Sermon – Easter Sunday – “The Great Earthquake” – Matthew 28:1-10 – 4/24/11

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The dust is still settling from the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th. It holds the dubious distinction of being one of the strongest quakes on record since the technology to measure such things has been available. It measured 9.0 on the Richter Scale and is responsible for the deaths of 10,035 people. The aftershocks are still happening. It will be a long time before the people of Japan recover from this disaster.

Almost forgotten now, but on January 12, 2010, a major earthquake struck the nation of Haiti. Even though it only measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, it was responsible for 222, 570 deaths, over 20 times the number of the Japan earthquake. It will be a very long time before the nation of Haiti recovers from this disaster.

If your interested, the first earthquake for which we have a record of fatalities, occurred on May 19, 526AD in Antioch, Turkey. It was responsible for 250,000 deaths. The most devastating earthquake on record occurred in Syria on May 20, 1202. It was responsible for over 1,100,000 deaths.

Speaking of earthquakes, there are two other earthquakes on record that stand out as the most dramatic and life changing tremors ever to occur. Both are recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. They both occurred in the year 33 AD. And they happened just three days apart.

The first one occurred when Jesus breathed His last on the cross. ‘The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mat.27:51-54)

The second one occurred just three days later. ‘It was toward dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.’

Matthew reports that there were many women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus. Among them were ‘Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James,’ better known as ‘the other Mary.’ They had felt the earthquake at His death and now they felt the earthquake as they approach His tomb. A they tell their story to Matthew, it all starts to become clear. There’s a connection here.

Two great earthquakes mark the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is as though almighty God is announcing the great and awesome thing that His Son Jesus Christ has done by shaking the earth, first in His great wrath and then in His great joy. God is tying the crucifixion and the resurrection of His Son together with a seismic knot.

The women went to ‘SEE THE TOMB,’ much like we go to a cemetery. It’s good to have a place to focus our grief and connect the sorrow we feel to the loved one for whom we grieve. This is the thing that makes the tragedy in Japan and Haiti so hard to recover from, emotionally. Often, the body can’t be found and there’s no burial, no way to connect the grief to the one whose loss is grieved.

God in heaven sees these two Mary’s headed for the tomb of Jesus. How will they know that the One for whom they are grieving is not dead but alive? That ridiculous stone that the Chief Priests ordered rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb is blocking their view. ‘No problem,’ says God. He dispatches one of his angels to hurry down to earth and roll that stone away from the entrance so that these women can see that He has raised His Son and their Lord from the dead. ‘I’ll shake the earth and you roll that blasted thing aside. And make sure the see the place where He lay. They need to see it to believe it.’ And after the angel had rolled the stone away from the entrance of the tomb, he sat on top of the stone, just filing his nails, waiting for the women to arrive. Just another day’s work for an angel of the Lord.

But lets be sure that we understand that the angel did not roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb to let Jesus out. Jesus no more needed that stone to be rolled away to get out of the tomb than God needed the curtain of the temple to be torn in two to get out of the Holy of Holies. Jesus left the tomb in the same way that he would later in the day enter the locked room where His disciples were hiding out in fear of the Jews. His resurrected and glorified body was no longer bound by the same constraints of time and space as ours is now. The walls of the tomb could no more contain Jesus than a clear pane of glass can stop the rays of the sun from shining through.

But this is much more than merely getting the facts of the case straight. What this means is that there is nothing that Jesus cannot pass through in order to get to you. Stubbornness? No problem. Deep seated resentment? It can’t stop Him from getting at you. A total preoccupation with earthly things? He will not be stopped. A rock hard heart as thick as Joseph’s tomb? He did it once and He will do it again. He’ll shake the earth if He has to.

All these things can no more keep Jesus Christ from getting at you than that silly rock could keep Him locked up inside the tomb. His angels are ready at a moments notice to come down and roll away your stubbornness, resentment, preoccupation with earthly things, even your rock hard heart, so that you may know His love for you, His forgiveness for all of your sins, His peace for you, His righteousness for you, His salvation for you, His heaven for you.

The reactions of those present are as you would expect. The Temple guards who were assigned to cemetery security duty were terrified that He had gotten out. Horrors! Jesus is on the loose again. For them, it was worse than a missing cobra at the Bronx Zoo. They became ‘like dead men.’

‘But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid.” This was the same greeting that the angel Gabriel gave to Zechariah and to Mary and to Joseph – ‘fear not.’ When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the field, the shepherds were terrified until they heard the words, ‘do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy.’

And what ‘good news of great joy’ this angel had for these women. ‘I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, AS HE SAID.’ ‘As He said.’ This angel can’t resist the opportunity to do a little scolding here. In heaven, the angels along with all the dead in Christ, always see the face of God and everything is known to them. But here below, we are blind and deaf and we all suffer from spiritual dementia. We forget so easily and so quickly.

In a gentle way, the tells the women that none of this should come as a surprise to them. He had told them repeatedly, in clear, unambiguous terms that the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of sinners and crucified AND ON THE THRID DAY BE RASIED FROM THE DEAD.

The women must have had a confused look in their eye. So, he offers the proof that he was sent to give them. ‘Come, see the place where he lay.’

You get the feeling in following St. Matthew’s account here that these poor women were so dumbfounded by all of this that they would have still been standing there if the angel hadn’t told them what to do. ‘Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has HE HAS RISEN FROM THE DEAD, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See I have told you.’

‘So they departed quickly from the tomb WITH FEAR AND GREAT JOY.’ What a confusing mixture of emotions ran through them. I wonder which was the greater, the fear or the joy?

But before they reached the disciples, ‘Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings.’

Whatever the earthquake on Good Friday and the great earthquake on Easter morning might have registered on the Richter scale, who can begin to measure the quake that this encounter with their Lord must have registered in their hearts? They had seen Him crucified. They had seen the place where He was buried. Now, the saw that He wasn’t laying in the place where He lay, and then, He’s standing right in front of them, and says, ‘Greeting.’ Talk about a great earthquake. That had to have been a great heartquake.

‘And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. There it is again. That wonderful word of grace and peace from the lips of Him who is the fountain and source of all grace and peace. ‘Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

The death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ set off the most glorious set of earthquakes that have ever shaken this planet. And the aftershocks continue to be felt throughout the whole world. Beginning with these women, they spread to the disciples and then throughout Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the end of the earth, even to your baptism. And lives continue to be shaken and even the hardest of hearts are shattered. And the tremors of Good Friday and Easter Sunday will continue shake this world until the last Trumpet sounds. And then, when the dust settles, it will be a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

Until then, you and I continue to live in a world that threatens to crumble at any moment. Earthquakes and tsunamis destroy countless lives in the middle of the night and without warning. Governments around the world are being shaken and falling at a pace never before seen in human history. The economy is fragile and could collapse again at the drop of a hat. Even our own personal lives and families can be shaken and turned upside down overnight with the death of a spouse of child or divorce or disease. How suddenly we can find ourselves buried under the rubble of life.

On what will we base our hope for the future? Where will we find our peace in the tragedy? To whom will we turn for rescue and deliverance?

‘Greetings. Do not be afraid.’ ‘Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!’

God has done an ‘earth shattering’ thing by giving His only-begotten Son to be the ransom payment for the sins of the world. And by raising Him from the dead, God declares to all who live right over that fault line that threatens at any moment to bring down the whole world, that He has done a new thing, an amazing thing, a glorious thing. He has made all thing new through Jesus Christ. In Him, we have safety and security, a future and a hope, and peace in a crumbling and fallen world.

What we have rent asunder by our own sin, God has joined together again by the cross and the empty tomb of His Son, Jesus. The deep fault line that our transgressions against God has caused, has been resealed with the body of Christ. The chasm that our guilt has opened and which separates us from the God who made us in His own image, has been closed again by the reconciliation that Jesus Christ has accomplished by His death and resurrection from the dead.

And the earth rightly trembles and quakes at the awesome and wonderful mystery of this divine love and divine justice. And we would do well to do the same.

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