way for Jesus’ followers today.

Jesus is still calling for disciples to turn from our power grabbing and self-seeking ways and to humbly follow him as the only true Lord and Saviour.

The Message is for us today that We are to live as disciples who are willing to suffer for Jesus, willing to be rejected for Jesus, willing to die to self for Jesus, and willing to acknowledge to all that Jesus is the true Messiah, Lord and Saviour.

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Paula Rose has a Bachelor of Pastoral Counselling and Theology, Vision Christian University, USA

Master of Arts In Counselling & Professional Development, specializing in Spiritual Abuse The University of Derby, UK.

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Paula is a life member of (ISFP) The International Society of Female Professionals

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