What one sees depends on where one looks from.
At the moment I am reading the Hobbit with one of our children. We’ve got to the very good bit at the end. The others are engaged in a fierce, life and death struggle with the Goblins. It looks as if they are going to be overwhelmed. But Bilbo, who does have the slight advantage of being invisible, is looking up and sees the eagles – coming to the rescue.
Today we are invited to look at the world from outside an empty tomb – not any empty tomb, but the empty tomb in which Jesus had been laid.
It is the perspective from which we need to view reality
Yes there is the tomb.
We live in a world which appears to be ruled by death. It is the fear of death which is probably the single greatest motivating force in this world. Death seems to have the last word. Death appears to triumph over love and life.
Death – ghastly. We try to deny death. The lie that Satan told Eve, ‘You shall not die’. But when you stand outside an empty tomb, when you stand in a graveyard, you know that there is no escape.
And the empty tomb tells us that we live in a world where there is great pain. There is physical pain. This is Jesus’ tomb. He died by crucifixion. But there are many kinds of pain: suffering, sorrow, loss, despair, emptiness, brokenness.
To set up shop outside an empty tomb is to know that there will be suffering and death .
But this, as John makes clear, is an empty tomb.
There was no body in the tomb
There were the strips of linen
There are the appearances of Jesus:
- very physical: Mary holds on to him. Even eats fish with them: fish fingers.
‘The evidence for Jesus resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: first it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.’ Wolfhart Pannenberg
And the empty tomb tells us that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There is hope. It tells us that death does not have the last word. It tells us that when God is around, love and life trump death.
We have lost, as a nation, a central story. I long to see the story of the cross and resurrection put at the heart of our national life. Even if you do not believe it – it is a story that tells of love and self-sacrifice in the face of human brutality. It tells of the triumph of love over death. It is the story which can and should shape our ethics and define virtue for us.
But if with the disciples we stand at the empty tomb of Jesus; if with the beloved disciple we look at the evidence and we believe, this story is more than just a story. This is something that is totally and utterly glorious.
The empty tomb speaks of the love of God: the love of God in giving his Son to death for us; and the love of God in not abandoning his Son or us.
It speaks of the power of God: the God who we trust is a God who can bring life out of death. There is no force in the universe that is more powerful than him.
It speaks of the forgiveness of God: if Jesus had hung on the cross and died, and that was it, we would have had no idea whether his death was sufficient to cover our sins. But by raising him from the dead, God has shown us that the sacrifice is complete.
It speaks of the purposes of God for our lives: God will not take suffering away from us, he will not take the crosses away from us. He will walk with us as we go to the cross, he will work his ways through the cross, and he will give us life beyond the cross.
It speaks of the power of God to change our motives. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus walked went to the cross, with the pain and the shame, for the sake of the joy that was before him. In other words, the greatest motivating force for Jesus was not death but life.
It speaks of the gift of God and the life of God – for God would have us purified and forgiven, and God would give us new life.
And if I look at the world from the perspective of an empty tomb – I know that there will be weeping. There will be times when I, when you, are desperate. When it feels that you are forsaken and crushed and abandoned and helpless and empty and hopeless and very very alone, when there is no way out. There will be times of immense pain. It does not mean that there is no God; it does not mean that God has walked out on us; it does not necessarily mean that we have been disobedient to him (although we might have been – we might have strayed far from him).
Instead, if I look at the world from the perspective of an empty tomb then it means that even in the face of the most awful suffering, there is hope. Death is not the end – there is so much more.
The world offers promises full of emptiness. Easter offers emptiness full of promise.
The world promises that if we live for the world we will be attractive and happy and fulfilled and respected and we will live for ever. It doesn’t actually say that. But it implies it. It is a great promise, but it is empty. Live for the world, for money and things and the fulfilling of our needs and human praise and comfort – we may get some of them, but we will end up lonely, lost, isolated, unfulfilled and ultimately dead.
Easter, on the other hand, offers emptiness: an Empty cross, empty tomb, empty grave-clothes. It offers us – here and now - ridicule and self-sacrifice and brokenness and repentance and tears; but it also offers us life. Life now with God and eternal life then.
Where do you set up your shop?
We can set up a shop outside a bank, or a brothel, or the computer screen, or a TV studio, or a restaurant, or a home, or a university, or the nursery, or a church building, or number 10 Downing Street – whatever it is/wherever it is that is most important to you.
We look at the world from that perspective. Sometimes, when we are on top of the world, the world is a very good place to be. Sometimes when we are in the pit, or the battle is definitely going against us, the world is no longer any good.
Today we are invited to set up shop outside the empty tomb of Jesus Christ: to see things through the glasses of the cross and the resurrection. To see other people through the glasses of the cross and resurrection. To see ourselves through those glasses. To see the past and the present and the future.