Mercy in the Open Tomb
In a cemetery in Hanover, Germany, there is a tomb which is known as the Geoffnetes Grab, or “opened grave.” It is the tomb of a noblewoman, Henriette von Ruling, who died in 1782. Her sepulcher is immense and constructed of heavy stone with a large and imposing tombstone resting on it. The stone bears an inscription written in German but translated as follows: “This tomb, bought for eternity, may never be opened.” Let me quote that inscription one more time. (Repeat.)
In spite of this inscription, Frau Henriette’s strongly fortified tomb has, in fact, been opened. For shortly after her burial a birch tree germinated at the base slab of the monument and over the years grew larger and wider. Slowly but steadily the tree’s roots and trunk forced its way and raised the tombstone and opened the grave. So despite the claim of the inscription to never be opened, the tomb is now known as the “opened grave.” Its inscription forbidding entrance into the tomb speaks in vain above a yawning crypt. (See photos and information at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Grave,_Hanover).
Jesus breathed His last (Matthew 27:50). After ensuring Jesus was really dead, Pilate granted permission for Him to be buried. Then the religious leaders asked to make sure no one would steal His body and pretend He had been raised from the dead. Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb, with a heavy stone rolled in front to secure the entrance. The governor’s seal was then placed on it and professional Roman solidiers were posted to keep it secure. It was almost as if to say, “this tomb may never be opened!” And that, it seems, was the end of the story.
Yet early Sunday morning, the third day since Jesus’ crucifixion, a surprising and perplexing series of events took place.
A couple of women made their way to the tomb just as the sun was coming up over the horizon. The word “suddenly” in our text is from the Greek, “idou,” which other translation’s render as “behold.” Something stupendous was happening. First there was a great earthquake. Then an angel of the Lord came and tossed the stone aside and sat on it! The guards who were just finishing a long boring night were suddenly terrified. They had no control over what was happening. They were essentially useless!
The women, too, were afraid. But the angel spoke to them and assured them. “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has been raised from the dead just like He told you. Come, see where His body had been laid.
The soldiers were surprised to say the least!
So were the women. “They left the tomb with fear and great joy.” As they ran back—note they were running, not walking—Jesus met them and showed Himself alive as “exhibit A!” Proof beyond doubt.
The religious leaders were surprised and upset and paid the soldiers a pretty sum to not tell the truth. Tell people His body was stolen!
Even the disciples were surprised. They thought the women were telling stories of make believe due to grief and deep sorrow. But eventually even they came around and believed that Jesus was alive!
Evil thought it had won the day. Everyone knows that death is final. But Jesus defeated death. Jesus vanquished the grave.
Unbelievable things happen. The Exodus story is another example of the incredulous. Pharoah gloats over his impending victory over the fleeing Hebrews. Exodus records: “The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’” (Exodus 15:9). Yet God works a surprise there too.
The Apostle Peter declared to those who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).
Paul, in our reading from Romans 6 tells us that everyone who is baptized into Christ—and therefore united with Christ, placed inside Christ so to speak, shares in what Jesus did for us on the cross, the grave and the empty tomb. His death is our death. His burial, ours. His resurrection also ours. Paul tells us to believe it and act on it as true. Reckon—consider it to be reality—that you died in Christ, were buried with Christ and now have new life in Christ. Sometimes our experience argues with that. We say that we are still lost and hopeless. We crumble in guilt and shame. Paul again reminds us to act on the new reality, and by acting on that new reality we can begin to experience it. Then, little by little, we let go of the “stuff.” Little by little we step out of the shadows and into the sunlight of God’s love and grace. There is indeed mercy in the empty tomb.
We cannot explain how a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly, but we can see it and verify that it is true. Our tombs cannot hold us. Our guilt and shame crumble before the power of God’s mercy and love through the cross and empty tomb.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.