I got an email this week from our reader. He was wondering if it was possible that I had sent along the wrong reading. Easter? In August?
This may be the first time I have preached on an Easter text when it isn’t Easter morning. But if you’re going to get technical about it, every Sunday is supposed to be a kind of mini-Easter: a day to proclaim “Christ is Risen!” and celebrate God’s amazing work of resurrection. So you could argue that this text is fitting for any Sunday of the year. But the reason I chose it this week is because it begins with three words: “after the Sabbath.”
All summer we’ve been talking about Sabbath, about holy rest: what it is and what it isn’t, how to do it, what gifts it might offer us. And I can’t let the summer end without mentioning the role that Sabbath plays in our most central story. Sabbath is there, right in the middle of the holiest three days of the year: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday. Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and Saturday was their Sabbath. Holy Saturday Sabbath is what stands in between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection.
Matthew’s text is so moving. It’s maybe the most dramatic of the four resurrection accounts in our scriptures. Only two women set out for the tomb in this story; Mary Magdalene, and another Mary. We don’t know why they wanted to go to the tomb. The author doesn’t mention a reason.
But once they get there, suddenly, there is an earthquake. The ground shakes, and an angel of the Lord who looks like lightening descends from heaven. The angel rolls back the stone covering the mouth of the tomb; and sits on it. It’s quite a scene, the Roman soldiers who were assigned to stand guard by the tomb shake and faint with fear. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary withstand the shock. They listen as the angel says:
“Do not be afraid… Jesus is not here… Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
The two Marys take the message to heart. In fear and great joy, they immediately start on their way to follow instructions, to find the disciples, to give them this amazing message. But just as they begin, their plans for the day are changed again. Suddenly, Jesus is there – Not in Galilee but right there in front of them in the road. They can see him. They can hear his familiar voice speaking words of greeting. He is so real, they can even take hold of his feet as they fall down in worship.
O Lord; what a morning. I wonder if it was possible because of the Sabbath.
How else could those two women have overcome their grief enough to get up and head out to the tomb that morning? How else could they have withstood the shock of an earthquake, an angel, phenomenon that knocked over seasoned Roman soldiers? How else could they have believed the strangest news they’d ever heard; believed it so fully, so deeply, that they turned in a moment to go? How else could they have trusted in the Jesus they saw on the road?
O Lord, what a morning. I wonder if it was possible because of the Sabbath. Because of a day to rest. Because of a day to grieve. Because of a day to pray. I wonder if the women needed that day to prepare them for their role as the first evangelists of the resurrection.
I wonder if God needed that sabbath, too.
It was during the Sabbath, behind the stone, that the strange mystery of resurrection happened. Traditionally, Holy Saturday is a day that Jesus descends into hell. Only then does his spirit rise back to earth. Only then does his body mysteriously disappear from the grave, ready to meet the Marys on the road.
Just think about how different the story would be if Jesus took his last breath and then, a minute later, bounded up from the cross. That’s not how our story goes. In between, there is holy time; resting time; Sabbath time.
Sabbath is for holy rest. A time to set aside our normal tasks. A time to embrace what is good for our souls. It can grant us wisdom. It can grant us healing. And I wonder if it is Sabbath that makes the foolish wisdom and the miraculous healing of resurrection possible: for the Marys, and for Jesus, and for us.
So many members of this beloved community are hurting right now. And so many people in our world are hurting right now. The natural world, God’s creation, is certainly hurting right now. It’s hard to even think about, hard to take in all that Good Friday.
There’s no way to move straight from that pain into the hope of Easter morning. We need Sabbath. Sabbath: a window of time in which we make room for God to enter in. Sabbath: a time when God can finds room to enter into all the evil and pain in the world, and make some kind of beautiful possibility in it.
God, too many of us are in hell: waiting for the loss that’s looming; waiting for the pain to pass; waiting for the hope that will make tomorrow possible. Help us to feel that we have not been abandoned. Help us to feel that you are invisibly at work in the dark, creating a better ending to a bigger story than anything we have yet dreamed up. When dawn comes again,startle us at the tomb; startle us on the road; send us on. Amen.