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Great Expectations

How many of you expected to receive an egg today? Why? Because it is Easter Day and that’s what we give one another on this morning. There are many times when we can expect good things. On our birthdays and anniversaries at Christmas and at holiday times. We look forward to these treats, to the ways in which we mark such special occasions.
But there are the more testing times too such as exams, someone in the family being ill or football team being demoted. Again, there are the things we expect to happen in these instances, the long nights of revision, hospital visits or drowning our sorrows. The saddest and most difficult thing we have to cope with is the death of a loved one in the family. Once again, we will expect various things to happen; the sympathy cards, flowers, visits, the paper work and funeral and arranging some kind of memorial.
That was the situation Jesus’ family, his friends and disciples found themselves in on the first Easter morning. They did not expect to be in that position but now that they were, the usual traditions and expectations of a Jewish burial in the first century were being observed. It had been important to get Jesus’ body off the cross on the Friday afternoon before the Sabbath began at 6.00pm. Arrangements were hastily made. Joseph from Arimathea had a new unused tomb in a garden not far from the place of crucifixion. Jesus’ body is taken down, wrapped in strips of cloth following the custom of the time. According to John, Nicodemus, a follower of Jesus who was not short of cash provided myrrh and other spices for the body. The body was wrapped in strips of linen interspersed with the spices. The body was then carefully laid in the tomb which was a cave hewn out of the rock with a large circular stone rolled in a gully across the entrance. Tombs such as this from the first century still exist in Israel two having been identified as the possible one in which Jesus was laid.
So come the Sunday, the day after the sabbath, early before sunrise, Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb in the darkness. She wants to get there first, before anyone else. If it were today, she would come to lay flowers. She wanted to have some quiet moments to pay her respects to the man who had turned her life around, who had made all the difference to her world. When she gets close to the tomb, she is instantly full of shock and horror. Panic rises rapidly through her body. The stone is rolled away, and, in the half-light, she can see the tomb is empty. She assumes the worst and runs to wake Peter and John. ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’ (John 20.2) she screams at the bleary-eyed disciples who drag some clothes on and run towards the tomb. John gets there first, Peter goes in but they both confirm the awful truth. The body has gone; stolen or perhaps removed by the authorities. Their unexpected grief was bad enough but now this on top. Their expectations of a dignified burial have been dashed. It was all too much to bear and the disciples go back to their lodging leaving Mary to have a good old cry in the garden by the tomb.
It is then that she realises she is not alone, and the tomb is not empty. As she takes the courage stoop and peer inside, she senses an angelic presence. She sees two messengers from God who ask her why she is weeping. She replies with the same grief filled story she had told the disciples.
Then she turns to see a figure behind her who she assumes is the gardener. She addresses him sharply: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’. (John 20.15) The idea that she could carry Jesus’ body a significant distance is silly, but she’s not thinking straight.
Then the figure whom she had assumed to be the gardener calls her name; Mary. Without thinking, she responds as she had done to Jesus so many times before in Hebrew: Rabbouni, teacher. In that instant, Mary’s expectations are again overturned. She has seen the Lord and she goes off again to find the disciples to give them the news.
For us, Easter comes around once a year. We expect our eggs; the alleluias of the Easter hymns. Easter is so much a part of our scene that we easily forget how mind blowing it was for those who experienced that first Easter and bear witness to its reality for us today.
Paul’s powerful chapter 15 of the first Corinthian letter helps us to understand that these events changed the world forever. He states: ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Corinthians 15.26)
We live on a crossroads, the crossroads of the ages. The old age is governed by the powers of evil, sin and death. The new age of the kingdom of God governed by his word, the Holy Spirit and life itself. It is guaranteed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The old age, the powers of this world of institutions, structures and systems which cause oppression depend ultimately on death for their power; their sanction. This last enemy is destroyed by resurrection of Christ.
We do not have to expect the bad, oppressive and hurtful things to ruin our lives for ever. While we live in this world, they will continue to affect us. But in Christ, we have the victory assured that even death itself will not defeat us. The last enemy is over thrown.
As we go forward from this celebration, let us live the life of the new age, may we grow in our expectations; expectations of experiencing new life in Jesus, a life where sin, oppression and hurt no longer have power over us. A life where love, joy and peace win out through the pain to the time when Jesus is all in all; when every tear is wiped away and the world made anew. Even so come Lord Jesus.
Easter Day 21st April 2019

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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