Isn't He Here

Sermon for Easter Sunday
March 31, 2024

Many centuries before Jesus was born, something happened that I I’m thinking about this morning. It’s something we’ve probably all heard. It’s the story of how some women stood up to a great empire.

We’re told that the emperor of the Egyptians (he was called Pharaoh) came to fear his slaves—a people called the Hebrews. Their population was growing, and he was afraid they would one day rise up against their masters. And so he decreed that all the boys born to the Hebrews should be killed. At first the midwives refused to coöperate, so he gave a general order to everybody to throw Hebrew baby boys into the Nile.

There was one mother, though, who hid her baby from the Egyptians… until finally he got too old to hide anymore. And so she made a basket out of papyrus, and she waterproofed it with tar, and she put the baby in it. Then she went out into the bullrushes in the river and left the baby there in the water. She felt her baby was special—of course she did, all mothers do—but she couldn’t possibly have known that in that basket was the seed of the liberation of her people.

Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, adopted him and named him Moses. And when Moses grew up, he answered God’s call and set his people free.

About fifteen hundred years later, we read of some more women defying an empire. On the Friday during Passover, a man from Nazareth was executed as a criminal on the outskirts of Jerusalem. His Name was Jesus, and the instrument of his execution was a cross. He was put in a stone tomb just before the day of rest. But early the following morning, on a Sunday, some women brought spices to minister to Jesus’ body, because—despite what the Roman Empire had just done to him—they felt he should have a decent burial. They loved Jesus and felt he was special. But they didn’t understand that what was placed in that tomb wasn’t just a dead body, but the seed of the liberation of all people.

And so when they found, not a corpse, but an empty tomb, they were overcome with emotion. Anger that somebody had stolen the body of their Loved One. And fear over what it might possibly mean.

But there was a young man there—an angel as it turned out—who told them not to be afraid. He didn’t ask, but told them, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. But he’s not here; he’s risen from the dead!” Then he told them to tell the disciples what they knew, and that Jesus had gone ahead of them to where they were going—where, in fact, they were supposed to be.

These frightened women were made the first apostles of the resurrection. They were sent by an angel of God to share the amazing gospel that Christ is risen. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives” [John 12:24].

At first they were too scared to say a word, but the fact that we’re here this morning celebrating the resurrection is proof that they could not stay silent. Their most enduring message, however, is their remembrance of the angel’s message. They had walked into a godless place of complete hopelessness and utter despair, thinking that that’s where they’d find Jesus. Instead, they heard the words, “He is not here.”

For us, these words are both hopeful and discouraging. They’re hopeful, because they tell us that Jesus will not be found in hopeless situations. But they’re discouraging, because then we have to wonder where to look when we have run out of hope.

“Isn’t he here?” we might ask. And if we don’t see him, we can rest assured that he had already been there, in that place of desolation. Mark doesn’t say it, but in 1 Peter and Ephesians we learn that Christ invaded the underworld, the hellish places where desolate souls languished with no one to care about them. And he defeated the powers that held them captive.

As with all seeds that are planted, the roots grew down before the stem reached for the sun. If we ask why he isn’t where we look for him, then we shouldn’t be downcast. For he is already leading us out of the place of death and darkness and up into the light.

It’s interesting that the Bible contains different accounts of the first Easter. They’re basically the same in the message: Women defy an empire in order to tend to the body of One who was rejected by the great powers of the world. But they’re also different, because the names of the women might vary slightly from one account to another. But in the end, the message is always the same. The answer to the question, “Where is Jesus?” is always answered, ultimately, with the message that he’s not where you saw him last, and he’s not where you expected.

Christians have tried for nearly two thousand years now to capture the Jesus we’ve experienced like a ship in a bottle. “This is my experience, and so I want to preserve this experience.” Or, “This is my experience, and what worked for me must work for you.” Or even, “This is my experience, but I’m too afraid to move on from it.”

But that’s not the Bible’s message. No matter who encountered the risen Christ, they were encouraged to leave the familiar behind and tell others. And what those others did with the message was between them and God, for they were going to encounter Christ as unique individuals in a completely different place.

That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Easter. We’re all in different places—some filled with joy, and some in need of hope; some comfortable in our faith, and others looking for something (or someone) to trust. But for all of us the Holy Spirit settles on the bread and the cup, helping us to discern in them the death of Christ, and leading us to believe in his resurrection. For this is the day the Lord has made, the day that we remember that Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed!
—©2024 Sam Greening