Over the past four weeks, we as a church have been reflecting on the question, “How is God with us when we’re sick?” We’ve been asking, “How should we be with God when we’re sick?” Today we’re going to wrap things up by asking another question. “How do we face death?” How do face the death of others, and how do we face our own.
Today on Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.The resurrection changes everything, not least our approach to sicknesss and death. The resurrection enables us to say with the poet, John Donne, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee; Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;” Because Jesus is risen, our victory over sin and death is sure. This changes even our approach to sickness, and it changes the way we face death.
The Christian faith is not one that avoids death. Our faith is not one that gives you a nice bridge to help us avoid pain, sin, sickness and death. Think of the story fo the three goats crossing the bridge. They cross the bridge for the same reason any of us cross a bridge, to avoid the danger underneath. They cross the bridge to avoid the troll underneath, they cross the bridge to avoid the water. Christianity is not a way to bypass the troll of death. Christianity is a way to face it head on. That’s why, as Christians, we do not avoid places with the trolls of sickness and death. We face these monsters head on. The Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama said, “the New Testament does not impress us with the symbolism of the bridge. Jesus Christ is not a bridge from this world to that world upon which we safely walk over the danger. The central symbolism of the Christan faith, the cross, does not give us an image of bridge. It gives us, instead, the feeling of confrontation, encounter, and conflict.”
The actions of Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome are examples for us all. These were the three women mentioned in Mark 14 who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Unlike the other disciples, they did not run away from the danger lurking underneath the bridge. They faced it. In the same way, they rose early in the morning bringing spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They are bringing spices because they’re trying to bring some dignity and grace to what is otherwise a horrific situation. They head under the bridge to face whatever troll waits for them. That’s what they know and believe is waiting for them in the tomb—death. They are bringing spices to anoint the bloody pulp that had become the body of Jesus. All they could do was bring some dignity to the one who had become the victim of an unjust capital punishment. All they could do was show this one small outward sign of care to the one who was afflicted with the sickness of death. All they could do was anoint the body with spices to diminish the putrid smell of rotting death. They are leaving the smooth bridge of safety.
They refuse to avoid those things our flesh works hardest to avoid. Instead, they head under the bridge. In doing so they show us, as Christians, where we need to go. A modern person who shows us how to live this way is Gregory Boyle. He entered the gang ridden slums of Los Angeles in order to give dignity to those dying from gang violence. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, he said, “We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” As Christians we are called to walk with others. In doing so, we leave the smooth road, and walk under the bridge and face with them whatever troll might be waiting. Mary, Mary and Salome left the bridge of safety and walked towards the tomb. They walked towards the place where the stench was strongest. They went because their Lord was there, and so do we.
Yet that was where they were surprised. They walked, full of grief, to the grave. One of them idly wondered, “There’s that stone at the door of the tomb—who’s going to roll it away for us?” The stone was extremely large, far too large for those three women to roll away on their own. But they went on their way. As they got to the tomb, they looked up and saw that somehow the stone had been rolled away. They kept walking towards this mystery. They saw a young man sitting on the right hand side of the tomb. All we know about this young man is that he was wearing white. Who is this figure? Figures wearing white in Scripture are generally either martyrs or angels. But its his message that forever has changed the course of history. “Don’t be astonished,” he said to them. “You’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised! He isn’t here! Look—this is the place where they laid him.”
These three women came into the place of death, they came to the tomb expecting the most they could do was bring some small dignity to the dead. They came to face whatever troll lay in wait for them. But God had been there before him, and utterly destroyed that troll named death. God did so by raising Jesus from the dead. In so doing, God has defeated those two rotting trolls of sin and death. Jesus was the first victor. In His resurrection we see what is promised to all of us who place our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus has conquered sin and death for us who are tyrannized by those trolls, Sin and Death.
These trolls of sin and death still seek to terrorize us today. But they don’t have the same power. They’ve received from God the death blow. This means that we walk under that bridge with a different expectation than Mary, Mary, and Salome. When they left the safe and secure road, and clambered towards the tomb, they simply wondered who would roll away the stone. As they walked, they simply wondered how they would get into the place of death. They simply were hoping to cope with what death had done.
We walk with a different expectation. Because of the resurrection, we ask a different question. We ask, “how will God be at work in this place of death?” Because Jesus has physically risen from the dead, we know the victory is one. We walk with an anticipation and an expectation that Mary, Mary and Salome were missing. Because Christ has risen victorious over death, as Christians walk towards death, we walk with an expectation. We walk with an expectation that the resurrection power of Christ is with us. As Paul says in Ephesians, we are aware of his incomparably great power for us who believe. “The power that is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion.” Far above that sickly troll of sin and death. As Christians, we walk to meet death fully expectant that God’s victory is already won.
The challenge for us as Christians is to continually declare this victory over these trolls. Some of us have walked with people in sickness and seen the resurrection power of Christ on this side of the grave. Some here have been healed from debilitating stomach diseases. Some have been miraculously healed from aggressive cancers. Some have experienced the miraculous healing of relationships long conflicted. Some have experienced their own inner demons, or seen the destructive thoughts of others silenced by the resurrection power of Christ. We know firsthand what it means to have the resurrection power of Christ flowing through us and we so pray with that confidence. Our ability to pray in this way is empowered and made possible by what Mary, Mary and Salome first found in that tomb. They discovered what it looks like when the resurrection power of Christ is unleashed on this world.
But for others, the challenge is to believe in Christ’s resurrection power even when we can’t see it. For most of us in our struggle with sin, sickness and death, we know how powerful these trolls are. We know how powerfully they still punch. Yet, every step we take with this trolls hovering around us and breathing down our neck, we do not give way to fear. We do not run away to the safety of the bridge. We know that in Christ the victory is won. We know that the hot breath of sin and the tyranny of death are only skin deep. And we trust in the resurrection victory and power of Christ to break in every step to the tomb.
The closer you get to the grave, the larger sin and death loom, the more we hold fast to Christ’s victory in the resurrection. It may be our own personal walk towards death, or it may be our walking with someone else, but we know what death looks like. Yet in his snarling face, the resurrection victory lets us see beyond and gives us strength to keep walking still. Because we know, as John Donne puts it in his famous poem, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally; And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” That fatal death wound will finally topple that ghastly troll, and the Resurrection victory will reign forevermore. We know that when we enter the grave, there shall be but a short sleep and we wake eternally. Our bodies will rise eternal. And on that day, we shall sing with all the saints and angels, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
So as Christians, we walk towards the tomb. Those trolls of sin and death may walk with us, but we know their power is weak. We know that the resurrection power of Christ will break in and bring life where formerly there was only death. We walk knowing that the life of Christ shall overcome. It always overcomes. Christ’s resurrection makes this sure.
Notice how the passage ends. This passage ends, tempering our Resurrection joy. This passage ends, reminding us not to assert too much triumphalist confidence in the resurrection power of Jesus. The angel tells the women to leave the tomb, and tell the disciples and Peter, “He is going aead of you into Galilee. There you sill see him, just as he told you.” Mark tells us, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” The trolls of sin and death are not the ones to fear. This passage shows us something far more powerful at play in this world. The resurrection power of God is not something safe and tame. The resurrection power of God is not something we can control, even with gloves on. We are not its handler. The resurrection power of God, in appearing, is a power beyond ourselves. And whenever we leave the bridge of safety, we will encounter a power that we can’t control, a power that is beyond ourselves, a power that is so good. Fear and reverence is the only appropriate response. Have you experienced that fear? Has your heart ever raced when the resurrection power broke in while you were in the grave? This is the power that walks with us. When the resurrection power of God shows up, we will be like Mary, Mary and Salome, we will be first stricken with fearful silence. And then, we will change the course of history by saying to everyone we know, “He Is Risen!”