In January Willie Nelson released the song "Gravedigger." It's haunting, melancholy, and morose, but it is fitting for Easter Sunday because we've all come to a grave today. 5 times in the Greek text we find the phrase "into the grave/ tomb." So today, we're all gravediggers.
Some grave dig today in search of a dead Jesus. This is Mary. She came to the tomb not to look for a living Jesus, not to welcome a risen Jesus, but to bury a dead one properly. Is this you? You're not grave digging today for hope, for help, for life, and certainly not for forgiveness. No, like Mary you're grave-digging for Jesus' sake. You're here to do something for Jesus. If so, then weep like Mary.
Jesus had taught that He was the Resurrection and the Life. Anyone who believed in Him though He died would rise again. If the Resurrection and the Life is dead not only can you do nothing for Him but He can do nothing for you. So weep with Mary if you came grave-digging today to do something for Jesus because the grave you're digging is your own. Weep as Mary does with sobs that shake her shoulders and blur here eyes because if your grave-digging doesn't find a living Jesus, you're as good as dead. When you go into the grave you won't come out either. So sing with Willie: "Gravedigger/ When you dig my grave/ could you make it shallow, So that I can feel the rain?" Yes, if the grave is all there is, then let it not be too deep.
Why did you come to dig around this grave today? Did you come in search of a missing Jesus? This is Peter and John. Mary runs to tell them, "They have taken the Lord out of the grave," and they come running to see for themselves. They dig deeper than Mary did at first. Bold, impetuous, but older and slower Peter gets there after the younger, faster John, but where John stopped on the outside and only looked into the grave freight train Peter blows by him to go into the grave. This emboldens John and he too goes into the grave.
What do they see? They see the linen cloths that Jesus had been buried in. John 19 tells us, "Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 100 pounds. Taking Jesus' body, they wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen." What they see are those strips of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus and stuck together with myrrh and aloes. These linen strips are in the shape of a body, not unwound, not ripped apart, but they are empty. And they see the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head neatly folded and placed to the side.
What did this prove to Peter and John? Mary was right! Jesus is missing! They came to dig in Jesus' grave to find a missing Jesus and they found one. Both believed upon seeing those empty grave linens, "Yup, Jesus is gone." Is that your conclusion too gravedigger? Not only isn't Jesus here for you to do anything for, He isn't here at all. This church is as empty of Jesus as the Easter grave was. He's not in that Baptismal font; no just water is there. He's not in the Absolution I spoke; that's just words. And He's not on this altar. Bread and wine are, but His Body and Blood aren't anymore here than they were in that grave on Easter morning.
If Jesus isn't here, why do you waste time coming here? If the One who proclaimed Himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life is missing from here, then so is the Way to God the Father, the Truth that will set you free, and Life missing from here. Then this church is just as dead, dank, and dangerous as an open grave. Indeed, this church is more dangerous; some poor soul might fall not into a hole but into the black hole of believing he's found the way, the truth, and the life, when none of these are really here.
If you came in search of a missing Jesus like Peter and John, then go away from here as they did from the grave. Go back home unforgiven, unchanged, with the smell of the grave on your clothes. Go home and sing with Willie. Sing of "Cyrus Jones 1810 to 1913," of "Muriel Stonewall 1903 to 1954," of "Little Mikey Carson '67 to '75." Sing and know that the word "to" between the dates is a dash, and that dash is the whole extent of your life. Even if like Cyrus Jones you live to 103 that's only forever as Willie sings "when you're just a little kid." If Jesus is missing from here, then there is no antidote for your dash. Your grave has already got the first date and at any moment the second can be chiseled on, and if Jesus is missing, it is written in stone.
Gravedigger what are you digging for today: a dead Jesus to do something for, a missing Jesus who can do nothing for you, or are you digging for a celebration? Unlike the men who conclude an empty grave can mean nothing more than a missing Jesus, it means something more to Mary. As Mother Mary pondered the things she couldn't understand in connection with Jesus' birth, this Mary keeps coming back to the open grave. Finally she brings herself to do what she couldn't before. She goes with her eyes into the grave. And what's there? Beautiful white, glowing angels! This gravedigger found angels where Peter and John found only death.
The angels don't talk to Mary but they tell her much by "sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet." What else do you know of in the Bible that is described as having cherubim, angels, on either side? The Ark of the Covenant had angels of gold at either end of the lid. The lid was called "the mercy seat." The angels sitting in this grave on either side of where Jesus had lain tell Mary and all deep gravediggers that Jesus is the new mercy seat of God. Paul definitely got the message. He says in Romans 3 that God set forth Jesus as a mercy-seat.
In the Old Testament Church God dwelled in a cloud above the Ark of the Covenant in between the angels. In that Ark were the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments that testified to what God commanded and men didn't do. On the Day of Atonement each year, the high priest entered into the holy of holies to pour the blood of a goat into the mercy seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The blood of that goat made it so God dwelling in the cloud above couldn't see the commandments broken by men. What does God have to be angry at if He can't see our sins?
Well you know that the blood of an animal can't really cover sins, but the blood of God? Well that's another matter. But how can God have blood if He's a spirit? Only by taking on flesh and blood which He did through the Virgin Mary. As the high priest put the blood of an animal in between God and the sins of the people, so Jesus our high priest put His blood there. On the cross He poured out His innocent blood to cover completely the sins of the world. God looked down from heaven and what did He see? Only the holy, precious Blood of Jesus. How can He be mad at that?
But fellow gravediggers how do we know that the blood Jesus poured out on the cross really did satisfy God's wrath against our sins? I mean it's not as if everything in your life goes just peachy. You have sickness; you have problems just as if God were still mad at you. Keep digging. Jesus was sacrificed to pay not for His own sins since we're told He had none. He took on the sins of others: yours, mine, the world's, and He died because of them. If His death really did satisfy God's wrath against sins, death couldn't go on holding Him. As true God, death had no claim on Jesus. Death only had a claim on Jesus because He claimed our sins as His own. The wages of sin is death. Once Jesus paid sin's wages in our place, Death had to let Him go because Death has no power over God.
The empty grave clothes - not unwound, not ripped off - prove Jesus has risen. Prove that God the Father has accepted Jesus' payment in full. Prove that His Body and Blood are the new mercy seat. As God the Father couldn't see the sins of the Old Testament Church when the blood was in the mercy seat, so God can't see the sins of those in the Body and Blood of Jesus. And if you stick around this grave long enough gravedigger, the risen Jesus will tell you this Himself.
Just as the empty grave cloths even with angels needed the words of Jesus to comfort Mary. So that Water, these Words, that Bread and Wine, need the words of Jesus to comfort you. And what does He say? He says He's your brother. He sends Mary to tell the disciples who had deserted Him, denied Him, let Him die in anguish alone, that they are His brothers. If the risen Jesus can call these miserable wretches His brothers, than rest assured Jesus can call you, "Brother, sister, friend." And if Jesus can assure men who had sinned so seriously that they still have a God and Father in heaven, then Jesus' wants you to have that assurance too.
And isn't this a cause for celebration? Gravedigger in this grave you've found not death but life, not judgment but mercy, not your sins that put Jesus in this grave, but forgiveness in the fact He didn't stay here. So celebrate gravedigger! Celebrate that the risen Jesus speaks to you today by the words of forgiveness spoken into you ears. Celebrate that the risen Jesus clothes you with His holiness by the waters of Baptism. Celebrate that the risen Jesus still gives you His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine to testify that things are fine between you and Him: He's your Brother, your God, your Father.
All of these reasons for celebrating are found in a grave. That brings to mind another Willie song from his earlier, brighter days where he sang, "Miracles appear in the strangest of places." That they do gravedigger. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Resurrection of our Lord (20080323); John 20: 1-18