NOT SO GREAT EXPECTATIONS
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
(Luke 24:1-12, NRSV)
There are 2 kinds of people in this world: those who make phone calls and those who don’t. With my job and my extroverted personality, I’m on the phone every day. What can I say? I like talking to people. My wife, Colleen, falls in the latter category. She’s what you’d call Text-Exclusive. Colleen avoids calls at all costs, both making and answering them. If someone calls Colleen, she’s stunned. Why is this person calling me? she asks every single time. Colleen gets calls so infrequently, she doesn’t recognize her own ringtone. Recently, her phone was ringing, and she thought it was wind chimes. It’s true.
Imagine my surprise then, when last Sunday, Alina came up to me after church and said, “Mom says to call her.” Turns out she’d gotten a flat tire on Manhasset Woods Rd. as she drove to Lori’s house for brunch. I told her I’d drive over and change the tire so she could get to Lori’s house ASAP. She had the hummus platter, so a lot was riding on this. A few minutes later, I met her at Walter Lane, across from Christy Weppler’s house, and we switched cars. I’d changed into to my oldest, rattiest clothes, and was ready to change the tire. I jacked the car up. Removed the lug nuts. And pulled off the flat tire. My spare tire is one of those universally hated donut tires. Nevertheless, I put it on the van. As I lowered the van, the spare tire separated from the rim yielding it un-drivable. I felt very annoyed staring at 2 flat tires. As my father’s son, I grew up knowing that any calamity, any curve ball life might throw you, could be prevented with proper planning. But maybe not this time.
Christy’s neighbor came out with an air compressor to air up either of the two flat tires. He was very kind but the tires were not. Neither tire would hold any air. I weighed my different options including buying a new spare tire. A call to the Honda dealer rendered that idea useless until 8 AM the next day. I thought about calling AAA, but not finding their card in my wallet, I assumed that our membership had expired. I put in a call for a tow truck.
I called Colleen and told her we’d have to pay for a tow. “Did you call AAA?” she asked. I told her no. I didn’t have the card in my wallet which meant it had expired. Colleen suggested contacting AAA to see if maybe we were still covered for a tow truck. Unexpectedly, the answer was yes—our AAA was about to expire but not for a few more days. Colleen was right. A fact I wish I’d known 2½ hours earlier.
I quickly canceled the first tow truck and then called AAA. No problem they said, we’ll have a truck there in 45 minutes. I checked my watch and it was 2:45 PM. Problem solved. By this time, Colleen had joined me with leftover brunch food. I was happily eating deviled eggs, fruit salad, and hummus as Colleen and I talked to each other and chatted with the Wepplers who’d by this time found us and invited us inside. We assured them that wasn’t necessary. AAA would be there soon, or so we thought. Half an hour turned into an hour. I called them back. They blamed traffic. I called again half an hour later. “The driver tells us that he’s very close” they said. So we waited and waited and waited and waited until two and a half hours later, the tow truck finally arrived, and in a short amount of time, our van and the wrecker were ready to go.
Wanting to be sure that the tow truck driver, Peter, didn’t go to the wrong place, I climbed into the cab to navigate. It was full of Jesus icons and palm branches everywhere! Somebody went to church today I thought. It was then that the fullness of the Palm Sunday moment hit me. I was riding with Peter, Jesus icons, and palm branches, triumphantly traversing Northern Blvd. on my way to Schmidt’s garage. After waiting all those hours on Palm Sunday afternoon all I could think was, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of AAA. Amen!!!” My Palm Sunday had been full surprises and unexpected twists to say the least.
On a much bigger, highly more significant scale, both the disciples and the women were surprised on that first Easter. That’s putting it too lightly. They were shocked to the core that first Easter, every last one of them.
Think of the disciples, one minute their beloved teacher Jesus was heralded with a parade, and before they knew it, he was snatched away apparently forever. They didn’t expect a betrayal. They didn’t expect the cross. And yet Jesus had been crucified. Jesus had been buried. And they knew that they could be next.
That Easter morning, they knew Christ’s tomb contained his body, and nothing could change that fact. These men who’d spent years hearing Christ’s message of love and watching him perform miracles now huddled behind locked doors. Surely they felt deep despair over the death of their beloved Teacher. No doubt they felt guilt and shame at running out on him in his time of greatest need. Even so, why would they risk themselves to anoint his body? What did it matter? They knew what to expect. Jesus was gone and somehow each of them needed to find a way to go on with life.
What about the women that day? What did they expect? Did they have more faith as they traveled to the tomb? The women showed loyalty and they showed bravery. But they didn’t go expecting to find anything other than the body of Jesus. In the rush to get his body off the cross and into the tomb, no one had prepared it for its final resting place. And so they went, to properly anoint him for burial. Like the disciples, the women may have feared the authorities. Unlike the disciples, they refused to stay hidden behind locked doors. I’m guessing that the women were close to Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’m guessing they felt compassion for her, and empathy for her, in addition to their own personal heartbreak. In the midst of overwhelming sadness, they would do the only thing that they could do—they would take care of her son’s body. And so the women walked solemnly, in the twilight of morning, with tears in their eyes.
Upon arriving at the tomb they might’ve felt relieved at first that someone had rolled away the stone. At least this was one worry they could cross off their list. But their worries surely spiked when they walked in the tomb and found no trace of Jesus. As they stood dumbfounded, two men in “dazzling clothes,” as Luke puts it, suddenly appear beside them. The women were terrified and understandably so. Instead of telling the women about Christ’s resurrection, the angels ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why? We know why. They came that morning to see what they expected to see, to do the job they expected to do. And angels, dazzling or otherwise, were not part of the plan.
Then the women heard it, standing in the place of the dead they heard the words of life that rang in their ears the rest of their days, “He is not here, but has risen.” Pardon? Say again? “He is not here, but has risen.” What? What do you mean? The angels go on to remind them that Jesus had once again kept a promise and done what he’d been saying all along he was going to do. Twice in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. In Luke 9:22 he said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Again in Luke 18:32-33 Jesus says, “For [the Son of Man] will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. And after they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”
Even though Jesus had told his followers about all that would happen, they forgot his words in the midst of their despair. The author of the account keeps the disciples real. After the angels refresh their memory, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women remember. And once they remember the promises of Jesus, the women feel empowered leaving the tomb to spread the good news. The sadness slips from their shoulders and out they go, the tomb behind them and a mission before them to tell their grief-stricken friends this life-changing news.
I can just picture this excited group of women, out of breath from running to find the disciples, probably beating on the door. And the disciples, hearing the pounding, must’ve thought the authorities had found them until they recognize the voices and fling open the door. The women dash in, bubbling over with the incredible news of the empty tomb. But the disciples remain skeptical. Once again, if the writer of the text was out to make the disciples look good, instead of merely reporting what happened, the disciples would have started hugging and giving one another congratulatory high-fives. But the Gospel of Luke tells a different story. The disciples considered the report nonsense, an idle tale, which they refused to believe.
Then there’s Peter. Peter was the impetuous disciple who once had the guts to hop out of a boat and walk to Jesus on the water, who had the gall to draw a sword during Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who later famously denied Jesus three times. Peter didn’t believe the women either, but he had to see for himself if the tomb was really empty. And then what? Was he going to grab another sword and go in search of the grave robbers? Was he going to discover the body in a corner and thus prove the witnesses wrong? What was his plan, if he had one? Whatever his thoughts, at least Peter overcame his fear long enough to run out of the room to see for himself. When he arrives, Peter stops outside of the tomb and peers in, seeing only the cloths that once held Christ’s body. Peter then turns around and goes home…amazed.
The text doesn’t tell us that he understands this Easter mystery. In fact, neither Peter nor the women nor any of the other disciples believe simply because of the empty tomb. It wasn’t until they met the risen Christ later that the reality of the Easter miracle breaks through in all its wonder and glory (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke & John, p. 472).
No one got what they expected that first Easter morning—not the women who expected to prepare Christ’s body, not the disciples who expected to stay behind locked doors, not Peter who expected to spend the day licking his wounds. None of them got what they expected. And thanks be to God, they got something far better than they ever thought possible.
What did we expect when we woke up this morning? What did we expect when we came to church today? Did we expect nothing more than Easter hymns and Easter lilies? Did we come expecting to be bored? Did we think for a moment that maybe, just maybe, the unpredictable might happen, that we might discover a love and grace so deep it can fill the emptiness inside us? Perhaps the same God who turned the world upside down on Easter wants to turn our predictable lives upside down as well. Perhaps God isn’t finished with surprises. Perhaps God wants to surprise us with the unexpected too.
It’s easy to be cynical. We all face disappointments and heartbreak. We all read the news. But we also witness the mystery that no matter what, love abides. And not only does it abide, it pours itself upon us. We feel it when our friends walk us through a crisis. We see it in the city where every faith, culture, and language exist peacefully side by side. We hear it in the laughter of our children. God’s message today and always, is that no matter what, we are loved. There is no checklist to qualify. We are held in the palm of God’s hand. We are held as we travel from this world to the next.
Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “Love bats last.” It is the bottom of the 9th, the bases are loaded, and love bats last. Love bats last in the Easter story. Love bats last for you and me. Love bats last regardless of flaws or doubts. Love bats last. And ultimately, love bats a thousand.
The women who came to bury Christ’s body were confronted by this love. Peter who ran to see it for himself was confronted by this love. All of them, in their confusion and grief had encountered God’s unexpected truth. They witnessed the empty tomb. And later, the living Christ. They were grasped by a transforming truth at once beyond them and yet within them—that death does not have the last word, that evil will not win, that Jesus really was who he claimed to be, that life can be wonderfully unpredictable. Love bats last.
As we continue our Easter journey this day, may the deep truth of Easter catch us off guard. May the hope of new life, the promise of resurrection, revive us, comfort us, transform us. May it be the truth we become and may this truth set us free: Christ the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
April 21, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, who turns the shadows of Good Friday’s death to the bright radiance of Easter Sunday’s resurrection, we give you praise. Your Easter miracle offers us life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair, and joy in the face of sadness. May your Spirit open our eyes to the deep truth of your wondrous work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Offer new life we pray, to those places on earth where death and violence predominate. Offer new life we pray, to those places in our lives that seem dead and hopeless. Offer new life we pray, to your church that we might fulfill your mission for us.
And now, O God, send us forth this day with the miracle of Easter, the hope of new life, deep down in our souls. Through Jesus Christ our risen Lord we pray. AMEN.