The Dawn of a New History
History dawns in strange places: a mission in San Antonio called the Alamo; a harbor in Boston where Americans dumped British tea; a church in Wittenburg where Luther nailed his 95 theses. You never know where events are going to take a turn ushering something new into the world and altering the course of history from that point onward. But a tomb?
Tombs speak of death, decay and disgusting things. People shrink from tombs particularly open ones. When you drive past a graveyard, if you spot a freshly dug grave, don't you shudder? Nobody likes the sight of an open grave. Even at funerals, the dirt around the grave is all covered with green fabric to disguise the fact that there is a hole in the ground. An open grave says, "Who's next?" And unless you're young, naive, or self-righteous, you have to answer, "It could very well be me." Of course, how we should answer the beckoning hole in the ground is, "It WILL be me."
An open tomb is not a comforting sight. An open grave is not where you expect to find history dawning. What you expect to find is exactly what the women in our text expected to find. A body. The women didn't go to the tomb on Easter to find a newly risen Jesus, but His dead body. That's why they took spices to complete His burial. They expected to find a Jesus who was badly beaten, bruised and marred. They didn't expect to find anything new there. They expected what those people in horror movies do as they are slowly opening the lid of a coffin. They expected the shock of seeing their dead Jesus. They expected to see something gruesome. They expected anything but what they actually found. Something new, something radical, something that would change all history.
Bah, humbug! Humbug it is to think there could be anything new in a tomb. That's what I say. Why the Christmas word "humbug" on this Easter Sunday? Because that's what the empty tomb was to the disciples on the first Easter.
This is how it was. The women were at a loss as to where the body of Jesus was. Suddenly two angels who looked like men stood beside them in clothes that gleamed like lightening. There was so much light that the frightened women could do nothing but bend their faces to the ground. But the angels didn't say anything frightening; they said something wonderful. "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you, 'the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.'"
The brutal treatment by sinful men, the horrible, horrible, crucifixion, and the solemn final burial of Jesus had driven the words of prophesy and promise right out of the women's hearts. All they could think they would see, all they could reason they would see, all they could hope to see was a stone cold dead Jesus. But the angels speak to them of life, resurrection, a totally unexpected, new thing.
They rush to tell the apostles. Think of their joy; think of their excitement. Think of how you would feel if they unearthed the casket of your loved one. There you are tensely awaiting the lid to be opened. Slowly you watch it creek up. And what? There is nothing there but a note saying that your loved one is not here; they are risen! O how they must have run! O how they must have rejoiced! O how they could not wait to tell the 11 and the others.
The text literally says, "They kept on telling them." They didn't just say it once. They didn't just casually say it. They said it over and over and over again. Excitedly, rapidly with great fervor the words tumbled out of them. "Jesus isn't in the tomb! He isn't dead! He's risen! Don't you remember how He told us about this? Huh, huh don't you remember?" But as many times as the women told the Good News, that's how many times the disciples did not believe them. The text says literally, "They kept on not believing them."
The women kept saying, "He is risen," and rather than answering as we do, "He is risen indeed," the disciples kept saying, "He is not." To the disciples talk of a risen Jesus was humbug. That's how the Greek word the bulletin translates "nonsense" can be translated. There is an idea of scorn and contempt in their unbelief. And why not? Isn't that how the resurrection is to us? In your personal history, have you ever known anyone to rise? Have you ever opened a grave and not found the person there? The unanimous testimony of science, reason, and personal experience says the dead don't rise. For crying out loud, even your own body testifies to you of that. Do you have any sense that once your heart stops beating it will ever start again? Do you have the feeling that once you breathe your last you will breathe again? I don't.
So it seems humbug that a new history should dawn at an open tomb, but saying this I am forgetting the pomegranates. Yes, I said, "Pomegranates." Where did this talk of pomegranates come from all of a sudden? Look about you? Look at every single stain glass window along the sides of the church and the three in the choir loft. They all have a deep red pomegranate on the lowest panel toward the top. All total there are 30 in the church.
Why in the world do we surround ourselves with pomegranates. You who know mythology might think of Persephone who symbol is the pomegranate. She was the daughter of Zeus who was kidnaped by Hades, the god of the underworld. Her mother, the mother of nature because she is Zeus's wife, mourned so much there was perpetual winter. The gods finally convinced Hades to let Persephone go, but first Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds. For each one Persephone ate she had to stay in the underworld a month each year. She ate four, so for four months out of the year the world is in the dead of winter. Obviously, you can see this is mythology's way of explaining the dead of winter, but you would be wrong to conclude that the Church has borrowed the symbolism from mythology.
Long before Greek mythology, God commanded the Old Testament Church to embroider pomegranates on the hem of the robe the high priest wore into the Holy of Holies. And in Solomon's temple the two huge pillars at the entrance were engraved at the top with 100 pomegrantes each. Pomegranates were a symbol used by the Church before mythology.
But why do we have them literally all over the building? Whoever designed the windows tells us. All of the windows have one pomegranate on them except the 3 in the choir loft which have 2 each. The window in the center of the choir loft has two. Why? That window has first a cross with a crown of thorns which stands for the sufferings of Christ for our many sins. Right above that it has the symbol of the Lamb, who is Christ, standing holding the banner of the cross. This is a symbol for the risen Christ. It denotes Him victorious over sin and death. This window and the 2 on either side have two pomegranates showing us that the pomegranate is to point us to the resurrection.
The pomegranate has long been a symbol of the resurrection in the Church. A pomegranate looks unbreakable, unopenable. It doesn't appear biteable like the apple or peelable like the orange. It looks like the tomb sealed against ever being opened again. When fully ripe, however, the pomegranate, all on its own, bursts open. That is what is on all our windows, a ripe pomegranate burst open. When they burst open, you see what is depicted on our windows. You see life. Loads of little seeds. When an apple, orange or any other fruit I can think of gets ripe enough to burst open, it is not a pleasant sight. People don't want to eat such a fruit. In other fruits, bursting open is a sign of death and decay. Not so the pomegranate. It is a sign of life.
When the tomb of Christ burst open, what was found inside was not death but glorious, lightening clothed angels speaking of life. They spoke of life because the sins of the world had been successfully paid for. Where sins are removed there is life and salvation. The bursting tomb meant the Triune God's plan from all eternity was completed. Notice that all 3 choir loft windows, each with 2 pomegranates are about the Triune God. The Holy Trinity's plan for mankind was resurrection. The grave which all of reason, all of science, all of myself says is the end, is final, is not. No, Christ burst the bands of sin, death and the devil. His open grave means life doesn't end. This was the Triune God's plan from before the world was created.
But why is there a pomegranate on every single window? Because a new history has dawned on every aspect of our fallen lives. The resurrection is a fact and a factor in every single area of our lives. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which guarantees the resurrection of all those in Him, is to be remembered in every aspect of our lives.
Look at the first window on the left. It depicts marriage. Forget not the resurrection in your marriage. It makes all things new. Christians are able to look at their spouses not as sinful, satanic, or dying, but as forgiven, holy and alive. In Christian marriage the risen Christ reigns now and for ever.
Look at the second window; it depicts confirmation. We are confirmed to serve a Lord who has risen victorious over all the things that plague mankind. We are confirmed in the faith that death is not final, our sins cannot damn us, and that the devil is not our lord, not even a little bit.
Look at the fourth window on your left. There you see the 10 Commandments. Who can bear the sight of the Commandments without the pomegranate which signals our resurrection? The 10 Commandments speak of our failures, our doom, our death. But they don't speak louder than the empty tomb. The empty tomb shouts of the Commandments kept and our sins paid for. Whenever the devil, the world, or your own conscience demand that you account for how you have kept the 10 Commandments go not to your excuses, go not to your promises to do better, go to the empty tomb and say, "Here is the answer to your question. The empty tomb will answer for how I have kept the Commandments and it says, "All Kept" and "Paid in Full."
The eighth widow shows a serpent surrounding the world, and isn't that how it feels? Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn you see Satan has the world in his death grip. It looks helpless; indeed the world is helpless against Satan. But then let your eyes drop to the burst open pomegranate that preaches to you of Christ's empty tomb. Ah, a new history has dawned. Christ has broken Satan's stranglehold on the world. The seeds of Christ resurrection have went out into all the world. And these seeds sprout and grow to the glory of God's holy name and to the salvation of His people.
I could continue down the right side. There we would see reminders of Christ's terrible suffering, Judas' horrible betrayal, and Peter's cowardly denial all of which preach to us of our very real sins and failures. They preach to us that the history of mankind, our history has not been pretty. But don't look at those symbols of sin only. See that the pomegranate speaks of a new history. The tomb of Christ is empty. Sin took it's best shot and Christ won. Death took it's best shot and Christ won. The devil took his best shot and Christ won. And in Christ, we won. When the pomegranate bursts open it doesn't just show one seed as if Christ was the only one who rose, but many. A new history dawned not just for Christ at the Easter tomb, but for us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter (4-15-01) Luke 24:1-11